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François La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680) - François VI, also called le Prince de Marcillac, Duc de la Rochefoucauld


La Rochefoucauld was a French classical author, a contemporary of Descartes, who is best known for his Reflections; or Sentences and Moral Maxims (1665-1678). A cynical observer of Louis XIV's court, La Rochefoucauld mostly saw selfishness, hypocrisy, and weakness in general in human behavior. With his independent way of thinking he was also one of the intellectual forefathers of the Enlightenment. La Rochefoucauld's insights have influenced amongst others Lord Chesterfield, Thomas Hardy, Friedrich Nietzsche, Stendhal, and André Gide.

"Our virtues are most frequently but vices in disguise." (from Reflections; or, Sentences and Moral Maxims)

François, duc de La Rochefoucauld, the eldest son of the first duke, was born in Paris into an illustrious family; the family title had been for many generations that of Comte. La Rochefoucaulds father, the fifth count, served as a minister in the court Louis XIII. In his childhood, La Rochefoucauld received little formal education. When he was barely ten years old, he was sent into army, and at the age of sixteen he participated in the siege of Cassel. Before he was fifteen he married Andrée de Vivonne (died 1670); little is known of her,  except that she was the mother of eight children.

During his military career, La Rochefoucauld served in Italy, the Netherlands (1635-36), Rocroi (1643), and Gravelines (1644). At the battle of Mardick in 1646 he was severely wounded. Supporting the cause of Marie de' Medici, he took part in a conspiracy against Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642) and later he opposed Mazarin (1602-1661). "His relations and his creatures continued to enjoy all the advantages they had gained through him," Rochefoucauld wrote in him memoirs after Richelieu's death, "and by a turn of fortune, of which there are few examples, the king, who hated him, and desired his fall, was obliged, not only to conceal his sentiments, but even to authorize the disposition made by the cardinal in his will of the principal employments and most important places in his kingdom. He chose Cardinal Mazarin to succeed him in the government."

Due to his actions, La Rochefoucauld was imprisoned in the Bastille briefly by Richelieu, and then forced to live in exile from 1639 to 1642. He did not stop plotting against the Cardinal. Jean Herauld de Gourville (1625-1703), his secretary, was later appointed tax collector by Nicholas Fouquet, Superintendent of Finances. A man of his times, he took advantage of corruption, made a fortune, and escaped France. In his memoirs, published in 1724, Gourville spoke very openly of his exploitations, which also benefited Rochefoucauld. "If we had no faults of our own we would not take so much pleasure in noticing those of others," Rochefoucauld noted in his Maximes. Like the mathematician and religous philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), he had a pessimistic view of people, but without religious reference.

Eventually Rochefoucauld won his way back into royal favour, only to be repeatedly disappointed by empty promises. Moreover, his hope for the Governorship of Havre was crushed. As a defender of the old aristocracy and standing up to his principles, he was soon involved in 1648-52 in the Fronde – a rebellion against the ministry of Cardinal Mazarin in the reign of Louis XIV.

When La Rochefoucauld was thirty-three, he began a liaison with the the Duchesse de Longueville, one of the beauties of the Court and the great love of his life, who eventually betrayed him. In 1652 La Rochefoucauld was wounded and almost blinded in a battle in Saint-Antoine, which ended in the victory of the court and supporters of royal power. To escape possible arrest, La Rochefoucauld fled to Luxembourg for a period, and after he was allowed to return to France, he retired from political life. Broken in health, embittered, and ruined financially, he devoted himself to literature. First he lived in his chateau at Verteuil, but in 1656 he settled in Paris, making his home the meeting place of a small intellectual elite.

One of La Rochefoucauld's sons was killed in 1672 at the crossing of the Rhine, but it has been said that he was more affected by the death of the young Duc de Longueville, who died in the same attack. After taking up the role of a courtier, La Rochefoucauld focused on fulfilling the ideal of the honnête homme, who is trusthworthy and polished in manners and speech. In spite of suffering from gout, he joined Louis XIV's Dutch campaign in 1667-68.

