THREE FRENCH MORALISTS AND THE GALLANTRY OF FRANCE
EDMUND GOSSE, C.B.
OFFICIER DE LA LEGION D'HONNEUR
LONDON WILLIAM HEINEMANN
This little book, long the subject of my meditation, suddenly began to take shape one Sunday morning when I was your guest at Gisburne. We were actually starting for church, and the car was at the door, when I announced to you that the spirit moved me to stay behind. "Very well, then," you said, with your habitual good-nature, "we leave you to your folios." My "folios" were the three volumes of one of the smallest of books, the 18mo edition of Vauvenargues published by Plon in 1874. In the midst of a violent thunderstorm, which was like a declaration of war upon your golden Yorkshire summer, I wrote my first pages, and you were so sceptical, when you came back, as to my having done anything but watch the lightning, that I told you you would have to endure the responsibility of being sponsor to a work thus suddenly begun in all the agitation of the elements. So, such as time has proved it, here it is.
THREE FRENCH MORALISTS—
THE GALLANTRY OF FRANCE
The object of these essays is to trace back to its source, or to some of its sources—for the soul of France is far too complex to be measured by one system—the spirit of gallantry which inspired the young French officers at the beginning of the war. We cannot examine too minutely, or with too reverent an enthusiasm, the effort of our great ally, and in this theme for our admiration there are many strains, some of which present themselves in apparent opposition to one another. The war has now lasted so long, and has so completely altered its character, that what was true of the temper of the soldiers of France in November 1914 is no longer true in April 1918. Confidence and determination are still there, there is no diminution in domestic intensity or in patriotic fervour, but the long continuance of the struggle has modified the temper of the French officer, and it will probably never be again what it was in the stress and tempest of sacrifice three years and a half ago, when the young French soldiers, flushed with the idealisms which they had imbibed at St. Cyr, rushed to battle like paladins, "with a pure heart," in the rapture of chivalry and duty.
All that has long been wearied out, and might even be forgotten, if the letters and journals of a great cloud of witnesses were not fortunately extant. The record kept by the friends of Paul Lintier and those others whom I am presently to mention, and by innumerable persons to whose memory justice cannot here be done, will keep fresh in the history of France the idealism of a splendid generation. Now we see, and for a long time past have seen, a different attitude on the fields of Champagne and Picardy. There is no feather worn now in the cap, no white gloves grasp the sword; the Saint Cyrian elegance is over and done with. There is no longer any declamation, any emphasis, any attaching of importance to "form" or rhetoric. The fervour and the emotion are there still, but they are kept in reserve, they are below the surface, "at the bottom of the heart," as La Rochefoucauld puts it.
Heroism is now restrained by a sense of the prodigious length and breadth of the contest, by the fact, at last patent to the most unthinking, that the war is an octopus which has wound its tentacles about every limb and every organ of the vitality of France. A revelation of the overwhelming violence of enormous masses of men has broken down the tradition of chivalry. War is now accepted with a sort of indifference, as a part of the day's work; "pas de grands mots, pas de grands gestes, pas de drame!" The imperturbable French officer of 1918 attaches no particular importance to his individual gesture. He concentrates his energy in another kind of action.
But the French race is by nature bellicose and amorous of adventure, and more than all other nations has a tendency to clothe its patrimonial ardour of defence in beautiful terms and gallant attitudes. This is one of the points on which the British race, with its scrupulous reserve, often almost its affectation of self-depreciating shyness, differs most widely from the French, and is most in need of sympathetic imagination in dealing with a noble ally whose methods are not necessarily the same as ours. It is difficult to fancy a young English lieutenant quoting with rapturous approval, as Pierre de Rozieres and Henri Lagrange did in August 1914, the counsels which were given more than a hundred years ago by the Prince de Ligne: "Let your brain swim with enthusiasm! Let honour electrify your heart! Let the holy flame of victory shine in your eyes! as you hoist the glorious ensigns of renown let your souls be in like measure uplifted!" A perpetual delirium or intoxication is the state of mind which is recommended by this "heart of fire," as the only one becoming in a French officer who has taken up arms to defend his country.
For the young men who consciously adopted the maxims of the Prince de Ligne as their guide at the opening of this war, M. Maurice Barres has found the name of "Traditionalists." They are those who followed the tradition of the soldierly spirit of France in its three main lines, in its individualism, in its intelligence, in its enthusiasm. They endeavoured, in those first months of agony and hope, to model their conduct on the formulas which their ancestors, the great moralists of the past, had laid down for them. Henri Lagrange, who fell at Montereau in October 1915, at the age of twenty, was a type of hundreds of others. This is how his temper of mind, as a soldier, is described by his friend Maxime Brienne:—
"The confidence of Lagrange was no less extraordinary than was his spirit of sacrifice. He possessed the superhuman severity which comes from being wholly consecrated to duty.... With a magnificent combination of logic and of violence, with a resolution to which his unusually lucid intelligence added a sort of methodical vehemence, he expressed his conviction that resolute sacrifice was necessary if the result was to be a definite success.... He declared that a soldier who, by force of mind and a sentiment of honour and patriotism, was able to conquer the instinct of fear, should not merely "fulfil" his military duty with firmness, but should hurl himself on death, because it was only at that price that success could be obtained over a numerical majority."
This is a revelation of that individualism which is characteristic of the trained French character, a quality which, though partly obscured by the turn the great struggle has taken, will undoubtedly survive and ultimately reappear. It is derived from the admonitions of a series of moral teachers, and in the wonderful letters which M. Maurice Barres has brought together with no less tact than passion in his series of volumes issued under the general title of "L'Ame Francaise et la Guerre," we have an opportunity of studying it in a great variety of situations. This is but a portion, and it may be but a small portion, of the multiform energy of France, and it is capable, of course, of being subjected to criticism. That, in fact, it has had to endure, but it is no part of my business here, nor, if I may venture to say so, is it the business of any Englishman to criticise at any time, except in pathetic admiration, an attitude so beautiful, and marked in its self-sacrifice by so delicate an effusion of scrupulous good taste. We are in presence of a field of those fluttering tricolor flags which fill the eyes of a wanderer over the battle-centres of the Marne with a passion of tears. We are in presence of the memorials of a chivalry that did not count the price, but died "joyfully" for France.
[Footnote 1: The poet Leon Guillot, in dying, bid his comrades describe him to his father and mother as "tombe au champ d'honneur et mort joyeusement pour son pays."—"Les Diverses Familles Spirituelles de la France," pp. 178, 179.]
