Writer’s Quote Wednesday – François de La Rochefoucauld

This weeks Writer’s Quote Wednesday is one I am particularly excited about. I have chosen to dedicate this one to an author I only just learned existed but have already become quite a fan of. This week quote is from the philosopher, and author of maxims and memoirs, François de La Rochefoucauld.

François de La Rochefoucauld” by Théodore Chassériau  Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

La Rochefoucauld (15 September 1613 – 17 March 1680) was born in Paris to a life of extensive privilege. His family had money and nobility, he was quite educated, and he had good looks. He became a military man and a public figure and it seems he had a way with the ladies.

For the most part he seems to have had it made.

But he lived during a time when the royal court wasn’t sure whether to it could trust the independence of the nobility and went back and forth between threatening it and supporting it. La Rochefoucauld was susceptible to feminine charm and through a series of events involving the women he cared for he found himself in opposition the monarchy.

Between 1648 and 1653 he’d be jailed, exiled, labeled a rebel, and shot in the head for his plotting. He survived but between that and injuries he’d received from other battles he just couldn’t keep fighting. Not only that but he was running out of money. He decided to retire to a life of reading and intellectual conversation.

This is where La Rochefoucauld gets interesting for me. He and a group of his friend liked to play a sort of game. They would discuss the conduct and motives of humanity but would express their thought in the briefest, most pungent way possible. La Rochefoucauld studied this game very closely. He kept notes and worked hard to perfect his delivery. Later he would write a whole book of these “acerbic melancholy observations about the human condition”. That book is called Reflections; Or, sentences and Moral Maxims.

The philosophy of La Rochefoucauld, which influenced French intellectuals as diverse as Voltaire and the Jansenists, is captured here in more than 600 penetrating and pithy aphorisms.

I downloaded the book and read it in a morning. The book itself is short and consists of a long list of cynical little sayings that cover topics such as pride and self-love, vanity, passions and the emotions, love, sincerity, conversation, and politics. Some of my favorites include:

  • 22. – Philosophy triumphs easily over past evils and future evils; but present evils triumph over it.
  • 30. – We have more strength than will; and it is often merely for an excuse we say things are impossible.
  • 48. – Happiness is in the taste, and not in the things themselves; we are happy from possessing what we like, not from possessing what others like.
  • 269. – No man is clever enough to know all the evil that he does.
  • 437. – We should not judge of a man’s merit by his great abilities, but by the use he makes of them.

There are many, many more good ones and I urge you to read the book. Not only did I enjoy the little aphorisms, but I found the writing style interesting. Instead of writing a long and complicated book about his philosophy, La Rochefoucauld keep it short and to the point. I felt like I was reading someone’s Twitter feed rather than a book written in the 1600s.

I also enjoyed the cynical nature of the maxims. La Rochefoucauld does not sugarcoat anything and he seems to have quite a pessimistic view of mankind and his motives. I can dig that. I don’t believe that any man (or woman) is truly and purely good. We all have hidden motives, hidden even from ourselves. I also believe that more often than not when we think we are doing something for good reasons it’s only because we wish to forget that we are doing them for bad reasons.

“137. – When not prompted by vanity we say little.”

François de La Rochefoucauld

This maxim in particular caught my eye for two reasons. One, I am a talkative person. When I am alone or if I am in a situation where I can’t talk I get anxious. I talk because it fills the silence around me and it calms me. I’m working on learning to enjoy the silence and I hae come to term with the fact that I talk so much for what are often selfish reasons.

I think this quote applies especially to us writing types though. Why else would we sit and type out our own thought but for vanity. I mean yeah there are other reasons but at the base of all of them is the idea that I, more than anyone, am so interesting, and smart, and funny, and I should share it with the world.

I think all writers come with more than their own fair share of vanity, and egotism, and narcissism, and….self-love.

We love our own minds and the words and worlds we create there. There is nothing wrong with it, in fact, it’s a good thing. If there were so many self-absorbed writer’s out there we wouldn’t have the joy of reading so much amazing work. We writer’s have to love what we do and think ourselves great enough to share it with the world.

Writer’s need a good dose of vanity in order to speak up.

Bonus info: Here is the video that introduced me to La Rochefoucauld. Check it out. It’s basically a lot of what I said above but presented way better. After that you should check out the other videos from School of Life. They’re really good!


3 Replies to “Writer’s Quote Wednesday – François de La Rochefoucauld”

  1. Loved no. 48. A lot of the time people like and buy things in order to be cool and acceptable to other people. Say, a new sofa that some magazine says is the latest thing in interior design, even though you personally hate it and find it uncomfortable. And usually, in the case of musical artists etc, a lot of people lead double lives, secretly liking things they might be ashamed of telling everybody.


  2. Exactly! I used to be one of those “double life” people but then I stopped caring what everyone else thought I should like and just liked whatever the hell I wanted to like. Life is simpler now :)


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