THE LIFE AND THOUGHTS OF LA ROCHEFOUCAULD
JL De L’Enclos
On the night of July 1, 1652 the army of Louis de Bourbon, Prince de Condé passed around the northern outskirts of Paris, from the Porte Saint-Honoré in the west to the Porte Saint-Antoine in the east. Condé was the leading military commander of the rebellion known as the Fronde, which saw much of the French nobility rise up against the regency of Louis XIV under the queen mother Anne of Austria and the administration of Cardinal Mazarin— and he was in need of a more secure position. He had just met up with his army in the north, which was beset by difficulties, by sneaking through royalist lines along with the Duc de La Rochefoucauld and a handful of other followers. Now he was being pursued by two armies loyal to the King, each larger than his own: one belonging to the Vicomte de Turenne, and the other to the Maréchal de la Ferté.
Condé had resolved to move his army to Charenton in the east. His preference would have been to go south to Saint-Germain, but Gaston, the Duc d’Orleans and uncle of Louis XIV, was afraid a battle would take place outside the Palais de Luxembourg where he lived, and that his house would be struck by artillery fire. Lacking his consent to camp there, and reluctant to request passage through the city of Paris, which like the Duc d’Orleans was then wavering between the party of the Fronde and the party of the King, Condé made his move around the city walls. In so passing to the north, he and his army went directly by the royal Court, then sitting at Saint Denis, having previously decamped Paris under duress. The Court immediately became aware of his movement, and Turenne gave chase. We are told that the King himself went to watch the battle, which the Court expected to be the final defeat of Condé, and with that the end of the civil war.
Around seven o’clock in the morning, Condé reached the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, now part of the city of Paris, but at that time a suburb outside the city gates. It was then and there that Turenne caught up with Condé. Turenne initially sent a small detachment into Condé’s rearguard, “to amuse him.” As a result, the troops of Condé were thrown into disorder, and he had to abandon his baggage to have time to get his men in some semblance of order for battle. With his forces fragmented, Condé had immediately around himself no more than thirty or forty allied noblemen and members of his own household, whom he quickly formed into a squadron and moved to a defensive position behind some entrenchments the local villagers of the Faubourg had made several days earlier, expecting to be pillaged.
Turenne sent an entire well-ordered battalion against the small squadron, and it seemed to be the end for Condé in the eyes of those watching. But at thirty feet from their position, Condé charged out from his defensive entrenchments, sword in hand, whereupon he and his small band entirely defeated Turenne’s battalion, taking their officers prisoner and capturing their banners before returning behind the entrenchments.
Nevertheless, Turenne’s attacks continued, not only on Condé’s immediate position but on his forces’ other scattered positions as well. Yet the King’s forces met intense resistance throughout the battle. Condé came out a second time from his entrenchments and once again repulsed Turenne’s men. La Rochefoucauld tells us, “he was everywhere. And in the middle of the fire and the battle, he gave orders with that clarity of mind that is so rare and so necessary in these encounters.”
After the second attack was repulsed, the rebel Duc de Beaufort joined up with Condé along with his brother-in-law, and rival Frondeur, the Duc de Nemours. Condé wanted to send his infantry against the musketry that had taken up positions in the houses along the road to Charenton. But Beaufort, disappointed that he had not fought alongside Condé at Turenne’s two prior attacks while Nemours had, argued that they should instead attack the barricades blocking the road ahead. They proceeded with Beaufort’s plan, but the attack failed and their infantry hid in hedges, no longer wishing to fight.
At this time La Rochefoucauld joined up with Beaufort and Nemours, and Beaufort proposed to the three of them that they and their followers attack a squadron of Flemish troops loyal to the King who were then passing down the road. It was a foolhardy attack, and they exposed themselves and their few companions who followed them to withering fire from the musketry in the houses lining the road.
