François de La Rochefoucauld, noted French author of maxims and memoirs

“Perfect valor consists in doing without witness all that we should be capable of doing before the whole world.”

François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, Prince de Marcillac (September 15, 1613 – March 17, 1680) was a noted French author of maxims and memoirs. It is said that his world-view was clear-eyed and urbane, and that he neither condemned human conduct nor sentimentally celebrated it.

  • Born in Paris on the Rue des Petits Champs, at a time when the royal court was vacillating between aiding the nobility and threatening it, he was considered an exemplar of the accomplished 17th-century nobleman.
  • Until 1650, he bore the title of Prince de Marcillac.
  • La Rochefoucauld was given the education of a nobleman of his era, which concentrated on military exercises, hunting, court etiquette, elegance of expression and comportment, and a knowledge of the world.

He was married at the age of 15 to Andrée de Vivonne, a cousin of Catherine de Vivonne, the future marquise de Rambouillet.

  • He joined the army the following year and almost immediately established himself as a public figure. He fought bravely in the annual campaigns, though his actions were never formally recognised.
  • Under the patronage of Madame de Chevreuse, whom he met at this time — the first of the three celebrated women who influenced his life — he joined the service of Queen Anne of Austria.
  • In one of Madame de Chevreuse’s quarrels with Cardinal Richelieu and her husband, a scheme apparently was conceived by which Marcillac was to carry her off to Brussels on horseback.

His importance as a social and historical figure is overshadowed by his towering stature in French literature. His literary work consists of three parts: his Memoirs, the Maximes, and his letters.

  • The Memoirs are of high interest and literary merit. A book purporting to be La Rochefoucauld’s memoirs was published in the Dutch Republic whence, despite the author’s protest, it continued to be reprinted for some 30 years. It has now been proved to have been pieced together from the work of half a dozen men, with scarcely a third of it being La Rochefoucauld’s. Some years after La Rochefoucauld’s death, a new recension appeared, still largely adulterated but with some errors corrected. This work went unchallenged for more than a century. Only in 1817 did anything like a genuine, if still imperfect, edition appear.
  • The Maxims had no such fate. The author made frequent alterations and additions to them during his life and a few were added after his death. It is usual now to publish them in their totality of 504. The majority consist of just two or three lines, and hardly any exceed half a page. La Rochefoucauld reflects on the conduct and motives of mankind, from the point of view of a man of the world who intends not to sugar-coat his observations. In fact, in his introduction, he advises: “the best approach for the reader to take would be to put in his mind right from the start that none of these maxims apply to himself in particular, and that he is the sole exception, even though they appear to be generalities. After that I guarantee that he will be the first to endorse them and he will believe that they do credit to the human spirit.” Some examples include:
    • Self-love is the greatest of all flatterers.
    • Sincere enthusiasm is the only orator who always persuades. It is like an art the rules of which never fail; the simplest man with enthusiasm persuades better than the most eloquent with none.
    • Men are not only subject to losing all recollection of kindnesses and injuries done them, they even hate those to whom they are obliged and cease to hate those who have harmed them. The effort of repaying the kindness and avenging the evil seem to them a servitude to which they are unwilling to submit.

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