December 9th, 2010 / 7:31 am
Craft Notes & Excerpts

Francois VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, on Writing

“If I were interested in literary glory I think that with a little trouble I could make quite a name, for I can write good prose and make up decent verse. / I am fond of all kinds of reading, but especially that in which there is something to train the mind and toughen the soul; and above all I find very great enjoyment in sharing my reading with an intelligent person, for in so doing one can continually reflect upon what is being read, and such reflections form the basis of the most delightful and profitable conversation… / I do not think this knowledge of mine will ever pass from my head to my heart.” — from his self-portrait

Voltaire said Rochefoucauld’s Maxims had a huge hand in the formation of taste in French culture, “giving it a feeling for aptness and precision,” says Leonard Tancock, the translator. I found this book randomly at the library, and realized David Shields included it in a reading list posted on The Millions. These ones I thought had something maybe to do with writing or whatever:

What we take for virtues are often merely a collection of different acts and personal interests pieced together by chance or our own ingenuity and it is not always because of valour or chastity that men are valiant or women chaste.

Passion often makes fools of the wisest men and gives the silliest wisdom.

The passions set aside justice and work for their own ends, and it is therefore dangerous to follow them and necessary to treat them with caution even when they seem most reasonable.

Our self-esteem is more inclined to resent criticism of our tastes than of our opinions.

The clemency [mercy] of princes is often nothing but policy to gain popular affection.

This clemency, which men call a virtue, is sometimes motivated by vanity, sometimes by laziness, often by fear, and almost always by all three together.

If we had no faults we should not find so much enjoyment in seeing faults in others.

People too much taken up with little things usually become incapable of big ones.

Sincerity is openness of heart. It is found in very few, and what is usually seen is subtle dissimulation designed to draw the confidence of others.

Truth does not do as much good in the world as the semblance of truth does evil.

A shrewd man has to arrange his interests in order of importance and deal with them one by one but often our greed upsets this order and makes us run after so many things at once that through over-anxiety to have the trivial we miss the most important.

Where love is, no disguise can hide it for long; where it is not, none can simulate it.

Silence is the safest policy if you are unsure of yourself.

Even the greatest ambition, when it finds itself in a situation where its aspirations cannot possibly be realized, is hardly recognizable as such.

To disillusion a man convinced of his own worth is to do him as bad a turn as they did to that Athenian madman who thought all the vessels entering the harbour were his.

It often happens that things come into the mind in a more finished form than could have been achieved after much study.

The head is always fooled by the heart.

Not for long can the head impersonate the heart.

Over-subtlety is false delicacy; true delicacy is sound subtlety.

At times we are as different from ourselves as we are from others.

When vanity is not prompting us we have little to say.

It is more difficult to avoid being ruled than to rule others.

However glorious an action may be, it must not be deemed great unless there is a great purpose behind it.

Our real worth earns the respect of knowledgeable people, luck that of the public.

There are various forms of curiosity: one, based on self-interest, makes us want to learn what may be useful, another, based on pride, comes from a desire to know what others don’t.

One kind of inconstancy  comes from a fickle or shallow mind, which adopts everybody else’s opinions; another, more excusable, from a feeling that nothing is worth while.

Evil has its heroes as well as good.

Only the great are entitled to great faults.

Desire to appear clever often prevents our becoming so.

Would-be gentlemen disguise their failings from others and themselves; true gentlemen are perfectly aware of them and acknowledge them.

Some silly people know themselves for what they are, and skillfully turn their silliness to good account.

Vanity, a sense of shame, and above all temperament often enough make up the valour of men and the virtue of women.

To try to be wise all on one’s own is sheer folly.

To conceal ingenuity is ingenuity indeed.

Loyalty as it is seen in most men is simply a device invented by self-love in order to attract confidence. It is a way of raising ourself above others and appointing ourselves as recipients of the weightiest matters.

Eloquence resides no less in a person’s tone of voice, expression, and general bearing that is required and only what is required.

Changes of taste are as usual as changes of inclination are unusual.

Good taste comes from judgment rather than from intellect.

Few men are sufficiently discerning to appreciate all the evil they do.

It is not so much a fertile brain that enables us to find many solutions to the same problem, as lack of insight which, keeping us from going beyond what our imagination can see, prevents our discerning at first glance which solution is the best.

Plenty of people despise money, but few know how to give it away.

A sense of one’s own dignity is as admirable when kept to oneself as it is ridiculous when displayed to others.

Moderation has been declared a virtue so as to curb the ambition of the great and console lesser folk for their lack of fortune and merit.

Some men are destined to be fools, and they do foolish things not from choice but because fate herself compels them to.

How comes it that our memories are good enough to retain even the minutest details of what has befallen us, but not to recollect how many times we have recounted them to the same person?

The extreme enjoyment we find in talking about ourselves should make us fear we are not giving very much to our audience.

The weak cannot be sincere.

Our wisdom is just as much at the mercy of chance as our property.

To achieve greatness a man must know how to turn all his chances to good account.

The biggest disadvantage of a penetrating intellect is not failure to reach the goal, but going beyond it.

Our actions are like set rhymes: anyone can fit them in to mean what he likes.*

The only thing that should astonish us is that we are still capable of astonishment.

