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by Bamber Gascoigne

Jean de La Bruyère (1645-1696)


One of the major French writers of the 17th -century, a satirist and moralist, who became famous with his Les "Caractères" de Thèophraste, traduits du grec, avec les caractères ou les mœurs de ce siècle (1688). In this misanthropic book La Bruyère described a wide variety of human beings of the day, from the vain Philémon and tattling Celse to the superficial Ménippe and sanctimonius Onuphre.

"There are but three events in a man's life: birth, life and death. He is not conscious of being born, he dies in pain, and he forgets to live." (from The Characters)

Jean de La Bruyère was born in Paris (probably in August – he was baptized on 17 August 1645). His father, Louis de La Bruyère, held the office of Controller of the rentes de la ville. The family of his mother, Elizabeth Hamonyn, was of bourgeois origin. In spite of financial worries, Louis made his best to ensure to his children a good education. His brother amassed a fortune by shrewd investments, and also acquited a title. "A man must have a certain sort of intelligence to make a fortune, and above all a large fortune," wrote LaBruyère in Characters, "but it is neither a good nor a fine, a grand nor a sublime, a strong nor a delicate intellect. I am at a loss to tell exactly what it is, and shall be glad if some one will let me know." (The Characters of Jean de La Bruyère, translated by Henri van Laun, 1885, p. 145)

Little is known of La Bruyère's childhood. He received a good humanistic education, and learned Greek, German, and Latin. After studying law in Orléans, he was licensed in 1665 and admitted to the bar in Paris in the same year. Against the wishes of his family, La Bruyère did little to advance his career, but spent more time following the quarrels and intrigues of his colleagues. With the help of an inheritance from his uncle, he bought in 1673 for about 24,000 livres the office of king's counsellor and financial treasurer for Caen. This post, which provided him a title, he could ill afford he later sold for 18,000 livres.

From 1674 La Bruyère worked as a tutor to his sister's daughters. Because he was not obliged to move to Caen, he remained in Paris reading, meditating and living a recluse's life. "There are some who speak one moment before they think, " he later wrote.

Between the years 1684 and 1687 he was one of the tutors of the Duke de Bourbon, grandson of the Prince de Condé, who did not take his studies very seriously. The Condé household was one of the grandest in France. After his duties as tutor came to an end, La Bruyère remained with the family, working later as a secretary and librarian. La Bruyère had plenty of free time to pursue his literary interests and finish his book. Unhappy with his inferior status – and the title of Gentilhomme de M. le duc – in country seats at Chantilly and Saint Maur, he resigned his post just before Condé's death.

With the Characters La Bruyère earned a number of enemies among powerful persons, who felt that they were ridiculed in the work. The first edition was sold out in a fortnight. Eventually in 1693, after two unsuccessful attempts, he was elected to the Académie Française. When his acceptance speech before the Academy was attacked, he had it reprinted in the eighth edition of the Characters. La Bruyère denied that he had used real people as models. He asserted that "every writer is a painter, and every excellent writer an excellent painter. La Bruyère died of apoplexy in Versailles, on 10-11 May, 1696. According to some sources he became suddenly deaf. La Bruyère never married, but he stated that "Marriage seems to place everybody in their proper station of life." There appeared posthumously his Dialogies sur le quiétisme (1698/99), nine dialogues in which he sided with his supporter the Bishop of Meaux, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, in a polemic against quietism, a sect of religious mystics.

La Bruyère's Characters made him instantly famous. The book appeared as an appendage to his translation of the Characters of Theophrastus, the 4th-century-BC writer. As a source he used the Latin translation of Isaac Casaubon, but also consulted the original Greek text. To the 30 sketches he added 390 of his own. Gradually the book expanded and during his lifetime eight successive editions were published. The ninth (1696), which was in preparation at the time of his death, already contained 1,130 sketches of different personalities. The first translation into English, "by Several Hands", came out in 1699.

The Characters has often been compared to La Rochefoucauld's (1613-1680) Maximes, which examined the behavior of the social elite in the form of epigrams and definitions. Referring to La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère notes in the introduction, that his aim is not to write any maxims, because he did not consider himself infallible. As a moralist La Bruyère shared the same disillusioned view of human nature with Baltasar Gracián. They both separated the appearance and the essence of a human being. Gracián was interested in giving advice and presenting his concept of an ideal man and ideal style. La Bruyère's position at Chantilly provided him with a unique vantage point, from which he could witness the selfishness and hypocrisy of the nobles, abuses of the financial system, and how the era of Louis XIV passed by, with its glory and its failings.