Although La Rochefoucauld was very productive as a writer, he published only two works, Mémoires (1664), and the Réflexions; ou, Sentences et Maximes Morales (1665), better known as the Maximes, which he began to write during his semi-retirement years in the country. Mémoires gained a wide audience but he denied its authorship and interest in the book waned. Voltaire once stated that  "the Memoirs are universally read and the Maxims are learnt by heart". ('Introduction,' in Reflections; Or, Sentences and Moral Maxims, translated by J.W. Willis Bund and J. Hain Friswell, 1871, p. xxii) The manuscript of Maximes was circulated in 1663 among a select group of the guests of his friend, the Marquise de Sablé. A pirate edition was published in 1664, and an authentic edition late in 1664, but dated 1665. It became popular and appeared in five editions during La Rochefoucauld's lifetime. Dr. Johnson spoke of it as "the only book written by a man of fashion, of which professed authors need to be jealous." (The Scots Magazine, And Edinburgh Literary Miscellany, Vol. LXXVII, 1815, p. 989)

Quarrels would not last long if the fault was only on one side.
If we resist our passions, it is more due to their weakness than our strength.

We are strong enough to bear the misfortunes of others.
It is more shameful to distrust one's friends than to be deceived by them.
The intellect is always fooled by the heart.
One gives nothing so freely as advice.
One is never as unhappy as one thinks, nor as happy as one hopes.

Rochefoucauld's Maximes expressed the pessimism of the disillusioned nobility, drawn into ridiculous wars and desiring to restore the lost influence over the state. At the court everybody made mutual observations about the members of these circles, and cultivated intellectual competition at the expense of others. In a short sketch of himself La Rouchefoucauld mentions that he loves conversation, especially with women, but otherwise found it hard to be other than "reserved". Jean de La Fontaine, who moved in the same literary circles, shared Rochefoucauld's vision of human nature. In 'Discours' (Fables, livre X, 1678), dedicated to him, a flock of rabbits are scared away by a sound of a gunshop, but before long, they forget the danger and reclaim their turf.

"Mme de Sévigné says somewhere that she often had such sad conversations with Mme de Lafayette and La Rochefoucauld that probably the best thing they could have done would be to have had themselves buried." (from Arnold Hauser's Social History of Art, Vol. 2, 1962)

As an essayist La Rochefoucauld started most likely with his self-portrait of 1658, included in Mme. de Montpensier's Divers Portraits. He also wrote other portraits, seven of which were published in 1731, and the other 12 not until 1863 in Œuvres (vol. 1). Between Montaigne and La Rochefoucauld the essay had developed from formal letters and from short treatises as a recognizable literary form. Réflexions created a link from essay to this new genre, intelligent and sensitive society portraiture. The same wit and restrained cynicism that are apparent in the Maximes, is seen also in these pieces. Moreover, La Rochefoucauld was almost certainly familiar with the writings of the Spanish philosopher and writer Baltasar Gracián (1601-1658), developer of the baroque literary style known as conceptismo (conceptism). 

La Rouchefoucauld was a close friend of Madame de La Fayette (1634-93), the reformer of romance writing, who gained fame with Zaide (1670) and the first great French historical novel, La Princesse de Cléves (1678). She was some twenty years his junior; their liaison lasted until La Rochefoucauld's death. He also helped Mme de La Fayette in her researches for the novel. "He gave me intellect," she said, "and I reformed his heart."  ('Rochefoucauld 1613-1680,' in Lives of the Most Eminent French Writers, Vol. 1, by Mrs. Shelley and Others, 1840, p. 102) La Rochefoucauld died in Paris, on March 17, 1680; at that time he was a chronic invalid. Writing to his daughter, Madame de Sévigné said of his final years, "Believe me, it is not for nothing he has moralized all his life; he has thought so often on his last moments that they are nothing new or unfamiliar to him."  

