GREAT FRENCH MORALISTS: Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues — a virtuoso of aphorism in the Enlightenment era
Artwork: Olena Burdeina (FA_Photo) via Photoshop
The history of French essayism and aphorism would be incomplete if we overlooked the work of Vauvenargues (1715–1747). His books «Introduction to the Knowledge of the Human Mind» and «Reflections and Maxims» are not as famous as Montaigne’s «Experiments» and Pascal’s «Thoughts», but the power of impact on the reader is not inferior to them.
The Marquis de Vauvenargues’s thought is as sharp as a sword and as accurate as a sniper’s shot. Aphorism — his favorite genre: Vauvenargues was able to express a lot in one line as if he had the skills of a talented juggler in whose hands the words find the right direction and proper force.
Even the great Voltaire gets into correspondence with Vauvenargues and admires his literary experiments; moreover, he makes notes in the margins of his works, about which he informs the author in his letter: «I took advantage of your permission, my kindest philosopher, and crossed out with a pencil one of the best books written in our language, having previously reread it with the most careful attention».
Clarity of presentation of thoughts is the basis of Vauvenargues’s literary virtuosity. He does not tolerate a complex and confusing style and considers it the foundation of delusion. To think logically and accurately means to avoid verbosity, which even good authors sin.
And even though Vauvenargues is an amateur writer and self-taught philosopher, the value of his aphorisms is not diminished by this fact; on the contrary, we are delighted because we find his thoughts profound and his style — magnificent.
Believe me, this brilliant upstart, like no one else during the Enlightenment, understood the main thing about the human being. And if you do not yet know his texts, the time to get acquainted is now.
The preface is usually the same speech of a lawyer in court, where no oratory has any power to influence the course of the case: if the work is successful, it will be evaluated as it is; if it is unsuccessful, it still cannot be justified
Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues — that’s the full name of our hero today — was born August 6, 1715, in the city of Aix-en-Provence in the family of nobleman Joseph de Clapier, the owner of the Château of Vauvenargues. The writer’s father held the post of First Consul, and he received the title of Marquis for the courage he showed during the plague epidemic of 1720–1721. The son inherited it and even used it on the title page of his works.
Very little is known about Vauvenargues’s childhood and youth. Mention a possible study at the college of Aix, but this information is very contradictory. It is clear that Vauvenargues did not receive a proper education. Most of his knowledge of ancient history, literature, and philosophy was gained through self-education. Luc Vauvenargues represented a type of autodidact — a self-taught man who obtained a high level of knowledge independently, outside the walls of any educational institution, and without the help of any teachers.
At age 20, Vauvenargues entered military service and participated in two military campaigns: the Italian (1735) and Bohemian (1742). Military drill and the uniformity of life affect the writer depressingly. In addition, he is overcome by disease and sharply deteriorating eyesight.
In 1744, Luc resigned in the hope of a diplomatic career. Because of material difficulties, Vauvenargues returns to his hometown, but there it befalls him a terrible misfortune — carried smallpox disfigures the face of a young man, and therefore, the career of a diplomat must be forgotten.
The only thing that remains in Vauvenargues’s life is literature. He enters into correspondence with Voltaire and, encouraged by his flattering response to his article on Corneille and Racine, decides to take up writing in earnest.
In 1745, Vauvenargues moved to Paris and worked very hard. Participates in the literary competition of the French Academy on the theme: «Discourse on the inequality of wealth». He prepared to publish his book «Introduction to the Knowledge of the Human Mind, accompanied by reflections and maxims on various topics», which was published in February 1746.
At the same time, he continues to communicate with Voltaire, who gives an enthusiastic response to his book. Voltaire is confident in the great creative potential of his friend and predicts his talent to be a great future. But all these dreams were not destined to come true.
In early 1747, Vauvenargues’s health deteriorates sharply because of previously frostbitten feet. The disease progresses, and on May 28, 1747, at the age of 31 years, the master of French aphorism, Marquis de Vauvenargues, dies, refusing, according to legend, the last communion. He died as he lived and taught others: «Only one is capable of a great deed, who lives as if he is immortal» and «it is most erroneous to measure life by the measure of death», for «the thought of death is treacherous: seized by it, we forget to live».
A year after Vauvenargues died in 1748, Voltaire made a eulogy for the dead French officers and characterized the life and book of his friend with surprising warmth:
«By what miracle did you, at the age of twenty-five, master true philosophy and true eloquence with no tutors other than a few good books? How did you manage to soar so high in this age of lowliness? And with such truly brilliant depth and power of thought to retain the simplicity of a shy child? Among the many works written by those who thought themselves called to teach people, I do not know of any wiser than the chapter on moral good and evil in the book in question.
