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

Mixed Thoughts

Part IV

Self-Love, according as it is rightly or otherwise, understood and applyed, is the Cause of all the Moral Vertues, and Vices in the World.

That Prudence, which is made use of in the good Management of Men’s Affairs, when taken in its true Sense, is only a wise and more judicious Love of our selves; and the opposite to this, is perfect Blindness and Inconsideration.

Though it may be said, with great Truth, upon this Principle, that Men never act without a regard to their own Interest, yet will it be no Consequence from thence, that all they do is corrupt, and no such Thing as Justice nor Honesty left in the World. Men may govern themselves by Noble Ends, and propose Interests full of Commendation and Honour. And indeed, the very Thing, that denominates any Person a Man of Justice and Honour is this just Distinction of Self-Love, regulated as it ought to be; when though all Things are done with respect to his own Advantage at last, yet still this is with a due Allowance and Reservation to the Laws of Civil Society.

The Love of our Neighbour is the wisest and most useful good Quality in the World; it is every whit as necessary in Civil Societies for our Happiness in the present Life, as Christianity hath made it in order to that of the next Life.

Honour and Disgrace, are but empty and imaginary Things, if we take them apart from those real Advantages and Misfortunes that attend them.

Those that give themselves a World of trouble, and that tempt a World of Dangers, meerly for the sake of transmitting a great Name to after Ages, are, in my Opinion, very whimsical People. All this Honour and Reputation which they look upon as boundless, is yet confined within a little room in their own Imagination. For this crowds all Posterity into one Age, by setting those Honours before their Eyes, as if they were all present together, which they shall never live to see nor enjoy.

This Maxim, That the most secret Things are discovered at one Time or other, is (to say the least of it) very uncertain; for we can only judge of what we do not know, by what we know already; and consequently, what we do not yet know can give us no further Light into it.

Nothing conduces more to the making our Life happy, than to know Things as they really are; and this Wisdom must be acquired by frequent Reflections upon Men, and the Affairs of the World; for otherwise Books will contribute but little to it.

Almost all the Miseries of Life are owing to the false Notions Men have of the World, and all that is done in it.

True Eloquence is good Sense, delivered in a Natural, and unaffected Way. That which must be set off with Tropes and Ornaments, is acceptable, only because the Generality of Men are easily imposed upon, and see Things but by halves.

Maxims are to the Mind, just what a Staff is to the Body, when a Man cannot support himself by his own Strength. Men of sound Sense, that see Things in their full and just Proportions, have no need of general Observations to help them out.

The great Characters of being Men of Honour and Justice, are very often grounded more upon Forms, and a Knack of appearing to be such, than any true and solid Worth.

Those that have the Accomplishments Essential to the making a good Man, supposing they need no Art, neglect Formalities; act more according to Nature, and consequently more in the Dark. For those that judge of them, have something else to do, than to examine them; and so they pronounce Sentence only according to outward Appearances.

No man can be perfectly Just and Good, without a great Measure of Sense, and right Reason, which will always carry him to chuse the juster Side in every Action of his Life. And it is a foolish Thing to extol wicked Men, and Knaves, as the World commonly do, for Persons of Wit and Understanding. Such People have only one Part of that sound Sense, which makes them successful upon some Occasions, but imperfect, and at a loss upon a Thousand others.

Courage in Men, and Chastity in Women, are esteemed the principal Vertues of each Sex, because they are the hardest to practise: When these Vertues want either that Constitution, or that Grace that should sustain and keep them up, they soon grow weak, and are presently sacrificed to the Love of Life and Pleasure.

You shall scarce meet with a Master, but cries out, upon all Servants, that they are Rogues and the Plagues of a Family; and if Servants ever come to be Masters, they will say just the same thing. The Reason is, because generally, it is not the Qualities, but the Fortunes of Men, that makes the difference between them.

People do not make it their Business to be in the right, so much as to be thought so; this makes them stickle so stifly for their own Opinions, even then when they know and are satisfied they are false.

Errors sometimes have as long a run, as the greatest Truths; because, when these Errors are once received for Truths, Men admit whatever makes for them with an implicit Consent; and reject or overlook all that is capable of undeceiving them.

Tricking and Lying are as sure Marks of a low and poor Spirit, as false Money is of a poor and low Purse.

When Men, that are under a Vow of Devotion, engage themselves in the Business of the World, without absolute necessity for so doing, they give us great Cause to suspect the Reality of their Devotion.