There is not much advantage in searching for the germs of all this exalted sentiment earlier than the middle of the seventeenth century. The malady of the Fronde was serious precisely because it revealed the complete absence, in the nobles, in the clergy, in the common people, of patriotic conviction of any kind. Cardinal's men and anti-cardinalists, Mazarin and Monsieur, Conde and Plessis-Praslin,—we follow the bewildering turns of their fortune and the senseless evolution of their mercenaries, without being able to trace any moral line of conduct, any ethical aim on the part of the one or the other. It was anarchy for the sheer fun of anarchy's sake, a struggle which pervaded the nation without ever contriving to be national, a riot of forces directed by no intellectual or ethical purpose whatever. The delirium of it all reached a culminating point in 1652 when the aristocratic bolshevists of Conde's army routed the victorious king and cardinal at the Faubourg St. Antoine. This was the consummation of tragical absurdity; what might pass muster for political reason had turned inside out; and when Mazarin fled to Sedan he left behind him a France which was morally, religiously, intellectually, a sucked orange.
Out of the empty welter of the Fronde there grew with surprising rapidity the conception of a central and united polity of France which has gone on advancing and developing, and, in spite of outrageous revolutionary earthquakes, persisting ever since. We find La Rochefoucauld, as a moral teacher, with his sardonic smile, actually escaping out of the senseless conflict, and starting, with the stigmata of the scuffle still on his body, a surprising new theory that the things of the soul alone matter, and that love of honour is the first of the moral virtues. We see him, the cynic and sensual brawler of 1640, turned within a few years into a model of regularity, the anarchist changed into a serious citizen with a logical scheme of conduct, the atheistical swashbuckler become the companion of saints and pitching his tent under the shadow of Port Royal. More than do the purely religious teachers, he marks the rapid crystallization of society in Paris, and the opening of a new age of reflection, of polish and of philosophical experiment. Moral psychology, a science in which Frenchmen have ever since delighted, seems to begin with the stern analysis of amour-propre in the "Maximes."
It is obvious that my choice of three moral maxim-writers to exemplify the sources of modern French sentiment must be in some measure an arbitrary one. The moralists of the end of the seventeenth century in France are legion, and I would not have it supposed that I am not aware of the relative importance of some of them. But although La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyere were not the inventors of their respective methods of writing, nor positively isolated in their treatment of social themes, I do not think it is claiming too much for them to say that in the crowd of smaller figures they stand out large, and with each generation larger, in any survey of their century. In their own day, Cureau de la Chambre, Coeffeteau and Senault were considered the first of moral philosophers, but there must be few who turn over the pages of the "Usages des Passions" now, whereas the "Caracteres" enjoys a perpetual popularity.
The writers whom I have just named are dead, at least I presume so, for I must not profess to have done more than touch their winding-sheets in the course of my private reading. But there are two moralists of the period who remain alive, and one of whom burns with an incomparable vivacity of life. If I am asked why Pascal and Nicole have not been chosen among my types, I can only answer that Pascal, unlike my select three, has been studied so abundantly in England that by nothing short of an exhaustive monograph can an English critic now hope to add much to public apprehension of his qualities. The case of Nicole is different. Excessively read in France, particularly during the eighteenth century, and active always in influencing the national conscience—since the actual circulation of the "Essais de Morale" is said to have far exceeded that of the "Pensees" of Pascal—Nicole has never, in the accepted phrase, "contrived to cross the Channel," and he is scarcely known in England. Books and their writers have these fates. Mme de Sevigne was so much in love with the works of Nicole, that she expressed a wish to make "a soup of them and swallow it"; but I leave her to the enjoyment of the dainty dish. As theologians, too, both Pascal and Nicole stand somewhat outside my circle.
The three whom I have chosen stand out among the other moralists of France by their adoption of the maxim as their mode of instruction. When La Bruyere, distracted with misgivings about his "Caracteres," had made up his mind to get an introduction to Boileau, and to ask the advice of that mighty censor, Boileau wrote to Racine (May 19, 1687), "Maximilian has been out to Auteuil to see me and has read me parts of his Theophrastus." Nicknames were the order of the day, and the critic called his new friend "Maximilian," although his real name was Jean, because he wrote "Maximes." There is no other country than France where the maker of maxims has stamped a deep and permanent impression upon the conscience and the moral habits of the nation. But this has been done by La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyere, Vauvenargues, whom, did it not sound frivolous, we might style the three great Maximilians.
The three portraits were first exhibited as a course of lectures at the Royal Institution in February of this year. They have been revised and considerably enlarged. For the English of the passages translated or paraphrased I am in every case responsible. The chapter on "The Gallantry of France" appeared in the Edinburgh Review, and I thank the editor and publisher of that periodical for their courteous permission to include it here.
One of the most gifted of the young officers who gave their lives for France at the beginning of the war, Quartermaster Paul Lintier, in the admirable notes which he wrote on his knee at intervals during the battle of the Meuse in August 1914, said—
"The imperative instinct for making the best you can of life, the sentiment of duty, and anxiety for the good opinion of others, in a word honour—these are the main educators of the soldier under fire. This is not a discovery, it is simply a personal statement."
Taken almost at random from the records of the war, this utterance may serve us as well as any other to distinguish the attitude of the Frenchman in the face of violent and critical action from the equally brave and effective attitude of other races. He has the habit, not common elsewhere, of analyzing conduct and of stripping off from the contemplation of it those voluntary illusions which drop a curtain between it and truth.
The result of this habit of ruthless criticism is to concentrate the Frenchman's attention, even to excess, on the motives of conduct, and to bring him more and more inevitably to regard self-love, self-preservation, personal vanity in its various forms, as the source of all our apparent virtues. Even when we appear to be most disinterested, even when we are most clearly actuated by unselfish devotion, by honour, we are really the prey, as Lintier saw it, of the wish to save our lives and to preserve the good opinion of others. Underneath the transports of patriotism, underneath the sincerity of religious fervour, the Frenchman digs down and finds amour-propre at the root of everything.
This attitude or habit of mind is particularly shocking to all those who live in a state of illusion, and there is probably no aspect of French character which is more difficult for the average Englishman to appreciate than this tendency towards sceptical dissection of the motives of conduct. Yet it is quite certain that it is widely disseminated among those of our neighbours who are most prompt and effective in action, and whose vigour is in no degree paralysed by the clairvoyance with which they seek for exact truth even in the most romantic and illusive spiritual circumstances. To throw light on this aspect of French character, I propose to call attention to a little book, which is probably well-known to my readers already, but which may be regarded from a point of view, as I venture to think, more instructive than that which is usually chosen.
