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is well known, that the "Memoirs are read, and the Maxims are known by heart." It may be doubted, however, whether the "Memoirs" are often read at the present day, notwithstanding the extravagant compliment of Bayle, that "there are few people so bigoted to antiquity as not to prefer the 'Memoirs' of La Rochefoucauld to the 'Commentaries of Cæsar.'" In fact, their interest appears to have passed away with that of the times of which they
The book of "Maxims" no doubt results from the observation of La Rochefoucauld's earlier years, combined with the reflection of his later life. He appears to have taken considerable pains with their composition, submitting them frequently for the approval of his numerous circle of friends, and altering some of them, according to Segrais, nearly thirty times. They were first published in 1665, with a preface by Segrais, which was omitted in the subsequent editions; several of which appeared, with various corrections, during the author's life.*
Scarcely any work, as Mr. Hallam observes, has been more highly extolled or more severely censured. Dr. Johnson has pronounced it almost the only book written by a man of fashion, of which professed authors had reason to be jealous. Rousseau calls it, (Conf. b. 3,) "livre triste et désolant," though he goes on to make a naïve admission of its truth, "principalement dans la jeunesse où l'on n'aime pas à voir l'homme comme il est." Voltaire's account of it, in his "Age of Louis XIV.," is perhaps the most gen
They were first translated into English in 1689, under the title of "Seneca unmasked," by the celebrated Mrs. Aphara Behn, who calls the author the Duke of Rushfucave. The work, as is the case with all the English translations of the "Maxims," is full of faults.
erally acquiesced in :—“One of the works which most contributed to form the taste of the nation, and to give it a spirit of justness and precision, was the collection of the Maxims' of Francis, Duc de la Rochefoucauld. Though there is scarcely more than one truth running through the book-that 'self-love is the motive of every thing;' yet this thought is presented under so many various aspects, that it is almost always striking; it is not so much a book as materials for ornamenting a book. This little collection was read with avidity; it taught people to think and to comprise their thoughts in a lively, precise, and delicate tum of expression. This was a merit which, before him, no one in Europe had attained, since the revival of
It would be difficult to give higher praise than this to the style of the “Maxims," to which, no doubt, the work owes a great part of its popularity. If not precisely the inventor, La Rochefoucauld is, at all events, the model of this mode of writing, in which success indeed is rare,
* Notwithstanding their popularity, and Voltaire's assertion that they are known by heart, the “Maxims” have been most unblushingly pillaged on almost all sides ; indeed there is hardly any modern collection of thoughts or aphorisms which is not indebted to this work. A late instance may be found in the review of Baron Wessenberg's “ Thoughts,” by the Quarterly Review, Dec., 1848, where it appears by the extracts that the baron adopts, as his own, one of the “Maxims,” (No. 39,) which is quoted with approbation, and evidently unrecognized by the reviewer. Some plagiarisms may be detected in the illustrations quoted in the ensuing pages, which, however, have not been collected for that purpose so much, as to compare the manner in which different minds have expressed themselves on similar subjects. Many other illustrations of the “Maxims” will, of course, suggest themselves, according to the various extent of individual reading.
when attained, it has many charms for the reader.*
Tantum series juncturaque pollet,
as a man shall make a great show of an art, which, if it were disjointed, would come to little. Secondly, methods are more fit to win consent or belief, but less fit to point to action; for they carry a kind of demonstration in orb or circle, one part illuminating another, and therefore satisfy; but particulars being dispersed, do best agree with dispersed directions. And lastly, aphorisms representing a knowledge broken, do invite men to inquire further; whereas methods, carrying the show of a total, do secure men, as if they were at furthest.”
* M. Villemain, in his “ Eloge de Montaigne," seems to insinuate that La Rochefoucauld may have been indebted to Montaigne for the idea of the style of the “Maxims:" “ Dans ce genre j'oserai dire qu'il (Montaigne) a donné le plus heureux modèles d'un style dont La Rochefoucauld passe ordinairement pour le premier inventeur.” La Rochefoucauld was probably under many obligations in other respects to Montaigne; but it seems difficult to select two writers more dissimilar in their mode of expressing themselves than the rambling, gossiping Montaigne and the precise, sententious La Rochefoucauld.
A principal cause of the attractiveness of this mode of writing lies in the necessarily epigrammatic turn of the sentences, which constantly arrests the attention; and while it stimulates the reader's reflection, renders the point of the observation more palpable and more easy to be retained in the memory. It is, besides, no mean advantage to be spared the exertion of wading through and deciding upon the successive stages, each perhaps admitting of discussion, of a tedious and involved argument, and to be presented at once with ready-made conclusions. Notwithstanding Bacon's second remark on aphorisms, it seems questionable whether the mind is not more disposed to assent to a proposition when clearly and boldly announced on the ipse dixit of a writer, than when arrived at as the termination of a chain of reasoning. Where so much proof is required, men are apt to think much doubt exists; and a simple enunciation of a truth is, on this account perhaps, the more imposing from our not being admitted, as it were, behind the scenes, and allowed to inspect the machinery which has produced the result. There is, besides, a yearning after infallibility to a greater or less degree latent in every human heart, that derives a momentary gratification from the oracular nature of these declarations of truth, which seem to be exempt from the faults and shortcomings of human reason, and to spring, with all the precision of instinct, full grown to light, like Minerva from the head of Jupiter.*
The chief, perhaps the only serious, defect incidental to this mode of composition, is the constantly recurring temptation to sacrifice the strict truth to the point of the maxim. For the sake of rendering the turn of expression more smart and epigrammatic, truth is sometimes distorted, sometimes laid down in such general and unqualified terms as sober reason would not warrant. La Rochefoucauld is by no means free from this fault, which perhaps is inseparable from the species of composition we are considering, and may be regarded as the price we pay for its other advantages.
* See Aristot. Rhet. book ii. c. 21.
But while the style of the “ Maxims” has been alm ist universally admired, the peculiar views of morals they present have been the subject of much cavil. The author is generally considered as a principal supporter of the selfish school of moralists; and, indeed, the popular opinion of the “ Maxims” seems to be summed up in Voltaire's remark, that there is but one truth running through the book; that “ self-love is the motive of every action.” Bishop Butler's observations are to the same effect, (Pref. to Sermons :) “There is a strange affectation in some people of explaining away all particular affections, and representing the whole of life as nothing but one continued exercise of self-love. Hence arises that surprising confusion and perplexity in the Epicureans of old, Hobbes, the author of Reflections, &c. Morales,' and this whole set of writers, of calling actions interested which are done in contradiction of the most manifest known interest, merely for the gratification of a present passion. Now all this confusion might be avoided by stating to ourselves wherein the idea of self-love consists, as distinguished from all particular movements towards particular external objects, the appetites of sense, resentment, compassion, curiosity, ambition, and the rest. When this is done, if the words “selfish and interested' cannot be parted with, but must be applied to every thing, yet to avoid such total confusion of all language, let the