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La Bruyère, Jean De (1645–1696)

LA BRUYèRE, JEAN DE (16451696)

LA BRUYèRE, JEAN DE (16451696), French moralist, social commentator, and satirist. Jean de La Bruyère was baptized in Paris. His parents were bourgeois. Other than these facts, little is known about his early years before he obtained a law degree from the University of Orléans in 1665. He did not practice, however, and led a life of leisure, made possible by a modest inheritance from an uncle in 1671. In 1684 he obtained a position as one of the tutors to Louis de Bourbon, grandson of the Grand Condé, Louis II de Bourbon (16211686), a royal prince. When the latter died three years later, the young Louis quit his studies, but La Bruyère remained attached to the household. The role of domestic servant did not suit his temperament, although it allowed him to observe closely the court and all of its foibles.

His wounded pride and the injustices he witnessed due to the disparity of social status are often considered crucial to the creation of his only literary work, a collection of sarcastic observations and caricatures entitled Les caractères (1688; The characters). The work was immediately and immensely successful, going through seven editions in four years, with each edition bringing additions to previous texts as well as new passages. He was received into the Académie française (French Academy) in 1693, and can be considered one of the last "Anciens" in the quarrel between ancients and moderns. He wrote a polemical tract, Dialogues sur le Quiétisme (1696; Dialogues on Quietism), against the contemporary vogue for religious mysticism, assailing with vigor François Fénelon (16511715). He died suddenly at Versailles in May, 1696.

In Les caractères, ('portraits' or 'caricatures'), La Bruyère established his work within the tradition of classical Greco-Roman literature. He presented first a French translation of the Greek text by Theophrastus (d. 278 b.c.e.) with some of his own caractères and satiric observations drawn from his own time and society. These were divided into sixteen different chapters, covering such diverse topics as literary criticism, life in town and country, the court, women, judgment, and taste. With each successive edition came an increase of entries in all categories, until La Bruyère's text far surpassed that of Theophrastus. The opening passage to his own work, in which he switches from translator to author, begins with the often-cited phrase, "Everything has been said. . . ." a paradoxical beginning perhaps, but one that indicates the contemporary view of imitation. Novelty is to be sought less in substance than in style, in how a work is expressed.

His text is a compendium of brief formsmaxims, observations, thoughts, portraitsthat often lack external connections or transitions. The coherence, or organic unity, of the whole is not apparent, although certain themes and perspectives, such as superficiality, vanity, and righteous indignation, reappear. Some critics have argued that the entire work should be read in light of the final chaptera Christian defensealthough others consider him more a pessimist or satirist than a Christian reformer. He does stress the virtues of retreat from society. Within a textual entry, elliptical, paratactical structures make for a rapid and vivid description, as nouns and verbs come shooting forth, separated by punctuation marks, a simple "and" or "but" rather than complex constructions joined by direct causal links ("because"). The age of King Louis XIV (16381715) prized an oral, theatrical style, and many of the caractères read like small scenes, presented without authorial comment. To this extent the reader plays a role in supplying the criticism or condemnation implicit within the text, such as that found in the chasm that separates Giton, who is rich, from Phédon, who is poor.

Following his literary model, La Bruyère used Greek pseudonyms for his portraits, and keys soon circulated that claimed to identify the real identities of Ménalque, the scatterbrain, Gnathon, the gourmand, Ornulphre, the religious hypocrite patterned after Molière's Tartuffe, and dozens of other individuals. He was much imitated in the eighteenth century, although without much success. Due to their short form but richly dense material, many passages were anthologized in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for general audiences as well as classroom exercises. Gustave Flaubert (18211880), Marcel Proust (18711922), and André Gide (18691951) were influenced by his style, and recent literary criticism has found an affinity for the open, "readerly" nature of the texts. As for his content, his comments on women have brought him some approbation, but his indictment is primarily against the way society treats them and how they are obliged to behave. In addition, La Bruyère was one of the few writers of the seventeenth century even to allude to the plight of the poor and the peasants.

See also Ancients and Moderns ; Condé Family ; Fénelon, François ; French Literature and Language ; Louis XIV (France) ; Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) ; Quietism.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

James, Edward. "La Bruyère: A traditionalist in an age of change." In Seventeenth-Century French Studies 14 (1992); 6979.

