Enduring Wisdom Direct from the Court of Louis XIV, April 4, 2007
By Edward H. Binns (Hot Springs, SD) This review is from: Maxims (Penguin Classics) by duc de Francois de la Rochefoucauld (Paperback) [translated by Leonard Tancock]
La Rochefoucauld isn't for everyone. Let's excuse those who are going to be offended right away. Do you insist your movies be in color and have a happy endings? You're excused. Do you believe man is perfectible through his institutions? You're excused. Do you believe that love remains bright, eternal and unchanging? You're excused. Do you believe you know yourself completely and thoroughly? Then I'll see you around. Have a nice day.
Now, for the rest of us, realists rather than idealists, La Rochefoucauld is a Godsend. A nobleman from the highest levels of the French aristocracy pulls up a chair and starts talking to us, telling us deep and profound things, giving us insights so quickly and so accurately that we erupt over and over again with deep, raucous laughter. He tells us the essential, conceptual problems with love. He tells us that the sexes are not the same and cannot act identically, and says this profoundly and without dismissing or mocking either men or women.
He warns us about vanity, resentment, envy and jealousy. Most especially, he convinces us that these qualities are dominant in human affairs. He tells us why a dismissive attitude about death is not genuine. He warns us of the great dangers brought about through laziness.
The art of using the minimum words to convey a subtle truth was in its highest form in Paris at this time. The Maxims were shared and honed in a salon. La Rochefoucauld's life of warfare and court intrigue and betrayal and unrequited love allowed him to bring deep wisdom into the emotions and moods he describes. Particularly, his rivalry with a self-aggrandizing courtier informs his writing. Paul de Gondi, Cardinal de Retz, was a pompous and annoying hypocrite who was extremely successful in some aspects of his life. Retz once received eight votes for election to the Papacy. Yet La Rochefoucauld both saw through him and came to understand why so many others did not pierce the veil of the cardinal's reputation.
The salon and rivalry with Retz are an important introduction Tancock gives us to the Maxims. That material should be read thoroughly and introspectively, especially the cardinal's written description of La Rochefoucauld and the duke's written description of the cardinal.
In the actual body of the Maxims and Reflections, La Rochefoucauld tells us of the dominant human characteristic, an impulse for self-preservation so strong that affection for oneself, pride, and vanity about one's reputation become included in it. It's called "amour-propre," for which self-love is only a glib translation. The essay on self-love, the longest and most stunning of the writings, is more than a maxim. It resists being broken down into pithy sayings. Sturdily written, it was so shocking to the French aristocracy that it was excluded from later editions of the Maxims.
But La Rochefoucauld's description of amour-propre is a masterpiece, a work of genius and modern psychology, three hundred years ahead of its time. Personally, it is the most important essay I ever read. Here is a partial quote from Tancock's translation of the maxim on self-love (number 563):
"....From this enveloping darkness come the ludicrous ideas it has about its own nature -- the errors, ignorances, obtusenesses, and sillinesses where itself is concerned -- believing, for instance, that its emotions are dead when they are merely dormant, that it has given up wanting to run just because it is resting, or that it has lost the tastes it has satiated. But this thick darkness that hides it from itself does not prevent its seeing with perfect clarity things outside itself, just as our eyes can perceive everything else and are only blind when it comes to seeing themselves. Indeed, where its main interests and really important affairs are concerned, and the violence of its desires takes up the whole of its attention, self-love sees, feels, hears, imagines, suspects, penetrates, and guesses everything, and one is tempted to believe that its every passion has magical properties of its own..."
Tancock here, and throughout the book, performs a meticulous translation for us. His friend, W. G. Moore, wrote about this particular passage in his book "La Rochefoucauld, His Mind and Art" and said:
"Surely this is writing of a high order. Lucid in form, short unremarkable phrases, few images, most of the stress on the single verb -- these features are not usually combined with the description of something that no human eye has seen or brain registered. Apparently the only way of describing the quality called amour-propre is to make it personal. The phrases are understandable as applied to a human being; perhaps even more to an animal, in a lair, taking precautions against surprise, running, resting, feeding, hiding, finding no rest,. We are not, as we thought, in the domain of critical assessment, still less in the domain of phrase-making, we are reading about magic, a picture is conjured up before our eyes; we watch the imagination at work. What it shows is a monster, something unnatural. The mood of scorn, discernible in many epigrams, is absent. The attitude is one of respect, almost awe, before something ubiquitous and mysterious. Yet we know what is being described: the power and plight of fallen man is here more imposing and impressive than in a Bossuet sermon. This is an Augustinian passage."
Let this nobleman, Francois, the sixth duke of La Rochefoucauld, stun you, amuse you, and lead you to greater wisdom.