Sunday, January 23, 2011

Summary -- La Rochefoucaud I 143

Introduction to La Rochefoucauld

There is exactly one writer with whom I never disagree, one author whose every conclusion defeats all attempts on my part to overcome it: Francois, the Sixth Duke of La Rochefoucauld. My high school French teacher thought I was too cynical and prematurely worldly, so she urged me to read La Rochefoucauld in French to meet my master at cynicism. Without a doubt, a reason for her to say that was that the Duke was and is known as a grand master of French as a language. So, of course, I got an English translation of La Rochefoucauld out of the library and laughed my head off reading it. Sometimes the book jumped out of my hands so I could convulse with laughter over it; I call this “the supertruth” laugh, after Robert Pirsig's use of the term in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

There are two things about La Rochefoucauld that are vitally important. First, he never wasted a word – he honed his Maxims carefully in a salon with some of the great ladies of France advising him and discussing the message of each maxim. This approach may be the birth of what is now called “shock humor.” It also predates and predicts the quick, short-word journalistic style of writing later brought to the fore by Dickens, then Kipling, and then Hemingway. Second, his maxims are journalistic; each and every one must have an objective correlative. By this I mean that La Rochefoucauld was not blathering about human beings in general because of a certain worldview; instead, he was extrapolating from the actual conduct of actual persons, usually themselves French nobility, whom he saw and then pondered upon their actions. The points that are particularly shocking or unbearable were made with humor, a brilliant solution to the problem of being thorough while remaining a gentleman about the presentation. So the Maxims are “sturdy” in analysis and have survived for 345 years. They are pithy sayings about actual people that apply to all people, so they remain topical. He wasn't merely a social scientist or retired courtier. He was a ruthless, lifelong wisdom seeker willing to pay whatever price was required to learn more, making him the ultimate nobleman – and that's what the King, Louis XIV, thought of him.

--the blog author

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Writings of La Rochefoucauld

His importance as a social and historical figure is, however, far inferior to his importance in literature. His work in this respect consists of three parts--letters, Memoirs and the Maximes. His letters exceed one hundred in number, and are biographically valuable, besides displaying not a few of his literary characteristics. The Memoirs, when they are read in their proper form, yield in literary merit, in interest, and in value to no memoirs of the time, not even to those of Retz, between whom and La Rochefoucauld there was a strange mixture of enmity and esteem which resulted in a couple of most characteristic "portraits." But their history is unique in its strangeness. It has been said that a pirated edition appeared in Holland, and this, despite the author's protest, continued to be reprinted for some thirty years. It has been now proved to be a mere cento of the work of half a dozen different men, scarcely a third of which is La Rochefoucauld's, and which could only have been possible at a time when it was the habit of persons who frequented literary society to copy pell-mell in commonplace books the manuscript compositions of their friends and others. Some years after La Rochefoucauld's death a new recension appeared, somewhat less incorrect than the former, but still largely adulterated, and this held its ground for more than a century. Only in 1817 did anything like a genuine edition (even then by no means perfect) appear.
The Maximes, however, had no such fate. The author re-edited them frequently during his life, with alterations and additions; a few were added after his death, and it is usual now to print the whole of them, at whatever time they appeared, together. Thus taken, they amount to about seven hundred in number, in hardly any case exceeding half a page in length, and more frequently confined to two or three lines. The view of conduct which they illustrate is usually and not quite incorrectly summed up in the words "everything is reducible to the motive of self-interest." But though not absolutely incorrect, the phrase is misleading. The Maximes are in no respect mere deductions from or applications of any such general theory. They are on the contrary independent judgments on different relations of life, different affections of the human mind, and so forth, from which, taken together, the general view may be deduced or rather composed. Sentimental moralists have protested loudly against this view, yet it is easier to declaim against it in general than to find a flaw in the several parts of which it is made up.
With a few exceptions La Rochefoucauld's maxims represent the matured result of the reflection of a man deeply versed in the business and pleasures of the world, and possessed of an extraordinarily fine and acute intellect, on the conduct and motives which have guided himself and his fellows. There is as little trace in them of personal spite as of forfanleric de lice. But the astonishing excellence of the literary medium in which they are conveyed is even more remarkable than the general soundness of their ethical import. In uniting the four qualities of brevity, clearness, fullness of meaning and point, La Rochefoucauld has no rival. His Maximes are never mere epigrams; they are never platitudes; they are never dark sayings. He has packed them so full of meaning that it would be impossible to pack them closer, yet there is no undue compression; he has sharpened their point to the utmost, yet there is no loss of substance. The comparison which occurs most frequently, and which is perhaps on the whole the justest, is that of a bronze medallion, and it applies to the matter no less than to the form. Nothing is left unfinished, yet none of the workmanship is finical. The sentiment, far from being merely hard, as the sentimentalists pretend, has a vein of melancholy poetry running through it which calls to mind the traditions of La Rochefoucauld's devotion to the romances of chivalry. The maxims are never shallow; each is the text for a whole sermon of application and corollary which any one of thought and experience can write. Add to all this that the language in which they are written is French, still at almost its greatest strength, and chastened but as yet not emasculated by the reforming influence of the 18th century, and it is not necessary to say more. To the literary critic no less than to the man of the world La Rochefoucauld ranks among the scanty number of pocket-books to be read and re-read with ever new admiration, instruction and delight. La Rochefoucauld's theories about human nature are based on such topics as self-interest and self-love, passions and emotions, vanity, relationships, love, conversation, insincerity, and trickery. His writings are very concise, straightforward, and candid.

--from Wikipedia (parts of this very probably from the Encyclopedia Brittanica 11th Edition)

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