What a different spirit was the most famous of modern cynics, the most merciless unmasker of our frailties, the gloomy invalid who slandered women and love, and whom three women loved to their death?

He was the sixth François de La Rochefoucauld, born of a long line of princes and counts, eldest son of the grand master of the wardrobe to Queen and Regent Marie de Médicis. Until he inherited the ducal title on his father’s death (1650), he was Prince de Marsillac. He was educated in Latin, mathematics, music, dancing, fencing, heraldry, and etiquette. Aged fourteen, he was married, by his father’s arrangement, to Andrée de Vivonne, only daughter and heir of the late grand falconer of France. At fifteen he was given command of a cavalry regiment; at sixteen he bought a colonelcy. He attended the salon of Mme. de Rambouillet, which polished his manners and style. With all the idealism of youth, and its preference for mature women, he fell in love with the Queen, with Mme. de Chevreuse, with Mlle, de Hautefort. When Anne of Austria plotted against Richelieu, François served her, was detected, and was for a week imprisoned in the Bastille (1636). Soon released, he was banished to the family estate at Verteuil. He reconciled himself for a time to living with his wife, played with his young sons François and Charles, and learned that the countryside has delights that only the city can understand.

In those days, among the French upper classes, a legal marriage could not be dissolved, but it could be ignored. After a decade of restless monogamy, the Prince set out for adventure in war or love. When he set his sights on Mme. de Longueville (1646) it was no longer through idealistic devotion but in the resolve to capture a renowned and well-defended citadel; it would be a distinction to seduce the wife of a duke and the sister of the Great Condé. For her part she may have accepted him for political reasons; he could be a useful ally in the aristocratic rebellion wherein she was resolved to play an active role. When she informed him that he had made her pregnant, 72 he gave all his support to the Fronde. In 1652 she molted him, and took on the Duc de Nemours; La Rochefoucauld tried to convince himself that this was what he had desired; as he put it later, “When we have loved someone to the point of weariness . . . , most welcome . . . is some act of infidelity that may justify us in disengaging our affection.” 73 In that year, fighting for the Fronde in the Faubourg St.-Antoine, he was struck by a musket shot that injured both his eyes, leaving him partly blind. He retired again to Verteuil.

He was now forty years old, beginning to suffer from gout, and embittered by misfortunes mostly of his own contrivance. His idealism had died in the wake of Mme. de Longueville, and in the shifty intrigues and ignoble end of the Fronde. He amused his hours, and defended his career, in Mémoires (1662) that showed him a careful master of the classic style. In 1661 he was allowed to return to the court; henceforth he divided his time between his wife at Verteuil and his friends in the Paris salons.

His favorite salon was that of Mme. de Sablé. There she and her guests occasionally played a game of Sentences: someone would offer a comment on human nature or conduct, and the group would toss it pro and con. Mme. de Sablé was a neighbor and devoted friend of Port-Royal-de-Paris; she adopted its view of the natural wickedness of man and the emptiness of earthly life; La Rochefoucauld’s pessimism, born of disillusionments in love and war, of political treachery and physical pain, of deceiving and being deceived, may have received a minor reinforcement from the Jansenism of his hostess. He found a somber pleasure in refining at leisure his own sentences and those of others; he allowed these apothegms to be read, sometimes amended, by Mme. de Sablé and other friends. One of these copied them; a Dutch pirate publisher printed 189 of them, anonymously, about 1663; salon circles recognized them as La Rochefoucauld’s; and the author himself issued a better edition, with 317 entries, in 1665, under the title ofSentences et maximes morales. The little book, soon known briefly as Maximes, became almost at once a classic. Readers not only admired the precise, compact, and chiseled style; they enjoyed the exposure of other people’s selfishness, and only rarely realized that the story was told about themselves.

La Rochefoucauld’s standpoint is stated in his second maxim: “Self-love [amour de soi] is the love of a man’s own self, and of anything else for his own sake . . . A man’s whole life is but one continued exercise and strong agitation of it.” Vanity (amour-propre) is only one of the many forms that self-love takes, but even that form enters into almost every action and thought. Our passions may sometimes sleep, but our vanity never rests. “He that refuses praise the first time that it is offered does so because he would hear it a second time.” 74 The hunger for applause is the source of all conscious literature and heroism. “All men are proud alike; the only difference is that all do not take the same methods of showing it.” 75 “Virtues are lost in self-interest, as rivers are in the sea.” 76“If we reflect upon our ‘secret’ thoughts, we shall find within our own breast the seed of all those vices which we condemn in others,” and we shall be able to judge, from our private corruption, the basic depravity of mankind. 77 We are the slaves of our passions; if one passion is overcome it is not by reason but by another passion; 78 “intellect is always the dupe of feeling”; “men never desire anything very eagerly which they desire only by the dictates of reason”; 79 and “the plainest man, with the help of passion, will prevail more than the most eloquent man without it.” 80