All Devotion, which is not grounded upon Christian Humility, and the Love of our Neighbour, is no better than Form and Pretence: ’Tis only the Pride and Peevishness of Philosophy, which thinks by despising the World, to revenge it self upon all the Contempt and Dissatisfactions, Men have met with from it.

The Devotion of Ladies growing into Years, is frequently no better, than a little kind of Decency taken up to shelter themselves from the shame and the Jest of a fading Beauty; and to secure, in every Change, something that may still recommend them to the World.

Devotion is a Temper of the Mind purely Spiritual, and derives it self from God. Consequently, it is a very nice Thing, and ought to be observed very narrowly, and with exceeding Caution, by those that would keep themselves from being deceived in it.

The highest Pitch of Perfection, that Men are capable of, is to be throughly acquainted with their own Weakness, their Vanity, and Misery; and the less good Sense any one hath, the less he knows of these Matters.

There is a sort of Ignorance, that knows nothing at all, and yet is not near so despicable, as that kind of Ignorance, which is full of Error and Impertinence, and passes upon a great many for Learning and Knowledge.

Too servile a Submission to the Books and Opinions of the Ancients, as if these were Eternal Truths, revealed by God himself, hath spoiled many an ingenious Man, and plagued the World with abundance of Pedants.

If we set aside those Cases, in which Religion is concerned, a Man ought to measure his Studies and his Books by the Standard of his own Reason, and not inslave his Reason to his Books.

Studious Men propose to themselves the filling their Heads with Notions, that they may talk fluently and nicely, and be taken notice of in the World; more than their own real Improvement, and better Information, that they might be qualified to make a right Judgment of Things.

Such Words as sympathize, Je ne scay quoy’s, Occult Qualities, and a Thousand more of the same kind, have no Sense nor Signification at all. A Man is wonderfully deceived, if he fansies himself one jot the wiser for them. They were only found out to supply the want of Reason, and to be used, when we would fain say something, but indeed have nothing to say.

We attribute more to Reason, than is her due. She frequently usurps what of right belongs to our Constitution; and would have but few Advantages, if she had no more than are strictly her own.

It is but very seldom, that Reason cures our Passions, but one Passion is commonly cured by another. Reason indeed often strikes in with the strongest Side; and there is no Passion so extravagant, but hath its Reason ready to keep it in Countenance.

Good and right Reason is a Light in the Mind, by which it discerns Things as they are in themselves; but in this World this Light is incompassed, and darkened by a Thousand Mists and Clouds.

Reputation would not be so highly valued, if we did but duly consider, how very unjust Men are, both in the giving and the taking of it away again. We should be sure to deserve it by doing well, and when that Care is once taken, not be over-anxious about the Success.

Too tender a Sense of what other People say ill of us, does but entertain the Malice of the World, which desires nothing more than that it may disturb us.

The absolute want of such a Sense, so as to be moved at nothing they say, is a contrary Extream, that produces the same Effect. This is such a sort of Contempt, as the World is concerned to revenge its self upon.

There is a middle State, and a Temper to be found between these two Extreams, which inclines the World to make Allowances for some Actions in one Man, which yet they condemn without any Mercy in others. This makes the mighty difference between Ladies, that yet have taken the same Liberties. So that some are run down, and it is scandalous to be seen in their Company, and others are esteemed as chast as Nuns, and no Reflections cast upon them.

That pure Platonick Love which some Persons fansie to themselves, is all Imagination and Delusion. The Body hath a greater share in this Passion, than the Mind.

It is no strange Thing, that some Nations who wanted the Light of the Gospel, should worship Love for a God; for, indeed, the Effects and the Resentments of it, are very odd, very extraordinary, and such as seem to exceed the Power of Nature.

The Conversation of fine Women puts a Man’s Salvation upon greater hazard, than the softest and most moving Plays. Those are the Original, these only the Image and Copy; those kindle and inspire the Passions, these only awake and entertain them.

Plays and Musick would have but few Admirers, if one had never felt Love, nor any other Passions.

It is a common Thing to imagine we love a Man of great Interest and Fortune, with a very sincere Passion; but this is what we cannot be sure of till he be stripped of all the Advantages of Power and Greatness, then one quickly discerns what it was that engaged our Affections. If Interest were at the bottom of it, tho’ Honour may keep it up for some Time, yet it quickly grows weary, and lets it fall to the Ground.

Gratitude is the Vertue of wise and generous Minds.

Ingratitude is the Fault of Fools and Clowns.

