It was the age when civilisation might seem to have attained the highest level compatible with the negation of freedom, when the French language had been just brought to its perfection as a vehicle of refined thought and delicate badinage.
Molière was then at the height of his fame. Racine was rising in celebrity, Corneille declining. The eloquence of Bossuet had begun to delight the Court, and La Fontaine was composing his first fables. The Provincial Letters of Pascal (16567), reputed the first monument of classical French Prose, were still rousing furious controversy; and the Marchioness de Sévigné (16271696) had embarked upon that famous correspondence which forms the brightest chronicle of her time.
Yet not even those many volumes of entertaining letters, to which we owe the most precious details concerning our author, have attained more celebrity than his single little manual of detached apophthegms, epigrams, and criticisms of life. It is one of the small books which have stood the test of timeone of the few studies in humanity which, drawn from one epoch in society, have succeeded in interesting all subsequent generations. It has the more peculiar distinction accorded by Voltaire of having at once influenced the taste and expressed the genius of the French nation to a degree hardly predicable of any other work.
Viewed simply as short observations on human character and conduct, the Maxims have, of course, their well-known prototypes in the earliest Gnomic literature, classical or Oriental; in the famous Characters of Theophrastus; the poetical counsels of Theognis of Megara, in the Manual of Epictetus and the Confessions of his Imperial patron, Marcus Aurelius Antoninusin all of which works it is little wonder that similar ideas or truisms are of chronic recurrence. The Maxims may be compared again with the contemporary (but more discursive and theological) Thoughts of Pascal, or the more pointed personal reflections of La Bruyère, just as they doubtless influencedhalf-a-century laterthe reflections of the high-minded Marquis de Vauvenargues. In our own language perhaps the nearest parallel, both for form and spirit, would be found in some of the brief, dry expressions of worldly wisdom scattered about Bacons Essays.
If none of these writers interest us in the same way, and few to the same extent as La Rochefoucauld, this, we are often told, is because his object was simply to observe, while other maxim-mongers, from Solon to poor Richard, were bent upon instructing and improving their readers. There is a significant difference, indeed, between Benjamin Franklins fatherly recommendation of honesty as The best policy and La Rochefoucaulds contemptuous estimate of the trickster (Maxim 127) as a fool who has not wit enough to be straightforward. Doubtless his chief aim is to analyse, to dissect, and to expose the theory underlying a selfish social system, the springs which the author believed to actuate ordinary humanity. For this purpose he would seem to have jotted down day by day in terse French a singularly impersonal record of every trait, action, motive, that came under his viewa view restricted, no doubt in part, by his peculiar environmentin part, perhaps, by the fatal truth emphasised by himself, that Certain virtues are like the senses, unappreciable to those who do not possess them.
The result was a collection of some 700 axioms on the conduct of man in societya work acutely interesting alike from the novelty of its style as from the agonising familiarity of all mankind with its subject-matter, but not of an ostensibly improving nature. The preaching of La Rochefoucauld is, at any rate, on negative and unconventional lines, though much of it resembles those Words of the wise, that hurt like goads, and stick in the mind like nails.
The Memoirs of La Rochefoucauld, says Voltaire, are read: his maxims known by heart. Though there is but one truth discussed in the bookviz. that self-love is the motive of all action, yet this is presented under so many aspects that it never fails to interest. The actuality and conciseness of the Reflections were something new and attractive, presenting, indeed, a great contrast to the flowery rhetoric and conventional optimism of most moralists of the age.
An evident generalisation, as Hallam says, from long experience, without pedantry, and without deductive argument, the book fills a serious place in French moral philosophy, by the side of those other generalisations, the guesses at truth and the criticisms of life and conduct, put forward by Montaigne, Pascal, and La Bruyère.
Next to its singular and even unpalatable candour, the peculiarity of the book is its personal note as a Cry of the Heart, expressing the despair of a not ignoble nature in an age of great national suffering, of misguided and ineffective disturbance.
And thus, as La Rochefoucauld was not, as might sometimes be fancied, a misanthrope, living in morose retirement, but an active agent in all the political and social life of the time, it is worth while, before examining his work more in detail, to glance at the age and society out of which emerged so singular a manifesto against humanity.
The long and complex religious civil wars of the sixteenth century had disorganised society in France from the top to the bottom. Apart from the mere licentiousness of court lifealready prolonged through three reignsthe nation had received a moral twist from its religious bitterness, which was displayed as much in politics and diplomacy as in literature and social life.1
Even from the date of the States-General of 1614 (when the grievances of the people are detailed in language much like that of 1789), the records of widespread ruin, penury, famine, and crime, are heartrending to read. And, in the middle of the century, the exasperation of all these evils (never remedied till the great Revolution) produced the outbreak of the Fronde, an insurrection of the nobility, the local parliaments, and the Third-Estate against Mazarin and the Queen Regent.
