(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

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The Maxims Bibliography

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Culpin, D. J. La Rochefoucauld: Maximes. London: Grant & Cutler, 1995. Concise introductory overview and interpretation of The Maxims, including information about the context of the work and La Rochefoucauld’s ideas about virtue and human nature.

Hodgson, Richard G. Falsehood Disguised: Unmasking the Truth in La Rochefoucauld. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1995. Examines La Rochefoucauld’s ideas about truth and falsehood within the context of his views on self-love, the passions, vice, and virtue. Explains how his ideas emerged from seventeenth century Baroque culture and other moralists, and assesses his impact on later philosophers.

Hope, Quentin M. “Humor in the Maximes of La Rochefoucauld.” Dalhousie French Studies 58 (Spring, 2002): 3-9. Examines La Rochefoucauld’s literary interest in “humor,” namely teasing, laughter, and making fun. Hope claims that many of the maxims should be understood as jokes.

Lewis, Philip E. La Rochefoucauld: The Art of Abstraction. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977. Describes the problematic nature of La Rochefoucauld’s abstract reflections on the conflict between self-love and love for others. Discusses the psychological and ethical dimensions of The Maxims.

Moore, Will G. La Rochefoucauld: His Mind and Art. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1969. A clear introduction to the many levels of meaning in La Rochefoucauld’s pithy and marvelously ambiguous moral maxims. Discusses the political, social, and religious implications of The Maxims.

Mourgues, Odette de. Two French Moralists: La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978. A thoughtful comparison of La Rochefoucauld and Jean de La Bruyère, two eminent French moralists. Explores La Rochefoucauld’s reflections on subjectivity, and contains an excellent bibliography of major critical studies on these two thinkers.

Thweatt, Vivien. La Rochefoucauld and the Seventeenth-Century Concept of the Self. Geneva: Droz, 1980. Discusses the influence of St. Augustine and neo-Stoicism on La Rochefoucauld. Examines his reflections on people’s efforts to maintain their individuality in a society that favors and rewards conformity.

Zeller, Mary Francine. New Aspects of Style in “The Maxims” of La Rochefoucauld. 1954. New ed. New York: AMS Press, 1969. Explains clearly why La Rochefoucauld’s The Maxims permits a wide variety of interpretations. Discusses the refined rhythms and complex structures in many maxims.