But the guards at the barricade were put in shock by the boldness of the attack, and continuing to drive forward despite the musket fire from the houses, the noblemen pushed the guards back and took the barricade. Alone. Their followers had not joined them. Holding the barricade was nobody but the Duc de Beaufort, the Duc de Nemours, and the Duc de La Rochefoucauld, along with his eldest son François VII, Prince de Marcillac, who had just passed his eighteenth birthday a few weeks prior, and yet had already been in battle several times alongside his father over the past year.
Seeing that only four men held the barricade, the king’s forces immediately counterattacked. Condé put himself in the road with his followers and tried to come to their aid, but the four noblemen were entirely outmatched. Nemours was shot 13 times. Most balls lodged in his armor, but several struck his body. La Rochefoucauld received a musket shot to the face. The ball passed behind one eye, into his nasal cavity, behind the other eye, and exited clean through the other side of his face. La Rochefoucauld tells us that he instantly lost sight. Beaufort and the young Marcillac helped the two wounded dukes to friendly lines, while Condé and his small squadron defended their retreat. The barricade was once again lost to the King’s forces.
Both sides were by now exhausted by battle, and attention turned to the wounded, of which there were many on both sides. But word came that the King’s other army, led by de la Ferté, was en route with fresh troops. Once again, it appeared to be the end for Condé and the Fronde.
But the opinion of the people of Paris suddenly shifted. They had up until that point viewed the battle cynically. Many mistrusted Condé, based on rumors of his previously attempting to make a separate peace with the King. Some even went so far as to think that the entire conflict was being staged by the King’s chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin. But seeing so many dead and wounded noblemen being carried from the battlefield, such illusions were lost; and with their sympathy aroused, the Parisian people began to take the side of Condé.
The Duc d’Orleans, who held great sway over the city of Paris and controlled its defenses, had also wavered considerably between the two camps. Throughout the battle, the Cardinal de Retz continually counseled Orleans to remain neutral. But his twenty-five-year-old daughter, Anne Marie Louise, called la Grande Mademoiselle, overcame his indecision and took matters into her own hands. She went to the city hall and ordered the bourgeois of the city armed, so that they could remove the King’s guard blocking the city gates. Then she went to the Bastille, which overlooked the battlefield, and ordered the governor of the fort to turn his cannon on the king’s troops— which he did.
With the gates now open, La Rochefoucauld, despite his grave wounds, was helped onto his horse and rode into Paris, where he called on the people to join the side of Condé. La Grande Mademoiselle reported in her own Mémoires that she met him at the old Rue de Tissanderie (today the Rue de Rivoli, near the Hôtel de Ville). He was being held up on his horse by his son the Prince de Marcillac and his right-hand man, Jean Hérauld Gourville. All three men had on white doublets, which were covered in the duke’s blood. La Rochefoucauld was exhaling heavily, for fear that the blood running from his nose into his mouth would suffocate him. And it appeared, she said, that his eyes were falling out of his head. She did not think he would be able to survive.
Following the swing in popular support and the intervention of la Grande Mademoiselle, Condé entered the city to great acclamation, despite being grossly outmatched and having endured heavy casualties. It was a sort of triumphal retreat into Paris. The captured banners of Turenne and others were hung up on the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Condé was at the height of his power. The King and Court returned to their provisional seat at St. Denis.
But by October, after various duels, riots, melees, and other intrigues, the Fronde collapsed and the civil war was over. The King retook Paris with Turenne’s assistance, and Condé went into in exile. La Rochefoucauld survived, and the King offered him amnesty. But he refused it, and chose instead to recuperate from his wounds with his family far away from Paris, near Luxembourg in lands governed by his brother-in-law.
Married at fifteen, a soldier from sixteen, a father at twenty, and exiled from court once previously at the age twenty-one for “imprudence of language,” no written work had yet appeared in print under La Rochefoucauld’s name, and nothing out of print besides some letters. Now, at thirty-nine years old, the cause he had fought for was lost; his injuries would require a lengthy convalescence; his affairs were in disarray after years of war; his family seat, the Chateau de Verteuil, had been leveled by the King’s forces; and he was out of favor with the Court once again.