As a popular rising, the Fronde (164853) was a curious prototype of the great Revolution of a century and a half later. As a struggle against absolute monarchy it contrasted strangely with the serious contest then raging in England. During its three complex phases (with the details of which we are not concerned) the French aristocracy appeared for the last time ranged in arms against their Sovereign. But this civil warinaugurated, as it seemed, mainly by a few nobles and their mistresses, carried on by sanguinary engagements in the streets of Paris, and by squibs and lampoons in the fashionable salonswas as remarkable for the general want of principle of the parties engaged in it as for the calamitous sufferings which it caused.
Turenne, the greatest general of Europe (16111675), involved in flagrant rebellion by the charms of the famous Duchess de Longueville; La Rochefoucauld himself, plunging light-heartedly into the same struggle, inspired partly by a similar passion, partly by pique at the refusal of a governorship he had asked of the Queen; the Prince of Bourbon-Condé, the Great Condé (16111686), only second to Turenne in military fame, at first loyal, then engaging the royal troops in the streets of the capital, and, when defeated, ready to betray his country to Spain; Cardinal de Retz (16141679), the profligate and unscrupulous Archbishop of Paris, now heading popular insurrections with a dagger for breviary, now studying the art of conspiracy in the pages of Sallustthese are typical figures of an age of lawless violence, of social demoralisation and disorder, of corrupt and theatrical intrigue, overshadowed by the absolute despotism now first and finally established.
But another feature in French life of the time had a more direct effect upon literature. That was the genesis and development of the institution known as the Salon. Earlier in the century the young Marquise de Rambouillet had retired (1608) from the corruptions of Henry IV.s court to found the new species of social academy which has made the Hotel de Rambouillet famous in French history. In this school of culture, refined badinage, and philosophic discussion, many of the greatest wits, poets, and thinkers took refuge from the impossible world of politics. The literary atmosphere was, it may be feared, somewhat that of a magnificent hot-house, or became so some years before its absurdities were immortalised (1659) in the Précieuses Ridicules of Molière. By that date other salons were in flourishing existence, notably those of Madame de Sablé (herself the author of maxims), Madame de Scudèry (poet and romancist), and Madame de La Fayette, a more remarkable character, intimately associated with La Rochefoucauld and his book: and the influence of womanor perhaps we should say of great ladieshad become a permanent force in French thought and manners.
At the same time, to conclude this sketch, French civilisation had taken on that imposing, but extravagant and artificial, glamour, in which monarchy, with its legendary motto Letat cest moi started on the long down-grade of licence, tyranny, and bankruptcy, that led so directly to revolutionary chaos and the pit.
What is called political life under such a regime seems devoid alike of liberty and honesty; and if societyupper class society, that ispresents, on the surface, a brighter prospect, this seems, on nearer view, a cold and hard brilliance, which has little of the warmth of living humanity about it. A deeply corrosive class-selfishness, a want of the common feelings most essential to the union of the social fabricthese are noticeable traits. When we find the amiable and cultured Madame de Sévigné writing, with such unconcealed delight, of the hideous barbarities inflicted on the poor, defenceless Breton peasantry, as if massacre and hanging were a good joke, so long as she was left to enjoy in peace the shade of her beloved woods, we are perhaps less surprised to find her friend, M. de La Rochefoucauld, speaking with contempt of pity itself. A feeling, he thought, to be excluded from every intelligent mind, and left to the common people, who, being unaffected by reason, are only stirred to action by their passions. French society was already accumulating materials for the great explosion of pity and passion of a century later.
His grandmother had entertained Charles V. at her chateau of Verneuil; an ancestor was among the Protestant leaders massacred on St. Bartholomews Eve; and the last bearer of the title sat as deputy for his order in the States-General of 1789, and subsequently fell a victim to the brigands of the Terror and his own incorruptible and inconvenient rectitude.
François, Duke of Rochefoucauld and Prince of Marsillac, soldier, historian, and moralist, was born in 1613, and died in 1680. With every advantage of birth and physique, considerable natural ability and acuteness, but little education, he plunged, at an early age, into the vortex of intrigue and adventure so vividly depicted for the modern reader in the pages of M. Alexandre Dumas. He figures, indeed, as Prince de Marsillac in that entertaining chronicle of this period which bears the famous name of DArtagnan;2 and the earlier portions of his own more authentic memoirs (never discovered till 1817) throw a surprising light upon the chivalrous or fantastic enterprises in which he strove, it seemed, to rival the exploits of Buckingham, just as De Retz modelled himself upon Catiline. For this abortive romance of his wasted youth he seems to have sought a strange revenge in the world of letters. At least, when we find him involved, at the age of twenty-three, in a plot to carry off the unhappy Queen and the Kings favourite mistress, and subsequently punished by short terms of exile or imprisonment in the Bastille, we note with surprise that the bitter philosophy of the Maxims and Reflections was bred in what might seem the uncongenial atmosphere of The Three Musketeers! This is not so strange if, as seems the case, the adventures, which gave such dire offence to King and Cardinal, were the practical ruin of his political prospects, and left him a disappointed and embittered, if not perverted, man at the age of thirty-three.
It was as such that he was confronted with the great enterprise of his lifethe crisis in the history of his country when the honesty and independence of a few leading spirits might have rendered her such signal services.