For further reading: Disguised Vices: Theories of Virtue in Early Modern French Thought by  Michael Moriarty (2011); Le laboratoire moraliste: La Rochefoucauld et l'invention moderne de l'auteur by Alain Brunn (2009); The "Honnete Homme" and the Art of Pleasing: Politeness and Sociability in French Thought, 1660-1700 by Tuomas Tikanoja (2009); Falsehood Disguised by Richard G. Hodgson (1995); La Rochefoucauld and the Language of Unmasking in Seventeeth-Century France by Henry C. Clark (1994); La Rochefoucauld, Maximes et réflectiuons diverses by Derek Watts (1993); Procès à La Rochefoucauld et à la maxime by Corrado Rosso (1986); Collaboration et originalité chez La Rochefoucauld by Susan Read Baker (1980); La Rochefoucauld and the Seventeeth-Century Concept of the Self by Vivien Thweat (1980); Essai sur la morale de La Rochefoucauld by Louis Hippeau (1978); Two French Moralists: La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère by Odette de Mourgues (1978); La Rochefoucauld, Augustinisme et littérature by Jean Lafond (1977); La Rochefoucauld: The Art of Abstraction by Philip E. Lewis (1977); La Rochefoucauld: His Mind and Art by W.G. Moore (1969); New Apects of Style in the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld by Mary Zeller (1954); The Life and Adventrures of La Rochefoucauld by Morris Bishop (1951); La Vrai Visage de La Rochefoucauld by Emile Magne (1923); 'Rochefoucauld 1613-1680,' in Lives of the Most Eminent French Writers, Vol. 1, by Mrs. Shelley and Others (1840)  - Suom.: "Meidän hyveemme ovat usein vain valepukuisia paheita." (Mietelmiä, suom. J.V. Lehtonen, 1924 ilmestyneen suomennoksen 2. painos, 1994.)

Selected works:

  • Apologie De M. Le Prince Du Marcillac, 1649
  • Portrait de La Rochefoucauld par lui-même, 1659
  • Mémoires, 1662 (ed. by Gabriel de La Rochefoucauld)
    - The Memoirs (tr. anonymously in 1684)
  • Sentences et Maximes Morales, 1664 (Dutch pirated edition); as Réflexions; ou, Sentences et Maximes Morales, 1664 (the fifth, definitive edition 1678); as Maximes, 1927 (ed. by Robert L. Cru)
    - Seneca Unmasked (tr. by Aphra Behn, 1685) / Moral Maxims By The Duke de la Rochefoucauld (tr. 1749, ed. by Irwin Primer, 2002) / Moral Maxims and Reflections, in Four Parts (tr. 1694) / Maxims (translators: Aphra Behn, 1685; A.S. Bolton, 1884; John Heard, Jr., 1917; F.C. Stevens, 1939; Constantine FitzGibbon, 1957; Louis Kronenberger, 1959; Leonard W. Tancock, 1959; Stuart D. Warner and Stéphane Douard, 2001) / Moral Reflections, Sentences and Maxims of Francis, duc de La Rochefoucauld (tr. 1850) / Reflections; or, Sentences and Moral Maxims (translated from the editions of 1678 and 1827 by J.W. Willis-Bund and J. Hain Friswell) / Selected Maxims and Reflections (tr. Edward M. Stack, 1956) / Collected Maxims and Other Reflections (tr. E.H. Blackmore, A.M. Blackmore, Francine Giguere, 2007)
    - Mietelmiä (suom. J.V. Lehtonen, 1924)
  • Œuvres de La Rochefoucauld , 1868-83 (4 vols., ed. by D.L. Gilbert and J. Gourdault)
  • Oeuvres Complètes, 1964 (ed. by Louis Martin-Chauffer, rev. by Jean Marchand)
  • La Justification de l'Amour, 1971 (ed. by J.-D. Hubert)
  • Seneca Unmasqued: a Bilingual Edition of Aphra Behn's Translation of La Rochefoucauld's Maximes, 2001 (with an introduction and notes by Irwin Primer) 
  • Collected Maxims and Other Reflections, 2007 (translated with an introduction and notes by E.H. and A.M. Blackmore and Francine Giguère)
  • Reflections, or Moral Opinions and Maxims: Together with Various Refections and Biographical Writings, 2017 (bilingual edition; translated by Jack Mitchell) 

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