Yet it is in this second exile, during his recuperation from the wounds of war and the rebuilding of a shattered noble house, that we encounter one of the most remarkable moralists that the European spirit has produced in any age.
“Hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue.”
“One gives nothing so generously as his advice.”
“The mind is always the dupe of the heart.”
“Neither the sun nor death can be looked at unblinkingly.”
“Disputes would not last long if the fault were only on one side.”
“One is never as happy nor as unhappy as one imagines.”
When one encounters the maxims of La Rochefoucauld, they are typically of the sort translated above. The kinds of pithy turns of phrase that used to occasionally leaven the writings of essayists and the speech of political men, before the quality of our public discourse degraded to its present state. Yet the Réflexions ou Sentences et Maximes Morales are more than pithy turns of phrase. They contain a system. But not a system of philosophy (for which La Rochefoucauld holds a certain contempt).
“Philosophy easily triumphs over evils of the past and evils of the future, but present evils triumph over it.” (22)
Rather, they contain a system of moral psychology that distills and crystalizes and isolates and refines human nature into its constituent elements, and reassembles them into a picture of man as he truly is, even if it is not what theologians or philosophers might hope.
“The vices enter into the composition of the virtues, as poisons enter into the composition of remedies: prudence assembles them and tempers them and employs them gainfully against the evils of life.” (182)
Nietzsche, praising both the maxim as a literary form and the author of these, called them “accurately aimed arrows, which hit the mark again and again, the black mark of man’s nature.” The metaphor of the arrow is apt, but not ideal. Better to liken the Maximes to the epée:
“Solemnity is an obscurity in the body contrived to hide the faults of the mind.” (257)
or to the musket:
“No one deserves to be praised for kindness if he doesn’t have the strength to be cruel: any other kindness is often nothing but a laziness or the impotence of the will.” (237)
The maxim is the perfect literary form for a man of the noblesse de l’epée who was willing to go to war against his own King in order to protect his privileges, to maintain his rule over his ancestral domains— and, indeed, for the love of adventure and intrigue. It is pure assertion. Unsupported by argument or data, it is its own evidence. It is the literary equivalent of the thrust of a blade or the blast of a gun. His maxims are frequently cutting, often ironic, and occasionally quite funny:
“Most chaste women are hidden treasures, who are only in safekeeping because no one looks for them.” (368)
He fights with the pen just as he did at the battle of Faubourg Saint-Antoine, like a true French nobleman— among the few, exposed to enemy fire, but bravely staking his claim with a bold and contentious pronouncement.
“What men call friendship is nothing but a company, a reciprocal management of interests, and an exchange of good offices; in the end, it is nothing but a business wherein pride always offers something to gain.” (83)
No longer at war, and at repose, he wages a battle of the mind’s wit. It must be understood that the maxims are the product of aristocratic conversation— the intrigue and hypocrisy of court, of course; but also: the salon, letters, and above all liaisons and affairs and private friendships, especially with young women. The quintessential image of La Rochefoucauld is the convalescing nobleman reclining at one of his estates while conversing intently with two pretty girls in finery. In the years after the Fronde, he became closely linked with Mme de Sévigné, author of celebrated letters to her daughter, and Mme de Lafayette, author of perhaps the first truly modern novel, La Princesse de Clèves.
Without a doubt, La Rochefoucauld has his enemies. They existed in his day and persist throughout literary history, and they follow a certain fixed line of attack. That line is very well exemplified in a biographical work by the minor 19th century French philosopher Victor Cousin. He takes up the early life of the duchesse de Longueville, who was the sister of Condé, mistress of La Rochefoucauld, and the central figure in the political intrigues that initiated and sustained the Fronde. Cousin paints a picture of La Rochefoucauld as entirely self-interested and totally lacking in virtue— particularly lacking in the virtues of courtly love.