Of this it need only be said that he was involved in the successive phases of the Fronde by motives mainly as frivolous and unprincipled as those of his fellow-conspirators. The vanity or caprice of himself and Madame de Longuevillewhom nature had only intended to ornament a salonwere no sure guides for their political partnership, and La Rochefoucauld, weary and disappointed, gladly seized the occasion offered by the favour she showed to the Due de Nemours to withdraw from both kinds of intrigue, in the characters of an injured lover and a despairing politician.
Apart from general impressions, a good many details of autobiography are, we learn, to be picked out of the Maxims. In some of the bitter and weary comments upon love, inconstancy (maxims 84 and 759), and such topics, we may trace a reflection of the infidelity of the authors beautiful mistress and the extinction of his enthusiasm both for herself and the cause to which she clung so desperately. It was to her that as a lover he had addressed the well-known lines from a forgotten tragedy (Duryers Alcyonée):
Pour meriter son cur, pour plaire à ses beaux yeux
Jai fait la guerre aux rois, je laurois faite aux Dieux,
lines which throw some light on the spirit of misplaced chivalry animating many a Frondeur.
When the light-hearted, if disastrous revolutionary struggle was over, and the two had finally separated, he parodied the verses with a reference to the wound received during a desperate fight in the Faubourg St. Antoine, which nearly deprived him of sight.
Pour ce cur inconstant, quenfin je connois mieux
Jai fait la guerre aux rois, jen ai perdu les yeux.
In the portrait of himself (written before 1658) he tells us that, though still young, he had abandoned the gallantries of earlier years. The perilous and precarious alliance with La Longueville, who a few years after the Fronde retired to that fashionable refuge of disappointed lovers, the Carmelite Nunnery, was abandoned for the more tranquil and intellectual society of Madame de La Fayette.
The essay of Sainte Beuve, from which we have quoted above, is one which the reader finds with mild surprise to be included among that charming writers Portraits de femmes (!), on the ground that the moralist is, as a character, inseparable from the two remarkable women just mentioned. His infatuation for the first involved him, as has been said, in rebellion and civil war. His attachment to the second soothed the close of his career and mollified some of the asperities in his character. There were at least two other women, Madame de Chevreuse and Madame de Sablé, for whom he cherished, at different periods, what he calls a belle passion but Madame de Sévigné believed he had never known what it was to be really in love.
In the more serious affairs (if they were more serious) of public life, La Rochefoucauldaccording to the testimony of Cardinal de Retz, an acute observer, if an avowed enemyshowed equally little pertinacity, no particular genius or penetration, and a singular degree of irresolution.3 Neither quite one thing nor the other, no general though a brave soldier, and no diplomatist though constantly involved in one intrigue or another, his shrewd sense and attractive personal qualities were balanced by a certain indefinable ineffectiveness in action, as of one always on his defence, half timid and half ashamed. This fact, and the want of all faith in practical virtue which is breathed in the Maxims, convinced De Retz that the author would have done better to content himself with passing for the most polished courtier of his time.
With the failure of the cause for which he had fought and bled, when the two Frondes were finally crushed in 1653, there came no consolation to his vanity. He was not so devoid of ambition as he assures us, yet his courtierlike desire for some place, or the tutorship of the Dauphin, remained (and naturally enough) ungratified.
After years of fitful intrigue and personal exertion and danger, he found himself regarded as a political nonentity, the object neither of anxiety nor of conciliation. Included by Mazarin in the amnesty granted to the defeated enemies of absolute monarchy, he returned to Paris and devoted himself to repose, to the recovery of his health, to the society of his friends, and last, but not least, to the literary work which was to console him for his failure in other fields, if not to avenge his grievances against the world in general.
In 1662 first appeared, in an imperfect and incorrect form, his Memoirs of the Intrigues which followed the death of Louis XIII., the wars of Paris and Guyenne, and the imprisonment of the Princes,4 one of the best accounts of the complex and tortuous politics of the time. A serious and dignified work, if not superior, as M. Bayle thought, to the Commentaries of Julius Cæsar, at least it presents a striking contrast to the piquant reminiscences of Cardinal de Retz.
They appeared in anonymous form, but coupled with a discourse usually attributed to M. de Segrais (a minor poet and friend of Madame de La Fayette), which referred to the recently published memoirs, and could leave little doubt as to the authors identity. The venture was a great success, though it roused a storm of criticism to which the author could not be indifferent. But, in one form or another, the book was continually reprinted. Yet another edition of M. de La Rochefoucauld, exclaims Madame de Sévigné, corrected and enlarged. Some of the Maxims are splendid, others, Im ashamed to say, I cant understand. Heaven knows how you will.
The success of the book being assured, the apologetic discourse was withdrawn, and a hundred more maxims were added in the fifth edition (1678), the latest text to which the author was able to put a revising hand.
For some years he had suffered chronic torments from the gout, and, in the spring of 1680, a severe attack of fever supervened, to which, after a deceptive rally, and in spite of the assistance of an English physician, specially called in, he succumbed about midnight, March 1617.
