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Nicolas de Chamfort (1741–1794). The Cynic’s Breviary. 1902.


SÉBASTIEN-ROCH NICOLAS DE CHAMFORT was born in 1741 and died in 1794. Thus he traversed almost the whole of the latter half of the century, that in France began with the closing years of one great ruler and ended with the accession to supreme power of another—the century of social license and colloquial philosophy, of encyclopædists and actresses, of blue-stockings and wits. He knew every one worth knowing—Voltaire, Madame Dubarry, Diderot, Charlotte Corday, Helvetius, Mademoiselle de L’Espinasse, St. Just, Marie Antoinette, and all the other prominent figures of that fascinating age. Most essentially he was a man of his time, a misanthrope who shone in society, a cynic with a curious vein of humanitarian optimism.   1
  About his birth hangs much mystery. A M. Mège has proved, to his own satisfaction at least, that Chamfort was the lawful offspring of a respectable grocer, but all other authorities agree that he was an illegitimate child, though they are far from being unanimous in assigning his father and mother. That paternity is a matter of opinion, maternity a matter of fact is an old piece of wisdom, but in this case even the latter is doubtful. The one point certain is that the only name to which our author was legally entitled was Nicolas. The Chamfort with its aristocratic “de” was his own invention, just as Molière was that of Poquelin, Voltaire of Arouet, D’Alembert of Jean Lerond. Influence won Chamfort a good education, and at school and college he played the part of youthful prodigy in two ways; he carried off prizes and in the end was rusticated for writing lampoons on the professors. A few months’ nomad existence in Normandy with two other scapegraces followed, and then the prodigal returned, was forgiven and became an abbé. Lest he be accused of hypocrisy in thus taking orders, I must hasten to say that no particular sanctity of life or opinions was essential to an abbé of that period. “The abbés,” says M. Houssaye, “were amiable pagans living gaily outside the Church, who read a different sense into the scriptures from that in vogue now. They went to the Court, to balls and the Opera; they masked and dabbled in adventure—and they said their prayers after supper.”   2
  Chamfort’s instincts naturally drew him to literature both as a means of support and as a path to society. But, like other aspirants, he found editors and publishers unappreciative, and he was growing weary of his efforts when one day he happened on an old schoolfellow who had entered the Church, but, so he confessed, was always at a loss for words in the pulpit. “Listen to me,” said Chamfort, and he delivered a glowing apostrophe to his ill fortune. Lost in admiration the priest promptly offered a louis apiece for any sermons Chamfort would write for him. The bargain was concluded, a sermon was composed weekly and the preacher declaimed his second-hand thunder to the satisfaction of himself and his flock. But Chamfort aimed higher than devilling for the clergy and won a reputation in competing successfully for the Academic prizes then in vogue. The Éloge de Molière is perhaps his most accomplished essay in this direction, though it is of no particular significance as criticism. With these honours and the successful production, in 1764, of his comedy La Jeune Indienne, we find Chamfort fairly launched in Parisian society, faring sumptuously every day—in other people’s houses, petted by great ladies, for he was good-looking and had a gift for flirtation, and under the affectionate care of the “nursing mother of the philosophers,” Madame Helvetius. Henceforth his career seemed shaped out for him. Though never rich, he had too many wealthy friends for penury to be again a menace to him or his mother, whom, to his credit be it said, he supported loyally; if his health was uncertain it was his own hard living that made it so.   3
  It is easy to mistake the real nature of aristocratic French society in the eighteenth century. We are apt to think of it as haughtily exclusive, divided by a great gulf from the classes below it. The great gulf might be there in theory, but in practice any one of agreeable presence, good manners and a pretty wit was assured a safe passage across. To maintain his position Chamfort had not, it seems, to play the part of toady; indeed he apparently found the opposite tactics the better. In one of his anecdotes he tells us of a respectful admirer of women who has to confess that, had he despised them, he would have enjoyed the favours of more. In like manner it may be that Chamfort’s professed contempt for society endeared him to it. The acidity of his reflections no doubt had its charm for a world which delighted in verbal encounters, in dialectic and philosophy, and, while studiously avoiding the practice of morality, showed appreciation of it by packing it into maxims, dialogues, and tales. It is, moreover, one of the redeeming features of a corrupt and frivolous society that, as a rule, it has a sense of humour and can laugh at its own follies. This is what your earnest fanatic cannot do, and accordingly when Chamfort, with his power of seeing more than one side to a question, aimed his sarcasms at the revolutionaries in their turn, he drew down their wrath upon his head.   4