There are some sort of People, that never look into a Book, and yet with their own Stock of Natural Parts, have a better Sense of Things that depend upon clear and true Reason, than some great and bookish Professors.

Good Sense and Reason ought to be the Umpire of all Rules, both Ancient and Modern; whatever does not agree with this Standard cannot be Sterling.

Nature was given to exercise the Philosophers, like some dark Riddle; every one makes his own Sense the Key, and out of that contrives his own System. He that by these Principles explains most Difficulties, may be allowed thus far to value himself, that he hath hit upon the most probable Opinion.

Bodily Pain is the only Evil attending humane Life, that is past the Power of Reason, either to cure or to asswage.

Fortune gives out the Parts Men are to play upon this Stage of the World, blindly, and just according to her own unaccountable Humour: This is the Reason why there is so much ill acting; because Men very seldom hit upon those Characters that are fit for them; or to speak in a more Christian Style, what we call Fortune, is no other than the Providence of God, which permits those Disorders, for Reasons which we are not able to comprehend.

Reason and Experience ought always to go Hand in Hand in the Discovery of Nature.

If frequent Meditations upon Death, do not make us better Men, yet methinks they should moderate our Passions however, and put some restraint upon our Avarice and Ambition.

Every thing in this Life is accidental, even our Birth that brings us into it. Death is the only thing we can be sure of. And yet we behave our selves, just as if all the rest were certain, and Death alone uncertain.

Life is good in its own Nature. The greatest good in the World, but the most unthriftily squander’d away. And it is not of this, but of our own Extravagance that we have reason to complain.

Nothing is so hard to perswade Men to, as the Contempt of Riches, except ones arguments be drawn from the Stores of Christian Religion.

The Wise-Men among the Ancients were in Truth very Foolish, who without any Light of Faith, or Expectation of a better State, despised Riches and Pleasures. They endeavoured to distinguish themselves, by uncommon and unnatural Notions; and so to triumph over the rest of Mankind, by an imaginary Elevation of Soul. Those that were the Wisest among them were satisfied with talking of these things in Publick, but behaved themselves after another kind of Rate in Private.

There is a grave, contrived sort of Folly, highly satisfied with it self, that carries an Air of Wisdom a thousand times more troublesome and impertinent, than that Humoursome and diverting Folly, which never thinks at all.

The Contempt of certain Death, where there is no Christianity to support and justify it, does by no Means deserve that Admiration or Honour, that have been thought its due: In good earnest, when one comes to take a closer and stricter View of it, it is rather an Extravagance, than any Greatness or Constancy of Mind.

The Art of pleasing in Company is, not to explain things too particularly; to express only one half, and leave your Hearers to make out the rest. This argues you have a good Opinion of the Persons you converse with; and nothing is more agreeable to Men’s Love of themselves.

The Ground of almost all our false Reasonings is, that we seldom look any farther, than one side of the Question: Whereas, if a Man would do his Argument right, he ought to consider it in its utmost Latitude.

There are so many Excellencies, so many Beauties in Nature, that if any be superfluous, it is not because there are too many, but because we choose, and use them ill.

The Circumstances of those, who are intrusted with the Treasures and the Councils of Princes, are much less fickle, than theirs that are to provide for their Diversions. Men are not always in the Humour to take their Pleasure, but they are always disposed to Honour and Riches.

The highest Wisdom, is for a Man to be sensible, that he wants it.

There is no such thing as true Wisdom in this World, except that which instructs us in Christian Morality. For this, if we abstract from it all the Supports of Faith, and Advantages of Religion, is of it self the most pure and perfect Rule of Life in the World.

The Vulgar value and cry up Actions and other Things, not only for their Excellence, but more generally for the Uncommonness of them; and this gives Occasion to all the false Methods Men take to gain the Approbation of the World.

The Court is the Peculiar, where Ambition is supream. All other Passions, even Love it self, and all Laws truckle under her; and there are no sorts of Unions but she can both knit together, and break asunder.

Ambitious Men cheat themselves, when they fix upon any Ends for their Ambition. Those Ends, when they are attained to, are converted into Means, subordinate to something farther.

A good Character, in which all the World agrees, and which continues a great while, is seldom false.

The Opinion of those Philosophers, that will have Beasts to be in no Degree more than Machines, which move themselves, is exceeding hard to conceive. But that of some other Philosophers, who assign them a Soul that is corporeal, and yet not a body neither, is altogether incomprehensible.