It is not to no purpose, writes his friend, that he has given so much of his life to Reflections: for he approaches his last moments in such fashion, that they have nothing new or strange for him. She had told us before7 of the goodness and tenderness he had exhibited at a moment of the most harrowing domestic affliction, qualities beside which all the attractions of his wit sank into insignificance.
It is gratifying to know, from the same reliable informant, that the man who had said such hard things of friendship left behind him more than one grief-stricken friend, besides the son so devoted to his father, and the amiable and talented woman, with whom he maintained, for the last twenty-five years of his life, a relation of indescribable charm and intimacy,8 regarding her, perhaps rightly, as the one genuine woman of an artificial and corrupt generation.
His temperament he has himself described as of so melancholy a cast that he was scarcely seen to laugh once in a year. A dignified figure in court or camp, in his manner unquestionably proud and reserved, impressing casual spectators as contemptuous, but not really so.
Wittyhe does not conceal thatthough, in spite of his clear perception of things and easy command of language, here, again, a moody temper marks him for its ownJai donc de l esprit, encore une fois, mais un esprit que la melancolie gâteeven to the extent, he thought, of impairing the expression of what he meant to say. Fond of conversation, he describes himself, more especially of the serious discussion of moral questions, not averse to the badinage of the day, though little indulging his capacity for it: addicted to reading, more particularly when combined with conversation, a fairly competent author in prose and verse, and a sound critic, if a little given to excessive frankness, conscious that in argument he sometimes becomes rather dogmatic.
Little troubled by ambition, undisturbed by violent passions, he was quite capable of making others feel his resentment of any injury touching his honour. Little affected by curiosity, studiously courteous, but inclined to be reticent if not taciturn, devoid of fear, and, as has been said, scarcely sensible of pity, he would yet do anything to relieve a friends suffering, even so far as to express commiseration for them, seeing that people who suffer are so stupid that that does them all the good in the world.
That he keenly enjoyed the society of witty and cultivated womennot those, we may presume, whose wit merely showed up their folly (maxim 340)does not argue any generally sociable qualities, and when he adds that, in his punctilious politeness, he never uttered a word in their presence calculated to give them pain, the reader who peruses his numerous reflections on the fair sex may wonder how much respect underlay his numerous attachments, or what the magnificent polish of the grand age was really worth.
But La Rochefoucauld died, in any case, if he had not always lived, superior to the principles which he has sketched for us with so much eloquence and precision. He died, moreover, a disappointed man, and, from his own point of view (if his indifference to literary fame was not merely affected), a failure.
At any rate, his chef duvre is, as has been said, in its personal aspect, something of an outburst of despairthe bitter cry of an aspiring but irresolute temperament which is acute enough to see that, after all, it has only itself to blame.
The pessimism which now and then seems to leave us no satisfaction with life can hardly fail to convey the writersthe thinkersconsciousness of wasted opportunities, as if he felt in himself, and wildly sought to justify, the predestined despair of one always driven about by passions yet never filled with any (maxim 479), endowed with the keenest insight into human failings yet without the faith and energy required to apply it profitably to himself.
It is true that once given to the worldeven in the seventeenth centurya bitter truth or a cynical sneer could never be recalled, even if that were, in the interests of literature, at all desirable. But to judge La Rochefoucaulds personal opinions fairly we must, as his severest critic insists, accept them in their final and corrected form.
On the character and permanent value of such a work volumes have been, and still might be, written. It has supplied texts for thousands of discourses and furnished a score or so of proverbs to the whole civilised world. If there is any better known manual of moral philosophy there is none that has been at once so well read and so well abused.
The authors dearest friend and literary coadjutor has confided to us (through Madame de Sablé) that, if pleasantries were to be taken seriously, these (and grim pleasantries some of them are!)10 would have endangered her attachment to him. Such corruption of mind and heart did she think could alone enable a man to imagine all that!
They have been censured, indeed, by the orthodox of every successive generation. Yet their doctrine, says the first critical editor of the nineteenth century, is even worse than their reputation.11 All the good in human nature they reduce to a hollow unreality. All action they would base upon mere egoism, the shameful and solitary instinct, which the author so fatally confounds with that higher form of self-interest essential to the preservation of society.
Even as the Hebrew preacher dwells upon the vanity of all human wishes and experiences, so does La Rochefoucauld cling to his one depressing theme. The Maxims, Voltaire remarks, are rather materials for a book than a work in themselvesmaterials, he might have added, for a Natural History of Selfishness.
It is true that the author has something to say upon most human qualities, most departments of conduct; but even if they did not most of them communicate with this (cf. Max. 172), it is here that he speaks with the most frigid certainty and the most overwhelming detail.
