GREAT FRENCH MORALISTS: Nicolas de Chamfort — a psychologist of the Age of Enlightenment
Artwork: Olena Burdeina (FA_Photo) via Photoshop
There are names in the history of literature that remain alive thanks to a supreme Providence — this «non-random chance» that usually preserves only what is of real, not contrived, cultural value.
One such name is Nicolas de Chamfort (1741–1794), an 18th-century French dramatist and moralist writer whose fame was made possible by the posthumous publication of his book «Maxims and Thoughts. Characters and Anecdotes» (1795), which was realized by the writer’s friend, the literary critic Pierre-Louis Ginguené.
The peculiarity of Chamfort’s work is the analysis of the psychological properties of man not only as a carrier of emotions but also as a social being endowed with will and the ability to perform conscious actions.
Love and hate, women and men, kings and courtiers, the crowd and public opinion, conscience and envy, friendship and loneliness, writers and scientists, success and money — this is an incomplete list of topics about which Nicolas de Chamfort discussed 250 years ago.
His subtle psychological observations today have not lost their significance because they are distinguished by the philosophical depth of thought and literary beauty of presentation.
Aphorisms and anecdotes Chamfort — an ornament for any social conversation.
Born under Louis XV and strangely ended his life in the days of the revolution, he was a man of two spheres, two eras. By the organization of his nervous system and his predispositions, his education, and his tastes, he belonged to the passing world, his vision of the future, foresight, and foresight made Chamfort part of the new era, which was born in the rumblings of storms
Sébastien-Roch Nicolas de Chamfort, which is the full name of our hero, was born on April 8, 1741, in the city of Clermont-Ferrand, located in the center of France. He was the illegitimate son of an unknown nobleman and was brought up in the family of foster parents: grocer Francois Nicolas Krause and his wife Therese.
There is no information about the childhood years of the future writer. It is known that after receiving a scholarship, the young man studied at the College of Sorbonne and was a very willful and even daring student. One of his thoughts of the time sounded like this: «I no longer know what I learned, and that little that I still know, just guessed», when the director of the institution promised him to arrange a benefit (a performance in his favor), then Nicolas replied: «I love respect, not honors».
From the church career, the young man refused, as he claimed that he adores women and entertainment, and to the clergy, has contempt and plans to engage in philosophy. At first, Chamfort is interrupted by casual earnings as a teacher and working as a governess in the count families of Cologne and Paris, but his life soon changes abruptly.
Stunning appearance and great physical strength allowed the young man to quickly find his way up — in the theater and aristocratic circles of France. Nicolas begins to compose plays, write poetry, and compose odes. Enjoys extraordinary success with women, easily enters into confidence, makes the right acquaintances, and useful intrigue.
Chamfor became a famous person of the French theater elite, and already in 1764, his comedy «The Young Indian Girl» was put on stage. For «Praise of Molière», the writer was awarded the prize of the French Academy. In 1770, the theater hosted the premiere of the play «The Merchant of Smythe» by Chamfort.
The 70s of the XVIII century are the most fruitful in the work of Chamfort as a playwright. In 1776, in the court theater, Fontainebleau, in the presence of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, staged Chamfort’s play «Mustapha and Zéangir». Reviews of the royal couple are positive, and the queen honors the writer with a pension of 1200 livres, and Prince Condé invites him to be his secretary.
In 1781, Nicolas de Chamfort was elected to the French Academy, adding to the number of «immortals». He marries a mature but quite wealthy woman, and this gives him the opportunity to devote himself entirely to philosophical research and work on the book «Products of the Perfected Civilization», known to us under the title «Maxims and Thoughts. Characters and Anecdotes».
And all would be nothing if not for July 14, 1789, which marked the beginning of the Great French Revolution. Chamfort participates in the storming of the Bastille, sincerely welcoming the revolutionary movement. From a salon regular and courtier, he turns into a people’s tribune, an ideological publicist, and a fiery orator. It is Chamfort that belongs to the authorship of the slogan: «Peace to the Huts, War to the Palaces». In 1790-1791, the writer worked as a secretary of the Jacobin Club, and since 1792, he headed the National Library of France.
As all revolution does — it destroys its most loyal sons. When the Jacobin terror began in the country in 1793, Chamfort did not support it. The motto of the Jacobins is «Fraternity or death». The writer paraphrases in another way: «Be my brother, or I will kill you». Nicolas de Chamfort refused to write a pamphlet restricting freedom of speech and, on the denunciation of a fellow librarian in early September 1793, was arrested but, considering the merits of the revolution, avoided execution by guillotine and was placed under house arrest.
