François de La Rochefoucauld (writer)  

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François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, Prince de Marcillac (15 September 1613 – 17 March 1680) was a noted French author of maxims which were collected under the title Réflexions ou sentences et maximes morales. His is a clear-eyed, worldly view of human conduct that indulges in neither condemnation nor sentimentality. Born in Paris on the Rue des Petits Champs, at a time when the royal court was oscillating between aiding the nobility and threatening it, he was considered an exemplar of the accomplished 17th-century nobleman. Until 1650, he bore the title of Prince de Marcillac.


Salon participation

Somewhat earlier, La Rochefoucauld had taken his place in the salon of Madeleine de Souvré, marquise de Sablé, a member of the Marquise de Rambouillet côterie, and the founder of a kind of successor to it, whose special literary work was the writing of Sentences and Maximes. In 1662, the Dutch firm, Elsevier, surreptitiously published what purported to be his memoirs, which brought him both trouble and fame. Many of his old friends were offended. These memoires were not a faithful copy of what he had written, and while he hastened to deny their authenticity, this was not generally believed.

Three years later, in 1665, he anonymously published the Maximes, (maxims) which established his position among the men of letters of the time. At about the same date, his friendship with Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne, Comtesse de La Fayette began, which lasted for the rest of his life. The glimpses which we have of him henceforward are chiefly from the letters of Madame de Sévigné, and though they show him suffering from gout, are on the whole pleasant ones.

He had a circle of devoted friends and was recognized as a top-ranking moralist and man of letters. His son, the Prince de Marcillac, to whom he gave his titles and honors in 1671, enjoyed a considerable position at court. But above all La Rochefoucauld was recognized by his contemporaries, including the king, as an exemplar of the older noblesse, the nobility that existed under the great monarch before the brilliance of his reign faded. This reputation he has retained to the present day.

La Rochefoucauld's ethical views have given rise to attacks upon his works by pious moralists of later eras. Like his contemporaries, he saw politics as a chessboard for powerful players, rather than as a struggle of ideologies or a means for achieving broad social goals. He appears to have been unusually scrupulous in his personal conduct, and his lack of success in the aristocratic struggles arose more from this than from anything else.

He died of gout in Paris on 17 March 1680.

Literary works

Réflexions ou sentences et maximes morales

His importance as a social and historical figure is overshadowed by his towering stature in French literature. His literary work consists of three parts—his Memoirs, the Maximes and his letters.

The Memoirs are of high interest and literary merit. A book purporting to be La Rochefoucauld's memoirs was published in the Dutch Republic from whence, despite the author's protest, it continued to be reprinted for some thirty years. It has now been proved to have been pieced together from the work of half a dozen men, with scarcely a third of it being La Rochefoucauld's. Some years after La Rochefoucauld's death, a new recension appeared, still largely adulterated but with some errors corrected. This work went unchallenged for more than a century. Only in 1817 did anything like a genuine, if still imperfect, edition appear.

However, the pithy, elegant Maximes, (maxims) had no such fate. The author made frequent alterations and additions to them during his life and a few were added after his death. It is usual now to publish them in their totality of 504. The majority consist of just two or three lines, and hardly any exceed half a page. La Rochefoucauld reflects on the conduct and motives of mankind, from the point of view of a man of the world who intends not to sugar-coat his observations. In fact, in his introduction, he advises, "...the best approach for the reader to take would be to put in his mind right from the start that none of these maxims apply to himself in particular, and that he is the sole exception, even though they appear to be generalities. After that I guarantee that he will be the first to endorse them and he will believe that they do credit to the human spirit."

Here are a few examples:

II. Self-love is the greatest of all flatterers.

VIII. Sincere enthusiasm is the only orator who always persuades. It is like an art the rules of which never fail; the simplest man with enthusiasm persuades better than the most eloquent with none.

XIV. Men are not only subject to losing all recollection of kindnesses and injuries done them, they even hate those to whom they are obliged and cease to hate those who have harmed them. The effort of repaying the kindness and avenging the evil seem to them a servitude to which they are unwilling to submit.

XXX. If we had no faults, we would not take so much pleasure in noticing those of others.

CCLXI. Flirtatiousness is fundamental to a woman's nature, but not all put it into practice because some are restrained by fear or by good sense.

CDXI. There hardly exist faults which are not more pardonable than the means by which one tries to hide them.

CDXXXIII. The truest mark of having been born with great qualities is to have been born without envy.

His letters number more than one hundred, and they are of both biographical and literary value.

La Rochefoucauld's thoughts on human nature concern, among a broad range of topics, pride and self-love, the passions and the emotions, love, sincerity, conversation, and politics.


Nearly all the great French critics of the 19th century wrote to some extent about La Rochefoucauld.

For a recent assessment of La Rochefoucauld's thought and his place in modern culture see John Farrell, Paranoia and Modernity: Cervantes to Rousseau (Cornell UP, 2006), chapter nine.

Philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, greatly admired La Rochefoucauld and was influenced not only by his ethics, but also his style.

The editions of La Rochefoucauld's Maximes (as the full title runs, Réflexions ou sentences et maximes morales) published in his lifetime bear the dates 1665 (editio princeps), 1666, 1671, 1675, 1678.

Previous editions were superseded by that of Jean Désiré Louis Gilbert and Jules Gourdault (1868–1883), in the series Grands Écrivains de la France, 3 vols.

The most handsome separate edition of the Maximes is the so-called Édition des bibliophiles (1870). See the English version The Moral Maxims and Reflections of the Duke De La Rochefoucauld by George H. Powell (1903).

See also

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