The Essay (now Max. 2) which headed the book in its original form, if it does not contain some of the most dreadful sentences ever penned, is, at least, couched in a more elaborate, more mercilessly scientific a vein than any other chapter of the book. It deserves careful study. It is an eloquent and terrible denunciation, that seems to brand naked and trembling humanity as with a hot iron. And if we put together only a part of the materials referred to, what a tragic and penetrating study do they present of that bottomless abyss (Max. 2), that uncharted ocean, that dark, unexplorable continent (4), where the tyrannous, idolatrous Alaster of self-love, the insouciant parent of acts and conceptions too monstrous for its own recognition (2), blind even to its own interests (593), trampling on the rights and feelings of others (262, 534), more cruel even than cruelty pur et simple (546), is doomed to pursue for ever, under a thousand fair and fleeting disguises (2), the barren reflection ofitself! It is not, assuredly, for his presentation of this intellectual vice, this spiritual deformity, that La Rochefoucauld is open to attack.
Self-love, whether we like to contemplate it or not, is the love of a mans own self, and of everything else for his own sake. It does make people idolaters to themselves and tyrants to all the world besides; and had all the rest of the book been modelled on these opening sentences of the original edition, then, though nothing could render them pleasant reading, it could have provoked no very effective retort.
But the author has also urged upon us the imperfection (or unreality) of all apparent goodness, the vulgarity of motive often animating what passes for the best and highest action. He has turned up for our inspection the dingy, seamy, and ridiculous side (though there is little mirth in his display) of all that seems magnanimous and dignified in human conduct: and, in doing this, perhaps he has, as M. Aimé-Martin suggests, drawn rather from menFrenchmen of the Frondethan from man.
He begins, says the indignant critic, by stigmatising our nature as base. He ends by corrupting it. We feel in ourselves the disposition to selfishness, envy, vanity, ingratitude. We give way to it. We support ourselves (as the author suggests that weak people do: No. 657) on a maxim. We saysuch or such a feeling, practice, motive, is common to humanity, andwe cease to blush. There is no doubt some truth in this eloquent indictment.
That is the principle here suggested for the student of the Maxims. He reads that friendship ishow often!a mere traffic of useful services; gratitude, a lively anticipation of future favours; and pity, the ingenious foresight (264) of possible disasters to ourselves; and, seeing how much of the undeniable there is in all this, gradually admits to his soul a sort of poisonous apathy, saying to himself ingratitude, treachery in fine, cold-blooded selfishness are all very natural. That is enoughIm no angel!
Hypocrites, it is well observed in the prefatory apology, pass their time very ill in reading a book of this characterthat is, if they do not wish to be made extremely uncomfortable. It is quite pathetic to watch a pious commentator wrestling, as it were, with these uncompromising chips from the workshop of a worldly philosopher who will not say that All virtue is hypocrisy, but only that hypocrisy is all the virtue that you can get out of certain people (219), nor that All men really hate each other but only that there is something not unpleasing to us in the misfortunes of our best friends. (235*) Here, it is true, as elsewhere, he can deal in fine distinctions. When we read, in his curt and frigid commentary, that As our merit lowers, our taste lowers too (Max. 378), or that He who loves no one is worse off than he whom nobody loves (772), we can supply terrible adjectives enough to paint the degradation or the loneliness he is contemplating. But the fact is that there is a delusive and almost indecent materialism in the simplicity assigned with such persistence to human motives in general, as if man were a piece of bloodless clockwork and not a living ganglion of complex passions and cravings. That is one obvious reflection. Brevity, in itself, is apt to be mistaken not only for wit but for the epitome of truth. On the other hand, there is some danger of the reader mistaking his own pessimism for that of the author, of his regarding as satirical condemnation certain bald statements of fact. What if friendship be a kind of commerceis commerce so base a thing as to exclude all thought of others? If it does, does not that show, as Rochefoucauld himself tells us, how pure, unadulterated selfishness (593) defeats its own object! If we are stung by hearing gratitude spoken of as a sort of account-keeping, is there not something precious in the refined justice which governs its impulses and keeps its operation (226) dignified and independent? And the critic who sees ingratitude in the hasty return of an obligation (227) can hardly be suspected of depreciating true generosity. And if it be objected that he sometimes (especially in the most complete editions) contradicts himself, he can surely reply, with Walt Whitman: Very well. I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.
To handle but a few of these gems, where shall we find in so short a compass a sounder theory of true happiness (49), of peace of mind (528), of courage (2167), of love (644), of wisdom (232, 539, 690, 707, etc.) of real eloquence (251, 656), and sham humility (255), of the ties that unite the virtuous (595), of the disgrace of the untrustful (85), and the misery of the unloving (772)? Where shall we see more conscientiously depicted for us the relations of treachery and weakness (121), of wit and stupidity (130), of confidence in ourselves and in others (550), of book-learning and pedantry (586, 672, 690), of vanity and sincerity (382), of body and soul (297), of the intellect and the heart (1038, 109)? Who has unmasked with a defter hand all the obscurer weaknesses of humanity from our conceit in misfortune (51), to that eternal little difficulty of forgiving, not the people who have injured us, but the people we have injured (304), our thirst for futile information (612), our unappreciated interest in other peoples destinies (272), our instinctive aversion to our betters (296), our commendations with a sting in the tail (146), and those familiar conversational failings which make up, in the twentieth as in the seventeenth century, the whole art of boredom? (135, 160, 313, 363, 596, etc. etc.).
