La Rochefoucauld Essay - Critical Essays

La Rochefoucauld


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 is thought to have collaborated. He died of gout, a condition that had plagued him for some years, in 1680.

Major Works

In 1649, shortly after he returned to Paris, La Rochefoucauld wrote Apologie de M. le Prince Marcillac. This essay explaining his actions in the political arena during the 1640s was not published until 1885, despite its being an attempt to improve his reputation. All of La Rochefoucauld's other works were written after his retirement from public life. A literary self-portrait appeared in 1659, in which the author describes his physical characteristics as well as his melancholic nature, love of conservation, lack of ambition, gentility, moderation, intelligence, and commitment to social order and the ideal of love. His Memoires du duc de L. R., a work begun in the early 1650s, also paints a picture of a man of civility and restraint and reveals a great deal about the moral and social ideals of his fellow aristocrats. La Rochefoucauld's memoirs are not strictly autobiographical in the modern sense, but are accounts of current events within La Rochefoucauld's social circle. The memoirs were privately circulated among his friends, which led to an unauthorized printing in 1662. The Memoirs are not widely read today but are interesting for their insight into La Rochefoucauld's social milieu, his belief in the necessity for greater independence for women, and his precept that written and spoken language should be clear and precise. These principles of clarity and precision, most scholars agree, found near-perfect expression in the Maximes. The aphorisms that appeared in the various editions were not originally intended for publication but were the product of an intellectual game called “sentences” played in Madame de Sable's salon. One person would contribute an idea (any topic except for religion and politics was allowed), and the group would discuss the idea, expanding upon its implications. La Rochefoucauld would spend hours honing the ideas into aphorisms. These observations were not simply personal opinions but rather earnest attempts to express universal laws regarding human nature. La Rochefoucauld's maxims were immensely popular within his social circle. In 1663 a Dutch printer published a version of the maxims without the author's consent. To make sure that only those maxims he composed were attributed to him, La Rochefoucauld published his own version in 1665. He continued to polish and revise the maxims in the five editions that appeared between 1665 and 1678. If there is a central thesis to the Maximes, it is that human nature is flawed because of the self-interest at the heart of human motivation. Reason, according to La Rochefoucauld, is powerless against this force, and even when humans believe they act from altruism or nobility, they do so out of love of self. The maxims are marked by an economy of expression. Although generally cynical, the work is not wholly negative, and the maxims often stress the need for people to overcome laziness, learn to identify their shortcomings, and see things with intellectual lucidity. Reflexions diverses, published in 1731, deals with similar topics as the Maximes. In these nineteen short essays, La Rochefoucauld makes more extended observations on society, taste, virtue, and love. They are again essentially pessimistic in their outlook, but like the Maximes point out the possibility of personal greatness when human beings look honestly at their defects.

Critical Reception

La Rochefoucauld's reputation rests principally on the Maximes. While critics recognize the prose of the Memoirs to be nuanced and lucid, the subject of La Rochefoucauld's autobiographical and other works, with their allusions to obscure figures in his social circle, are not nearly as accessible as the Maximes, and hence garner little readership. From the first unauthorized publication, the Maximes captured the imagination of readers in France and abroad. Since then, admirers from Voltaire to Swift have praised the work's precision of language and portrayal of human nature. Others have praised the work's subtle understanding of seventeenth-century mores and etiquette, its astute observation of human conduct, and its economy of expression that conveys universal ideas without relying on complex allusions or metaphors. La Rochefoucauld's detractors, among them Jean Jacques Rousseau, have found fault with his cynical view of humankind, but acknowledge the charming simplicity of the prose. Although little is written about the Reflexions diverses except in connection to the Maximes, some twentieth-century critics have argued that more study is necessary, as they offer particularly valuable insights into La Rochefoucauld's concept of the social self. While modern scholars continue to admire La Rochefoucauld's tightly crafted prose, they also show interest in discerning a philosophical system behind his observations. A number of commentators have suggested that readers should look beyond La Rochefoucauld's pessimism and consider the instructive aspect of the maxims. A particularly vigorous debate among critics centers on the concept of amour-propre, which many argue has been misunderstood. These scholars maintain that the common English translation of the term, “self-love,” is misleading. Contemporary philosophers have also taken an interest in La Rochefoucauld for his observations on moral issues. While he is the subject of a great deal of scholarly discussion, La Rochefoucauld continues to enjoy a wide readership outside academic circles. His Maximes have retained their popular readership due to their elegant simplicity and ability to capture with such concision the paradoxical nature and complexity of human existence.

