François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, is best known for the Maximes, a work whose last title during the author’s lifetime was Réflexions; ou, Sentences et maximes morales.
The manuscripts of these mostly brief aphorisms were circulated in 1663 among a select group of guests of his friend, the Marquise de Sablé. The manuscript was leaked, and published first in a pirate edition dated 1664, almost certainly without La Rochefoucauld’s complicity, in the interest of advancing the rigorous spirituality associated with the Augustinian theology of Jansenism and the monastery of Port-Royal.
La Rochefoucauld immediately published an authentic edition late in 1664 (but dated 1665) and then, chiefly by dropping the prefatory discourse and the long initial maxim on “amourpropre,” distanced himself from the Augustinian interpretation of his moral vision in a second edition of 1666.
La Rochefoucauld was also the author of other related works. They included an Apologie of 1649, disdainful of the chief minister, Mazarin; Mémoires, possibly begun before 1656 and again intended for circulation only among a select group of friends, but published without La Rochefoucauld’s connivance in Belgium in 1662; and a series of 19 Réflexions diverses, of the greatest interest in the present context on account of the light they shed on the development of the essay genre in France.
Montaigne’s Essais, first published in 1580, had been a series of often intimate disquisitions containing much moral and historical speculation. The chapters of his book, although not intended to be essays in the modern sense, are regarded as early examples of the essay. Between Montaigne and La Rochefoucauld the genre had developed in France, emerging from formal letters, often intended for publication, on subjects of interest to the cultivated classes, and from short treatises, sometimes written as polemic, often speculative, and occasionally appearing as prefaces to books. In La Rochefoucauld’s Réflexions, the moral essay and historical essay can be seen for the first time to have clear links with another important genre emerging in mid-17th-century France: the portrait.
The portrait as a literary genre had begun in France in the mid-1650s, largely with the immensely popular novels of Madeleine de Scudéry, whose Clélie (1660–62) had included often idealized but recognizable portraits of members of the new salon society emerging after the mid-century civil wars known as the Fronde. Fifty-seven of the newly fashionable portraits were collected by two well-known literary figures, Jean-Regnauld de Segrais and Pierre-Daniel Huet, for a sumptuously bound collection published as Divers Portraits in 1659 by Mme. de Montpensier, “la grande Mademoiselle,” niece of Louis XIII, who wrote 16 of them herself. The enterprising bookseller-publishers Claude Barbin and Charles Sercy then published as many portraits as they could lay their hands on, printing over 500 in the 1659 Recueil de portraits et éloges en vers et en prose (Collection of portraits and eulogies in verse and in prose), including some taken from the Divers Portraits.
La Rochefoucauld’s first “essay” was probably the subtle self-portrait of 1658 included in Mme. de Montpensier’s volume. He was to write other portraits, notably of the Cardinal de Retz, as well as of Mme. de Montespan, Richelieu, and the Comte d’Harcourt, but these were published only as an appendix to the Réflexions diverses, some at least of which were true essays, however closely related in subject matter and viewpoint to the briefer Maximes. Seven of the Réflexions diverses were first published in 1731, the other 12 not until 1863. La Rochefoucauld is known to have revised them toward the end of his life, but the dates of earlier drafts remain uncertain. They are much longer than the Maximes and some are nearer to the Mémoires in style, but it is not impossible that the famous maxim on “amour-propre,” already an essay in all but name, was first conceived as a portrait of a moral state or motive personalized by La Rochefoucauld. It was certainly first published in the third part of Sercy’s Recueil de pièces en prose very late in 1659, and was preceded by a letter addressed to a lady and signed by “L’Amour-propre,” as by a male whom the addressee had rejected. It was suppressed as too open to a Jansenist interpretation after the first authentic edition of the Maximes, which began with it, but may well provide an early and striking example of the way in which the portrait evolved into the essay in France in the 1650s.
The 19 Réflexions diverses differ too widely from one another to form a coherent whole. Three, including the long 19th with its attached portraits, are devoted rather in the manner of Montaigne to the consideration of the peculiarities of history. Another four are virtuoso exercises on common themes, “the sea and love,” “the relationship between human beings and animals,” “the origin of sicknesses,” and “coquettes and old men.”
Half a dozen concern social behavior and taste, while only four—“the uncertainty of jealousy,” “the difference of minds,” “inconstancy,” and “retirement”—are clearly related to the maxims in focus and penetration by their psychological analyses.