Many of these delicate revelations seem to fall quite naturally into the form of popular conundrums. Thus: Why are heroes like pictures? Ans. Because to be admired they must be viewed from a distance (734). Why does flattery injure us? Only because we first flatter ourselves (153). Why then do we sometimes object to it? Because it is awkwardly expressed (329). And so on . Why, for example, do we ask advice of others? To hear our own opinions confirmed (117). Why do we refuse praise (as Julius Cæsar refused the crown) the first time it is offered? Because we want to hear it again (150 and see 356). Why are we half-hearted in the pursuit of any given vice? Because, most probably, our affections are divided among several (196). Why do we confess small faults? To avoid being suspected of great ones (327), and, lastly: Why do we fear mens contempt? Because we deserve it (332).
These will strike the reader, according to his mood, either as brilliant satires upon other people or reflections for his private chamber. It may be a pungent truth that few of us master the art of being old (423): but perhaps only a cynic could tell us that greybeards are fond of giving good advice (94), because it consoles them for being unable to set bad examples, or that our good qualities bring more hatred and persecution upon us than all the ill we do (30, 239, but see 483).
If that were literally true in Mazarins day, let us try and hope it may be relegated, like the Reflections on Favourites (56), or Princes (320, 706), or the Great (240, etc.), on Reconciliation (83), and certain others (717, etc.), to the class of topical maxims, as distinguished from those which are not for an age but for all time.
To the latter class would belong the dreadful sentence already quoted, against the morally deficient (337), with its more cheering correlative (548), and that acute exposition of the principle underlying all modern advertisement: Would you rise in the world, and get your business done?then use all possible means of persuading the people it is done already.
We have emphasised the sincerity of the author. If there is some cynicism in his book, there is very little, if any, of the shallow and flippant cynicism with which the modern epigrammatist so often tries to startle or shock his jaded hearers. Perhaps some of the profoundest maxims of all, by what we may call their laboured vagueness (as of an observer struggling to describe the indescribable), triumphantly refute the suggestion of certain critics that La Rochefoucaulds main object was to say something smart and clever. Doubtless he does say a few shallow and seemingly heartless things. The belief that a womans worth rarely survives her beauty (476) scarcely survives among us.
And there are a few (see 366) other maxims of the kind which the partial Madame de La Fayette declined to take seriously, their bitterness being affected, let us hope, by a twinge of the authors persistent enemythe gout; though it is to be remembered that some of the most unpopular and apparently cynical reflections were (as will be seen) never intended by the author for the perusal of posterity.
But there is no superficial rhetorical brilliance about La Rochefoucaulds musings, as we may call them, upon the secret reasons for things (164), the effect of the subdivision of life into different stages in our experience (404), the practical uses of folly (310), the harm we do without knowing it (269), the rotation, so to speak, of the passions (526), our latent virtues (344), and our eternally surprising ignorance of ourselves (295).
Nor, again, in the essaysfor so we must term themupon the complexity, extent, and magical power of Self-Love (2, 534), upon Courage (216), Hypocrisy in Affliction (234), the Fear of Death (412), and one or two others, where the author seems to be vainly struggling to find a maxim capable of including all he wants to say. And even if some topics seem dismissed with a cynical petulance, it is no such temper that dwells emphatically upon the intrinsic goodness of mere existence (698), that believes every thing, even the meanest, to have a perfection (126) which the discerning palate can appreciate! And is there not even poetry in some of these suggestive and far-reaching apophthegms, such as the comparison of our actions to the last syllables in words which every man makes rhyme to what he thinks fit (381), or in the remark that virtues are lost in interest as rivers in the sea (172), half-formed interjections, as it were, unfinished sketches, yet giving, in the familiar French metaphor, tremendous food for thought? Some of the more obvious human weaknesses may be roughly outlined, even here and there crudely caricaturedmistakes easy to correct as to condemn. But if we trace out all the delicate shades, the nuances of instinct, conduct, manner, motive, here so perseveringly exposed, we may agree that life would indeed be a fine, gracious, and beautiful thing if we could take every hint, follow out every negative principle emphasised, in the moral Maxims of La Rochefoucauld.
The Bibliography of the work has an interest involved in the nature and minuteness of its contents. Like a casket of jewels or a case of specimens, handled alternatively by the inquisitive public and the thoughtful curator, the maxims subjected to different editorial hands, multiplied, reduced, expanded, and rearranged, present kaleidoscopic variations, of which, however, only those effected by the author need seriously concern us.
First published, as has been said, in 1665,12 it is not too much to say that the book has been incessantly reprinted, in one form or another, in response to a demand steadily maintained through the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.
Of the five authentic editions published in the lifetime of La Rochefoucauld the original of 1665 comprised only 317 maxims. In that of 1666 they were reduced to 302. In 1671 he increased them to 341, and in 1675 to 413, while in the latest text revised by the author (1678) they amount to 504.