Principal Works

Mémoires de M.D.L.R. sur les brigues à la mort de Louys XIII, les guerres de Paris et de Guyenne, et la prison des princes (memoirs) 1662

*Sentences et maximes de morale [Maxims] (aphorisms) 1664; revised as Reflexions ou sentences et maximes morales, 1665; revised 1666, 1671, 1675, 1678

Mémoires de la minorité de Louis XIV, sur ce qui s'est passé à la fin de la vie de Louis XIII et pendant la régence d'Anne d'Autriche, mère de Louis XIV. 2 vols. (memoirs) 1688; revised and enlarged as Mémoires de M. le duc de La Rochefoucault et de M. de La Chastre, contenant l'histoire de la minorité de Louis XIV, 1700


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David Westgate (essay date October 1968)

SOURCE: Westgate, David. “The Concept of Amour-Propre in the Maximes of La Rochefoucauld.” Nottingham French Studies 7, no. 2 (October 1968): 67-79.

[In the following essay, Westgate explores the concept of self-love as it was understood in the seventeenth century to better grasp La Rochefoucauld's use of this idea in the Maximes.]

Critics generally agree that amour-propre is central to the description of man in the Maximes, but not all have seen into the full sense of the term. H. Chamard writes of it as being egoism;1 W. G. Moore envisages it as self-interest;2 for A. Krailsheimer, it is the “permanent and radical...

(The entire section is 6368 words.)

Maria A. Green (essay date winter 1969)

SOURCE: Green, Maria A. “Moral Assessment in La Rochefoucauld.” Romance Notes 11, no. 2 (winter 1969): 355-61.

[In the essay which follows, Green argues that La Rochefoucauld's system of ethics is concerned with moral assessment rather than moral obligation, which is why he focuses on such concepts as self-deception, pride, and self-interest.]

It has often been said in one form or another that La Rochefoucauld is not to be taken in by anything within his sphere but that his sphere takes in very little. With the air of El Greco's St. Martin giving his cloak to the beggar, he strips off poor beggars' cloaks and leaves them shivering in the cold. Distrustful of man,...

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E. D. James (essay date October 1969)

SOURCE: James, E. D. “Scepticism and Positive Values in La Rochefoucauld.” French Studies 23, no. 4 (October 1969): 349-61.

[In the following essay, James argues that scholars who consider La Rochefoucauld a skeptic are mistaken, insisting that the writer has a complex but positive conception of virtue.]

La Rochefoucauld's sceptical account of human motivation and conduct seemingly obscures the boundaries between virtue and vice, the self and selfishness, what is necessarily so and what is often so. The problem is posed acutely by an often discussed maxime which first appeared in the definitive edition of the Réflexions ou Sentences et Maximes...

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Donald Furber (essay date December 1969)

SOURCE: Furber, Donald. “The Myth of amour-propre in La Rochefoucauld.” The French Review 43, no. 2 (December 1969): 227-39.

[In this essay, Furber analyzes La Rochefoucauld's concept of self-love, which the critic argues is at once a principle of unity and disunity in the human personality and a mysterious aspect of human nature.]

It is difficult not to accept the critical position which emphasizes the futility of searching for a system in the writings of La Rochefoucauld.1 Contradictory in their affirmations, ambiguous in their moral point of view, paradoxical in their composition, the seventeenth-century Maximes and Réflexions...

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Jonathan Culler (essay date January 1973)

SOURCE: Culler, Jonathan. “Paradox and the Language of Morals in La Rochefoucauld.” Modern Language Review 68, no. 1 (January 1973): 28-39.

[In the essay below, Culler maintains that La Rochefoucauld's use of paradoxical language in exploring ethics forces readers to unravel the complex moral categories they use, and make sense of their own moral experience.]

For one man calleth Wisdome, what another calleth feare; and one cruelty, what another justice; one prodigality, what another magnanimity; and one gravity, what another stupidity, & c. And therefore such names can never be the true...

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Joseph G. Weber (essay date January 1974)

SOURCE: Weber, Joseph G. “The Personae in the Style of La Rochefoucauld's Maximes.PMLA 89, no. 1 (January 1974): 250-55.

[In the following essay, Weber studies La Rochefoucauld's personification of human traits in the Maximes.]

