François, duc de La Rochefoucauld (1613–1680). Moral Maxims and Reflections. 1912.

Maxims and Mixed Thoughts

Part III


As nothing betrays greater Weakness and want of Reason, than to submit ones Judgment to another Man’s without any Examination, or Consideration of our own; so nothing argues a great Spirit, and true Wisdom, more than the submitting to Almighty God with an absolute and implicit Faith, and believing whatever he says upon the single Authority of his own Word.

True Worth does not depend upon Times nor Fashions. They that have only the Advantage of a Court Air, any where else are no better than their Neighbours. But good Sense, Learning, and Wisdom, are Qualifications that recommend a Man, and make him Valued every where, and at all times.

Instead of applying our selves to know others, we mind nothing else, but the making our selves known. It would turn to much better Account, to hear and so get more Knowledge; than to talk all, that we may publish what we have got already.

It is sometimes of great Use for a Man to pretend he is Deceived: For when we let a Subtile Fellow see that we are sensible of his Tricks, it gives him Occasion to play more.

Men Judge of things so very Slightly and Superficially, that the most Ordinary Words and Actions set off with a good Grace and some little Knowledge how matters go in the World, very often take more, than the most Profound Wisdom.

To be very much dissatisfied with a Man’s self is a Weakness. But to be highly pleased with ones Self, is downright Folly.

Men of mean Capacities, and ill Breeding, but especially your half-witted Fellows, and dablers in Books, are most apt to be Stiff and Peremptory. None but manly Souls can unsay what they have said, and forsake an Errour when they find themselves on the wrong side.

A Man’s greatest Wisdom consists in being acquainted with his own Follies.

Honesty and Sincerity in our Dealings puts ill Men out of their Byass; it breaks all their Measures by which they hoped to compass their Ends; for Knaves commonly think, that nothing can be done, but by Knavery.

It is a hard Task upon Knaves to be perpetually employed in concealing their own Want of Sincerity, and making amends for the Breaches of their Promise.

They that do all by Tricking, ought however to consult their own Reason so far, as to convince themselves, that such a Behaviour cannot go long undetected where Men are ingenious, and always upon the Watch to discover them; tho’ they may see fit to pretend they are imposed upon for a while, only to dissemble their being sensible of the Cheat.

Our Kindnesses sometimes create us Enemies, and the ungrateful Man is seldom so by halves; for he is not satisfied with not paying the Acknowledgment that is due; but is uneasy, that his Benefactor lives a Witness of his Ingratitude.

Nothing can give us so just a Notion of the Depravity of Mankind in general, as an exact Knowledge of our own Corruptions in particular. If we reflect upon our Thoughts, we shall find the Seeds of all those Vices within our own Breasts, which we condemn in others. And if we do not act it all, yet ’tis plain we are moved to it all. For there is no kind of ill, but Self-Love offers to us to make Use of as Occasion shall serve. And few are so Vertuous as to be above Temptation.

Riches do by no means teach us to be less fond of Riches. The possessing of Abundance is very far from giving us the Quiet, that there is in not desiring them.

None but little Souls are disturbed at having their Ignorance reproved, and the Reason is, That being generally very blind and foolish, they never trouble themselves with Doubts, and are fully satisfied, they see those things clearly, which they have but a very dark and imperfect Sense of, and see only through the thick Mist of a clouded Understanding.

It is every whit as unreasonable, for a Man to accuse himself for his Faults extravagantly, as it is to excuse himself so. Those that blame themselves so very much, do it very often, because they cannot endure to be blamed by any body else; or else out of a vain Humour, to perswade People that they are duly sensible of their own Failings.

It argues great Wisdom to own our own Faults and our Perfections sincerely. And is a Weakness not to allow both the good and the bad Qualities that we really have.

The World is so fond of every thing, that is fresh and uncommon, that Men take secret Pleasure, and find Entertainment, even in the Sight of the dismalest and most tragical Accidents; and that, partly because they are new, and partly from a Principle of ill Nature that is in us.

Men might come to a tolerable good Knowledge of themselves, but they seldom take the Pains of enquiring into themselves, so much as is necessary for the attaining it; and they are more solicitous to be thought why they should be, than really to be what they should be.

If People were but as careful to be what they ought, as to seem so, and impose upon others, by concealing what in Truth they are, they might shew themselves boldly, and save a world of Trouble which Dissimulation puts them to.