In this and the subsequent bibliography of the Maxims we may trace a struggle between public curiosity and orthodox censure; between the authors known wishes and the taste or principle of his editors. Thus the important maxim (or essay) on self-love, which stood at the head of the original edition, and might seem the keystone of the whole work, was withdrawn by the author together with some sixty more, and either replaced by others, or restored in variously modified forms, which the reader may examine and compare in any of the modern critical editions.
Thus it will be seen that the first five recensions of the Maxims (1665667175 and 78) differ materially, from one another: and subsequent editors were left to choose whether they would reprint (a) the original text of 1665, (b) the latest revised edition of 1678, or (c) a complete collection of all the maxims extant in any.
Amelot de la Houssaye, the historian of Venice, was one of the first to collect and reinstate, in 1714, the maxims rejected by the author. Gabriel Brotier, the celebrated editor of Tacitus, produced a critical, but unsatisfactory, edition in 1789, and M. Aimé-Martin, some thirty years later, gave us the first arrangement adapted to modern standards of completeness and authenticity viz. (1) the text of 1678, embodying the authors latest corrections, with (2) the variants rejected by him (printed at the foot of the page) and supplements comprising (3) all the maxims finally expunged by him, and (4) such other of his epigrammatic sayings and bons mots as could be collected from the correspondence of Madame de Sévigné and other contemporary sources.
The first English version of the work would seem to be that of Mrs. Aphra Behn, bearing the curious title of Seneca unmasked, or Moral Reflections, etc., 1685; a loose and partial paraphrase of some of the earlier maxims, for further notice of which the reader may be referred to the remarks of Dean Stanhope above.
The translation here reprinted bears no name, as the reader will have observed, and the Catalogue of the British Museum, that clue to so many an anonymous or pseudonymous personality, adds nothing to what we are told upon the title-page.
From the fact that the translator appends to the book as a sort of antidote certain Christian Maxims of his own (which it has not been thought worthwhile to include in the present edition), we might infer him to be not only a French scholar but a divine. A reference to the contemporary advertisements of the publisher, Richard Sare, reveals two clients of his answering this description, Jeremy Collier, then occupied upon his Ecclesiastical History, andDean Stanhope. Internal evidence inclined one to the latter, a conclusion confirmed by the Dictionary of National Biography,13 which refers to the book as a work that might be considered alien to his mind. It was certainly a book of ill repute among the orthodox, which explains the anonymity of a version given to the world by one of the most eminent preachers and divines of the reign of Queen Anne.
George Stanhope (16601728) was the son of the Rev. Thomas Stanhope, Rector of Hartshorn in Derbyshire. Born in the year of the Restoration, he was educated at Uppingham and Eton, and became a scholar of Kings College, Cambridge, in 1677. Appointed Rector of Tewin in Herts (1688), and subsequently of Deptford in Kent, he became chaplain to King William and Queen Mary in 1697, and Boyle Lecturer in 1707. Till 1708 he was Tuesday Lecturer at St. Lawrence Jewry, where he succeeded such famous preachers as Tillotson and Sharp. Entering the Lower House of Convocation, of which he became Prolocutor, he was involved in that bitter conflict with the Upper Chamber, under Atterbury, concerning the question of the Archbishops authority and Right of Prorogation, in consequence of which the Lower Chamber was finally dissolved, in 1717, never to be summoned again till 1852.
Dean Stanhope married (1) a daughter of Charles Cotton of Beresford, and (2) a half-sister of Sir Charles Wager. His daughter by the first wife was married to a son of Bishop Burnet. He was buried in Lewisham Church, where his memorial is to be seen within the rails of the communion table.
Stanhopes leisure would seem to have been largely occupied in translation. Besides his numerous theological works, he published (1694 and 1700) an English version, already referred to, of the Morals of Epictetus, Charron, of Wisdomdone into English from the newest French Edition (3 vols., 1697), The Christian Pattern (the Imitatio Christi), and a translation of the Confessions of Marcus Aurelius (1697 and 1699), from which Jeremy Collier borrowed, with due acknowledgment, the Collection of Authorities used for his own.
In the preface to the Maxims of Rochefoucauld it will be noticed that the translator claims for his edition that it is more complete than any yet published in the original French. Taking all the maxims comprised in the two editions of Lyons and Paris, published in 1691, and the Preface and Discourse included in the one and omitted or abridged in the other, he gives us La Rochefoucaulds work in a much fuller form than we should expect.
M. Aimé-Martin, collating all the editions and adding maxims drawn from the Letters, etc. (which are, of course, no true part of the original work), only makes up a total of 628. Dean Stanhope prints 772, including a good many in what engravers would call two states.
He has, perhaps, included a few maxims which, if they were printed in certain French editions (e.g., that of 1693) may be regarded as of doubtful authenticity; and he has omitted one which, though suppressed along with several other reflections by La Rochefoucauld himself, is, probably at this moment, the most famous of allNo. 99 in the original edition of 1685: In the misfortune of our best friends there is always something not unpleasing to us. This I have accordingly ventured to add in the place where it should be found before the maxim (No. 236 in this book), which mollifies and explains it.