In the year 1665 there appeared anonymously in Paris, in all the circumstances of well-advertised secrecy, a thin volume of "Maximes," which were understood to have exercised for years past the best thoughts of a certain illustrious nobleman. Mme de Sable, who was not foreign to the facts, immediately wrote a review, intended for the Journal des Scavants, in the course of which she said that the new book was "a treatise on movements of the human heart which may be said to have remained until now unrecognized." The book, as every one knows, was the work of the Duke of La Rochefoucauld, and the subject of it was an unmasking of "the veritable condition of man."
It would be idle not to admit that La Rochefoucauld has been almost exclusively regarded as the chief exponent of egotism among the great writers of Europe. He has become—he became during his own lifetime— the bye-word for bitterness. He is represented as believing that egotism is the primum mobile of all human action, and that man is wholly the victim of his passions, which lead him whither they will. He denies all spirituality and sees a physical cause for everything we do. His own words are quoted against him. It is true that he says, "All the passions are nothing but divers degrees of heat or cold in the blood." It is true that he says, "All men naturally hate one another," and again, "Our virtues are mostly vices in disguise." Yet again, he defines the subject of his mordant volume in terms which seem to exclude all bountiful theories concerning the disinterested instincts of the human soul, for he says "Amour-propre is the love of one's self and of all things for one's self; it turns men into their own idolators, and, if fortune gives them the opportunity, makes them the tyrants of others.... It exists in all states of life and in all conditions; it lives everywhere and it lives on everything; it lives on nothing." He does not admit that Christianity itself is immune from the ravages of this essential cankerworm, which adopts all disguises and slips from one Protean shape into another. "The refinements of self-love surpass those of chemistry," and the purpose of La Rochefoucauld is to resolve all our virtues in a crucible and to show that nothing remains but a poisonous deposit of egotism.
No wonder that La Rochefoucauld has been generally regarded as a scourge of the human race, a sterile critic of mankind without sympathy or pity. It is true that his obstinate insistence on the universality of egotism produces a depressing and sometimes a fatiguing impression on the reader, who is apt to think of him as Shakespeare's Apemantus, "that few things loves better than to abhor himself." But when the First Lord goes on to add "He's opposite to humanity," we feel that no phrase could less apply to La Rochefoucauld. We have, therefore, immediately to revise our opinion of this severe dissector of the human heart, and to endeavour to find out what lay underneath the bitterness of his "Maximes." It is a complete mistake to look upon La Rochefoucauld as a monster, or even as a Timon. Without insisting, at all events for the moment, on the plain effect of his career on his intellect, but yet accepting the evidence that much of his bitterness was the result of bad health, sense of failure, shyness, foiled ambition, we have to ask ourselves what he gave to French thought in exchange for the illusions which he so rudely tore away. In dealing with any savage moralist, we are obliged to turn from the abstract question: Why did he say these things? to the realistic one. What did he hope to effect by what he said? Perhaps we can start no better on this inquiry than to quote the Duchess of Schomberg's exclamation when she turned over the pages of the first edition—namely that "this book contains a vast number of truths which I should have remained ignorant of all my life if it had not taught me to perceive them." This may be applied to French energy, and we may begin to see what has been the active value of La Rochefoucauld's apparently negative and repugnant aphorisms.
The La Rochefoucauld whom we know belongs to a polite and modern age. He is instinct with the spirit of society, "la bonne compagnie," as it was called in the middle of the seventeenth century, when a crowd of refined and well-trained pens competed to make of the delicate language of France a vehicle which could transfer from brain to brain the subtlest ingenuities of psychology. He is a typical specimen of the Frenchman of letters at the moment when literature had become the ally of political power and the instrument of social influence. Into this new world, before it had completely developed, the future author of the "Maximes" was introduced at a very early age. He was presented to the wits and precieuses of the Hotel Rambouillet at the age of eighteen. It is amusing to think that he may have seen Voiture, in the Blue Room, seize his lute and sing a Spanish song, or have volunteered as a paladin in the train of Hector, King of Georgia. But the pedantries and affectations of this wonderful society seem to have made no immediate impression upon La Rochefoucauld, whose early years were those of the young nobleman devoid of all apparent intellectual curiosity. It is true that he says of himself that directly he came back from Italy (this was in 1629, when he was only sixteen), "I began to notice with some attention whatever I saw," but this was, no doubt, external; he does not exhibit in his writings, and in all probability did not feel, the slightest interest in the pedantic literature of the end of Louis XIII.'s reign. He represented, through his youth, the purely military and aristocratic element in the society of that age. If he had died when he was thirty, or at the close of the career of Richelieu, nothing would have distinguished him from the mob of violent noblemen who made the streets of Paris a pandemonium.
To understand the influence of La Rochefoucauld it is even more needful than in most similar cases to form a clear idea of his character, and this can only be obtained by an outline of his remarkable career. Francois VI. Duke of La Rochefoucauld, as a typical Parisian, was born in the ducal palace in the rue des Petits-Champs, on September 15, 1613. The family was one of the most noble not merely in France but in Europe, and we do not begin to understand the author until we realize his excessive pride of birth. In a letter he wrote to Cardinal Mazarin in 1648 he says, "I am in a position to prove that for three hundred years the monarchs [of France] have not disdained to treat us as members of their family." This arrogance of race inspired the early part of his life to the exclusion, so far as we can perceive, of any other stimulus to action. He was content to be the violent and fantastic swashbuckler of the half-rebellious court of Louis XIII. In late life, he crystallized his past into a maxim, "Youth is a protracted intoxication; it is the fever of the soul." Fighting and love-making, petty politics and scuffle upon counter-scuffle—such was the life of the young French nobleman of whom La Rochefoucauld reveals himself and is revealed by others as the type and specimen.
La Rochefoucauld is the author, not merely of the "Maximes," but of a second book which is much less often read. This is his "Memoires," a very intelligent and rather solemn contribution to the fragmentary history of France in the seventeenth century. It is hardly necessary to point out that not one of the numerous memoirs of this period must be taken as covering the whole field of which they treat. Each book is like a piece of a dissected map, or of a series of such maps cut to a different scale. All are incomplete and most of them overlap, but they make up, when carefully collated, an invaluable picture of the times. No other country of Europe produced anything to compare with these authentic fragments of the social and political history of France under Richelieu and Mazarin. These Memoirs had a very remarkable influence on the general literature of France. They turned out of favour the chronicles of "illustrious lives," the pompous and false travesties of history, which the sixteenth century had delighted in, and in this way they served to prepare for the purification of French taste. The note of the best of them was a happy sincerity even in egotism, a simplicity even in describing the most monstrous and grotesque events. Among this group of writers, Cardinal de Retz seems to me to be beyond question the greatest, but La Rochefoucauld is not to be despised in his capacity as the arranger of personal recollections.
