A man of many masks: La Rochefoucauld’s maxims
Until the past two centuries or so, it used to be the case that the hallmark of a learned author was the use of Greek or Latin maxims—usually untranslated—draped about an essay like so many philosophic adornments. But it takes the judicious eye of a Montaigne to employ pithy sayings to good effect. In the hands of most writers, maxims distract, overtaxing the reader’s concentration, or, worse, they implicitly make the case we ought to have before us a different author altogether. What to make, then, of François de La Rochefoucauld’s (1613-1680) Réflexions ou sentences et maximes morales (or simply, Maxims), a book-length collection of 504 apothegms on human nature?
Upon first opening the Maxims, one experiences—if they are honest—a kind of intellectual fatigue. In an unceasing salvo, La Rochefoucauld, later likened by Nietzsche to a “skillful marksman,” proceeds to aim and hit “the bull’s eye again and again—the bull’s eye of human nature.” Indeed, his insights into the human condition exhibit the kind of incisiveness that allow each saying to stand alone. But one may even go further: each reflection, upon consideration, reads like the starting point of a philosophic treatise. Take, for instance, the following:
Our virtues are, most often, only vices disguised.”
Or, “Self-interest which is accused of all of our crimes often deserves to be praised for our good actions.”
And, “Our wisdom is no less at the mercy of fortune than our possessions.”
My advice, and this holds true for all good books worth reading, is to casually pass through the Maxims once, allowing La Rochefoucauld’s slings and arrows to pierce one’s breast at will. At this stage, they key is not to overthink each reflection, but to try and feel the intellectual weight of their sum total. Read in this way, certain key themes make themselves known: the limits of self-knowledge and human agency; the deceptiveness of human reason and action; appearance and reality; the decisive role of fortune in our lives; and the nature love, ambition, and death reappear to confront the reader time and again. La Rochefoucauld is a clever, careful writer. But before one can understand him rationally, I think, one must feel him viscerally; or rather, strive to experience and judge the veracity of his observations as they reflect against one’s own soul.
Now, upon a second, closer reading of the text, something charming occurs. What once appeared as disconnected reflections, begins to take on the appearance of a unified philosophic whole. This, in turn, opens up further textual puzzles over which to dwell. But of equal interest, at least for me, is La Rochefoucauld ‘s choice of this aphoristic genre in the first place. That is, why write a book of maxims? Why not a collection of essays? Or more interesting still, why not a novel wherein each theme is given its due, extended treatment? Trying not to assume too much, I believe La Rochefoucauld would contend there is something about the structure of pithy statements that allows him to access or portray human nature in ways other modes of philosophizing simply cannot. Perhaps this is what is meant when, in maxim 142, he writes “As it is the character of great minds to make many things understood with few words, so small minds, to the contrary, have the gift of talking a lot and saying nothing.” Whatever the case, the Maxims is that rare book that repays both superficial and deep interpretive dives, and for the education it has provided to everyone from toiling students in French 101 to thinkers of the highest rank, like Nietzsche, it deserves a place in the Western Canon.
I should end by noting that we now have in English, at long last, a superb, faithful translation of the Maxims by Stuart D. Warner and Stéphane Douard published by St. Augustine Press. This first-ever French-English edition is accompanied by a delightful introduction that does an excellent job orienting the reader to this deceptively difficult book and also includes a collection of “withdrawn” and “posthumous” maxims. As its cover illustration, this text also reproduces the frontispiece used for the first four editions of the Maxims. The drawing depicts the personification of “The Love of Truth,” pulling a mask from the bust of that other maxim master, Seneca, revealing beneath the grotesque and very real appearance of the famed Roman. A apt metaphor for La Rochefoucauld ‘s own project of uncovering in the Maxims.
Image credit: Sergei Denisov