There is no Man but may find great Advantage from Learning; but then it is as true, that there are few who do not find great Prejudice too, from the Notions they acquire by Studies, except they use them, as if they were natural to them.

There is a certain Temper very nice to hit, in our Carriage to Persons above us, so as to allow our selves all the Freedom that is necessary to divert and entertain them; and yet to take none that may be any way offensive, or break in upon the Honour and Respect due to their Quality.

Men are often more desirous to seem forward and busy to serve others, than to be successful in it, and had rather have it in their Power to upbraid their Friends with an Obligation, than really to oblige them.

Men are sometimes beholding to want of Judgment for good Success, for a judicious Person would not venture upon several Attempts, which Men who want Consideration, frequently are fortunate in.

Former times are sometimes cryed up, only to run down the present, and we value what is now no more, that we may slight that which is.

There is a kind of commanding Power in Men’s manner of speaking, and in their Actions. Something that makes its own way wherever it comes, and engages Respect and Attention before Hand. It is of use upon all Occasions, and so great, as even to carry whatever one hath a Mind to.

This commanding Faculty, so useful upon all Occasions, is no other than a graceful Authority, proceeding from a Greatness and Elevation of Soul.

Self-Love is often cheated by its own self; for when it considers its own Interests, it so wholly overlooks the Interest of others, as thereby to lose all the Advantage that might be made, by the Exchange of Kindnesses between Man and Man.

All the world are so entirely taken up with their own Passions, and their own Interests, that they are eternally full of them in all their Discourse, without ever concerning themselves with the Passion or Interest of the Persons they speak to, though they too have the same Occasion for Audience and Assistance.

The Ties of Virtue ought to be more Sacred and Close, than those of Blood. For one good Man is nearer of Kin to another, by the Resemblance of their Manners, than Father and Son are by the Resemblance of Faces.

One great Reason, why we meet with so few agreeable Persons, and that converse like Men of Sense, is, That almost every Body is more intent upon what himself hath a mind to say, than upon making pertinent Replies to what the rest of the Company say to him. Those that are most Complaisant, get no farther than pretending to hearken attentively, when at the same time a Man may plainly see, that both their Eyes and their Minds are roving from what is said to them, and posting back again to what they long to be at themselves. Whereas we ought to know, that to seek ones own Pleasure so very Passionately, can never be the way to please the Company. And that diligent Attention and proper Repartees are a much greater Accomplishment, than discoursing never so well, when this is done without ever attending, or answering to the matter then in Hand.

Good Fortune almost always alters the Proceedings and the Air of a Man, and makes him quite another thing in all his Behaviour and Conversation. This is a great Weakness to trick and set ones self off with what is not our own. If Virtue were esteemed above all other things, no Favour, no Advancement would be able to change Men either in their Temper or their Countenance.

We should use our selves to other People’s Follies, and not take Offence at every Impertinence, that passes in our Company.

A great Soul takes whatever happens, and there is as much Wisdom in bearing with other People’s Defects, as in being sensible of their good Qualities.

It is a great Argument of an extraordinary Judgment, when a Man is able to discover what is in anothers Breast, and to conceal what is in its own.

Talking all is so great a Fault, that in Business and Conversation, if what is good be short, it is for that Reason doubly good; and a Man gains that by Brevity, which would often be lost by being tedious.

We generally gain an Ascendant, and are Masters over those we are very well acquainted with; because the Man that is perfectly known, is in some Measure subjected to the Person that knows him.

Study, and the Enquiry after Truth, hath very often only this Effect, That it makes us know experimentally how ignorant we are by Nature.

Men are most esteemed when the World does not know the utmost of their Abilities. For things that are understood but by halves, are always presumed greater than really they are.

The Desire of being thought a Wise Man very often hinders one from being so, for such a one is more solicitous to let the World see what Knowledge he hath, than to learn that which he wants.

Littleness of Soul, and Ignorance, and Presumption, makes People obstinate in their Opinions; for Opinionative Men will not believe what they cannot comprehend; and that there are but very few things that they are able to comprehend.

To disown our Faults, when we are told of them, is but to make them more and greater.

We should not regard how much good a Friend hath done us, so much as how much he desired and endeavoured to do us.

Though we ought not to love our Friends, only for the Good they do us, yet it is a plain Case, they love not Us, if they do not do us Good, when they have it in their Power.

It is neither any great Reflection nor Commendation to say a Man’s Wit is, or is not in the Fashion. For if it be what it ought to be at any Time, it continues to be so at all Times.

