Vauvenargues, Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de (1715–1747)

views updated


The French moralist and epigrammatist Luc de Clapiers, marquis de Vauvenargues, was born at Aix-en-Provence. He early revealed a lofty character that despised egotism and pettiness. Ambitious for glory, he became an army officer at the age of seventeen, despite a weak physique. He served throughout the Italian campaign of 1734. The later German campaign of 1741, especially the harsh retreat from Prague, ruined his health, forcing him to retire at the age of twenty-six. His hope of a career in diplomacy was dashed by lack of fortune and protection. While vainly waiting at Aix for replies to his petitions for appointment to a post, he contracted a severe case of smallpox that left him disfigured and sickly. His last years were spent in Paris, in unhappy poverty and solitude (despite Voltaire's admiration), but he endured the injustice of men and events with stoic resignation rather than with bitterness. During this period he wrote his Introduction à la connaissance de l'esprit humain (Paris, 1746; augmented edition, 1747), which included the supplement "Réflexions et maximes." He also wrote character sketches in the fashion of Jean de La Bruyère, although less brilliantly, and Réflexions sur divers auteurs, a work of generally sound and objective criticism. He is particularly known for his maxims.

Vauvenargues's life and writings are characterized by their contradictions rather than by their consistency. Weak in health, he had a proud, heroic soul; poverty-stricken, he refused to consider gainful work out of aristocratic prejudice and a dislike for restraint. A lover of peace, he praised war and the martial virtues; opposed to ethical absolutes, he considered greatness of soul and action to be absolute virtues. Extremely unhappy and frustrated in life, his writings are resolutely optimistic; almost without friends, his correspondence reveals a noble ideal of friendship. Inclined to sentiment, he was from youth enamored of Plutarch, Seneca, and the Stoic attitudes.

Vauvenargues was a vigorous but not a profound or systematic thinker. He is notable for his incisive insights and formulations, principally in regard to character and moral ideals. He was a deist and not a Christian; but, believing religion necessary to social order, he opposed the propaganda of the philosophes. His philosophy, however, was secular in spirit, concerned with the problem of human nature and of what men should be and how they should live. He defended the worth of human nature both against the pessimism of the Christian doctrine of original sin and the corrosive cynicism of Duc François de La Rochefoucauld. Like other thinkers of his time, he justified the passions. Following Benedict de Spinoza, he divided the passions into two kinds, according to their motivation: "They have their principle in the love of being [and desire for its] perfection, or in the feeling of its imperfection or withering." However, he warned against submitting to a single dominating passion. In a phrase that calls to mind both Blaise Pascal and Reinhold Niebuhr, Vauvenargues said of man, "The feeling of his imperfection makes his eternal torture." Although he believed that man's need for greatness and importance is laudable, he also maintained that men should respond with charity to the needs of others. Vauvenargues's moments of humanitarianism, however, were devoid of sentimentalism.

Vauvenargues wished to defend the value of self-interest, which is naturally a good, and also to preserve the ethical character of acts. He adopted two main approaches. Before Jean-Jacques Rousseau did, Vauvenargues distinguished between amour propre and amour de nous-mêmes. Amour de nous-mêmes allows us to seek happiness outside ourselves: "One is not his own unique object." There is, then, a difference between the satisfaction of amour propre and its sacrifice. Against those who held that all acts are motivated by self-interest Vauvenargues maintained that it is absurd to call sacrifice of life, for example, an act of self-interest, for in such an act we consider ourselves as the least part of the whole and lose everything. Still combating La Rochefoucauld, Vauvenargues also argued that the criterion of acts is their effect on others; acts are virtuous if they tend to the good of all, even if they also satisfy self-interest. This definition opened a line of argument that had dangerous consequences in the hands of the materialists: (1) If each man must satisfy his self-interest where he can, men may be considered "fortunately born" or "unfortunately born" but not responsible for their acts. (2) Ethical and political considerations became fused, and eventually, with Rousseau, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and G. W. F. Hegel, this led to the concept of the "ethical state." How should acts be judged? "Reason deceives us more often than the heart," declared Vauvenargues; like Rousseau, he trusted the "first impulse."

Vauvenargues believed that in regard to happiness, too, each man must follow his fated way; no philosophical formula can guide him. But he did offer one principle: "There is no enjoyment except in proportion as one acts, and our soul possesses itself truly only when it exerts itself completely." To give up action is to fall into nothingness. Existence is a function of becoming. Vauvenargues satirized pitilessly both the indolent and those who engage in aimless agitation. Activity, courage, glory, and ambition summarize his ideal of life and his concept of virtue. Greatness of soul is consistent with evil, as in Catiline; all depends on character and education. The great soul does not care about public esteem; true glory is an intimate feeling, self-satisfying to the point where it may paradoxically disdain action.

Although Vauvenargues was not interested in political philosophy, he did argue against the notion that men are, or may be naturally, politically or socially equal: "Law cannot make men equal in spite of nature." Hierarchy, in all respects, is inevitable.

Vauvenargues frequently espoused contradictory views. Although he developed no important theoretical positions, he occupies a leading rank in the long line of what the French term "moralists," excelling in psychological portraits and the striking but abstract formula of the maxim.

See also Ethics, History of; Fichte, Johann Gottlieb; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; La Bruyère, Jean de; La Rochefoucauld, Duc François de; Niebuhr, Reinhold; Pascal, Blaise; Plutarch of Chaeronea; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Seneca, Lucius Annaeus; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Stoicism; Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de.


Vauvenargues's works were published in a collected edition as Oeuvres completes, in 4 vols. (Paris, 1821); his moral works were published as Oeuvres morales, in 3 vols. (Paris, 1874).

For literature on Vauvenargues, see F. Vial, Une philosophie et une morale du sentiment: Luc de Clapiers, marquis de Vauvenargues (Paris: Droz, 1938), and G. Lanson, Le Marquis de Vauvenargues (Paris: Hachette, 1930).

other recommended works

Fine, Peter M. Vauvenargues and La Rochefoucauld. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1974.

Meagher, Paul. "Vauvenargues' Quest for a New Moral Philosophy." Lumen 13 (1994): 125136.

L. G. Crocker (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)