Was La Rochefoucauld a Pessimist?

Because of his writings, especially his maxims, La Rochefoucauld is historically seen as overly pessimistic; however, one should consider first if this is really a “bad” thing and if the maxims were written in a pessimistic style to encourage debate?

If he had written “people are nice” I doubt anyone would have read them, let alone remember then for hundreds of years. More specifically, I doubt anybody would have even taken him seriously because unfortunately, people are not “nice”. Likewise, if he had written “people are nice sometimes” he would have just written the obvious, and would have been equally ignored. However, by writing statements that boil down to “people are self-serving egotists with no regards for anybody else unless they need something” he immediately catches your attention and forces you to stop and think—even if it is only to prove he is wrong.

The mark of a good writer is someone who can make a reader think without telling them how to think or what to think. La Rochefoucauld succeeds at this because whether the reader agrees with his statements or not the reader still has to debate the meaning, context and points in his own mind, and the best way to encourage a person to think about all the reasons you are wrong is to tell someone that he is just like everybody else and that everybody else is insane.

Healthy pessimism is not necessarily a bad thing, in La Rochefoucauld’s case it may have been the highest form of optimism. By causing discussion with his maxims, he opens the door to debate, and through debate he can be proven wrong, and it is is far better to be proved wrong if you say “people are self-serving egotists with no regards for anybody else unless they need something” instead of “people are nice”. For La Rochefoucauld if he wrote the maxims to cause debate and to be proved wrong, it would mean that people are better than what he thinks which is always a good thing, but if people agree with his maxims, then he is proven right. Kind of a win-win situation.

For reference you may find the full text of his Maxims translated into English or in their original French.

Here is a short list of La Rochefoucauld maxims.

  1. What we term virtue is often but a mass of various actions and divers interests, which fortune, or our own industry, manage to arrange; and it is not always from valour or from chastity that men are brave, and women chaste.
  2. Passion often renders the most clever man a fool, and even sometimes renders the most foolish man clever.
  3. Men are not only prone to forget benefits and injuries; they even hate those who have obliged them, and cease to hate those who have injured them. The necessity of revenging an injury or of recompensing a benefit seems a slavery to which they are unwilling to submit.
  4. The clemency of Princes is often but policy to win the affections of the people.
  5. Moderation is caused by the fear of exciting the envy and contempt which those merit who are intoxicated with their good fortune; it is a vain display of our strength of mind, and in short the moderation of men at their greatest height is only a desire to appear greater than their fortune.
  6. We have all sufficient strength to support the misfortunes of others.

Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Illyitch” and Apathy

People have an illogical preoccupation with death, death frightens and intimidates, it is something to avoid in all forms and when faced with death turn aside and let it pass. This is also the cause of apathy with regards to the suffering of the dying. It is far more pleasant to think that Tolstoy’s characters were just unfeeling and unkind in general (which they were) than to consider the fact that an unfortunate majority of people behave the same way in similar situations. In my personal experience as a child I watched a great-great-aunt waste away from lung cancer and at the same time watched my great aunt and uncle treat her horribly. To take care of her before she died was a chore, a responsibility, an obligation, and nothing more to them. It would be nice to believe that this was an isolated incident but unfortunately the dieing are rarely treated as equals, instead they are treated as a burden, a wasted life that will be swept aside when the end finally comes. Of course this is not to say that everyone is wrong in feeling this way, it is natural because it allows the person to distance themselves from the death, and at the same time prepare for the persons death. There are shades of grey in this situation however; distancing oneself from a dieing person and treating them slightly differently is not the same treating them as a worthless responsibility.

As a more global issue this explains how people can hear things like 70,000 deaths and not blink. As long as the at-least-it-isn’t-me feeling exists there is little concern. However events like the recent Tsunami and Katrina though show a different side of humanity at large, this humanity is the part that all help each other to help others. Unlike personally helping a person as they die, events like tsunamis are able to make people feel better because although there is death it is preventable by a little money or time. This evidences that a major cause of the apathy many feel is a result of the hopelessness of the cause.

Hopelessness is the second major cause of apathy towards the dieing; a hopeless cause is seen in one of two ways, either as a heroic struggle or a waste of time. Unfortunately helping the dieing to be comfortable is not a heroic struggle, so it ends up being a waste of time. Once something has been designated as a waste it is designated as unimportant, and once things become unimportant it becomes a chores. And no one likes chores…
Tolstoy displays this in all of its incarnations ranging from the butler assistant who was concerned with Ilych’s wellbeing both physical and mental, to the wife who showed little concern for him, to the “specialists” (quacks by modern standards) who treated him as nothing and even referred to him as “the sick.”

Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Illyitch” Death for Others

Tolstoy accurately portrays the feelings that abound at the thought of an acquaintances death and the social necessities one must go through. The range of emotions is nearly identical for each person: equal parts of sympathy for the family, shock at the occurrence and relief that it was not a person in a closer relationship with oneself or oneself. If you have ever gone to a friend’s relatives funeral you probably know the feelings Tolstoy refers to, the only reason for appearing at the funeral is to be a good friend but there is no personal loss at the event. If anything it is more of a chore than anything else, one stands around look appropriately grim and give sympathetic smiles to people who actually knew the deceased. But the majority of the time the only thought one has is when it would be appropriate to escape.

I had to laugh at the before and after descriptions of Ilych’s wife, it is so entirely cliché, the nice wife who Ilych thought would stay nice promptly switched to ball-and-chain mode as soon as she completely snared him. Ilych’s need to re-secure his own independence was just as amusing, it reminds me of the George Gershwin song “A Woman is a Sometime Thing” specifically the part “Don’t you never let a woman grieve you/Jus’ cause she got yo’ weddin’ ring” I think it is advice that Ilych could have used.

I think this story sharply contrasts Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” although both deal with the feelings of a person dieing by inches and the people that surround them, Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” allows no reprieve for Gregor, however Tolstoy provides Ilych with the company of Gerasim to help relieve in a small way the trouble and pain of death. A second contrast is that Ilych understands the thoughts of the people around him very keenly and at the same tine understands why they think the way they do, Gregor though does not see himself from other’s perspective. A third and final contrast between the two is how each individual faces death, Ilych understands that death is coming but tries in small ways to keep his normal life for a bit longer, Gregor on the other hand just gives up and figuratively and literally wastes away.

A final thought on the style of the story. The story progresses from a quick introduction to a tour through Ilych’s life until slowing to a near stop just before Ilych died. The style this was done in gives the reader a feeling of how relative time is, even when Ilych’s life was difficult it went by quickly however once the end began time seemed to slow down for Ilych, every day, week and month dragged on as he fell further into mental anguish and physical demise.