  With Chamfort’s progress in society I have not space to deal adequately. Suffice it that he made influential friends, especially amongst women, including Marie Antoinette, got various comfortable little pensions settled upon him, travelled, was elected to the Forty Immortals, and, much to the surprise of his friends, married and was devoted to his wife, a clever woman of the world, till her death six months later. Among his best friends was Mirabeau, and, curious as it may seem to those who remember the prominent part taken by the latter in the history of the time, his relation to Chamfort was that of disciple to master. With all Mirabeau’s vigour he lacked the other’s subtlety and tact, and he came to regard him as a kind of external conscience. “Never a day passes … in which I do not find myself saying—“Chamfort froncerait le sourcil, ne faisons pas, n’écrivons pas cela.” So far indeed did Mirabeau carry his admiration, that he employed Chamfort, as the young preacher had done, to write his speeches for him. So says Rivarol, to whom Mirabeau appeared “a great sponge always swollen with the ideas of others,” and documentary evidence bears him out.   5
  On the outbreak of the revolution, Chamfort, much to the indignant surprise of his aristocratic friends, who had not perhaps taken his advanced views very seriously, threw in his lot with the popular party. For a time he was secretary of the Jacobin Club, and we discover the fine gentleman of the salons among the stormers of the Bastille. The sincerity of Chamfort’s revolutionary fervour has been questioned, and brooding over the stigma of his birth assigned as its real cause. But we may allow, I think, that he genuinely believed the overcharged political and social atmosphere required a beneficent revolutionary thunderstorm to clear it. Had not he, moreover, been among the prophets? To him the final outburst was no matter for surprise. Whatever his motives, he was a valuable acquisition to his new associates, and his biting wit won him in the Clubs the nickname of “La Rochefoucauld Chamfort.” But in time he developed an unfortunate habit of finding the weak points of the ruling party and pointing them out in his pungent fashion. In his famous “sois mon frère ou je vous tue,” he tersely summed up Jacobin pretensions, and the Jacobins not unnaturally resented this and other witticisms. In short he was haled before the tribunal, imprisoned, then released, but only to be threatened with imprisonment again. This harassed existence was too much for poor Chamfort, and, rather than endure a new captivity, he attempted suicide with a pistol and a razor. Unluckily he only succeeded in wounding himself horribly, and lingered on for some months longer. His death took place on April 13, 1794. Chamfort’s is not altogether a sympathetic personality, but one cannot grudge a regret over the miserable end of a brilliant career.   6
  It was not, one must insist, the career of a great man of letters. Had Chamfort left nothing behind him but the mediocre literary baggage which fills the greater part of the five volumes of his works edited by M. Auguis in 1824, he would be no more than a name to us, one of the mob of gentlemen who write with ease and most assuredly do not write for posterity. His verses, his éloges, his comedies, the tragedy which he wrote since everybody had to father a tragedy, have the dust of oblivion thick upon him, dust little like to be disturbed save by the curious student. It is as a talker, the greatest of his age, that Chamfort survives. His collection of anecdotes, told with inimitable verve and terseness, forms a document of capital importance to the social historian; but it is in the maxims and pensées, coinage of his own incisive wit, that we find the man at his best. Comparison with his great predecessor in this field, La Rochefoucauld, is inevitable, but Chamfort emerges from it with little loss of credit. If he lacks La Rochefoucauld’s breadth, serenity, restraint, and universality of penetration, he surpasses the elder moralist in passion, daring, and, one may add, sincerity. Chamfort does not stand aloof from the world whose weak points he touches, now in pity, now in scorn; his sayings are instinct with personality; behind the aphorism we behold the man, a latter-day Ecclesiastes, who, nevertheless, has visions at times of a Promised Land beyond the wilderness.   7
  As regards form, Chamfort’s pensées are well nigh perfect. He had of course the advantage of writing them in the language best fitted for the purpose, but even this allowed, they are masterpieces of pregnant brevity. “Those people,” said Balzac of Chamfort and his contemporary Rivarol, “put whole volumes into a single bon mot, while nowadays ’tis a marvel if we find a bon mot in a volume.” This is the extravagance of praise. In more measured terms John Stuart Mill and Schopenhauer expressed their admiration of the genius displayed in Chamfort’s pensées, those “flèches acérées,” to quote Sainte-Beuve, “qui arrivent brusquement et sifflent encore.” Yes, for, after all, we have not made such wonderful progress since Chamfort’s day, but that some of these keen arrows of his find their mark still.
W. G. H.
January, 1902. NOTE.—It is perhaps a point of some interest from a bibliographical point of view, that this is the first translation into English of any of Chamfort’s writings.