La Rochefoucauld

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(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

La Rochefoucauld 1613-1680

(Full name François VI, duc de La Rochefoucauld) French aphorist, essayist, and memoirist.

La Rochefoucauld is chiefly remembered for his Sentences et maximes de morale (1664), a collection of over 500 aphorisms on topics ranging from virtue and vice to love, marriage, friendship, bravery, old age, and death. These brief statements in the Maximes (as the work is commonly called) express harsh, often paradoxical truths about human conduct and reflect the author's pessimistic view of life. The chief motivating force of human behavior, according to La Rochefoucauld, is amour-propre, or self-love. The Maximes also demonstrate seventeenth-century society's tendency toward self-examination. While he was not hailed as a major literary figure during his lifetime, La Rochefoucauld's influence on the cultural elite of his day was considerable, and the highly polished style of his reflections is still regarded as one of the earliest and best examples of the French proclivity for carefully crafted, minimalist prose. La Rochefoucauld's clarity and simplicity of expression set the standard for other works—from the witticisms of Jonathan Swift and Oscar Wilde to the pithy sayings of Ambrose Bierce—and the Maximes continue to find favor among stylists and scholars as some of the most perfectly rendered and psychologically penetrating evaluations of human nature.

Biographical Information

Born in Paris in 1613, La Rochefoucauld was the eldest child of the fifth duke of La Rochefoucauld. Shortly after his birth he moved to the family estate in the west of France, where he was schooled in Latin, mathematics, music, fencing, and dancing. At the age of fourteen La Rochefoucauld was married to Andrée de Vivonne. In 1630 La Rochefoucauld and his young wife moved to Paris to enter the court of Louis XIII, where they both served the king's wife, Anne of Austria. In Paris, La Rochefoucauld became romantically involved with one of the queen's companions, the duchess of Chevreuse, and later with Anne's lady-in-waiting. In 1637 La Rochefoucauld was involved in a botched conspiracy against Cardinal Richelieu, for which La Rochefoucauld was imprisoned for a week. Then, in the late 1640s, after the deaths of both Louis XIII and Richelieu, La Rochefoucauld joined the Frondeurs, a revolutionary group opposed to the regency of Queen Anne and her chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin. He was badly wounded in battle in 1652 and fled to Luxembourg. In bad health, he was permitted by the young King Louis XIV to return to France in 1653, where he lived for three years at his family estate. During these years of exile in the west of France, he reflected on his life; read the works of Montaigne as well as the Latin historians and moralists Tacitus, Sallust, and Seneca; and began writing. He was allowed to return to Paris in 1656. From the late 1650s until his death, La Rochefoucauld divided his time between the west of France and Paris, though he failed to regain his previous stature in court. Much of his time was spent in fashionable literary salons in the company of intellectually and socially influential women, particularly the Marquise de Sable, a woman fourteen years his senior whose political views and literary tastes were similar to his own. It was in her company and from discussions with other women and men of letters in the salons—the dramatist Molière and the philosopher Blaise Pascal among them—that La Rochefoucauld distilled his famous maxims. It was a common parlor game among French sophisticates to engage in the pastimes of analyzing human motives and creating pithy proverbs, and La Rochefoucauld was a master of the art. With the help of de Sable, La Rochefoucauld's maxims were subsequently published. La Rochefoucauld spent his last years writing, reading, attending the salons, and enjoying Paris social and cultural life. He also became a close companion to Madame de la Fayette, on whose novels, notably La Princesse de Cléves (1678), he...

(The entire section is 1,514 words.)