There’s a belief that philosophy, when properly done, should sound dense, forbidding, a little confusing, as if it might have been awkwardly translated from the German. But at the dawn of the modern age lived a French philosopher who trusted in a very different way of presenting his thoughts, a man who wrote a very slim book, barely 60 pages long, that can deservedly be counted as one of the true masterpieces of philosophy, a compendium of acerbic, melancholy observations about the human condition, each of them only a sentence or two long, that retains an exceptional number of timely, wise and oddly consoling lessons for our morally confused and distracted age.
The Duc de La Rochefoucauld was born in Paris in 1613 and, despite his many initial advantages (wealth, connections, good looks and a very beautiful and ancient name), he had a thoroughly difficult and often miserable life. He fell in love with a couple of duchesses who didn’t treat him well, he ended up in prison after some bungled but honourable political manoeuvering, he was forced into exile from his beloved Paris on four occasions, he never advanced as far as he wanted at court, he got shot in the eye during a rebellion and almost went blind, he lost most of his money and some enemies published what they falsely purported to be his memoirs, full of insults against people whom he liked and depended upon – who then turned against him and refused to believe in his innocence.
After all this – betrayal, imprisonment, impoverishment, injury, plagiarism and libel – La Rochefoucauld can readily be forgiven when he declared that he’d had enough of the active life and would henceforth retreat to quieter contemplative pursuits instead. So he hung up his sword and spent his time in the living rooms of two leading intellectual figures of his day, the Marquise de Sablé and the Comtesse de Lafayette, who regularly invited writers and artists to sit with them in their Parisian salons in order to discuss the great themes of existence – often over lemonade and light snacks.
The salons rewarded wit and spark. They were not lecture halls or seminar rooms, there was no tolerance for leadenness or pomposity here, so winning over listeners required particular skills that came to shape La Rochefoucauld’s mind and work.
It was in the salons that La Rochefoucauld developed the literary genre for which he has become known: that of the maxim or aphorism, a pithy statement that deftly captures a dark insight into the human soul, reminding us of a wise and often uncomfortable truth. In good hands, an aphorism should deliver its punch in less than three seconds (one might be competing with the arrival of an asparagus tart).
In the salons, La Rochefoucauld perfected and honed the 504 aphorisms which made his name. He watched how his fellow guests reacted and tweaked his work accordingly. His aphorisms covered all manner of psychological topics, though issues of envy, vanity, love and ambition were recurring themes. A typical La Rochefoucauld aphorism begins by addressing the reader with a ‘we’ or ‘one’, inviting consent with gentle coercion. The aphorism then subverts an accepted piety about human nature in a cynical or sceptical direction. It’s in the last third of the sentence that the sting is generally delivered, and it often makes us laugh, as can happen when we are forced to acknowledge the falsity of a previous sentimental or hypocritical position.
Perhaps the most classic and perfect of all La Rochefoucauld’s aphorism is:
‘We all have strength enough to bear the misfortunes of others.’
It is closely followed by the equally effective:
‘There are some people who would never have fallen in love, if they had not heard there was such a thing.’
And the no less accomplished:
‘He that refuses praise the first time it is offered does it because he would like to hear it a second.’
Voltaire said that La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims was the book that had most powerfully shaped the character of the French people, giving them their taste for psychological reflection, precision and cynicism. Behind almost every one of the maxims lies a challenge to an ordinary, flattering view of ourselves. La Rochefoucauld relishes revelations of the debt that kindness owes to egoism and insists that we are never far from being vain, arrogant, selfish and petty – and in fact, never nearer than when we trust in our own goodness.
Having suffered unduly in its name, he was particularly suspicious of romantic love:
‘The reason lovers never tire of one another’s company is because they never talk of anything but themselves.’
‘If one were to judge of love according to the greatest part of the effects it produces, it might very justly pass for hatred rather than kindness.’
‘To say that one never flirts is in itself a form of flirtation.’
It only looks easy. Nietzsche, who was deeply inspired by La Rochefoucauld, wrote aphorisms (collected in his book Human, All Too Human), which sorely lack the Frenchman’s mixture of darkness and good sense:
‘A few men have sighed because their women were abducted; most, because no one wanted to abduct them.’
La Rochefoucauld wrote as he did because he wanted his ideas to persuade people whom he knew had little time and would not necessarily be on his side. If most philosophers since have (with the odd exception) felt no need to write with his elegance, wit and concision, it is because they have trusted (fatefully) that, so long as one’s ideas are important, the style in which one delivers them is of no issue.
La Rochefoucauld knew otherwise. Most of us are so distracted, if someone wants to get a point across to us, they must use all the devices of art to seize our attention and cauterise our boredom for the necessary span. The history of philosophy would have been very different if its practitioners had all imagined themselves to be writing for an impatient non-professional audience with meandering minds in the midst of a chatty Parisian salon. The 140 characters of our own digital salons now offer us a second chance to try to put La Rochefoucauld’s inspiring principles to work.