La Rochefoucauld Critical Essays

Introduction

(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 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.