La Rochefoucauld’s essays are nonetheless marked by the same perceptiveness, wit, and restrained cynicism as are apparent in the Maximes. Sometimes the Réflexions are harsher, emphasizing pride rather than self-interest as a principal human motive, and invariably uncovering beneath a surface of social lustre reasons for the inevitability of inconstancy, insincerity, and hypocrisy. Underlying them is always an ideal of moral attitudes, social behavior, and a hierarchical division of personal qualities which reflect the instincts of a cultivated French social elite on the whole opposed to the increasing power wielded by the non-aristocratic but wealthy and educated bourgeois classes. La Rochefoucauld’s cultivated tastes, his fastidiousness, and his psychological acumen keep him above anything so vulgar as snobbery. The foundation of his lasting power as a writer lies not in any implied defense of outdated moral qualities and social attitudes, but in the penetration and analytical skill for which he found the ideal vehicle in the short forms of essay and maxim. By developing the game of intelligent and sensitive society portraiture into a new literary genre, he also brought new life to the essay form in France.
François VI, le Prince de Marcillac, Duc de La Rochefoucauld. Born 15 September 1613 in Paris. Married Andrée de Vivonne, 1628 (died, 1670): eight children. Maître de camp, 1629; served in Italy, the Netherlands, 1635–36, Rocroi, 1643, and Gravelines, 1644, and severely wounded at the Battle of Mardick, 1646. Imprisoned briefly by Richelieu for conspiracy against the court, 1637, then banished to Verteuil for two years. Liaison with the Duchesse de Longueville, from 1646. Participated in the Fronde (rebellions against the ministry of Cardinal Mazarin in the reign of Louis XIV), 1648–52: almost blinded in fighting in Paris, 1652; fled to Luxembourg, then allowed back to France and lived in Verteuil, 1653; allowed to live in Paris, 1656. Lived in retirement among a small intellectual circle, including Mmes. de Sablé, de Sévigné and de Lafayette. Took part in Louis XIV’s Dutch campaign, 1667–68. Suffered from gout, from 1669. Died in Paris, 17 March 1680.
Essays and Related Prose
Apologie de M. le Prince de Marcillac, 1649
Mémoires, 1662; edited by Gabriel de La Rochefoucauld, 1925; as The Memoirs, translated anonymously, 1684
Sentences et maximes de morale, 1664 (Dutch pirated edition); as Réflexions; ou, Sentences et maximes morales, 1665 (actually 1664); revised and enlarged editions, 1666, 1671, 1675, 1676, 1678 (definitive edition), and 1693; as Maximes, edited by Robert L.Cru, 1927, Henry A.Grubbs, 1929, Frederick C.Green, 1945, Roland Barthes, 1961, Jean Starobinski, 1964, Dominique Secretan, 1967, and Jacques Truchet
(Classiques Garnier), 1967; as Maxims, translated by Aphra Behn, 1685, A.S.Bolton, 1884, F.C.Stevens, 1939, Constantine FitzGibbon, 1957, Louis Kronenberger, 1959, and Leonard W.Tancock, 1959
Réflexions diverses, in OEuvres, vol. 1, edited by D.L.Gilbert and others, 1868; edited (with Maximes) by Henry A.Grubbs, 1929, S.de Sacy, 1965, Jacques Truchet
(Classiques Garnier), 1967, and Dominique Secretan, 1967
Other writings: the autobiography Portrait de La Rochefoucauld par lui-même (1659) and journals.
Collected works editions: OEuvres, edited by D.L.Gilbert and others, 4 vols., 1868–93;
OEuvres complétes (Pléiade Edition), edited by Louis Martin-Chauffier, revised by Jean Marchand, 1964.
Marchand, Jean, Bibliographie générale raisonnée de La Rochefoucauld, Paris: Giraud- Badin, 1948
Baker, Susan Read, Collaboration et originalité chez La Rochefoucauld, Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1980
Bishop, Morris, The Life and Adventures of La Rochefoucauld, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1951
Clark, Henry C., La Rochefoucauld and the Language of Unmasking in Seventeenth- Century France, Geneva: Droz, 1994
Hippeau, Louis, Essai sur la morale de La Rochefoucauld, Paris: Nizet, 1978
Hodgson, Richard G., Falsehood Disguised: Unmasking the Truth in La Rochefoucauld, West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1995
Lafond, Jean, La Rochefoucauld, Augustinisme et littérature, Paris: Klincksieck, 1977
Lewis, Philip E., La Rochefoucauld: The Art of Abstraction, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977
Magne, Emile, Le Vrai Visage de La Rochefoucauld, Paris: Ollendorff, 1923
Moore, W.G., La Rochefoucauld: His Mind and Art, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969
Mourgues, Odette de, Two French Moralists: La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978
Rosso, Corrado, Procès à La Rochefoucauld et à la maxime, Pisa: Goliardica, 1986
Thweat, Vivien, La Rochefoucauld and the Seventeenth-Century Concept of the Self, Geneva: Droz, 1980
Watts, Derek, La Rochefoucauld, Maximes et réflexions diverses, Glasgow: University of Glasgow French and German Publications, 1993
Zeller, Mary F., New Aspects of Style in the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld, Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1954
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