Yet La Bruyère believed in the monarchy and even flattered the Sun King, who is the subject of the tenth chapter of Characters. "All things succeed in a monarchy where the interests of the state are identical with those of the prince," La Bruyère stated (The Characters, 1885, p. 264). To have a good king as a ruler benefited the whole nation, whereas tyranny "has no need of arts or sciences, for its policy, which is very shallow and without any refinement, only consists in shedding blood; it prompts us to murder every one whose life is an obstacle to our ambition; and a man naturally cruel has no difficulty in doing this. It is the most detestable and barbarous way of maintaining power and of aggrandisement." (The Characters, 1885, pp. 245-246)

As a true Christian La Bruyère also wanted to reform people's manners and ways of thinking through publishing records of his observations of aristocratic foibles and follies. However, he was very guarded in his language; "Louis le Roi Soleil" was the only important patron of art in the country and courtly hypocricy made everybody obey him slavishly. "A perfect courtier can command his gestures, his eyes, and his countenance," La Bruyère wrote, "he is profound and impenetrable; he seems to overlook every injury; he smiles on his enemies, controls his temper, disguises his passions, belies his inclinations, and both speaks and acts against his opinions."

In The Characters La Bruyère aimed to reveal what people really are behind their social masks. All kinds of social types pretending to be something they are not, are portrayed sharply and vividly. With this book La Bruyère could pay back at least some of the casual insults and humiliations he received from the people he had to serve. "To laugh at men of sense is the privilege of fools," he wrote. La Bruyère's style is witty and lucid, and his opinions clearly conservative. He attacks freethinkers and old people who fall in love, and women run to extremes – "they are either better or worse than men." In literary battles he d efended les anciens against les modernes. Occasionally he shows his awareness of social injustices and expresses sympathy toward the plight of peasants, but remains nevertheless a committed monarchist. The main target of his satire was the faults in a person's character, not defects of the social or political system of the time.

For further reading: La Bruyère et le collectionnisme: vraie dévotion à de fausses idoles by Jean Viardot (2014); "Les caractères" de La Bruyère, ou, Les exercices de l'esprit by Marine Ricord (2000); Jean de La Bruyère, Les Caractères by Patrice Soler (1994); La Bruyère, amateur de Caractères by Floyd Gray (1986); The Dissolution of Character by Michael S. Koppish (1981); Du style à la pensée by Jules Brody (1980); Two French Moralists: La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère by Odette de Mourgues (1978); Les Caractères de La Bruyère, La Bruyère au travail by Robert Garapon (1978); La Bruyère ou le style cruel by Doris Kirsch (1978); Jean de La Bruyère by Edward Knox (1973); 'La Bruyère's Changing Perspective on the Monarchy: From Aesthetics to Politics' by Michael S. Koppish, in Authors and Their Centuries, edited by Phillip Crant (1973); Les Caractères de La Bruyère by André Stegman (1972); La Bruyère moraliste by Louis van Delft (1971); Deux accès à La Bruyère by René Jasinski (1971); La Bruyère et ses Caractères by Pierre Richard (1965); L'art du portrait chez La Bruyère by Paquot-Pierret (1948); La Bruyère et Théophraste by G. Michaut (1936); Le Bruyère by Gustave Michaut (1936); 'Introduction,' in Selections from La Bruyère by H. Ashton (1928)

Selected works:

  • Les "Caractères" de Thèophraste, traduits du grec, avec les caractères ou les mœurs de ce siècle, 1688 (3 editions), 1689, 1690, 1691, 1692, 1694, 1696 (posthumously)
    - The Characters; or, The Manners of the Age... with the Characters of Theophrastus, Translated from the Greek; and a Prefactory Discourse to Them by Monsieur de La Bruyere; to which Is Added a key to His Characters (tr. anon., 1699) / The Characters of Theophrastus, Translated from the Greek, with the Characters and Manners of this Century (tr.: Eustace Budgell, 2 ed. 1714) / The Works of m. de La Bruyere. To which is Added the Characters of Theophrastus, 1776 (by N. Rowe, esq.) / The Characters of La Bruyère (tr. by Henri van Laun, 1885) / The Morals and Manners of the Seventeeth Century, being the Characters of La Bruyère (tr. by Helen Stott, 1890) / La Bruyère and Vauvenargues: Selections from the Characters, Reflections and Maxims (tr. by Elizabeth Lee, 1903) / Selections from Les caractères of La Bruye (ed. by F. M. Warren, 1906) / Characters (tr. by Jean Stewart, 1970) /
    - Luonnekuvia, eli, Tämän vuosisadan tapoja (suom. J. A. Hollo, 1958)
  • Préface du discours, 1693
  • Dialogies sur le quiétisme, 1698/99
  • The Works, 1713 (6th ed.)
  • The Works of M. de La Bruyere. To which Is Added the Characters of Theophrastus, 1776 (2 vols.)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1865-78 (4 vols., ed. by G. Servois, rev. ed. 1922)
  • Œuvres complètes de J. de La Bruyere, 1876
  • Œuvres complètes, 1934 (ed. by Julien Benda)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1951
  • Dialogues posthumes sur le quiétisme: 1699, 2005 (with  Louis-Ellies Du Pin; ed. by Richard Parish)

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