Francois de la Rouchefoucauld

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FrançoisVI, duc de La Rochefoucauld

François VI, duc de La Rochefoucauld, le Prince de Marcillac (September 15, 1613 - March 17, 1680), was an accomplished seventeenth-century French nobleman. He was born in Paris in the Rue des Petits Champs, at a time when the royal court oscillated between aiding the nobility and threatening it. Until 1650, he bore the title of Prince de Marcillac.

He is best known to the world, however, as the noted author of his memoirs, and especially his maxims. The maxims are not merely cynical observations of human weakness but are all derived from observation of actual human behavior. From this point of view, they reflect a realistic assessment of the way humans actually live their lives. Many of them are directed at human pretensions and human ego, but not to condemn or chide. Rather, the are intended to serve as a mirror, to allow the reader to recognize those strengths and foibles of the human character.

Early life and military career

La Rochefoucauld's scholastic education was somewhat neglected, but he joined the army in 1629, and almost immediately established himself as a public figure. He had been married a year before to Andrée de Vivonne. For some years Marcillac continued to take part in the annual campaigns, where he displayed bravery, though he never received much credit for his military skill. Then he met Marie de Rohan-Montbazon, duchesse de Chevreuse, the first of three celebrated women who influenced his life.

Through Madame de Chevreuse he became attached to the queen, Anne of Austria, and in one of her quarrels with Cardinal de Richelieu and her husband a wild scheme seems to have been conceived, according to which Marcillac was to carry her off to Brussels on a pillion. These cabals against Richelieu at one time got Marcillac sentenced to eight days in the Bastille, and occasionally "exiled," that is, ordered to retire to his father's estates. After Richelieu's death in 1642, the ambition of the French nobility to fill the power vacuum was stoked. Marcillac became one of the so-called importants, and took an active role in pairing the queen and Louis II de Bourbon, Prince de Condé in league together against Gaston, Duke of Orleans. But the growing reputation of Mazarin impeded his ambition, and his 1645 liaison with the beautiful Anne Genevieve of Bourbon-Condé, duchess of Longueville made him irrevocably a Frondeur. (The Fronde was a period of civil unrest during the period between 1648-1653, touched off when a Parisian mob threw stones through Cardinal Mazarin's windows. The label Frondeur has come to mean someone who challenges authority.) He was a conspicuous figure in the siege of Paris, fought desperately in the desultory engagements which were constantly taking place, and was severely wounded at the siege of Mardyke.

In the second Fronde, Marcillac followed the fortunes of Condé, and the death of his father in 1650 gave rise to a characteristic incident. The nobility of the province attended the funeral, and the new Duke de La Rochefoucauld seized the opportunity to persuade them to follow him in an (unsuccessful) attempt on the royalist garrison of Saumur. La Rochefoucauld, through the tortuous cabals and negotiations of the later Fronde, was always brave and generally unlucky. In the battle of the Faubourg Saint Antoine in 1652, he was shot through the head, and it was thought that he would lose the sight of both eyes. It took him nearly a year to recover. For some years he retired to his country seat of Verteuil, with little to show for 20 years of fighting and intrigue except his impaired health, a seriously diminished fortune, and just cause for bearing a grudge against almost every party and man of importance in the state. He was fortunate enough to be able to repair in some measure the breaches in his fortune, thanks chiefly to the fidelity of Jean Herauld Gourville, who had formerly been in his service, but passing into the service of Mazarin and of Condé had acquired both wealth and influence. He did not, however, return to court life much before Mazarin's death, when Louis XIV was on the eve of assuming absolute power, and the turbulent era of aristocratic anarchy of the Fronde became a thing of the past. He also wrote his memoirs during this time, as did almost all of his prominent contemporaries.

Salon participation

Somewhat earlier, La Rochefoucauld had taken his place in the salon of Madame de Sablé, a member of the old Rambouillet côterie, and the founder of a kind of successor to it, whose special literary employment was the fabrication of "Sentences" and "Maximes." In 1662, the surreptitious publication of his purported memoirs by the Elseviers brought him more than a little trouble. Many of his old friends were deeply wounded, and he hastened to deny the authenticity of the publication, a denial which was not generally accepted. Three years later (1665) he anonymously published the Maximes, which at once established him high among the men of letters of the time. About the same date he began a friendship with Marie-Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne, comtesse de la Fayette, which lasted till the end of his life. Most of our knowledge of him from this period is chiefly derived from the letters of Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné. They show him suffering agonies from gout, but are on the whole pleasant. He had a circle of devoted friends; he was recognized as a moralist and man of letters of the first rank; and his son, the prince de Marcillac, to whom some time before his death he resigned his titles and honors, enjoyed a considerable position at court. Above all, La Rochefoucauld was generally recognized by his contemporaries from the king on down as a type of the older noblesse as it was before the sun of the great monarch dimmed its brilliant qualities. This position he has retained until the present day. He died at Paris on the March 17, 1680, of the disease which had so long tormented him.

La Rochefoucauld's character, like almost all his contemporaries, was generally agreeable but somewhat cynical. He saw in politics little more than a chessboard in which the people were but pawns. His comparative ill-success in political struggles arose more from his scrupulousness than from anything else. He has been charged with irresolution, a "Hamlet"-figure whose keenness of whose intellect, together with his apprehension of both sides of a question, interfered with his capacity as a man of action. But there is no ground whatever for the view which represents the Maximes as the mere outcome of the spite of a disappointed intriguer, disappointed through his own want of skill rather than of fortune. The gently cynical view of life contained in his Maximes did not impede his enjoyment of company.

