Was La Rochefoucauld a Pessimist?

April 6, 2007 by aaron

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.
Categorized as:
comments powered by Disqus