The Master of Eloquent Melancholy

Portrait of La Rochefoucauld in the Château de Versailles

The Duc de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680)


   "To speak first about my temperament," says François, Duc de La Rochefoucauld in his brief Self Portrait, "I am melancholic -- so much so that I have scarcely been seen to laugh more than three or four times in the last three or four years." The more we study these maxims, the more we come to understand why laughter was so rare in his life. Taken separately or together, the maxims of La Rochefoucauld present one of the most steadily gloomy pictures of human character ever penned.

   The major events of his life contributed to, and undoubtedly helped to form, La Rochefoucauld's pessimistic view of human motivation. He started off with every advantage: born in 1613 into one of the leading aristocratic families in France, he studied Latin, mathematics, fencing, dancing, heraldry and etiquette. He entered military service as the commander of a regiment at the age of 15. He seemed destined for influential roles in the affairs of his time.

   But, through bad fortune or flaws of character, La Rochefoucauld became entangled in a series of ill-fated enterprises. In 1636 he involved himself in an abortive political intrigue. He was detected and imprisoned in the Bastille. After his release he was banished to his family estate in the country. Back in Paris in 1646, he intrigued his way into more doomed political and sexual escapades. In 1652 he was temporarily blinded by a musketball during a violent political turmoil. In the meantime, one of his country estates had been razed, ruining him financially. Life, up to this point, had taught him that friendship, loyalty, altruism, and even love itself were nothing more than elaborate façades built to protect and disguise the ego, that self-centered, neversleeping core of every personality that La Rochefoucauld identified as Amour-Propre.

   After yet another term of banishment to his remaining country estate, he returned to Paris in 1659, this time to lead a quieter life in the salon of his friend, Madeleine de Souvré, Marquise de Sablé. The participants in this salon played a kind of intellectual game called "sentences." The procedure was for one person to toss out an idea for discussion -- any idea from any area of life except for religion and politics, those topics being deemed too emotionally charged and politically dangerous to allow for civilized discourse. The group would then discuss the idea, refining and expanding on the notion and its implications.

   La Rochefoucauld found this exercise very stimulating. Back in his apartments, he would spend hours polishing the ideas -- his own and others put forth by members of the salon -- into maxims: concise, elegantly phrased statements that most perfectly captured the observation. These ideas were not meant to be simply opinions: they represented, for la Rochefoucauld, "la loi dans la nature": the laws of human nature, counterparts to the laws that governed inanimate objects in physics and chemistry.

   La Rochefoucauld's maxims achieved popularity first within his circle -- then beyond. He was surprised, and annoyed, to discover in 1663 that a Dutch printer had printed a version of the maxims without his consent. To set the record straight, and to include only those maxims which he has composed, he issued his own version in 1665. Several editions were printed in La Rochefoucauld's own lifetime, and they have remained in print ever since.

   The success of the maxims was one of the last joys that La Rochefoucauld would ever know. In 1670 his wife died. In 1672, his mother passed away. Also in that year, his two sons died in the French invasion of Holland. "I have seen La Rochefoucauld weep with a tenderness that made me adore him," said his friend, Madame de Sevigné.

   In 1680, worn out with disappointments, sorrow, and physical pain, La Rochefoucauld accepted the last sacraments from Bishop Bossuet.


Editions of the Maxims


In French:

La Rochefoucauld: Maximes et réflexions, edited, with an introduction, by Roland Barthes (Paris: Le club français du livre, 1961). Barthes's introductory essay is the best discussion of La Rochefoucauld and the nature of the maxim as a literary form.

La Rochefoucauld: Maximes et réflexions divers, edited, with a chronology, introduction, notes and index, by Jacques Truchet (Paris: GF-Flammarion, 1977). The useful index of this edition groups the maxims by the nature of their subjects (Avarice, Pardon, Regret, etc.).

La Rochefoucauld: Maximes et Réflexions divers, edited and annotated by Jean Lafond (Paris: Gallimard, 1976). Though not announced on the cover, this edition also includes the complete maxims of Madame de Sablé.

In English:

La Rochefoucauld, Maxims, translated, with an introduction, by Leonard Tancock.(New York and London: Penguin Books, 1984) The editor also includes the brief self-portrait of La Rochefoucauld, and another verbal portrait by Cardinal de Retz. Tancock's is still the best complete translation in English.

Maxims, translated by Louis Kronenberger (New York: Random House, 1959). Solid translations, but much at variance with the Tancock renditions.

Selected Bibliography of La Rochefoucauld Studies in English

Bishop, Morris. The Life and Adventures of La Rochefoucauld (Cornell University Press, 1951) – a lively and gossipy account of La Rochefoucauld’s life. The author weaves into this account a large number of maxims. Whether the maxim was produced by the specific occasion the Bishop associates it with is speculation, of course. But the attempt to see the maxims as drawn from la Rochefoucauld’s life makes for interesting reading. Bishop himself writes with verve and authority, making this the best English-language introduction to La Rochefoucauld’s career.

Epstein, Joseph. “La Rochefoucauld: Maximum Maximist,” in Life Sentences (W.W. Norton, 1997), pp. 205-223. A deftly written appreciation by one of the best American essayists of the late 20th century.

Lewis, Philip. La Rochefoucauld: The Art of Abstraction (Cornell University Press, 1977). Lewis takes la Rochefoucauld, not as a player of harmless social parlor games, but as a serious thinker whose ideas have profound implications for psychology and social thought. The book is marred by dated academic jargon; but the summaries of previous writers’ various interpretations are excellent.

Moore, W.G. La Rochefoucauld: His Mind and Art (Oxford University Press, 1969). Moore does a splendid job discussing a number of important issues: the relations of the various texts of the maxims (including maxims withdrawn by the author), problematic words (such as finesse, esprit, etc.), and the relation of la Rochefoucauld’s unhappy political involvements to the tenor of the maxims. Moore’s study is probably still the best overall introduction to the different contexts – social, intellectual, artistic – of La Rochefoucauld’s maxims.

Mourgues, Odette. Two French Moralists: La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère (Cambridge University Press, 1978). Though Mourgues treats these two authors separately, her analyses make for a rich set of comparisons between the two major maxim writers of the age.

If you like La Rochefoucauld's maxims, you might take a look at:
Auden, W.H. and Kronenberger, Louis. The Viking Book of Aphorisms. Kronenberger himself translated all of La Rochefoucauld’s maxims. In this book of aphorisms, you can find other writers’ ideas on many of the subjects that La Rochefoucauld wrote about. Aphorisms is cross indexed by subject, so the reader can compare, for example, what various writers had to say about jealousy, reason, habit, etc.