We must not expect from these seventeenth-century autobiographers the sort of details which we demand from memoir-writers to-day. La Rochefoucauld, although he begins in the first person, has nothing which he chooses to tell us about his own childhood and education. He was married, at the age of fifteen, to a high-born lady, Andree de Vivonne, but her he scarcely mentions. By the side of those glittering amatory escapades of his on the grand scale, with which Europe rang, he seems to have pursued a sober married existence, without upbraidings from his own conscience, or curtain-lectures from his meek duchess, who bore him eight children. La Rochefoucauld's "Memoires" open abruptly with these words:—"I spent the last years of the Cardinal's administration in indolence," and then he begins to discourse on the audacities of the Duke of Buckingham (pleasingly spelled Bouquinquant) and his attacks on the heart of the Queen of France. We gather that although the English envoy can have had no personal influence on the future moralist—since Buckingham was murdered at Portsmouth in 1628, while La Rochefoucauld did not come to court till 1630—yet the young Frenchman so immensely admired what he heard of the Englishman, and so deliberately set himself to take him as a model, that our own knowledge of Buckingham may be of help to us in reproducing an impression of La Rochefoucauld, or rather of the Prince de Marcillac, as he was styled until his father died.
After describing the court as the youth of seventeen had found it, he skips five years to tell us how the Queen asked him to run away with her to Brussels in 1637. History has not known quite what to make of this amazing story, of which La Rochefoucauld had the complacency to write more than twenty years afterwards—
"However difficult and perilous this adventure might seem to me, I may say that never in all my life have I enjoyed anything so much. I was at an age (24) at which one loves to do extravagant and startling things, and I felt that nothing could be more startling or more extravagant than to snatch at the same time the Queen from the King her husband, and from the Cardinal de Richelieu who was jealous, and Mlle d'Hautefort from the King who was in love with her."
He tells the story with inimitable gusto. But he tells it just as an episode, and he hurries on to the death of Richelieu in 1642, as though he were conscious that up to his thirtieth year his own life had not been of much consequence.
Even in that age of turbulent extravagance, the Prince of Marcillac was known, where he was known at all, merely as a hare-brained youth who carried the intolerance and insolence of amatory youth past the confines of absurdity, and it is amusing to find Balzac, who was twenty years his senior, and who was buried in the country, describing him—surely by repute—as the type of—
"These gentlemen who chatter so much about the empire and about the sovereignty of ladies, and have their heads so stuffed with tales and strange adventures, that they grow to believe that they can do all that was done under the reign of Amadis, and that the least of their duties is to reply to a supplicating lady, I, who am only a man, how should I resist the prayer of her to whom the Gods themselves can refuse nothing?"
We seem far from the sombre and mordant author of the "Maximes," but a complete apprehension of the character of La Rochefoucauld requires the story of his adventures to be at least briefly indicated. A chasm divides his early from his late history, and this chasm is bridged over in a very shadowy way by such records as we possess of his retirement after the Fronde.
Between the death of Richelieu and this retirement there lies a period of ten years, during which the future author of the "Maximes" is swallowed up in the hurly-burly of the worst moment in the whole history of France. It is difficult from any point of view to form what it would be mere waste of time for us to attempt in this connection, a clear conception of the chaos into which that country was plunged by the weakness of Anne of Austria and the criminality of Mazarin. The senseless intrigues of the Fronde affect the bewildered student of those times as though
this frame Of Heav'n were falling and these elements In mutiny had from her axle torn The steadfast earth.
At first La Rochefoucauld seems to have meant to support the cause of the court, expecting to be rewarded for what he had done, or been prepared to do for the Queen. He says in his "Memoires" that after the death of Louis XIII. the Queen-Mother "gave me many marks of friendship and confidence; she assured me several times that her honour was involved in my being pleased with her, and that nothing in the kingdom was large enough to reward me for what I had done in her service." That sounds very well, but what it really illustrates is the extraordinary violence of aristocratic frivolity, the fierce levity and insatiable frenzied vanity of the noble families. The aims of La Rochefoucauld, in support of which he was ready to sacrifice his country, were of a class that must seem to us now petty in the extreme. He wanted the tabouret, the footstool, for his duchess, in other words the right to be seated in presence of the members of the royal family. He wanted the privilege of driving into the courtyard of the Louvre without having to descend from his coach outside and walk in. He demanded these honours because they were already possessed by the families of Rohan and of Bouillon. It is extraordinary to consider what powerful effects such trumpery causes could have, but it is a fact that the desolating and cruel wars of the Fronde largely depended upon jealousies of the carrosse and the tabouret. La Rochefoucauld's support of the rebellion frankly and openly was based upon it.
La Rochefoucauld brings the first part of his "Memoires" down to 1649. In the second part he begins again with 1642, being very anxious to show, to his own advantage of course, what the conditions were at court after the deaths of Richelieu and Louis XIII., and in particular to define the position of Mme de Chevreuse, the great intriguer and seductress of the French politics of the age. The charm of this lady, who was no longer young, faded before that of the Duchess of Longueville, one of the most ambitious and most unscrupulous women who ever lived. She was the sister of the Prince de Conti, and from the time when her celebrated relations with La Rochefoucauld began, her influence engaged him in all the unplumbed chaos which led to civil war. When this finally broke out, however, in 1648, the Duke is found once more on the side of the young king and his government, that is to say, of Cardinal Mazarin.
Through the "universal hubbub wide of stunning sounds and noises all confused," we can catch with difficulty the accents of literature, at first indeed vocal in the midst of the riot, and even stimulated by it, as birds are by a heavy shower of rain, but soon stunned and silenced by horrors incompatible with the labour of the Muses. The wars of the Fronde made a sharp cut between the heroic age of imaginative literature and the classical age which presently succeeded it, and offer in this respect a tolerable parallel to the civil wars raging in England about the same time. It is specious, but convenient, to discover a date at which a change of this kind may be said to occur. In England we have such a date marked large for us in 1660; French letters less obviously but more certainly can be said to start afresh in 1652. It is tolerably certain that in that year Pascal, Retz and the subject of our inquiry simultaneously and independently began to write. Up to that time there is no reason to believe that La Rochefoucauld had given himself at all to study, and we possess no evidence that up to the age of forty he was more interested in the existence of the literature of his country than was the idlest of the cut-throat nobility who swaggered in and out of the courtyard of the Louvre.