A great Reputation is a great Charge very hard for a Man to acquit himself well of: An obscure Life is more Natural, and more Easie.

Diogenes, that made choice of a Tub for his dwelling, was a Fool, so much the more exquisite, and refined, as he thought himself, and expected the World should Esteem him, much wiser than the rest of Mankind.

Great Offices, and great Honours, are most truly said to be great Burdens: The Slavery of them is but so much the greater, because it concerns the Service of the Publick; for the People are a Master scarce ever to be satisfied.

They that are eternally canting upon Vertue in all Companies, are commonly great Boasters, and great Knaves. The mighty Pains which the Men of the Age take to commend Vertue, is sometimes a shrewd Sign, that they take but very little to practise it.

Truth discovers it self to young Princes, no longer than while they are young, and under Age; it flies a Crown, and vanishes out of sight, as soon as they come to be invested with Power: If these first years be not made use of to give them good Advice and Instruction, there will be no retrieving it in the following Part of their Lives. For all then goes off in meer Juggle and Disguise.

The perfect Knowledge a Man hath of his Misery and Imperfections, gives a great and just occasion for Humility towards God; but so it does also for the despising of others, who are not so wise as our selves.

Railery is harder to be born than Injuries, because it is an allowable Thing to be concerned at Injuries, but a ridiculous one to be angry at a Jest.

Railery is an Injury disguised, full of Malice and Ill-Nature, which is endured with so much less Patience, as it shews, that they who use it, would be thought above us.

Princes and Persons in Eminent Stations, will do well to be exceedingly reserved, as to this Part of Conversation. The Resentments of their Railery are the more dangerous, because kept more concealed, and that Men are ever contriving some private Ways of Revenge for it.

Railery very often betrays want of Understanding. Men call it in to their Relief, when they have nothing of Sense and Argument left, to say for themselves.

A great many People are fond of Books, as they are of Furniture; to dress and set off their Rooms, more than to adorn and inrich their Minds.

’Tis the Infatuation of Misers, to take Gold and Silver for Things really Good, whereas they are only some of the Means by which good Things are procur’d.

Some People are so fond of being Subtle and Abstruse upon all Occasions, that they really over-shoot the Mark. These refined Persons are as far from Truth, as the Vulgar, whose gross Ignorance makes them fall short of it.

Truth is plain and natural, the great Secret is how to find it.

The great Mistake of most Noblemen, is, that they look upon their Nobility, as a Character given them by Nature.

True Quality, and that which comes by Nature, is only the Noble Advantages and Endowments of the Body and the Mind.

The more ancient that Nobility is, which we derive only from our Ancestors, the less valuable it is, and the more suspicious and uncertain. The Son of a Marshal of France, who by his own Worth hath raised himself to this Office, should in all reason be more Noble, than the Posterity that descend from him. This Spring of Honour is yet fresh in the Son’s Veins, and kept up by the Example of the Father; but the further it runs from the Fountain-Head, the weaker and the dryer it grows.

We are surprized every Day, to see some Men that are come from the very Dregs of the People, raise themselves to great Fortunes and Honours; and we commonly mention this with Scorn and Reproach, as if all the Great Families in the World had not as mean a Beginning, if we would but take Pains to trace them back to their first Originals.

The greatest Part of those Complaints we make against our Neighbours, are owing to the want of Reflection upon our selves.

The Love of our selves inclines us to look upon all the Pleasures, and Happiness of Life, as Things that we have a Right to call ours; and upon all the Evils and Calamities, as Things Foreign and Unnatural, and such as are Wrongs and Hardships upon us. This gives occasion to all the Complaints, we hear against Humane Life.

Most Heroes are like some kind of Pictures, which if you would admire, you must look upon them at a distance.

True and essential Merit, is that of the good Accomplishments of the Mind; but the Art of making these valuable, and exerting those good Faculties, is a second Merit, and much more necessary than the first, in all Business of the World, both in order to the raising our Reputation, and our Fortunes.

Many Things are valued, meerly because they are uncommon, or hard to be come by, though in Truth, and in their own Nature, they are neither amiable, nor useful.

Every one erects a Court of Judicature for himself; there he sits supreme Judge over his Neighbour, and proceeds upon him in as Arbitrary and Authoritative a manner, as if he had some particular Prerogative over him. But methinks, we should be more modest and sparing in passing Sentence thus upon others, if we did but consider, that they too will take the same Freedoms, and use us with the same Severity.