Moralist literature of seventeenth-century France can be characterized by what might be called a human dialectic. The dynamics of this dialectic derive from the image of person. The author is in dialogue with himself or with an aspect of his personality, or there is a dialogue between the moi and autrui, or between moral principles. One readily thinks of Montaigne and the moi universel, Pascal and his...

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Susan Read Baker (essay date January 1974)

SOURCE: Baker, Susan Read. “La Rochefoucauld and the Art of the Self-Portrait.” Romanic Review 65, no. 1 (January 1974): 13-30.

[In this essay, Baker discusses an autobiographical sketch written by La Rochefoucauld, which she says is not only a self-portrait but a commentary on society, human nature, and morality.]

Je vis un jour à Barleduc, qu'on presentoit au Roy François second, pour la recommandation de la memoire de René, Roy de Sicile, un pourtraict qu'il avoit luy-mesmes fait de soy. Pourquoy n'est-il loisible de mesme à un chacun de se peindre de la plume, comme il se peignoit d'un creon?


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Robert Green (essay date December 1974)

SOURCE: Green, Robert. “Lost Paradise and Self-Delusion in the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld.” The French Review 48, no. 2 (December 1974): 321-30.

[In the following essay, Green claims that La Rochefoucauld's use of the maxim to present his ideas and observations fails, in part because he stresses the importance of the concept of self-love.]

The maxims of La Rochefoucauld1 purport to reveal to the reader the naked face of man by showing him the Truth. The emblem of the frontispiece is a portrait of “The Love of Truth” ripping off a mask from Seneca's face, and the fourth edition bears the definitive epigraph: Nos vertus ne sont le plus souvent que...

(The entire section is 4142 words.)

Janet Morgan (essay date January 1977)

SOURCE: Morgan, Janet. “A Reconsideration of La Rochefoucauld's Maximes.Forum for Modern Language Studies 13, no. 1 (January 1977): 47-58.

[In the essay that follows, Morgan argues that La Rochefoucauld used theological concepts to present his secular ideas because of the familiarity of those concepts.]

Recent discussion on La Rochefoucauld has tended to rehabilitate the Maximes by taking seriously the moral analysis they contain instead of reading them simply as the expression of a personal disillusionment. More serious consideration of the text seems to have resulted primarily in disagreement as to how far La Rochefoucauld is “sceptical” of...

(The entire section is 5962 words.)

Philip E. Lewis (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Lewis, Philip E. “A Problematic Work.” In La Rochefoucauld and the Art of Abstraction, pp. 15-54. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977.

[In this excerpt, Lewis offers an introduction to the problematical aspects of reading La Rochefoucauld, focusing on the difficult and ambiguous nature of the maxim.]

Just as reading La Rochefoucauld has almost always meant reading the Maximes, reading the Maximes has almost automatically entailed reflecting on the nature of the maxim, on its status as a genre or type of statement. The apparently simple question—what is a maxim?—leads into a tangle of complex problems in La Rochefoucauld's work. To...

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Vivien Thweat (essay date May 1978)

SOURCE: Thweat, Vivien. “Style, the Self, and Society in La Rochefoucauld's Réflexions diverses.French Forum 3, no. 2 (May 1978): 99-112.

[In the essay below, Thweat contends that the Réflexions diverses deserve to be studied in their own right because they offer an account of the author's concept of the social self, and provide insight on seventeenth-century social life.]

More often than not La Rochefoucauld's Réflexions diverses are considered primarily as they relate to the Maximes or as background material for the Classical concept of wit and taste. On occasion they have also been presented as proof of La Rochefoucauld's...

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Buford Norman (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Norman, Buford. “Knowledge, Meaning and Style in Variants of La Rochefoucauld's Maximes.Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature 8, no. 14 (1981): 19-31.

[In the following essay, Norman discusses La Rochefoucauld's treatment of knowledge, meaning, action, and motivation in the Maximes.]

Knowledge—its nature, its limitations, its acquisition, its applications—is not only one of the most important topics in La Rochefoucauld's Maximes; it is also a concern which underlies the entire work. The Maximes, through their content and through their form, are constantly seeking after knowledge of man while at the same time raising...

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Susan Read Baker (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Baker, Susan Read. “The Reception of La Rochefoucauld's Maximes (1659-1665): A Question of Gender?” Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature 13, no. 24 (1986): 65-81.

[In the essay which follows, Baker discusses the differences in the initial reaction to the Maximes by La Rochefoucauld's male and female contemporaries.]

The reception of La Rochefoucauld's Maximes from their inception to the present is an important topic recently broached during colloquia in France honoring the tricentenary of the duke's death.1 In the present study, I wish to further what is currently a collective critical endeavor by proposing a...

