Luc de Clapiers, marquis de Vauvenargues  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Luc de Clapiers, marquis de Vauvenargues (6 August 171528 May 1747) was a French moralist, essayist, and miscellaneous writer.


He was born in Aix-en-Provence. His family was poor though noble; he was educated at the college of Aix, where he learned little—neither Latin nor Greek—but by means of a translation acquired a great admiration for Plutarch.

He entered the army as sub-lieutenant in the king's regiment, and served for more than ten years, taking part during the War of the Polish Succession in the Italian campaign of Marshal Villars in 1733, and in the disastrous expedition to Bohemia in support of Frederick II of Prussia's designs on Silesia, in which the French were abandoned by their ally.

There, in 1740, he met and fell in love with an aristocratic eighteen year old soldier eight years his junior, Paul Hippolyte Emmanuel de Seytres. De Seytres died shortly thereafter, during the Siege of Prague in 1742. De Clapiers addressed his philosophical work Conseil à un jeune homme (Advice to a young Man) to his young beloved. He also wrote a funeral eulogy for him, a work which he considered to be among the most important of his life, and which he continued to polish until his death. Vauvenargues discusses in his writings his hate of women and his love of young men, which he defends as having nothing against nature, and blames "malicious spirits" for criminalizing his tastes in love. (Michel Lariviere, "Homosexuels et bisexuels celebres" p.329)

Vauvenargues took part in Marshal Belleisle's winter retreat from Prague. On this occasion his legs were frozen, and though he spent a long time in hospital at Nancy he never completely recovered. He was present at the battle of Dettingen, and on his return to France was garrisoned at Arras. His military career was now at an end.

He had long been desired by the marquis of Mirabeau, author of L'Ami des Hommes, and father of the statesman, to turn to literature, but poverty prevented him from going to Paris as his friend wished. He wished to enter the diplomatic service, and made applications to the ministers and to king Louis XV himself. These efforts were unsuccessful, but Vauvenargues was on the point of securing his appointment through the intervention of Voltaire when an attack of smallpox completed the ruin of his health and rendered diplomatic employment out of the question. Voltaire then asked him to submit to him his ideas of the difference between Jean Racine and Pierre Corneille. The acquaintance thus begun ripened into real and lasting friendship.

Vauvenargues moved to Paris in 1745, and lived there in the closest retirement, seeing but few friends, of whom Jean-François Marmontel and Voltaire were the chief. Among his correspondents was the archaeologist Fauris de Saint-Vincens. Vauvenargues published in 1746 an Introduction à la connaissance de l'esprit humain, with certain Reflexions and Maximes appended.

He died in Paris on May 28, 1747.


The bulk of Vauvenargues's work is very small, but its interest is very considerable. In the Introduction, in the Reflexions and in the minor fragments, it consists, in fact, of detached and somewhat desultory thoughts on questions of moral philosophy and of literary criticism. Sainte-Beuve has mildly said that as a literary critic Vauvenargues "shows inexperience." His literary criticism is indeed limited to a repetition in crude form of the stock ideas of his time. Thus he exaggerates immensely the value of Jean Racine and Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, but depreciates Pierre Corneille and even Molière.

As a writer he stands far higher. His style is indeed, according to strict academic judgment, somewhat incorrect, and his few excursions into rhetoric have the artificial and affected character which mars so much 18th century work. His strength, however, is not really in any way that of a man of letters, but that of a moralist. He did not adopt the complete philosophic attitude; in his letters, at any rate, he poses as "neutral" between the religious and the anti-religious school. In some of his maxims about politics there is also traceable the hollow and confused jargon about tyrants and liberty which did so much to bring about the struggles of the French Revolution. It is in morals proper, in the discussion and application of general principles of conduct, that Vauvenargues shines. He is not an exact psychologist, much less a rigorous metaphysician. His terminology is popular and loose, and he hardly attempts the co-ordination of his ideas into any system. His real strength is in the expression in more or less epigrammatic language of the results of acute observation of human conduct and motives, for which he had found ample leisure in his campaigns.

The chief distinction between Vauvenargues and his great predecessor François de La Rochefoucauld is that Vauvenargues thinks nobly of man, and is altogether inclined rather to the Stoic than to the Epicurean theory. He has indeed been called a modern Stoic, and, allowing for the vagueness of all such phrases, there is much to be said for the description.

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