His "Memoires" end with an account of the war in Guienne in 1651 which is more solemn and more detached than all the rest. No one would suspect that the historian, who affects the gravity of a Tacitus, was acting all through the events he describes with the levity of a full-blooded and unscrupulous schoolboy. The most amazing instance of this is his grotesque attempt to have Cardinal de Retz murdered at the Palais de Justice. In the course of a sort of romping fray he caught Retz's head between the flaps of a folding door, and shouted to Coligny to come and stab him from behind. But he himself was shoved away, and the Cardinal released. La Rochefoucauld admits the escapade, without any sign of embarrassment, merely observing that Retz would have done as much by him if he had only had the chance. But now comes the incident which, better than anything else could, illustrates the feverish and incongruous atmosphere of the Fronde, and the difficulty of following the caprices of its leading figures. The very next day after this attempt to assassinate Retz in a peculiarly disgraceful way, La Rochefoucauld met the Cardinal driving through the streets of Paris in his coach. Kneeling in the street, he demanded and received the episcopal benediction of the man whom he had tried to murder in an undignified scuffle a few hours before. No animosity seems to have persisted between these two princes of the realm of France, and this may be the moment to introduce the picture which Cardinal de Retz, whose head was held in the folding door, painted very soon after of the volatile duke who had held him there to be stabbed from behind. Both writers began their memoirs in 1652, and no one has ever decided which is the more elegant of the two unique conpositions. The conjunction between two of the greatest prose-writers of France is piquant, and we cannot trace in Retz's sketch of his antagonist the smallest sign of resentment. It was not published until 1717, but it has all the appearance of having been written sixty years earlier, at least, when Mademoiselle was seized with the fortunate inspiration of having "portraits" written of, and often by, the celebrated personages of the day. This, then, is how Retz saw La Rochefoucauld—
"There has always been a certain je ne sais quoi in M. de La Rochefoucauld. He has always ever since his childhood wanted to be taking part in some plot, and that at a time when he was indifferent to small interests, which have never been his weakness, and when he had no experience of great ones, which, in another sense, have never been his strong point. He has never had any skill in conducting business, and I don't know why; for he possessed qualities which in any other man would have made up for those which he lacked. He was not longsighted enough, and he did not see as a whole even what was within his range of vision. But his good sense—which in the field of speculation was very good—joined to his gentleness, his insinuating charm, and his admirable ease of manner, ought to have compensated, more than they have done, for his defect of penetration. He has always suffered from an habitual irresoluteness; but I do not know to what this irresoluteness should be attributed. He has never been a warrior, though very much a soldier. He has never, through his own effort, succeeded in being a good courtier, though he has always intended to be one. That air of bashfulness and of shyness which you observe in him in social life has given him in matters of business an apologetic air. He has always fancied that he needed to apologize; and this—in conjunction with his 'Maximes,' which do not err on the side of too much faith in virtue, and with his practice, which has always been to wind up business as impatiently as he started it—makes me conclude that he would have done much better to know himself, and to be content to pass, as he might well have passed, for the most polished courtier and the finest gentleman, in private life, which this age has produced."
We are now beginning to see the real author of the "Maximes," when, at the age of forty, he begins to peep forth from the travesty of his aristocratic violence and idleness. Whether the transformation would have been gradual instead of sudden is what can never be decided, but we date it from July 2, 1652, when he was dangerously wounded in a riot in the Faubourg St. Antoine, at the Picpus barricade, where he was shot in the forehead and, as it at first appeared, blinded for life. According to the faithful Gourville, when La Rochefoucauld thought he would lose his eyesight, he had a picture of Madame de Longueville engraved with two lines under it from a fashionable tragedy, the "Alcyonee" of Duryer—
That I might hold her heart and please her lovely eyes I made my war on kings and would have fought the skies.
With this piece of rodomontade the old Rochefoucauld ceases and makes place for the author of the "Maximes." When he recovered from his wound, his spirit of adventure was broken. He submitted to the cardinal, he withdrew from Conde, and in 1653, still his head bound with bandages and wearing black spectacles to hide those clear and seductive eyes which Petitot had painted, he crept, a broken man, to his country house at Verteuil, in the neighbourhood of Ruffec, now in the Charente. This chateau, built just two hundred years before that date, still exists, a noble relic of feudal France, and a place of pilgrimage for lovers of the author of the "Maximes."
No one was ever more suddenly and more completely cured of a whole system of existence than was La Rochefoucauld by the wound which was so nearly fatal. He said, "It is impossible for any man who has escaped from civil war to plunge into it again." For him, at all events, it was impossible. His only wish in 1653 was to bury himself and his slow convalescence among his woods at Verteuil. In this enforced seclusion, at the age of forty, he turned for solace to literature, which he would seem to have neglected hitherto. We know nothing of his education, which had probably been as primitive as that of any pleasure-seeking and imperious young nobleman of the time. He went to the wars when he was thirteen. In an undated letter he says that he sends some Latin verses composed by a friend for the judgment of his unnamed correspondent, but he adds, "I do not know enough Latin to dare to give an opinion." M. Henri Regnier, in his invaluable "Lexique de la langue de La Rochefoucauld" (1883) points out that the Duke's evident lack of classical knowledge is a positive advantage to him, as it throws him entirely on the resources of pure French. In like manner we may rejoice that Shakespeare had "little Latin and less Greek."
It is tantalizing for us that we know almost nothing of the years, from 1653 to 1656, which La Rochefoucauld spent in severe retirement at Verteuil. What was happening to France was happening, no doubt, in its degree to him; he was chewing the cud of remorse for the follies and crimes of the Fronde. "Only great men should have great failings," the exile wrote, and we may be sure that he had by this time discovered, like the rest of the world, that as a swashbuckler and intriguer he was noisy and petulant, but on the whole anything but great. The Fronde left behind it a sense of littleness, of poverty-stricken humanity, and this particular frondeur had seen the mask drop from the features of his fellow-men. Now, in the quiet of the country, in disgrace with fortune and his own conscience, he grasped a new and this time a dignified and suitable ambition. He began to study reality and learned to distinguish truth from pretence. This study was to make him one of the most eminent of French authors and a great power in the purification of French intelligence. He began, doubtless, his career as an author by composing the "Memoires," in which he embodied his exasperations and his recriminations in language of studied dignity. There is little here which betrays the future moralist, except the simplicity and almost colourless transparency of the style.
