La Rochefoucauld, François, Duc De (1613–1680)

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LA ROCHEFOUCAULD, FRANÇOIS, DUC DE (16131680), French writer. A peer of France who later became a leading moralist in the French classical age, La Rochefoucauld, the eldest son of a provincial nobleman and courtier from the Angoumois in western France, was groomed early to inherit the family name, title, and estate. His formative reading centered more upon popular romance than the classical canon, as he acquired his nickname from a character in the serialized novel Astrée. Married at fifteen when he was still the prince of Marcillac, he soon embarked upon a military career. Starting in the middle 1630s, he fell in with noble opposition to the ministries first of Cardinal Richelieu (16241642) and then of Cardinal Mazarin (16421660). During the civil upheavals known as the Fronde (16481652), he sided with the rebels against the regency government, and was wounded in battle 9 February 1649. At the unsuccessful conclusion of the Fronde, he made a wary peace with the government, receiving a pension in exchange for renouncing further political intrigue.

From the end of the Fronde until his death, La Rochefoucauld spent his time principally in the social world of Paris, where he was a frequent guest in the salons and where he developed his very considerable talents as a writing stylist. Among his friends and collaborators were the salon hostess the Marquise de Sablé, the novelist Mme de La Fayette, and the worldly Jansenist Jacques Esprit. La Rochefoucauld is known today as the author of three significant works. The Réflexions diverses (Diverse reflections), which was only discovered and published posthumously and has never been translated into English, is a series of essays on taste, sociability, and moral psychology. His Mémoires (1662) offer one of the most important accounts of the political factionalism in noble circles in the period up to and including the Fronde. His subtle and nuanced attacks on the motives of some of the principal players of his time, including Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin and Louis de Bourbon, the prince of Condé, made the work a scandal when it first appeared in the 1660s.

His most important work was the Maximes. Growing out of a collaborative salon pastime, this work went through considerable elaboration between its first appearance in 1665 and its most polished edition of 1678. In the Maximes, most of the traditional resources of self-control and moral responsibility are depicted as illusory. Fortune triumphs over fortitude, the humors and temperaments win out over character, the passions interfere with reason, and self-love rules all. Even in the least likely corners of the heart and soul, the author traces the effects of self-deception and hidden self-aggrandizement. Some of the maxims seem to debunk the possibility of noble virtues such as courage and perseverance. Others unravel the more private sentiments such as love and friendship. Still others erode the social affections such as gratitude and generosity. "Self-love is the greatest flatterer of them all" (Maxim 2) is a fair sample of the genre.

The sheer scale of the unmasking enterprise, and the prominent role of self-love in it, led contemporaries to a disagreement that has not abated since. Some observers associated La Rochefoucauld with Blaise Pascal (16231662), Pierre Nicole (16251695), and other Jansenists, that austere movement of religious and moral revival that adopted St. Augustine's view that grace alone brought salvation, and that what appear to be human virtues are in reality merely variations on the hidden pride and self-interest that move fallen man. Other readers felt that La Rochefoucauld's systemic, lynx-eyed suspicion covered sacred as well as secular, religious as well as worldly ideals, and that his moral psychology therefore is best seen as a form of reductionism, perhaps even nihilism.

In the eighteenth century, there was a tendency to accept the premise of La Rochefoucauld's views on the pervasiveness of self-love while drawing more hopeful conclusions from it. Writers from Bernard Mandeville (16701733) to Claude-Adrien Helvétius (17151771) saw in the Maximes support for an emerging liberal view of society in which the pursuit of private self-interest is conducive to the public good, a view that perhaps culminated in Adam Smith's An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). In the nineteenth century, La Rochefoucauld's most noteworthy influence was exerted on German aphoristic philosophers such as Arthur Schopenhauer (17881860) and Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900). Nietzsche saw in La Rochefoucauld an admirable specimen of uncorrupted European aristocracy, as well as a method of psychological insight and moral honesty far preferable to the democratizing utilitarianism of his day.

See also Fronde ; Jansenism ; Mazarin, Jules ; Paris ; Richelieu, Armand-Jean Du Plessis, cardinal ; Salons.


Primary Sources

La Rochefoucauld. Maxims. Translated and introduced by Leonard Tancock. New York, 1959. Long the standard English translation of the 1678 edition of the Maximes.

. Maxims: La Rochefoucauld. Translation, introduction, and notes by Stuart D. Warner and Stéphane Douard. South Bend, Ind. 2001. Bilingual edition of the Maximes.

Secondary Sources

Bénichou, Paul. "The Destruction of the Hero." In Man and Ethics: Studies in French Classicism. Translated by Elizabeth Hughes. Garden City, N.Y., 1979. Translation of Morales du grand siècle (1948). Standard account of the social implications of the Maxims and other contemporary works.

Bishop, Morris. The Life and Adventures of La Rochefoucauld. Ithaca, N.Y., 1951. The only book-length biographical account in English.

Clark, Henry C. La Rochefoucauld and the Language of Unmasking in Seventeenth-Century France. Geneva, 1994. Argues for a secular, nonreligious interpretation of the moralist's work.

Holman, Robyn, and Jacques Barchilon, eds. Concordance to the "Maximes" of La Rochefoucauld. Boulder, Colo., 1996.

Lafond, Jean. La Rochefoucauld: Augustinisme et littérature. Paris, 1977. Leading statement of a religious interpretation of the Maximes.

Henry Clark

La Rochefoucauld, François, Duc de

views updated May 11 2018

La Rochefoucauld, François, Duc de (1613–80) French writer, renowned for his literary maxims and epigrams. In 1635 he was involved in an intrigue against Cardinal Richelieu and took part in the Frondes revolt (1648–53). His best-known work is Réflexions ou Sentences et Maximes Morales (1665).

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Francois duc de La Rochefoucauld

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