To his way of thinking, La Rochefoucauld should have put Mme de Longueville on a pedestal and sacrificed himself for her sake, rather than manipulating her into leading the Fronde and using his relations with her for personal and political advantages — and then casting her aside at the merest hint of betrayal.
La Rochefoucauld suspected Mme de Longueville of having secretly entered into an affair with the Duc de Nemours, and said as much in his Mémoires. Although they were published anonymously and he disavowed authorship, the accusation made a scandal; and that, along with the collapse of the Fronde, drove Mme de Longueville to spend the rest of her life at the abbey of Port-Royal in religious seclusion. La Rochefoucauld, meanwhile, healed from his wounds and regained his sight, reentered the King’s favor and gained high offices for himself and his sons, and joined a literary society where he circulated works that gained great and lasting renown.
“In love, the one who heals the first is always the better healed.” (417)
Cousin’s line of attack is heavily influenced by the unflattering depiction of La Rochefoucauld recorded by his fellow Frondeur and bitterest rival: Paul de Gondi, Cardinal de Retz. Retz is the author of celebrated Mémoires, which contain a sardonically belittling portrait of La Rochefoucauld. Retz describes him as possessed of good qualities but habitually vacillating and never able to carry matters to a profitable outcome; a soldier but not a warrior; and author of the Maximes which show insufficient faith in virtue: “he would have done better to know himself and reduce himself to passing, as he could have done, for the most polished courtier of his century.”
La Rochefoucauld for his part responded with a written portrait of Retz which was substantially more direct and caustic: “little piety, some appearance of religion”; “seems ambitious without being it”; “insensitive to hatred and friendship, whatever care he took to look busy with the one or the other.” His contempt is not surprising. At one point in the Fronde, La Rochefoucauld tried to assassinate Retz, then insulted him in front of the Parliament of Paris, and would have dueled with him over it, had it not been for the intervention of the Duc d’Orleans.
The critics do have some merit to their charges. La Rochefoucauld was, without a doubt, a political and economic failure in the first part of his life. Although he inherited a ducal title and was a hereditary pair de France, his early love of intrigue and adventure left his house in tatters.
“Youth is a continuous inebriation: it is the fever of reason.” (271)
But it was through his engagement in affairs that La Rochefoucauld developed a penetrating sense of the psychological motives that drive human action.
“Men and affairs have their point of perspective. There are certain ones that must be seen up close to judge them properly, and others which one never judges so well as when one is far away.” (104)
And in the system of La Rochefoucauld, affairs are nothing more than the actions of particular men, who are driven by their own interests, including their interest in honor and glory; their pride or self-love; their individual humors or dispositions; and above all, fortune.
“What we take for virtues are often nothing but an assemblage of various actions and interests that fortune or our industry are able to put in order, and it is not always by valor or chastity that men are valiant and that women are chaste.” (1)
La Rochefoucauld is not seeking with the Maximes to raise man to the attainment of a higher condition. But nor is he an amoralist or moral anarchist, instructing followers to abandon virtue. He is the engaged spectator, the mature aristocrat who, having passed from an active life to a largely contemplative one, is able to see in others and in himself the bitter truth of man’s high moral aspirations when they confront reality.
“The virtues are lost in interest, as rivers are lost in the sea.” (171)
And neither he is a Machiavellian, inventing new modes and orders, nor is he a Nietzschean affecting a transvaluation of values. The system of La Rochefoucauld is not one of social or political improvement or even criticism. It is directed above all at affecting the most penetrating possible insight into the mind and motives of men…
“The greatest fault of a penetrating insight is not to fall just shy of the mark, it is to go past it.” (377)
…while leaving the rest to fortune.
“Fortune makes our virtues and vices appear, just as light makes objects appear.” (38)
Nature and fortune are the two great givens for La Rochefoucauld, with nature being the material and fortune being the field of action— each of which serve to distinguish men.