As containing nearly the sole certain evidence of La Rochefoucauld's state of mind at the time of transition, it is well, perhaps, to speak at this moment of his letters, which were first brought together in 1881. They extend from 1637 to 1677, and the biographer pores over them in the hope of extracting from them some crumbs of information. But to the general reader they cannot be recommended. They are seldom confidential, the writer never lets himself go. Even to his later friends, such as Mme de Sable, La Rochefoucauld is rarely familiar, and the impression of himself in these graceful and sometimes vigorous epistles is illusive; the writer seems for ever on his guard. The great mass of this correspondence, in which politics takes no part after 1653, is singularly literary; it is mainly occupied with the interests, and almost with the jargon, of the professional author. We are told that his affectation in society was to appear cold and unmoved, and this he certainly contrived to do in those of his letters which have been preserved.
La Rochefoucauld told Mme de Sable that he depended on her for his knowledge of the inmost windings of the human heart. When he returned to Paris, this lady was approaching the age of sixty. Her salon competed with that of the Hotel de Rambouillet and that of Mlle de Montpensier at the Luxembourg. The Marquise de Sable had been gay in her youth, but when her young lover, Armentieres, was killed in a duel, she turned devout. She also turned hypochondriacal and literary. According to Tallemont des Reaux, who has left a portrait of her which is equally ill-natured and entertaining, she built herself a house adjoining the choir of the church of Port Royal, in the Faubourg St. Jacques. Her friend, the Abbe d'Ailly, who edited her works after her death in 1678, admits that she was "one of the greatest visionaries in the world on the chapter of death." She herself expressed her hypochondria otherwise: "I fear death more than other people do, because no one has ever formed so clear a conception of nothingness as I have." Ludicrous stories were told of her excessive fear of illness, and in her fits of alarm she found comfort from the ministrations of Antoine Singlin, who was the director of Pascal's conscience. She became intimate with Arnauld d'Andilly, and with the rest of those Jansenist authors of whom Racine said that their works were "the admiration of scholars and the consolation of all pious persons." But she seems to have had the cleverness to observe that in one respect the literature of Port Royal, as it expressed itself before "Les Provinciales," had the fault of being verbose and redundant. Mme. de Sable deserves more merit than seems to have been given to her for her fervent cultivation of precise language.
[Footnote 2: It was of Singlin that Pascal wrote in 1654, "Soumission total a J.C. et a mon directeur."]
As La Rochefoucauld's correspondence throws little light on the character and person of its author at the time of his intellectual and moral conversion, we turn with satisfaction to a document which owes its existence to a social amusement, almost to a "parlour game." We have seen that La Grande Mademoiselle, anxious to amuse the friends whom she gathered round her in her salon at the Luxembourg, hit upon the notion of inducing her guests to produce written portraits of themselves. You might say all the good of yourself you liked, on the understanding that you put in the shades as well. The collection of these self-portraits was actually printed in 1659, and is a work of great value and interest to biographer and historian. It marks a new movement of French intelligence, a critical excursion into psychology not hitherto attempted in France, and some of the portraits are marvellously delicate in their conscientious precision. Here, however, we are not concerned with more than one of them, that which is signed with the initials of the Duke of La Rochefoucauld. It is his only important composition produced between the "Memoires" and the "Maximes," and it is charmingly written, a portrait drawn in tones of rose-colour and dove-grey, like the pastel-portraits of a century later.
He begins by describing his physical appearance, but passes soon to the moral and social qualities. It would be interesting to quote the whole of this portrait, but we must confine ourselves to some brief quotations. How far we seem from the beasts of prey which ranged the forests of the Fronde, or tore one another to pieces in the streets of Paris, when we follow this refined attempt to present the character of a modern and a complicated man:—
"There is something," says La Rochefoucauld, "at once peevish and proud in my appearance. This makes most people think that I am contemptuous, but I am not so at all. So far as my humour goes, I am melancholy, and I am so to such an extent that, in the last three or four years, I have scarcely been seen to laugh three or four times. It seems to me nevertheless that my melancholy would be supportable and mild enough if it depended solely on my temperament, but it comes so much from outside causes, and what so comes fills my imagination to such a degree, and occupies my thoughts so exclusively, that most of the time I move as in a dream, and scarce listen to what I myself am saying."
Here we have the disappointed courtier still brooding over his disgrace, but we pass to an account of the relief which the new-born man of letters find in the cultivation of the intellect alone—
"I am fond of general reading, but that in which I find something to fashion the mind and to fortify the soul is what I like best. Above all it gives me an extreme satisfaction to read in company with an intelligent person, for in this way one is kept constantly reflecting on what one reads, and the reflections thus exchanged form a species of conversation than which no other in the world is so agreeable or so useful. I give a sound opinion about works in verse and prose which are submitted to me, but perhaps I allow myself too much freedom in expressing that opinion. Another fault of mine is that I am sometimes too scrupulously delicate and too severely critical. I do not dislike to listen to argument, and sometimes I am glad to take my share in the discussion, but I usually support my opinion with too much heat, and when any one pleads an unjust cause in my presence, sometimes, in my zeal for logic, I myself become exceedingly illogical. My sentiments are virtuous, my inclinations are honest, and I am so intensely anxious to act in all things as a gentleman should, that my friends cannot do me a greater favour than to warn me sincerely of my faults. Those who know me rather intimately, and who have been so kind as to give me their counsels in this direction, are aware that I have ever received them with all imaginable joy and with all the submission of mind which they could possibly desire."
All this, and what remains, show that in the character of La Rochefoucauld action had abruptly receded in favour of analysis, and the brutality of civil war in the woods had given place to the refinement of endless conversation by the fireside corner. The old swashbuckler turned from the illusions of the camp to the most exquisite of peaceful associations, and he regarded women from a totally new point of view. It was the age of the salons, and La Rochefoucauld tells us why it was that he became their sedulous associate. He says, "When women are intelligent, I like their conversation better than that of men. There is a certain suavity in their talk which is lacking in that of our sex, and it seems, in addition, that they explain themselves with more precision, and give a more agreeable turn to what they say." In other words, La Rochefoucauld had, by 1658, become a complete, and indeed the most competent and highly finished example of the new social intelligence which was to be found in France. We must dwell for one rapid moment on what that new spirit was.