With the above exception, the translators claim to have presented us with a complete and idiomatic version of La Rochefoucaulds work seems amply justified. The reader familiar with the original will find here, in a characteristic and contemporary English dress, the whole point and purport of these many hundred French epigrams, and it might easily be argued that most of them, especially the best and the briefest, have lost little or nothing by their change of nationality.
A word in conclusion may be said of the arrangement of the maxims. Briefly, there is none, or very little. They go alone, the most desperate ones (which the boldest editor might shrink from trying to catch and classify!), or in small groupsmodifying or correcting one anotherbut the author would be the last person, as he tells us, to stand out for any methodical order in their going.
In its usual form the book bears traces of its genesis and history, as described above. The earliest, and perhaps most spontaneous, maxims are, as a rule with some important exceptions to be found near the beginning, while those subsequently added occupy the later parts; and towards the end will usually be found a good many for which the industry, or piety, or laxity of the editor is mainly responsible. Thus the bibliography of any particular essay or maximwhich may be separated by several hundreds from its antidote, corrective, or revised formhas little to say to its subject-matter.
Note 1. Van Laun: History of French Literature, ii. 145. [back]
Note 2. Memoires de M. DArtagnan, 3 vols. 12mo. Amsterdam, 1715. See the Preface to Dumas Romance; and the recent English edition of the Memoirs. [back]
Note 3. Memoires, Part ii. Chap. 8. Portrait du Due de La Rochefoucauld. For an equally candid portrait of the Cardinal by the Duke see: Lettres de M. de Sévigneé, 17th June 1675. [back]
Note 4. Reprinted in correct form by Renouard, 180417. [back]
Note 5. See a playful reference to him in Madame de Sévigneés letters (16th March 1672). The wretch, she says, detested her because she only wrote letters, and not romances such as the Princess de Clèves, in which Madame de La Fayette was assisted by Madame de Segrais and La Rochefoucauld. These, it seems, were among Barbins most successful publications, which include the first edition, in book form, of Perraults immortal Fairy Stories (1697), and a creditable collection of French poetry (5 vols. 8vo, 1692) known as the Recueil Barbin. The Maxims, it may be added, were heraldedone must not say boomedby an article from the pen of Madame de Sablé, in one of the first numbers of the Journal des Scavans. [back]
Note 8. Marie Madeline Pioche de la Vergne, Contesse de La Fayette (16321693), authoress of Zaide, the Princess de Clèves, (in conjunction with La Rochefoucauld), and the more remarkable Histoire de Madame Henriette dAngleterre (16441670), (the unfortunate princess celebrated in the romances of Dumas), which was not published till 1720. [back]
Note 9. Of this modification the reader may trace several examples by comparing the earlier and later maxims. A typical case will be found in maxims 82 and 465. La Rochefoucauld wrote (1665) that the most disinterested friendship is but a kind of bargain. In 1678: What men call friendship is no more than a partnership, a mutual care of interests, an exchange of good offices, in a word a sort of Traffic. So again, in 1665: It is not Nature but Fortune that makes heroes. In 1678: not nature alone, but Fortune must contribute something. Here Stanhopes version includes only the revised form (maxim 54). No. 170, too, is milder than the original edition. Several of the maxims, it might be added, rather suffer from revision, on the very principle laid down by the author (No. 102), which itself was subsequently remodelled. [back]
Note 11. Cf. the Examen prefixed to Aimé Martins valuable edition of the Maxims, which roused a lively controversy. [back]
Note 12. The Hague edition, if it can be called so, of 1664 (induced by the success of the Memoirs published, as has been said, in 1662), is chiefly interesting as a bibliographical rarity. Discovered by Willems, the historian of the Elzevir Press, in 1879, it contained only 188 maxims, of which, apparently, not a third represented any genuine text. See the reprint, by M. Pauly of the Bibl. Nationale, 1883. The British Museum possesses the editions of 1664657175789293, and some twenty-five of later date [back]
Note 13. On the authority of Todds Deans of Canterbury and Chalmers Dict. of Biography. Both these authors, and the Rev. Weedon Butler (Life and Writings of Dean Stanhope, 1797) describe the translation briefly, and not quite accurately, perhaps, as if from tradition, not observation. In my copy of LEstranges edition of Æsops Fables (Sare & Co., 1708) the present work is duly advertised, with its full title, size, and price, Twelves Price 1s. 6d, but among anonymous works. The same list of Sares publications includes LEstranges Fables, moralized (a sequel to the Æsop); Colliers Marcus Aurelius, and his Maxims from the French of Bossuet; Lockes works on Humane Understanding and Education (5th editions); also Epictetuss Morals, and Charrons Wisdom done into English from the newest French edition. The two last by the Rev. Dr Stanhope, Dean of Canterbury. Given so much material for conjecture, the claims of Charron and Epictetus combined seemed to outweigh that of Marcus Aurelius and Bossuet. One may, perhaps, infer also that the manual of Humane Prudence or the Art by which a man may raise himself and his Fortune to grandeur, included in the above, and specially advertised opposite the first page of the Maxims, was also by the Dean (?). At least this note may remind collectors and librarians of the interest and importance attaching to early publishers catalogues, often unique sources of information. [back]