Knox, Edward C. Jean de La Bruyère. New York, 1973.

Parkin, John. "La Bruyère: A Study in Satire." In French Humour, edited by John Parkin. Amsterdam, 1999.

Van Delft, Louis. La Bruyère moraliste. Geneva, 1971.

Allen G. Wood

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Jean de La Bruyère

Jean de La Bruyère

Jean de La Bruyère (1645-1696) was a French man of letters and moralist of the classical period. His only work, "Les Caractères" (1688), captures the psychological, social, and moral profile of French society of his time.

Jean de La Bruyère was born on Aug. 15/16, 1645, into a bourgeois Parisian family. After early studies in Greek, Latin, Italian, German, and rhetoric, he took up law at the University of Orléans, but there is no indication that he ever practiced. In 1673 he purchased the office of tax farmer of the region of Caen. He continued to live with his brother's family in Paris, however, immersing himself in literary and philosophical study.

In August 1684, thanks to Jacques Bénigne Bossuet, La Bruyère was named tutor to Louis III de Bourbon, the 16-year-old grandson of Louis XIV. This event marked the end of La Bruyère's independence, plunging him into the restless, frivolous world of the court, a world to which he never fully adapted. Eager to please, but proud and timid as well, he often suffered because of the social discrepancy between himself and his patrons.

In 1688 La Bruyère published Les Caractères de Théophraste, traduits du grec, avec les caractères ou les moeurs de ce siècle (The Characters of Theophrastes, Translated from the Greek, with the Characters or Manners of This Century), directing that the profits be donated to the dowry of his publisher's daughter. The work comprised a discourse on Theophrastes and La Bruyère's translation of Theophrastes, followed by 420 of La Bruyère's reflections on the manners of his time. The fourth edition was expanded by the addition of 344 more reflections.

La Bruyère's Caractères is a series of short moral observations divided into 16 chapters. Numbered maxims, reflections, and portraits compose each chapter, delineating the defects of a society in crisis: its frivolous nobles, social-climbing commoners, and ambitious lackeys; its suffering common people; and its spiritually bankrupt clergy. La Bruyère's view of man does not attain the generality of that of Blaise Pascal or the Duc de La Rochefoucauld. Yet he carried social and political criticism to new limits and enriched the stylistic range of French classicism by his varied, incisive, and carefully worked style.

La Bruyère was elected to the Académie Française in 1693 after two stormy defeats, perpetuating the controversy in his inaugural speech by championing the ancients against the moderns and the partisans of Pierre Corneille. During his nonetheless tranquil retirement, he composed Dialogues sur le Quiétisme (1699). La Bruyère died of apoplexy on May 11, 1696, while engaged in reediting Les Caractères for the ninth time.

Further Reading

Les Caractèresis available in an English translation by Henri VanLaun (1929), edited by Denys Potts, which includes a biographical memoir of La Bruyère. La Bruyère is discussed in Edmund Gosse, Three French Moralists and the Gallantry of France (1918). He also appears in two useful background works: Charles Henry Conrad Wright, A History of French Literature, vol. 1 (1912; repr. 1969), and I. C. Thimann, A Short History of French Literature (1966). □

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La Bruyère, Jean de

Jean de La Bruyère (zhäN də lä brüyĕr´), 1645–96, French writer. He lived (1684–96) as tutor in the house of the prince de Condé. His great work, Les Caractères de Théophraste, traduits du grec; avec Les Caractères ou les mœurs de ce siècle, appeared in 1688 and subsequently in revised and augmented editions until the ninth (1696). The first, and least, part of this work is a translation of Theophrastus; the balance is a series of random character sketches, maxims, and literary discussions, written in a terse, ironic style. La Bruyère's strong moral views on the contemporary economy, on the widespread poverty, and on the idle life of the nobility gained lasting attention. He was less a reformer than a detached observer. A defender of classical writers in the "quarrel of the ancients and moderns," he was admitted to the French Academy in 1693.

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La Bruyère, Jean de

La Bruyère, Jean de (1645–96) French satirist. He ridiculed the injustice and hypocrisy in French life in his best-known work, The Characters of Theophrastus, Translated from the Greek, with the Characters and Mores of This Age (1688).

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