The art of life lies in concealing our self-love sufficiently to avoid antagonizing the self-love of others. We must pretend to some degree of altruism. “Hypocrisy is a sort of homage which vice pays to virtue.” 81 The philosopher’s supposed contempt of riches or noble birth is just his way of exalting his own wares. Friendship is “only a kind of traffic in which selflove ever proposes to be the gainer”; 82 we may measure its sincerity by noting that we find something not altogether displeasing in the misfortunes of our friends.83 We more readily forgive those who have injured us than those whom we have injured, or who have obliged—therefore obligated—us with favors. 84 Society is a war of each against all. “True love is like ghosts—something that everyone talks of but scarcely anyone has seen”; 85 and “if we had never heard discourse of love, most of us would never have fallen in love.” 86 Yet love, when real, is so profound an experience that women who have once known it can have little capacity for friendship, finding the latter by comparison so cold and flat. 87 Hence women hardly exist except when in love. “Some ladies may be met with who never had any intrigue at all; but it will be exceeding hard to find any who have had one and no more.” 88 “The generality of honest women are like hidden treasures, which are safe only because nobody has sought them.” 89

The ailing cynic knew quite well that these epigrams were not a just description of humanity. He hedged many of them with “almost,” “nearly,” or the like philosophical cautions; he confessed that “it is easier to know mankind in general than any one man in particular”; 90 and his preface allowed that his maxims did not apply to those “few favorites whom Heaven is pleased to preserve . . . by an especial grace.” 91 He must have ranked himself among those few, for he wrote: “I am devoted to my friends so far that I would not hesitate for a moment to sacrifice my interests to theirs” 92—though doubtless he would have explained that this would be because he found more pleasure in making such a sacrifice than in withholding it. He talked now and then of “gratitude, the virtue of wise and generous minds”; 93 and of “love, pure and untainted with any other passion (if such a thing there be), which lies hidden in the bottom of our hearts.” 94 And “though it may be said, with great truth . . . , that men never act without a regard for their own interest, yet it does not follow that all that they do is corrupt, and that no such thing as justice or honesty is left in the world. Men may govern themselves by noble means, and propose [to themselves] interests full of commendation and honor.” 95

Old age softened La Rochefoucauld, even while it darkened his gloom. In 1670 his wife died, after forty-three years of patient fidelity, having given him eight children, and having nursed him for the last eighteen years. In 1672 his mother died, and he confessed that her life had been a long miracle of love. In that year two of his sons were wounded in the invasion of Holland; one succumbed to his injuries. The bastard son whom Mme. de Longueville had borne, whom he had not been allowed to claim as his own, but had deeply loved, fell in the same unholy war. “I have seen La Rochefoucauld weep,” reported Mme. de Sévigné, “with a tenderness that made me adore him.” 96 Was his love for his mother and his sons self-love? Yes, if we may view these as part and extensions of his self. This is the reconciliation of altruism and egoism—that altruism is the expansion of the self, and of self-love, to one’s family, or friends, or community. Society can be satisfied with such embracing magn-anim-ous selfishness.

One of La Rochefoucauld’s most superficial remarks was that “few women’s worth lasts longer than their beauty.” 97 His mother and his wife were exceptions, and it was ungenerous to ignore the thousands of women who had lost their physical beauty in the service of men and other children. In 1665 a third woman offered him most of her life. Doubtless Mme. de La Fayette pleased her own heart in seeking to comfort him. He was fifty-two, gouty, and half-blind; she was thirty-three, still beautiful, but herself an invalid, suffering from tertian fever. She had been appalled by the cynicism of the Maximes, and perhaps some pleasant notion of reforming and comforting this unhappy man entered into her view. She invited him to her home in Paris; he came, carried in a sedan chair; she swathed and cushioned his aching foot; she brought her friends, including the effervescent Mme. de Sévigné, to help her entertain him. He came again, and even more frequently, until his visits aroused the gossip of Paris. We do not know if sexual intimacy was involved; in any case it was a minor part in what proved to be an exchange of souls. “He gave me understanding,” she said, “but I reformed his heart.” 98 He may have helped her with La Princess de Clèves, though the tenderness and delicacy of that romance are all the world apart from the harshness of the Maximes.

After the death of Mme. de La Rochefoucauld this historic friendship became a kind of spiritual marriage, and French literature contains many a picture of the frail little woman sitting quietly beside the old philosopher immobilized with pain. “Nothing,” said Mme. de Sévigné, “could be compared to the charm and confidence of their friendship.” 99 Someone said that where La Rochefoucauld ends, Christianity begins; 100 it proved true in this case. Perhaps Mme. de La Fayette, sincerely pious, persuaded him that only religion could answer the problems of philosophy. When he felt himself dying he asked Bishop Bossuet to give him the last sacraments (1680). His friend survived him for thirteen ailing years.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!