The seventeenth century in France, liberated from the weight of internecine wars and political tyrannies, had now thrown itself with ardour into the civilized arts, and had, in particular, developed a love of moral disquisition. All the talk which presently became fashionable about virtue and the higher life was a reaction against the horrors of the Fronde. The advance of social refinement was very rapid, and, especially in Paris, there was a determined and intelligent movement in the direction of the amelioration of manners and a studied elegance of life. M. Rebelliau has pointed out that it was precisely at this moment that a great number of new words, and among them delicate, distinguer, moraliste, menagements, finesse and many others, were accepted as part of the French language. These served immediately to enrich the vocabulary of the men and women who were anxious to push further and deeper their investigations into psychological analysis. With this social tendency to dissect the human heart and to seize its most secret movements, was combined the religious and, as we may put it, protestant fashion of the hour, in the spirit of Port Royal. To be a moralist was almost in itself to be a Jansenist, and we see the author of the "Maximes" presently claiming to be, after a fashion, evangelical.
There is so little said about theology, in the direct sense, in the writings of La Rochefoucauld, that his various French critics have given perhaps too little thought to his religious tendencies. They have treated him as though he were the enemy of a pious life. But if we examine that contention from the standpoint provided for us by our own Puritan habit of thought, we must recognize that there was something positively pious about the bitter philosopher of the "Maximes." He was trying, let us never forget, to discover a scientific form of morals, and hardly enough attention has been given to the prominence which he gave to a searching analysis of conscience. He found little to help him in the court religion of the age, but he was immensely impressed with the Jansenist conception of the frailty and worthlessness of the natural man. Hence, his persistency in cultivating almost exclusively the society of those men and women of Port Royal with whom we might suppose that he had very little in common. But, quite recently, a discovery has been made, which is not only of special interest to us as Englishmen, but which throws a further light on the evangelical or puritan tendency of the author of the "Maximes."
A careful scholar, M. Ernest Jouy, was led by a passage in a seventeenth-century MS. to make investigations which seem to have proved that La Rochefoucauld was acquainted with an English book of edification and even that he deigned to make use of it in the fashioning of his famous "Maximes." This was "The Mystery of Self-Deceiving," published in 1615 by a semi-nonconformist Puritan divine, Daniel Dyke, minister of Coggeshall in Essex, and translated obscurely into French by a certain Vernulius. Of the original work Fuller wrote, "It is a book which will be owned for a truth while men have any badness in them, and will be owned as a treasure whilst they have any goodness in them." It is, certainly, an amazing thing to find that this clumsy old treatise of English divinity was apparently possessed as a treasure by the most elegant and the most sceptical of Frenchmen.
La Rochefoucauld may be conceived as saying to the practical divines of Port Royal, "Your work is confused and thwarted by the vast prevalence of rubbish under which morals are concealed. I will help you to force the people who talk so glibly of humanity and pity, of rectitude and amiability, to dissect the real bodies of egotism to which they give those names. I put Man in the pillory of self-judgment; it is for you to deal evangelically with what remains of his temperament when he comes down out of the ordeal."
To do this, La Rochefoucauld prepared, with infinite patience and with the conscientiousness of a great literary artist, his sheaf of Maxim-arrows, ready to shoot them, one by one, into the gross heart of amour-propre. What, then, were the reflexions which, now settled in Paris, and secure from the rough world in the recesses of Mme de Sable's salon, the Duke began to fashion and to polish? A maxim is a formula, which comprehends the whole truth on a particular subject. Coleridge says, in his "Table Talk," that a maxim is a conclusion upon observation of matters of fact; we may add that it is final, it goes as far as it can possibly go, and contains the maximum of truth in the minimum of verbiage. If we take some of the most cynical and savage maxims of La Rochefoucauld we may see that conciseness could proceed no further: for instance, "Virtue is a rouge that women add to their beauty"; or "Pride knows no law and self-love no debt"; or "The pleasure of love is loving." The ingenuity of man has not devised a mode of saying those particular things as exactly in fewer words. They reach the maximum of conciseness, and are therefore called maxims.
It is very unusual in the history of literature to be able to point to a man of genius as the positive founder of a class of work. When we look closely into the matter, we are sure to find that there was an obscure predecessor, a torch-bearer who lighted up the path. Even Shakespeare has Marlowe in front of him, and in front of Marlowe are Greene and Peele. Several poets were inspired by the story of the fall of the rebel angels before Milton took up "Paradise Lost" and seized that province as his own by conquest. In like manner, La Rochefoucauld seems to us in a general view, and seemed indeed to his own Parisian contemporaries, to have invented a new art in the production of his "Maximes." But, in truth, he was not the pioneer, and he seems to have spent months, and even years, in a sort of apprenticeship to two authors who have not survived in French literature as he has. So far as we can make out, the real creator of the maxim in French was Jacques Esprit (1611-1678), the Abbe Esprit as he was called, although he was never a priest, and had a legitimate wife and family. He was a young man from Beziers in Provence, who came to Paris under the protection of Chancellor Seguier, soon became a member of the French Academy, and enjoyed a steady social and literary success.
There seems little doubt that Esprit was known early to La Rochefoucauld, for he was familiar in the family of the Duke and Duchess of Longueville, and later the governor of their children. He enjoyed the confidence of the salons from an early date. There is some reason to suppose that Esprit had begun to write maxims before La Rochefoucauld's return from exile, and certainly before Mme de Sable's retreat to Port Royal in 1659. It is very noticeable in La Rochefoucauld's letters to Esprit—most of which belong to the year 1660—that he treats the academician—who was of plebeian birth and not many months older than himself—with extreme deference. The Duke adopts the style of a pupil to a master, and he submits his sketches or experiments in maxim-making to Esprit for a severe criticism, which he accepts, and for advice, which he adopts. The probability seems to be that Esprit introduced the fashion for writing maxims to Mme de Sable, who was fascinated by it, recommended it to La Rochefoucauld, and then pointed Esprit out as the acknowledged master of the art, who could give invaluable technical advice.
There was a sort of collaboration. We find La Rochefoucauld writing to Esprit, "I shall be much obliged if you will show our last sentences to Mme de Sable; it may perhaps induce her to write some of her own." And to the lady he writes, "Here are all my maxims which you have not yet seen, but as nothing is done for nothing, I beg you to send me in return the receipt for the carrot soup which we had when Commander de Souvre dined at your house," The three maximists consulted one another, polished up one another's sentences, and suggested subjects which were first discussed round the dinner-table or in the summer parlour and then worked up, sometimes by all three conjointly, to the highest pitch of perfection. It was probably Esprit by whom many of the original suggestions were started, indeed it is he who seems to have first laid down the formula that "the mind is the servant and even the dupe of the instincts," which both Pascal and La Rochefoucauld were presently to expand in such brilliant forms. But it is quite an error to presume, as some writers have done, that there was a kind of factory for maxims, out of which sentences were turned which really belonged to no one in particular. The "Maximes" of Mme de Sable and those of the Abbe Esprit—the latter contained in a Jansenist volume called "The Falsity of Human Virtues"—were published independently, but in the same year, 1678. Any one who has the patience to refer to these works may satisfy himself that Mme de Sable, as an artist, is superior to Esprit, but immeasurably inferior to La Rochefoucauld, who is the one unapproachable master of the maxim.