On November 14, 1793, the gendarme assigned to guard Chamfort announced that the writer was being re-arrested. To avoid prison, Chamfort on the same day consistently makes three suicide attempts: first, he tries to shoot himself but hits himself in the face and remains alive, then tries to cut his throat, but this suicide attempt is unsuccessful finally, Nicolas opens a vein in his legs, but in vain — the gendarme found him, and doctors in the hospital do not let him die.
Being wounded, the writer writes a note, which expresses his whole character: «I, Sébastien-Roch Nicolas de Chamfort, I declare that I prefer to die a free man than to live in prison in the position of a slave. I declare that if I am, in my present state, brought by force, I am still able to finish what I have begun».
And to his friend Pierre-Louis Ginguené, the writer confesses: «I feel more alive than ever; it is a pity that I feel no desire to live».
In January 1794, all charges against Chamfort were removed, but it happened too late: On April 13, the writer died from the injuries received earlier.
His last words, according to legend, were addressed to Abbot Siyes: «Ah, my friend, at last, I am leaving this world, where the heart must break or petrify».
So ended the earthly life of the man whom Friedrich Nietzsche considered a genius and about whom in the book «The Joyous Science» wrote as follows:
«Chamfort, a man rich in mental depths and undertones, sullen, suffering, ardent, — a thinker who considered laughter a necessary cure for life and believed almost lost every day when he did not laugh».
A year after Chamfort’s death, his devoted friend Zengene edited and then published «Maxims and Thoughts. Characters and Anecdotes» (1795), thus giving its author a second life.
APHORISMS FROM CHAMFORT
Aphorisms crystallize inconsistencies
«No matter how badly men think of women, any woman thinks even worse of them».
«Worthless is the feeling that has a price».
«Love is like a clinging disease: the more you fear it, the sooner you catch it».
«Too much dignity sometimes makes a person unfit for society: in the market do not go with gold bars — there is a need for bargaining chips, especially change».
«To neglect gold is like overthrowing the king from the throne: a very keen feeling!»
«It is not befitting for a decent man to chase respect».
«Fame is the pleasure of being known by those who are not acquainted with you».
«Most of the works written in our time suggest that they were pieced together in one day from books read the day before».
«Many a literary work owes its success to the wretchedness of the author’s thoughts, for it is similar to the wretchedness of the thoughts of the audience».
«A philosopher is a man who knows the value of everyone; is it any wonder that no one likes his judgments?»
ANECDOTES FROM CHAMFORT
An anecdote is the loose brother of an aphorism
«At the French Academy, they were collecting money for something. During the counting, there was not enough either a six-franc ecu or a louis, and one of the academicians, known for his stinginess, was suspected of having evaded the donation. The latter began to assure him that he had put the money down, and the collector said: «I did not see it, but I believe it». The end of the bickering was put by Fontenelle, declaring, “I saw it, but I do not believe my eyes”».
«One day, when there was some heated argument in the Academy, Mr. de Meran proposed: “Gentlemen, what if we try to speak to no more than four people at a time?”»
«A little girl asks M., the author of an essay on Italy:
— Did you really write a book about Italy?
— Yes, I did.
— And you were there?
— Of course, I was.
— And did you write the book before the trip or after?»
«A man from the province, attending a royal mass, pestered his neighbor with questions.
— Who was that lady?
— The Queen.
— And this one?
— And that one over there?
— Countess de Artois.
— And that one?
— And this is the dead queen, said the inhabitant of Versailles, losing patience».
«A man confessed to a friend: “Today we sentenced three people to death. Two of them deserved it”».
«The Comtesse de Bouffner told Prince Koichi that he was the best of tyrants».
«We could make a list under this title: ‘Vices necessary for success in good society.»
«It would not be a bad idea to add to it another: ‘Mediocre virtues suitable for the same purpose.»
«M. was offered a profitable but unpleasant position. He refused, noting: “I know that it is impossible to live without money, but I also know that it is not worth living for money”».
«A writer, said Diderot, may get himself a lover who knows how to concoct a book, but his wife must know how to concoct a dinner».
«M. wrote a book which was a noisy success, and his friends insisted that he should publish his next work as soon as possible — they liked it very much. “No, he replied. — We must give envy time to wipe itself off — its saliva is poisonous”».