Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Summary -- La Rochefoucauld III 145
La Rochefoucauld's Maxim on Self Love
One of the Greatest Short Essays in Recorded History
In the 1665 first edition of the Maxims, this was both the longest and the first maxim of the volume. It created such shock and horror among the French nobility that it was excluded from subsequent editions of the Maxims. The version below is intended to be read [as if the square brackets did not exist].
Self-love is the love of self and of all things for self. It makes men self-worshipers, and if fortune permits them, causes them to [become tyrants] over others; it is never quiet when out of itself, and only rests upon [any other] as a bee [does] upon flowers, to extract from them [the appropriate nectar]. Nothing is so headstrong as its desires, nothing so well concealed as its designs, nothing so skillful as its management; its suppleness is beyond descriptions; its changes surpass those of the metamorphoses, its refinements those of chemistry. We can neither plumb the depths nor pierce the shades of its recesses. Therein it is hidden from the most far-seeing eyes, therein it [adopts] a thousand imperceptible folds. There it is often to itself invisible; it there conceives, nourishes and rears, without being aware of it, [unnumbered] loves and hatreds, some so [monstrous they are repudiated at birth]. In the night which covers it are born the [absurd ideas] it has of itself, [which cause] its errors, its ignorance [of itself], its silly mistakes; [so] it is lead to believe that its [passions are dead when they merely sleep, that its appetite is lost when merely sated]. But this thick darkness which conceals it from itself does not hinder it from seeing [perfectly] that which is [outside] itself; and in this it resembles our eyes which behold all, and yet cannot [see] their own [pupils]. In fact, in great concerns and important matters when the violence of its desires summons all its attention, it sees, feels, hears, imagines, suspects, penetrates [and] divines all: so that we might think that each of its passions had a magic power proper to it. Nothing is so close and strong as its attachments, which, in sight of the extreme misfortunes which threaten it, it vainly attempts to break. Yet sometimes it affects that without trouble and [does so] quickly, which it failed to do with its whole power and in the course of years, whence we may fairly conclude that it is by itself that its desires are inflamed, rather than by the beauty and merit of its objects, that its own taste embellishes and heightens them; that it is itself the game it pursues , and that it follows eagerly when it runs after [whatsoever] upon which itself is eager. It is made up of [contradictions]. It is [haughty] and obedient, sincere and false, piteous and cruel, timid and bold. It has different desires according to the diversity of temperaments, which turn and fix it sometimes upon riches, sometimes on pleasures. It changes according to our age, our fortunes, and our hopes; it is quite indifferent whether it has many or one [aspect], because it can split itself into many portions, and unite in one as it pleases. It is inconstant [either] through inconstancy [itself or] of lightness, love, novelty, lassitude and distaste. It is capricious, and one sees it sometimes work with intense eagerness and with incredible labor to obtain things of little use to it which are even hurtful, but which it pursues because it [wants them]. It is silly, an often throws its [entire effort into the most ridiculous pursuits]. It can find [profound] pleasure in the dullest matters, [and can keep its pride intact while doing the most despicable things]. It is seen in all states of life, and in all conditions; it lives everywhere and upon everything; it subsists on nothing; it accommodates itself either to things or to the want of them; it goes over to those who are at war with it, enters into their designs, and, [stupefyingly, with them it even hates itself]; it conspires for its own loss, it works towards its own ruin – in fact, caring only to exist, and providing that it may [continue to exist], it will be its own enemy! We must therefore not be surprised if it is sometimes united to the rudest austerity, and if it enters so boldly into partnership to destroy [that bare quality], when it is rooted out in one place it re-establishes itself in another. When it fancies that it abandons its pleasure it merely changes or suspends its enjoyment. When even it is conquered in its full flight, we find that it triumphs in its own defeat. Here, then, is the picture of self-love [about which] the whole of our life is but one long agitation. The sea is its living image; and in the [ebb and flow] of its continuous waves there is a faithful expression of the stormy succession of its thoughts and of its real motion.
--translated in 1871 by J.W. Willis Bund, M.A. LL.B and J. Hain Friswell and printed in Reflections, 2010, from Bibliobazaar [edited for clear modern usage and for effect within square brackets by the blog author as influenced by Tancock and his Penguin translation]