François de La Rochefoucauld describes his Maxims as a “portrait of the human heart.” He writes in the preface to the first edition that these reflections on human conduct will probably offend many persons because the aphorisms are full of truths that are unacceptable to human pride. He suggests that the reader suppose him- or herself to be the sole exception to the truth revealed and should avoid the tendency to have his or her opinion influenced by amour-propre, or self-love, as that would prejudice his or her mind against the maxims.
The reference to self-love, the basic concern for the self by which the value of any action, person, or thing is presumed to be judged, is characteristic of La Rochefoucauld. Critics generally describe this great French writer as a cynic and take as evidence his maxims, in which he attributes to self-love the central role in human conduct. Yet a mere cynic is one who hopes for a better world than the present one; a cynic constantly compares what could be and what ought to be with what is, responding to the disparity with bitterness. Consequently, everything that cynics say is the truth as they see it; as they see it, it is worthy only of a sneer. La Rochefoucauld, on the other hand, takes self-love to be an undeniable fact of human existence and does not hope for anything better. Consequently, his view of the world is that of a person amused to see the difference between what people conceive themselves to be and what they are; his or her delight is in a witty revelation of the facts of life. Throughout The Maxims, as in the refreshing self-portrait with which the collection begins, La Rochefoucauld reveals an intelligent sense of humor that takes the sneer out of what he says.
“My normal expression is somewhat bitter and haughty,” he writes in his initial self-portrait, and “makes most people think me supercilious, though I am not the least so really.” He goes on to describe himself as “inclined to melancholy” but not from temperament alone: “It is due to . . . many other causes.” He calls himself an intellectual who delights in the conversation of cultured persons, in reading, in virtue, and in friendship. His passions are moderate and under control. He is neither ambitious nor afraid of death. He has given up “light amours” and wonders why so many people waste their time paying “pretty compliments.” The portrait concludes with the assurance that were he ever to love, he would love with the strong passion that is a sign of noble character; however, he doubts that his knowledge of the value of strong passion will ever “quit my head to find a dwelling in my heart.”
The first maxim is important as a summary statement of La Rochefoucauld’s central conviction. So-called virtue is often merely a compound of varied activities and interests, which good fortune or our own assiduity enables us to display to advantage; so it is not always courage that makes the hero, nor modesty the chaste...
(The entire section is 1230 words.)