They number approximately seven hundred with the majority comprising just two or three lines, and the view of human conduct they describe can be summed up as everything can be reduced to the motive of self-interest.
They are the observations (“maxims”) of noted French man of letters François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, Prince de Marcillac (September 15, 1613 – March, 17, 1680).
Like most of his contemporaries, Duc de La Rochefoucauld saw politics as a game of chess with most of the people mere pawns, yet he appears to have been unusually scrupulous in his personal conduct, and his lack of success in the aristocratic struggles arose more from this than from anything else. One of those rare men whose keenness of intellect, together with their appreciation of both sides of an issue or conflict, might cause the label of irresolution to be pinned on them. Neither did the (at best) gently cynical reflection of conduct and motives of himself and his fellow men, and his theories on human nature concern self-interest and self-love, the passions and the emotions, love, conversation and sincerity (and the lack of it) in the “Réflexions ou sentences et maximes morales” (or Maxims of La Rochefoucauld, as more generally known) apparently impede his enjoyment of company, including romantic engagements.
I could speak more on the literary aspects of our good duke’s maxims but I think a better course will be to cite some of them for your edification. I use an old edition, so be warned of the style which may appear quaint at some point.
5.—The duration of our passions is no more dependant upon us than the duration of our life.
13.—Our self love endures more impatiently the condemnation of our tastes than of our opinions.
14.—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.
17.—The moderation of those who are happy arises from the calm which good fortune bestows upon their temper.
20.—The constancy of the wise is only the talent of concealing the agitation of their hearts.
22.—Philosophy triumphs easily over past evils and future evils; but present evils triumph over it.
30.—We have more strength than will; and it is often merely for an excuse we say things are impossible.
38.—We promise according to our hopes; we perform according to our fears.
(I had resolved to skip all comments and examples from other authorities but I will make an exception here.)
[“The reason why the Cardinal (Mazarin) deferred so long to grant the favours he had promised, was because he was persuaded that hope was much more capable of keeping men to their duty than gratitude.”—Fragments Historiques – Racine.]
42.—We have not enough strength to follow all our reason.
47.—Our temper sets a price upon every gift that we receive from fortune.
57.—Although men flatter themselves with their great actions, they are not so often the result of a great design as of chance.
58.—It would seem that our actions have lucky or unlucky stars to which they owe a great part of the blame or praise which is given them.
59.—There are no accidents so unfortunate from which skilful men will not draw some advantage, nor so fortunate that foolish men will not turn them to their hurt.
62.—Sincerity is an openness of heart; we find it in very few people; what we usually see is only an artful dissimulation to win the confidence of others.
To be continued……