“Nature creates merit, fortune puts it to work.” (153)
La Rochefoucauld speaks of fortune the way many of his contemporaries would speak of Providence, which he only referred to once, in an early edition of the Maximes.
“Whatever uncertainty and whatever variety appears in the world, one notices nevertheless a certain hidden sequence and order always settled by Providence, which causes each thing to walk in file and follow the course of its destiny.” (613, 225 in 1665 ed.)
He removed that maxim in subsequent editions, and in view of the overall system, we can see why it was suppressed. La Rochefoucauld assiduously avoids allowing any sort of hidden hand or guiding mechanism, other than fortune, to enter into his portrayal of human motivations. And yet even fortune is not entirely determinative.
“There is a superiority that does not depend a bit on fortune: it is a certain appearance that distinguishes us and makes us seem destined for great things; it is a price that we imperceptibly put on ourselves; it is by this quality that we usurp the deference of other men, and it is typically by this quality that we stand taller than others do by birth, by prerogative, by merit even.” (399)
It is a view that sees man as fundamentally active according to his nature— not as a reactive object of group dynamics or as a passive observer of a deterministic historical process. And even though fortune as well as nature must favor those who wish to win eternal fame…
“Whatever great advantages nature gives, it is not by nature alone, but fortune with it that makes heroes.” (53)
…great men know how to make fortune favor them.
“To be a great man, one must know how to turn all fortune to his advantage.” (343)
These maxims, although they were published in multiple editions and were well-known in his lifetime, reflect the preoccupations of a nobleman. They are not the sort of thoughts that are appropriate for the many.
“Mediocre minds typically condemn everything that exceeds their reach.” (375)
Nietzsche recognized as much in his encounter with La Rochefoucauld, wondering whether “perhaps the belief in goodness, in virtuous men and actions, in an abundance of impersonal goodwill in the world has made men better.” He goes on to “table the question of whether psychological observation brings more advantage or harm upon men.”
La Rochefoucauld, however, does not entirely avoid that question. In the final maxim, he addresses the fear of death and the falsehood and self-deception of those who appear to disdain it— regardless of their status.
“It is true that, whatever disproportion there is between great men and the common people, one has seen a thousand times the one and the other greet death with the same face; but it has always been with the difference that, in the disdain that great men appear to have for death, it is the love of glory that takes away their sight, and in common people it is nothing but an effect of their lack of enlightenment that stops them from considering the magnitude of their woe, and gives them the freedom to think about something else.” (504)
It is a striking yet altogether fitting coda to the Maximes, and one which stands as a rebuke to some of the basic presumptions that pervade the present epoch. At a minimum, we ought to doubt that La Rochefoucauld would recognize the merit of pressing the common man into a scheme of universal education, thereby stealing from him that simplicity of spirit which is his succor from life’s greatest evil, and arousing in him instead the false hope of social progress and technological improvement.
Worse than misguided schemes to raise the social and intellectual condition of the common man, which continue to fail despite centuries of effort, is the nagging sense that an overall decline in human substance and an oppressive empire of petty regulation of daily life are reaching a point where we may never again see great men. But La Rochefoucauld reminds us that the reluctant warrior and the bureaucrat were with him in his day also.
“We do not want to lose our lives, and we want to gain glory; which causes the brave to have even greater skill and spirit for avoiding death than functionaries have for holding onto their benefits.” (221)
And so too was the impulse of the unremarkable masses to hinder and constrain the great.
“We have made a virtue of moderation to put limits on the ambition of great men, and to console mediocre people for their lack of fortune, and their lack of merit.” (308)
Yet the desire for glory never dies in the hearts of certain men— the best men. As inhospitable as the times are to the pursuit of glory, so much greater will be the faculties and so much bolder will be the enterprises of those immoderate men who aspire to ever-flowing renown among mortals. And that will make their names all the greater.
“The glory of great men must be measured by the means they use to get it.” (157)
THIS PIECE IS AVAILABLE IN VOLUME I ISSUE IV