La Rochefoucauld, Duc François de (1613–1680)

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Duc François de La Rochefoucauld, the French epigrammatist and moral critic, was born in Paris; he was known as the prince de Marcillac until he succeeded his father in 1650. An incurable love of adventure and imprudent women brought him into early conflict with Cardinal Richelieu, who imprisoned him briefly in the Bastille in 1637. Contempt for Jules Mazarin, whose treatment he bitterly resented, led La Rochefoucauld to join the faction of the Cardinal de Retz when the Fronde broke out in 1648, but before the end of hostilities he had gone over to Condé's side and was seriously wounded in 1652.

In 1656 he was permitted to return from exile to Paris, where he lived until his death, which occurred after many crippling years of gout. During this period, he became a leading figure in salon society, where his closest friends were Mme. de Lafayette and Mme. de Sévigné, as well as in the Port Royal circle, which included Antoine Arnauld and Mme. de Sablé.

Shortly after his return to Paris he began his Mémoires, first Books IIIVI (covering the Fronde), then Book II (on the years from 1642 to 1649), and finally Book I (on the years from 1624 to 1642). A grossly inaccurate pirated Dutch edition, which appeared in 1662, caused a great scandal, but the authentic text was not published until the nineteenth century. These Mémoires, although less ample and distinguished than those by Retz on the same events, are indispensable to an understanding of the Maximes, since they show the inconsistency, dishonesty, and superficiality characteristic of the aristocratic Frondeurs.

The Maximes were begun as a joint enterprise with Mme. de Sablé and Jacques Esprit (of the Port Royal Circle) and reflect a popular salon pastime, but after the appearance of a pirated Dutch edition in 1664, successive authorized editions followed from 1665 to 1678, considerably altering the scope and nature of the work. The contributions of La Rochefoucauld's friends, as well as maxims too closely resembling such models as Seneca and Montaigne, were deleted, and the original brief moral reflections that occupied a page or so were cut up into the present highly condensed epigrammatic form of a few lines.

The Maximes deal with human nature from a strictly human standpoint, all references to God and religion having been systematically removed. They give a lucid and penetrating analysis of the manifold forms taken by self-interest, which, according to La Rochefoucauld, is the fundamental motive behind human behavior. He also claims that "reason is most often the dupe of the heart," so that human nature is a mass of capricious and unpredictable passions of physiological origin, and what commonly passes for virtue, when it is not pure accident, is really disguised, or unrecognized, vice. He shows little confidence in the Cartesian program of passions controlled by reason and will, and no confidence whatsoever in any concept of natural virtue such as that held by admirers of the virtuous pagans of antiquity. The Maximes stress the importance of self-analysis and being honest with oneself; without these qualities love and friendship are a hollow sham, and even with them they may be no more than exercises in egoism.

The predominantly pessimistic outlook reflected in the Maximes is partly relieved by the brilliance of the style and the subtlety of the analysis, and also partly by various qualified admissions that true friendship and genuine integrity (honnêteté ), although rare, may occasionally be encountered. The growing pressure of conformism in a highly artificial society, the author's own experience of pointless heroism and shabby motives in the Fronde, and above all his proud and melancholy temperament serve to explain the harsh verdict of the Maximes. For all their abiding interest these epigrams remain the direct product and reflection of the age in which they were written. Some brief essays, portraits, and numerous letters constitute the rest of La Rochefoucauld's work.

See also Arnauld, Antoine; Continental Philosophy; Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de; Self-Interest; Seneca, Lucius Annaeus; Virtue and Vice.


La Rochefoucauld's writings may be found in his Oeuvres complėtes, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (Paris, 1957). More recent editions of the Maximes include an edition edited by J. Vallier (Lausanne, 1962) and the English translations of C. Fitzgibbon (London: Allan Wingate, 1957) and L. W. Tancock (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1959).

For literature on La Rochefoucauld, see E. Magne, Le vrai visage de La Rochefoucauld (Paris, 1923). There is also an excellent chapter on him in A. Adam, Histoire de la littérature française au XVIIe siècle, Vol. 4, Ch. 2 (Paris, 1954). See also Susan R. Baker, "The Works of La Rochefoucauld in Relation to Machiavellian Ideas of Morals and Politics," Journal of the History of Ideas (44[1983]: 207218); Henry C. Clark, "La Rochefoucauld and the Social Bases of Aristocratic Ethics," History of European Ideas (8[1987]: 6176); Peter M. Fine, Vauvenargues and La Rochefoucauld (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1974); J. E. Parsons, Jr., "On La Rochefoucauld: Preliminary Reflections," Interpretation (2 [1971]: 126142); Tilo Schabert, "The Para-Moral Principles of Early Modern Society: Contextual Reflections upon the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld," History of European Ideas (7[1986]: 6784).

A. J. Krailsheimer (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)

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La Rochefoucauld, Duc François de (1613–1680)

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La Rochefoucauld, Duc François de (1613–1680)