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Henry C. Clark (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Clark, Henry C. “La Rochefoucauld and the Social Bases of Aristocratic Ethics.” History of European Ideas 8, no. 1 (1987): 61-76.

[In the following essay, Clark claims that La Rochefoucauld's ideas are universal in nature and do not betray his aristocratic background. The critic goes on to explore the relationship between social participation and moral observation in the Maximes.]

One of the paradoxes in the career of the Duke of La Rochefoucauld (1613-80) consists in the almost complete absence of any overt evidence of social particularity in his literary work. In practice, he was acutely protective of every privilege pertaining to his imagined place in...

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Joseph G. Weber (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Weber, Joseph G. “The Maximes as Theatre.” In L'Image du souverain dans le theatre de 1600 a 1650/Maximes/Madame de Villedieu, edited by Milorad R. Margitic and Byron R. Wells, pp. 15-33. Paris: Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature, 1987.

[In this essay, Weber argues that the use of personification, movement, disguises, and other elements in the Maximes are characteristic of classical drama.]

Faced with one of the more elusive and cryptic works of literature, analysts have gone to considerable length to identify, contextualize and systematize the Maximes of La Rochefoucauld. The discontinuity of the work itself is...

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Joseph Epstein (essay date June 1996)

SOURCE: Epstein, Joseph. “La Rochefoucauld: Maximum Maximist.” The New Criterion (June 1996): 15-24.

[In the following essay, Epstein offers a personal appreciation of La Rochefoucauld's life and work, presenting biographical details, discussing scholarly approaches to his texts, and exploring the usefulness of his observations.]

François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680) did not invent the form known as the maxim, but instead, fairly early in its history, merely perfected it. Defying any notion of progress in the arts, nobody has come along in more than three centuries who has done it better; he remains unsurpassed. “We all have strength enough to endure...

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Bradley Rubidge (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Rubidge, Bradley. “Psychological Atomism, Amour-propre, and the Language of Generosity.” In La Rochefoucauld, Mithridate, Frères et sœurs, Les Muses sœurs: Actes du 29e congrè annuel de la North American Society for Seventeenth-Century French Literature, edited by Claire Carlin, pp. 43-52. Tübingen, Germany: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1998.

[In the essay below, Rubidge argues that elements of La Rochefoucauld's views, including his criticism of generosity, have similarities with the philosophical position called eliminative materialism.]

La Rochefoucauld's eighty-third maxim exhibits some argumentative moves that are typical of the...

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Quentin M. Hope (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Hope, Quentin M. “La Rochefoucauld and the Vicissitudes of Time.” Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature 28, no. 54 (2001): 105-20.

[In the following essay, Hope observes that La Rochefoucauld's maxims comment on all stages of life and are keenly aware of the joys and hardships of human existence.]

Many of La Rochefoucauld's best-known and most quoted maxims present themselves as timeless. That hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, that we can all bear the misfortunes of others are observations of human behaviour independent of time and change. These are maxims that apply at all places, in all times, to all men and women. Another...

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Quentin M. Hope (essay date spring 2002)

SOURCE: Hope, Quentin M. “Humor in the Maximes of La Rochefoucauld.” Dalhousie French Studies 58 (spring 2002): 3-9.

[In this essay, Hope discusses La Rochefoucauld's love of teasing, making fun, and laughter, and claims that many of his maxims should be understood as jokes.]

I have undertaken to write about humor in La Rochefoucauld fully convinced that any reader will know what I mean by humor, but also aware that the word, like other words close to it, eludes definition. In L'écriture comique Jean Sareil speaks of the “impossibilité d'arriver à une définition objective du sujet” and adds: “Qu'est-ce que l'esprit, l'humour, la...

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Further Reading


Baker, Susan Read. “The Works of La Rochefoucauld in Relation to Machiavellian Ideas of Morals and Politics.” Journal of the History of Ideas 44, no. 2 (April-June 1983): 207-18.

Discusses the influence of Machiavelli on La Rochefoucauld's thought, discussing especially the concepts of fortune, prudence, virtù, and occasione that appear in both men's works.

Clark, Henry C. La Rochefoucauld and the Language of Unmasking in Seventeenth-Century France. Geneva: Librairie Droz S.A., 1994, 216 p.

Examines La Rochefoucauld's tendency to frame his observations as debunkings of what is usually...

(The entire section is 679 words.)