Nature, it seems, has buried deep in our minds skill and talents of which we are unaware the passions alone have the function of bringing them to light and thereby sometimes giving us a clearer and more comprehensive vision than ingenuity could ever do.

At times our brains lead us into plain silliness.

Nothing makes it so difficult to be natural as the desire to appear so.

It is easier to know man in general than to understand one man in particular.

Little wit with good sense is in the long run less irritating than much wit with wrongheadedness.

Having discussed the falsity of so many sham virtues, it is fitting that I should say something about the falsity of indifference to death: I mean that indifference to death that pagans pride themselves on drawing from their own strength, and not from the hope of a better life hereafter. Facing death steadfastly and being indifferent to it are not the same thing: the first is not unusual, but I do not think the second is ever genuine. Yet men have written in the most convincing manner to prove that death is no evil, and this opinion has been confirmed on a thousand celebrated occasions by the weakest of men as well as by heroes. Even so I doubt whether any sensible person has ever believed it, and the trouble men take to convince others as well as themselves that they do shows  clearly that it is no easy undertaking. We may find various things in life distasteful, but we are never right to make light of death. Even those who deliberately take their own life do not count it so cheap, for they are startled when death comes by some other way than that of their own planning, and resist it as strongly as everybody else. The variations to be seen in the courage of myriads of valiant men come from the different ways their imagination presents death to them, more vividly at one time than another. Thus it comes about that after scorning what they do not know they end by fearing what they know. Unless one is prepared to consider death the direst of all evils, it should never be contemplated with all its attendant circumstances. The wisest and also the bravest are those who find the least shameful pretexts for not contemplating it, but every man capable of seeing death as it really is thinks it a fearful thing. The inevitability of death underlay all the constancy of the philosophers, who believed in travelling with a good grace along a road there was no avoiding. Not being able to prolong their own lives for ever, they stopped at nothing in order to earn eternal life for their reputation and save from the wreck whatever can be saved. So as to keep in good countenance, let us be content not to admit to ourselves all we think about it, and let us put more trust in our own chracter than in those feeble arguments that make out that we can draw near to death with indifference. The glory of dying with steadfast courage, the hope of being missed, the desire to leave a fair name, the assurance of being set free from the torments of life and of no longer being dependent upon the whims of fortune are remedies not lightly to be thrust aside, but neither should they be thought infallible. They offer the kind of comfort often given in war by a simple hedge to those obliged to advance towards the enemy’s fire: from a distance you imagine it must provide cover, but when you come near you find it gives little help. It is illusory to suppose that death will look the same near at hand as we thought it did at a distance, and that our emotions, which are the very stuff of weakness will be strong enough not the be daunted by the toughest of all ordeals. And we misunderstand the effects of self-love if we believe it can help us to make light of the very thing that spells its own destruction; the mind, in which we think we can find so many resources, is too feeble at such a juncture to persuade us as we would wish. On the contrary, it is the mind that most often bertrays us, for instead of filling us with contempt for death it succeeds in revaling to us its hideous and terrible side, and all it can do for us is to advise us to avert our gaze and look at other things. Cato and Brutus chose glorious things to contemplate, but not as long ago a lackey was quite happy to dance on the scaffold where he was about to be broken on the wheel. And so, although motives differ, they produce the same effects, and it is therefore true that whatever differences there many be between great men and common, thousands of times men of both kinds have been seen to meet death with the same demeanour. But there has always been this distinction: in the indifference to death shown by great men their gaze is turned aside by love of glory, whilst common men are prevented from realizing the full extent of the plight by mere lack of understand, and that leaves them free to think of something else.

Hope and fear are inseperable, and there is no fear without hope nor hope without fear.

Extreme boredom provides its own antidote.

Wisdom is to the soul what health is to the body.

It is more important to study men than books.

*382 – A literary game consisted of giving bouts-rimés.



  1. Pa Firesix

      “Pretty much. The Maxims was the result of a conversation game between La Rochefoucauld and Madam de Sable and Esprit played in their drawing rooms. They wrote down sentences expressing ideas of morality and psychology in solitude and then debated them afterwards. Unlike preachers, there are no appeals to a superior moral authority, for their judgments that studied human nature and custom were ambiguous and performed at the level of man. Instead of the ponderous treatise or the prose of cicero, or academic language, they chose short forms (maximes, sententia) that deigned to provoke rather than instruct. And La Rochefoucauld played this game the best by turning the myth of Narcissus upside down with a spectacular demolition of heroism.

      Where La Rochefoucauld says self esteem is invincible, all-pervasive, endlessly variable, Schopenhauer adds that self-deception is not an accidental state of mind but part of its normal function. Indeed, such insights of La Rochefoucauld and Nietzsche, among others (Stendhal, James) are part of the grand heuristic scheme of my intent to write stories, and they were absolutely essential for the profiling of the characters. Much like your plot devices, my heuristic scheme relies on a collection of wisdom from the greatest strategists (Sun-tzu, Clausewitz), statesmen (Bismark, Talleyrand) courtiers (Castiglione, Gracian) and seducers (Lou Salome, Benjamin Disraeli).”

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