Literary works

His importance as a social and historical figure is far outstripped by his importance in literature. His work consists of three parts—letters, Memoirs and the Maximes. His letters exceed one hundred in number, and are biographically valuable, in addition to displaying his literary characteristics. The Memoirs are unparalled in his era in literary merit, interest, and value, not even by those of Retz, a friend and rival. It has been said that a pirated edition appeared in Holland, and this, despite the author's protest, continued to be reprinted for some thirty years. It has been now proved to be a mere cento of the work of half a dozen different men, scarcely a third of which is La Rochefoucauld's. It could only have been possible at a time when it was the habit of persons who frequented literary society to copy pell-mell in commonplace books the manuscript compositions of their friends and others. Some years after La Rochefoucauld's death a new recension appeared, with fewer inconsistencies than the former, but still largely adulterated, and this remained the standard edition for more than a century. Only in 1817 did a more accurate edition (though still imperfect) appear.

The Maximes, however, had no such fate. The author re-edited them frequently during his life, with alterations and additions; a few were added after his death, and it is usual now to print the whole of them together, regardless of when they appeared. They amount to about seven hundred in number, with only a few exceeding half a page in length; more frequently they consist of two or three lines. The view of conduct which they illustrate is usually summed up in the words "everything is reducible to the motive of self-interest." But though not absolutely incorrect, the phrase is misleading. The Maximes are in no respect mere deductions from or applications of any such general theory. They are on the contrary independent judgments on different relations of life and different affections of the human mind, which taken together give an overall impression of a cynical view of human nature. More sentimental moralists have protested loudly against this view, yet it is easier to declaim against it in general than to find a flaw in the several parts of which it is made up.

With a few exceptions La Rochefoucauld's maxims represent the matured result of the reflection of a man deeply versed in the business and pleasures of the world, and possessed of an extraordinarily fine and acute intellect, on the conduct and motives which have guided himself and his fellows. The astonishing excellence of the literary medium in which they are conveyed is even more remarkable than the general soundness of their ethical import. In uniting the four qualities of brevity, clearness, fulness of meaning and point, La Rochefoucauld has no rival. His Maximes are never mere epigrams; they are never platitudes; they are never dark sayings. They are packed full of meaning but without undue compression. Nothing is left unfinished, yet none of the workmanship is finical. The sentiment, far from being merely hard, as the sentimentalists pretend, has a vein of melancholy poetry running through it which calls to mind the traditions of La Rochefoucauld's devotion to the romances of chivalry. The maxims are never shallow; each is the text for a whole sermon of application and corollary which any one of thought and experience can write. To the literary critic no less than to the man of the world La Rochefoucauld ranks among the scanty number of pocket-books to be read and re-read with ever new admiration, instruction and delight. La Rochefoucauld's theories about human nature are based on such topics as self-interest and self-love, passions and emotions, vanity, relationships, love, conversation, insincerity, and trickery. His writings are very concise, straightforward, and candid.

Bibliographical material

The editions of La Rochefoucauld's Maximes (as the full title runs Reflexions ou sentences et maximes morales) published in his lifetime bear the dates 1665 (editio princeps), 1666, 1671, 1675, 1678. An important edition which appeared after his death in 1693 may rank almost with these. As long as the Memoirs remained in the state above described, no edition of them need be mentioned, and none of the complete works was possible.

Previous editions were superseded by that of Jean Désiré Louis Gilbert and Jules Gourdault (1868-1883), in the series Grands Ecrivains de la France, 3 vols. There are still some puzzles as to the text; but this edition supplies all available material in regard to them.

The handsomest separate edition of the Maximes is the so-called Edition des bibliophiles (1870). See the English version The Moral Maxims and Reflections of the Duke De La Rochefoucauld by George H. Powell (1903).

Nearly all the great French critics of the nineteenth century have dealt more or less with La Rochefoucauld: the chief recent monograph on him is that of Jean Bourdeau in the Grands Ecrivains français (1893).

For a recent assessment of La Rochfoucauld's thought and his place in modern culture see John Farrell, Paranoia and Modernity: Cervantes to Rousseau (Cornell UP, 2006), chapter nine.

Quotes from the Maxims

  • "Fights would not last if one side only were wrong."
  • "Our virtues are usually just disguised vices."
  • "What we call virtues are often just a collection of casual actions and selfish interests which chance or our own industry manages to arrange [in a certain way]. It is not always from valor that men are valiant, or from chastity that women are chaste."
  • "The passions are the most effective orators for persuading. They are a natural art that have infallible rules; and the simplest man with passion will be more persuasive than the most eloquent without it."
  • "If we had no faults, we should not take so much pleasure in noting those of others."
  • "A man often believes he is leading when he is [actually being] led; while his mind seeks one goal, his heart unknowingly drags him towards another."
  • "Those who know their minds do not necessarily know their hearts."
  • "Sincerity is an openness of heart that is found in very few people. What we usually see is only an artful disguise people put on to win the confidence of others."
  • "When not prompted by vanity, we say little."
  • "The refusal of praise is actually the wish to be praised twice."
  • "In all aspects of life, we take on a part and an appearance to seem to be what we wish to be [seen as]—and thus the world is merely composed of actors."
  • "We are never so happy nor so unhappy as we imagine."
  • "No one deserves to be asked to lend their goodness, if he doesn't have the power to be bad."

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • La Rouchefoucauld. Maximes, Penguin Classics, 1982. ISBN 978-0140440959.
  • Moore, W. G. Rouchefoucauld, La: His Mind and Art. Oxford University Press, 1969. ASIN B000KXQOD4
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

External links

All links retrieved April 9, 2024.


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