Let not everything in this book be an equally successful author, but either I am blinded by friendship, or indeed, I have never read anything as useful for the proper development of the soul, endowed with good tasks and capable of improvement. The work left behind by Mr. de Vauvenargues contains wonderful thoughts — in this, I am once again convinced by the disregard for it by lovers of ringing phrases and empty wit».
Vauvenargues wrote little, but everything created by him, marked by the stamp of his personality, he opposed not the truth, but rather — fate, it is read without mental anxiety, feeling sympathy and tender sympathy for this man, who lived a noble and sad life
The literary legacy of Vauvenargues makes up the two-volume «Complete Works», published posthumously in 1797, but conventionally, all his texts can be divided into three parts. The first is an «Introduction to the Knowledge of the Human Mind», the second is a book of aphorisms, «Reflections and Maxims», and the third part includes Vauvenargues’s critical articles and notes on his literary predecessors as well as on writers and philosophers contemporary to him.
Taking into account that his early death did not allow the writer to change the text of the only lifetime edition of his works in any way, we expect from reading these books something untold, imprecisely arranged. We hope to dive into the draft, but we get an absolutely ready literary dish skillfully prepared by the author.
Written by Vauvenargues, it is not at all like an unfinished creation of Pascal; on the contrary, all his texts, when reading, are perceived holistically as finalized, ready, and well thought out.
Of course, Vauvenargues’ creations did not arise out of nothing; his great predecessors Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld, Pascal, and La Bruyère had a significant influence on the writer, but there is nothing wrong with that.
The history of literature is a history of borrowing and repetition, of plagiarized thought and hidden quotations. New ideas and new thoughts, new plots, and new feelings have long been absent and cannot be; every author is preceded by another author, and every new book is preceded by a previously written one.
Vauvenargues managed to rethink the themes of «Experiments» Montaigne and «Character» Jean de La Bruyère in the book «Introduction to the Knowledge of the Human Mind» in «Reflections and Maxims» — to surpass the aphorisms of La Rochefoucauld with brevity and precision, and the refined style of Pascal overshadow the perfection of his own writing.
Vauvenargues’s «inner experience» is not always infallible, but he knows that «in studying the life of one man, one studies the history of the whole human race».
Vauvenargues did not have the opportunity to study the mores of society; therefore, all his conclusions about man are based on self-knowledge. Many things are guessed by the author, some things are personally suffered, some assumptions have arisen thanks to creative intuition, and the true diamonds of insight are granted from above.
All these components of creative inspiration found a marvelous unity in Vauvenargues’s mind, and his gift as a writer created a true masterpiece from this retort of words.
APHORISMS OF THE MARQUIS DE VAUVENARGUES
If an aphorism needs explanation, then it is unsuccessful
«We rarely consider another’s thought; therefore, when we ourselves come across one, we have no difficulty in convincing ourselves that it is entirely original — so many subtleties and nuances in it that we did not notice in its author’s presentation».
«Invariable avarice in praise is a sure sign of a trivial mind».
«Too rapid success is almost always transient: it is the child of chance, not talent».
«Success bestows a great many things, but not friends».
«Awareness of one’s power multiplies it».
«He who is incapable of great accomplishments despises great designs».
«A great man undertakes great things because he is conscious of their greatness, a fool because he does not realize how difficult they are».
«Intelligent people would be all alone if fools did not include themselves among them».
«If a foolish person has a good memory, his head is full of all sorts of incidents from life and thoughts, but he cannot draw a conclusion from them — and that is the whole point».
«Mediocrity is equally insensitive to the highest goods and the worst misfortunes».
«It is as impossible to have no virtues as it is to have no faults».
«We do not like to be pitied for the mistakes we have made».
«Habit is everything, even in love».
«He who demands payment for his honesty is more often than not selling his honor».
«At his misfortune, a man cannot possess a talent without feeling the urge to diminish other talents».
«It is easy to criticize an author, difficult to appreciate».
«Retell someone a thought read in a book, and you will be answered that it is not new; ask then whether this thought is true, and it turns out that this is what your interlocutor did not think about».
«Some people expect the writer to confirm their thoughts and feelings, others admire only such a work, which overturns all their previous concepts, without sparing a single principle».
«Mediocre writers have more admirers than jealous people».
«The trashiest scribbler will always have at least one ardent admirer».
«To reward a man with ambition without endowing him with talent is the greatest evil that fate can do to him».
«Truth is less worn out than words because it is inaccessible».
«Novelty is the only unmistakable mark of genius».
«Everything that is too long becomes tiresome, even life, yet it is loved».
«In a certain sense, the faults of any work are reduced to one thing: it is too long».
«If a man does not write because he thinks, he has no reason to think in order to write».
«Those who come after us may know more and think themselves smarter, but will they be happier and wiser? Are we ourselves, who know so much better than our fathers, who knew so little?»