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|François La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680) - François VI, also called le Prince de Marcillac, Duc de la Rochefoucauld|
French classical author, a contemporary of Descartes, who is best known for his maximes, epigrams expressing a harsh or paradoxical truth in the briefest manner possible. A cynical observer of Louis XIV's court, La Rochefoucauld mostly saw selfishness, hypocrisy, and weakness in general in human behavior. With his independent way of thinking he was also one of the intellectual forefathers of the Enlightenment. La Rochefoucauld's insights have influenced amongst others Lord Chesterfield, Thomas Hardy, Friedrich Nietzsche, Stendhal, and André Gide.
"Our virtues are most frequently but vices in disguise." (from Reflections; or, Sentences and Moral Maxims)
François, duc de La Rochefoucauld, the eldest son of the first duke, was born in Paris into an illustrious family; the family title had been for many generations that of Comte. La Rochefoucaulds father, the fifth count, served as a minister in the court Louis XIII. In his childhood, La Rochefoucauld received little formal education. When he was barely ten years old, he was sent into army, and at the age of sixteen he participated in the siege of Cassel. Before he was fifteen he married Andrée de Vivonne (died 1670); they had eight children.
During his military career, La Rochefoucauld served in Italy, the Netherlands (1635-36), Rocroi (1643), and Gravelines (1644). At the battle of Mardick in 1646 he was severely wounded. Supporting the cause of Marie de' Medici, he took part in a conspiracy against Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642) and later he opposed Mazarin (1602-1661). Due to his actions, La Rochefoucauld was imprisoned in the Bastille briefly by Richelieu, and then forced to live in exile from 1639 to 1642. Eventually he won his way back into royal favour, but as a defender of the old aristocracy and standing up to his principles, he was soon involved in 1648-52 in the Fronde – a rebellion against the ministry of Cardinal Mazarin in the reign of Louis XIV.
When La Rochefoucauld was thirty-three, he began a liaison with the the Duchesse de Longueville, the great love of his life, who eventually betrayed him. In 1652 La Rochefoucauld was wounded and almost blinded in a battle in Saint-Antoine, which ended in the victory of the court and supporters of royal power. To escape possible arrest, La Rochefoucauld fled to Luxembourg for a period, and after he was allowed to return to France, he retired from political life. Broken in health, embittered, and ruined financially, he devoted himself to literature. First he lived in his chateau at Verteuil, but in 1656 he settled in Paris, making his home the meeting place of a small intellectual elite, including Mmes. de Sablé, de Sévigné, and de Lafayatte.
One of La Rochefoucauld's sons was killed in 1672 at the crossing of the Rhine, but it has been said that he was more affected by the death of the young Duc de Longueville, who died in the same attack. After taking up the role of a courtier, La Rochefoucauld focused on living up to the ideal of the honnête homme, who is trusthworthy and polished in manners and speech. In spite of suffering from gout, he joined Louis XIV's Dutch campaign in 1667-68.
Although La Rochefoucauld was very productive as a writer, he published only two works, Mémoires (1664), and the Réflexions; ou, Sentences et Maximes Morales (1665), better known as the Maximes, which he began to write during his semi-retirement years in the country. Mémoires gained a wide audience but he denied its authorship. The manuscript of Maximes was circulated in 1663 among a select group of the guests of his friend, the Marquise de Sablé. A pirate edition was published in 1664, and an authentic edition late in 1664, but dated 1665. It became popular and appeared in five editions during La Rochefoucauld's lifetime.
Quarrels would not last long if the fault was only on one side.
Rochefoucauld's Maximes expressed the pessimism of the disillusioned nobility, drawn into ridiculous wars and desiring to restore the lost influence over the state. At the court everybody made mutual observations about the members of these circles, and cultivated intellectual competition at the expense of others. In a short sketch of himself La Rouchefoucauld mentions that he loves conversation, especially with women, but otherwise found it hard to be other than "reserved".
"Mme de Sévigné says somewhere that she often had such sad conversations with Mme de Lafayette and La Rochefoucauld that probably the best thing they could have done would be to have had themselves buried." (from Arnold Hauser's Social History of Art, Vol. 2, 1962)
As an essayist La Rochefoucauld started most likely with his self-portrait of 1658, included in Mme. de Montpensier's Divers Portraits. He also wrote other portraits, seven of which were published in 1731, and the other 12 not until 1863 in Œuvres (vol. 1). Between Montaigne and La Rochefoucauld the essay had developed from formal letters and from short treatises as a recognizable literary form. Réflexions created a link from essay to this new genre, intelligent and sensitive society portraiture. The same wit and restrained cynicism that are apparent in the Maximes, is seen also in these pieces.
La Rouchefoucauld was a close friend of Madame de La Fayette (1634-93), the reformer of romance writing, who gained fame with Zaide (1670) and the first great French historical novel, La Princesse de Cléves (1678). She was some twenty years his junior; their liaison lasted until La Rochefoucauld's death. He also helped Mme de La Fayette in her researches for then novel. La Rochefoucauld died in Paris, on March 17, 1680; at that time he was a chronic invalid. Writing to his daughter, Madame de Sévigné said of his final years, "he has thought so often on his last moments that they are nothing new or unfamiliar to him."
For further reading: The "Honnete Homme" and the Art of Pleasing: Politeness and Sociability in French Thought, 1660-1700 by Tuomas Tikanoja (2009); Falsehood Disguised by Richard G. Hodgson (1995); La Rochefoucauld and the Language of Unmasking in Seventeeth-Century France by Henry C. Clark (1994); La Rochefoucauld, Maximes et réflectiuons diverses by Derek Watts (1993); Procès à La Rochefoucauld et à la maxime by Corrado Rosso (1986); Collaboration et originalité chez La Rochefoucauld by Susan Read Baker (1980); La Rochefoucauld and the Seventeeth-Century Concept of the Self by Vivien Thweat (1980); Essai sur la morale de La Rochefoucauld by Louis Hippeau (1978); La Rochefoucauld, Augustinisme et littérature by Jean Lafond (1977); La Rochefoucauld: The Art of Abstraction by Philip E. Lewis (1977); La Rochefoucauld: His Mind and Art by W.G. Moore (1969); New Apects of Style in the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld by Mary Zeller (1954); The Life and Adventrures of La Rochefoucauld by Morris Bishop (1951); La Vrai Visage de La Rochefoucauld by Emile Magne (1923) - Suom.: "Meidän hyveemme ovat usein vain valepukuisia paheita." (Mietelmiä, suom. J.V. Lehtonen, 1924 ilmestyneen suomennoksen 2. painos, 1994.)