Eight years after La Rochefoucauld’s death Jean de La Bruyère confirmed his sardonic analysis of Parisian humanity. Jean was the son of a minor civil servant. He studied law, bought a minor governmental office, became tutoi to the grandson of the Great Condé, served the Condé family as écuyer gentilhomme—gentleman in waiting—and followed it to Chantilly and Versailles. He remained a bachelor to the end of his life.
Sensitive and shy, he suffered from the sharp edge of class distinctions in France, and he could not evoke the amiable pretenses that might have smoothed his way, despite his middle-class origin, among the aristocracy and at the court. He observed the royal menagerie with a hostile and penetrating eye, and took his revenge by describing it in a book into which he poured nearly all his intellectual substance. He entitled it Les Caractères de Théophraste traduits du grec avec les caractères ou les moeurs de ce siècle—The Characters of Theophrastus Translated from the Greek, with the Characters or Manners of This Age. The book became the talk of Paris, for under recognizable disguises it portrayed persons well known in the city or at the court; and each of them reveled in the exposure of the rest. “Keys” were published, purporting to identify the portraits with their originals; La Bruyère protested that the resemblances were accidental, but no one believed it, and his fame was made. Eight editions were used up before the author’s death in 1696; to each he added new “characters,” in which Paris saw the mirror of the time.
To us today, who have lost the key to this gallery, the material seems a bit thin, the ideas traditional and hackneyed, the spirit a bit envious, the satire too facile, as of Menalcas, the absent-minded man. 101 La Bruyère asked for no change in the religion or government of France. He thought it good that there should be poor people; otherwise it would be difficult to get servants, and there would be no one to mine or till the earth; the fear of poverty is indispensable to the production of wealth. 102 He proudly numbered Bossuet among his friends; he repeated in the final section of his book (“Of Freethinkers”) the arguments that the great preacher had expressed with better judgment and in nobler prose; he echoed the proofs that Descartes had given of God and immortality; and with some skill he invoked against the agnostics of his time the order and majesty of the heavens, the signs of design in living things, and the sense of self-determination in the will, and of immateriality in the mind. He struck at the arrogance of aristocrats, the greed of financiers, and the servility of courtiers, whom he pictured as facing Louis, rather than the altar, in the chapel at Versailles; but he took care to hand protective bouquets to the King. 103 In at least one passage he put caution aside, and rose bravely to describe the bestial condition to which the peasants of France had been reduced by the wars and taxes of the reign:
Certains animaux farouches, des mâles et des femelles, répandus par la campagne, noirs, livides, et tout brulés du soleil, attachés à la terre qu’ils fouillent et qu’ils remuent avec une opiniâtreté invincible; ils ont comme une voix articulée, et quand ils se lèvent sur leurs pieds, ils montrent une face humaine; et en effet ils sont des hommes.*
That page has remained a locus classicus in France’s classic age.