The Love of a Man’s self is generally the Rule and Measure of all our Friendship to others. It supersedes all Duties and Obligations, where Interest is concerned; and lays down all Resentments against our Enemies, how just soever the Causes of them were, when they are considerable enough to promote our Honour, or our Fortunes.

It is but an idle and useless Trouble, to make great Enquiries what is done in the World, except all this tend to the reforming of ones Self.

Circumstances and outward Appearances procure a Man frequently more Respect, than real Worth, and a good Bottom. An ungraceful Fashion spoils all, even Justice and Reason it self. The best part of things depends upon the How, and the Air we give them, gilds, accommodates, and sweetens the most ungrateful Matters. All this is owing to the Weakness, and the Prepossession of Men’s Judgments.

We should make the Follies of Others, rather a Warning and Instruction to our selves, than a Subject of Mirth, and Mockery of those that commit them.

The Conversation of Men that are of a dogmatical and governing Spirit is the troublesomest thing that can be. We should be always ready to submit to the Truth, and receive it readily, let it come from what Hand it will.

A Man may learn as much by other People’s Faults, as by their Instructions. The Examples of Imperfection are in a manner as useful towards the making a Man perfect, as those of Wisdom and Perfection.

We are better pleased with those that strive to imitate us, than with those that endeavour to equal us; for Imitation argues Esteem, but a Desire of Equality argues Envy.

’Tis a very commendable Piece of Address to make a Denial go down well with soft and civil Expressions, and by Courtesie to make amends for the Kindness we cannot grant.

There are a Sort of Persons that say No so very naturally, that their No always ushers in whatever they are about to say. This makes them so disagreeable, that tho’ they be prevailed upon with much Importunity to grant any Request, yet all the Grace and the Commendation of such Grants are utterly lost by so very untoward a Beginning.

All Things ought not to be granted, nor all Men to be gratified. It is altogether as commendable, to deny upon a just Occasion, as to give in due Season. This makes some People’s No better received, than other People’s Yes. A Denial, when managed with good Nature, and softened with Civility, gives more Satisfaction to a Man of Understanding, than a Favour coldly and rudely granted.

There is a great deal of Wisdom required in the Choice of good Counsel, as well as in the being able to advise ones own self. Men of the best Judgment are always most ready to consult the Opinions of others, and it is one Eminent Instance of Wisdom to submit ones self to the good Conduct of a Friend.

The Doctrines of Christianity, which ought to be derived only from the Truths contained in the Gospel, are generally represented to us, according to the Temper and Complexion of our Teachers. Some out of an exceeding Tenderness and good Nature, and others from a sour and rugged Disposition, form and imploy the Justice and Mercy of God, just according to their own Apprehensions of Things.

In the Study of Humane Learning, our Soul ought always to preserve its own Freedom, and not inslave it self to other People’s Fancies. The Liberty of the Judgment should have its full Scope, and not take any Thing upon Trust, from the Credit of any Man’s Authority. When different Opinions are proposed to us, we should consider and chuse, if there are such Odds between them, as to admit of a Choice, and if there be not, then we should continue in suspence still.

Contradiction should awaken our Attention and Care, but not our Passion. Those that oppose us, ought rather to be heard than avoided; for we must be of no Interest but that of Truth, after what manner so ever she happen to discover her self to us.

Ostentation and Pride, upon the account of Honours and Preferments, is much more offensive, than upon any personal Qualifications. It argues, Men do not deserve Great Places, when they can value themselves upon them. If a Man would be truly valued, the Way to it is by being illustriously Good. For even the greatest Men are more respected for the Eminence of their Parts and Vertue, than for that of their Fortune.

There is nothing so mean, but hath some Perfection. It is the peculiar Happiness of a discerning Palate, to find out each Thing’s particular Excellence. But the Malice of our corrupt Nature puts us oftentimes upon discovering one Vice among many Vertues, that so we may aggravate and proclaim that to their Disparagement. Now this is not so much an Argument of a nice Judgment, as of a base Disposition; and that Man hath but an ill Life on’t, who feeds himself with the Faults and Frailties of other People.

There is a particular Way of hearkening to ones Self, that is ever displeasing; for it is as great a Folly to hear ones self in Company, as to talk all, and hear no body but ones Self.

A Man is but little the better for liking himself, when no body else likes him. For an immoderate Love of ones Self, is very often chastised by Contempt from others.

