La Bruyère, Jean De (1645–1696)

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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.


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

La Bruyère, Jean de (1645–1696)

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Jean de La Bruyère, the French author and moralist, was born in Paris, the son of a city official. After some legal training he apparently fell on hard times, but through the influence of Jacques Bénigne Bossuet he was appointed tutor to the grandson of the great Condé in 1684. After his tutorial functions were ended, he stayed on as librarian. The family seems to have been unpleasant; his colleagues, uncongenial; and the humiliations inflicted on him in this aristocratic society left a lasting mark. Elected to the Academy in 1693 after several unsuccessful attempts, he led a lonely and somewhat frustrated life, never marrying, making few friends, but showing passionate loyalty to those who, like Bossuet, won his respect.

La Bruyère's one famous work, the Caractères, reflects his personal experiences. Ostensibly modeled on the Greek Characters of Theophrastus, which La Bruyère translated and published in the same volume, the Caractères owes more to the quite different genre of La Rochefoucauld's Maximes and to the work of such contemporary moralists as Blaise Pascal and the Chevalier Antoine Gombault de Méré. Fifteen chapters somewhat arbitrarily group together epigrams (although La Bruyère explicitly disclaimed any intention of producing anything so authoritative as maxims), extended pen portraits (readily, and often wrongly, identified with living people) and brief moral essays, all arranged to cover, with considerable overlapping, the main characteristics and activities of contemporary society, from literary criticism to money lending, from sex to sermons. The last chapter, which, La Bruyère implausibly claimed, constituted the purpose and culmination of the previous fifteen, is devoted to a defense of religion against the freethinkers. It combines in an agreeable rather than a compelling manner the stock arguments for God's existence from his visible effects in nature with others reminiscent of Pascal and drawn from human psychology. The length of the book more than doubled in the course of nine editions from 1688 to 1696, and it came to include more and more of the concrete and detailed description, based on acute observation and couched in brilliant style, which makes La Bruyère at once a distinctive and a distinguished author.

In La Bruyère's time the splendors of Louis XIV's reign had come to demand too high a price, both economically and morally, of those obliged to maintain it. La Bruyère, a bourgeois himself, soured by personal experience of aristocratic arrogance and temperamentally allergic to worldly frivolity, was unsparing in his criticism of the court, where methodical hypocrisy marked the lives of those enslaved by self-interest and the desire for royal favor.

Like Bossuet, his hero and patron, La Bruyère felt able to combine vehement attacks on social abuses, due certainly in fact (if not in theory) to royal absolutism as currently practiced, with fulsome eulogy of Louis himself, going so far as to assimilate respect for the prince to fear of God. A convinced Christian, he had a genuine social conscience, as is illustrated by his famous remarks about the pitiful condition of the peasants. He contrasted the elegant heartlessness of the nobles with the rough kindliness of the people, with whom, in the last analysis, he would wish to be classed. He was, however, neither egalitarian nor republican, but believed that inequality founded on order is divinely instituted; and it was on moral and religious grounds, not in the name of equality, that he dissociated himself from a society he regarded as irremediably corrupt.

In common with other moralists of the age, La Bruyère was fascinated by the discrepancy between appearance and reality in human behavior. He recorded how skill in playing the social game usurps the name and place of virtue, how fashion makes mock of convictions (a happily married couple finds it socially expedient to simulate infidelity), and how self-interest is the one constant motive of those who disguise it so ingeniously. He was, however, gloomy rather than hopeless about human nature, and did not despair of the potential goodness of men as yet uncontaminated by society. He also believed in the possibility of satisfactory human relationships, speaking with attractive warmth of love and friendship.

Moderate as well as modest, La Bruyère was saved by common sense from the clever cynicism that is purely destructive, and his work is characterized by a positive and humane quality underlying the bitterest criticism. Although the Caractères falls short of absolute greatness, it reflects with exceptional accuracy the wane of the grand siècle.

See also Appearance and Reality; Bossuet, Jacques Bénigne; Continental Philosophy; La Rochefoucauld, Duc François de; Moral Epistemology; Pascal, Blaise; Theophrastus.


La Bruyère's Les caractères, edited by G. Servois, appeared in 3 vols. (Paris, 18651882) and was also issued by Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (Paris, 1934). It was translated by H. van Laun as The Characters (Oxford, 1963).

Works on La Bruyère are A. Adam, Histoire de la littérature française au XVIIe siècle (Paris, 1956), Vol. V, Ch. 6; M. Lange, La Bruyère critique des conditions et des institutions sociales (Paris, 1909); P. Richard, La Bruyère et ses Caractères (Amiens, 1946); F. Tavera, L'idéal moral et l'idée religieuse dans les Caractères (Paris: Mellottée, 1941); Edward C. Knox, Jean de la Bruyère (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1973).

A. J. Krailsheimer (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)

Jean de La Bruyère

views updated Jun 11 2018

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). □

La Bruyère, Jean de

views updated May 29 2018

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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