There is always, under the greatest Devotion, a Proportion of Self-Love concealed, great enough to set Bounds to our Charity.

Some People are so blind, and flatter themselves to so great a Degree, that they always believe what they wish, and think to make every body believe what they have a mind to. Tho’ the Arguments they would perswade with are never so poor and weak, their Prepossessions are so strong, that they think they need only talk loud and big, and be very positive, to make all the World of their Opinion.

Ignorance creates Irresolution and Fear, Learning makes Men bold and assured, but nothing disturbs a Mind that is truly wise, and knows how to distinguish Things rightly.

It is a general Failing, that Men never think their own Fortunes too great, nor their own Wit too little.

There cannot be a meaner Thing, than to take advantage of ones Quality and Greatness, to ridicule and insult over those of an inferiour Condition.

When a positive Man hath once begun to dispute any thing, his Mind is barred up against all Light and better Information. Opposition provokes him, though there be never so good Ground for it, and he seems to be afraid of nothing more, than lest he should be convinced of the Truth.

The Shame of being commended without any Desert, sometimes puts Men upon doing what otherwise they would never have once attempted to do.

It is much better that great Persons should thirst after Honour; nay, that they should even be vain upon the account of doing well, than that they should be wholly clear of this Passion. For tho’ the Good they do, proceeds not from a Principle of Vertue, yet the World however hath this Advantage, that their Vanity makes them do, what, if they were not vain, they would not have done.

They that are so foolish, as to value themselves meerly for their Quality, do in a great measure slight that very Thing that gave them their Quality. For, tho’ they receive it by Descent now, yet it was the Virtue of their Ancestors that first ennobled their Blood.

Self-Love makes us impose upon our selves in almost every kind of Thing: We hear Faults condemned by other People; nay, we often condemn them with our own Mouths, and yet take no care to amend them. And that, either because we are not sensible of the Ill that we carry about us, or else that we look upon our own Ills through false Glasses, and mistake them for something that is Good.

It is no Consequence, that a Man is vertuous, because we see him do vertuous Actions. We are grateful for a Kindness sometimes, only to serve our selves; for the Reputation of Gratitude, and to gain an Advantage of being more boldly ungrateful for some other Favours, which we are not inclined to acknowledge.

When great Men hope to make the World believe, they have some Excellence which really they have not; it is a Thing of ill Consequence to shew that we suspect them. For when you destroy their Hopes of passing upon the World, you at the same Time destroy all their Desires to do those good Actions, that are agreeable to the Vertues they would be thought to have.

The best Disposition, when untaught is always blind and unsettled. A Man ought to take all imaginable Care to inform himself, that his Ignorance may make him neither childishly fearful, nor ridiculously confident.

The mutual Society, and indeed the Friendship of most Men, is no better than a mere trading Correspondence, kept up just as long as their own Occasions make it necessary.

Though the generality of Friendships contracted in the World, do by no means deserve the Honourable Name of Friendship, yet a Man may very well make his best of them, as he sees occasion, as of a Trade that is not fixed upon any sure Fund, and where nothing is more usual, than to find our selves cheated.

Wheresoever Love is real, it is the governing Passion. It perfectly forms the Soul, the Affections, and the Understanding after its own Model. Its being greater or less, does not depend upon the Capacity of the Person, of whom it hath taken Possession, but upon its own Strength and Proportion; and in truth, Love seems to bear the same relation to the Person in love, that the Soul bears to the Body animated by it.

Love hath such peculiar distinguishing Qualities, that it can neither be concealed, where it really is, nor counterfeited, where it really is not.

All Diversions that are very entertaining, are of dangerous Consequence to Christianity; but of all that the World hath found out, none should be more cautiously used than Plays. They give so nice, so natural a Representation of the Passions, they really beget and inspire them, and especially that of Love, when it is described, as a modest and a vertuous Passion. For the more innocent it appears to innocent Persons, the more still they find themselves disposed to receive and submit to it. They fancy to themselves a Sense of Honour, and at the same Time, that this is no way injured by so discreet an Affection. Thus People rise from a Play with their Hearts so full of the Softnesse of Love, and their Judgments so satisfied of its Innocence[?], that they are in a perfect Disposition to take in its first Impressions readily, or rather indeed to seek and court Occasions of infecting somebody else with it, that so they may receive the same Pleasures, and the same Devotions which they have seen so movingly represented upon the Stage.