[Footnote 3: A good deal of the prejudice which successive critics, and (very mischievously) Brunetiere in particular, have shown with regard to the character of La Rochefoucauld, is due, in my opinion, to the influence of Victor Cousin, who published, in 1854, a disjointed and diffuse, but in many ways brilliantly executed volume on Mme de Sable. Cousin, who examined, for the first time, a vast array of MS. sources, deliberately lowered the value of La Rochefoucauld in order to enhance the merit of the lady, of whom the learned academician wrote like a lover. Even Esprit was thrown into the scale to lighten the weight of the Duke's originality. Cousin was borne gaily on the stream of his heroine-worship, and others less profoundly acquainted with the facts have let themselves be carried with him. But it is time that we should cease to imitate them in this.]
For six or seven years the Duke worked away at the polishing of his incomparable epigrams, and it was not until October 27, 1665, that the little famous book made its anonymous appearance. The importance of the work was perceived immediately in the close circle of the salons which regulated literary opinion in Paris. For half a century past Frenchmen had been regarding with jealous attention the causes and effects of human passion, culminating, for the moment, in the treatise written by Descartes for the daughter of the Queen of Bohemia. The Jansenists and the Jesuits, the playwrights, the novelists, Hobbes and Spinoza, all pursued, along widely different paths, those illusive secrets of the human heart which had escaped the notice of earlier generations. But La Rochefoucauld reduced the desultory psychology of his predecessors to a system, so that for us the moralizing tendencies of the seventeenth century in France seem to have found their final expression less in the sob of Pascal's conscience than in the resigned ironic nonchalance of La Rochefoucauld, who, as Voltaire so admirably says, "dissolves every virtue in the passions which surround it." Perhaps what the "Maximes" most resembled was the then recently-published analysis of egotism in "Leviathan." But the cool and atrocious periods of what Sir Leslie Stephen calls "the unblushing egotism" of Hobbes have really little in common with the sparkling rapier-strokes of La Rochefoucauld, except that both these moralists— who may conceivably have met and compared impressions in Paris— combined a resolute pessimism about the corruption of mankind with an epicurean pursuit of happiness.
The Maxims of La Rochefoucauld were atoms of gold sifted through the mesh of discussions at the dinner-table, around the fire in winter, under the hawthorns and lilacs which Mme de Sevigne describes, in endless talk between two or more trained and intelligent persons, along the course of which thought oscillated from extreme to extreme, until at last the company dispersed, leaving La Rochefoucauld to capture and to fix the essential result of all that desultory conversation. It is not impossible for us to conjecture the general character of this brilliant and illusive talk. It had one central aim, more or less clearly perceived, namely the desire to reach a Latin standard of perfection. It sought to exchange for the romantic barbarism which had underlain so much that was picturesque in the sixteenth century—a barbarism which had come down from the late Middle Ages, and which was really a dissolution of strong things outworn—to exchange for this a preciousness of quality as against mere rude bulk. It desired to introduce depth of purpose in the place of chaotic moral disorder, originality in place of a frenzied and incoherent eccentricity, and to found a solid structure upon a basis of intellectual discipline.
But in order to carry out this fine scheme, and especially in order successfully to check that decadence which had alarmed the best minds in France, there was a pioneer work to be done. It was necessary to intensify and purify the light of criticism. For this purpose the conversations of the salons culminated in the lapidary art of La Rochefoucauld, who was not a creator like Racine and Moliere, like Bossuet and Fenelon, but who prepared the way for these slightly later builders of French literature by clearing the ground of shams. Segrais, whose recollections of him are among the most precious which have come down to us, says that La Rochefoucauld never argued. He had the Socratic manner, and led others on to expose and expound their views. His custom was, in the course of the endless talks about morals and the soul, "to conceal half of his own opinion, and to show tact with an obstinate opponent, so as to spare him the annoyance of having to yield." There is something very like this in the "Pensees" of Pascal. La Rochefoucauld blames himself, in his self-portrait, for arguing too fiercely, and for being testy with an opponent, but these faults were not perceived by other people. Doubtless he was aware of an inward impatience, and succeeded in concealing it by means of that extreme politeness on which he prided himself.
The "Maximes" are shocking to persons who live in a state of illusion about themselves, and they were so from the hour of their publication. They roll up a bitter pill for human vanity. When Mme de La Fayette, destined to look deeper than any other mortal into the soul of La Rochefoucauld, read them first in 1663, in company with Mme du Plessis at the Chateau de Fresnes, she was terrified and shocked at what she called the "corruption" which they revealed. She wrote to Mme de Sable, who had lent her the manuscript—
"Ah, Madame, how corrupt he must be in mind and heart to be capable of imagining such things! I am so frightened by it that I should say, if this were not a matter too serious for jest, that such maxims are likely to do more to upset him than all the plates of soup he swallowed at your house the other day."
As the "Maximes" pass from hand to hand, we see the spiritual Maenads of Port Royal clustering "with a lovely frightened mien" about the sinister author, while he turns "his beauteous face haughtily another way," like young Apollo in the Phrygian highlands. The word "pessimism" was, I believe, unknown until the year 1835, but this is what Mme de La Fayette and the rest of the Jansenist ladies meant by "corruption." Perhaps the most celebrated of all the sayings of her terrible friend is that which declares that "In the misfortunes of our friends there is always something which gives us no displeasure." She was about to learn that no one had a nobler practice in friendship than the cynic who wrote this: "There are good marriages, but no delicious ones"; Mme de La Fayette's own marriage had been not at all delicious and not even good. "Gratitude in the majority of men is simply a strong and secret wish to receive still greater benefits." Terrifying this must have been to a sentimental and exalted bosom, and exclusive of all hope until the little word "majority" was observed, a loophole offered for scared humanity to creep out at.
The design of La Rochefoucauld was to make people ashamed of their egotism, and so to help them to modify it. He saw France deadened by a universal sycophancy, and tyrannized over by a court life which made a lie of everything. He insisted upon the value of individual sincerity, but in a voice so harsh and bitter, and in such sardonic phrases—as when he says: "Sincerity is met with in very few people, and is usually nothing but a delicate dissimulation to attract the confidence of others"—that the more timid of his auditors shrank from him, as if he had been Hamlet or Lear. When he dared to suggest that none of these maxims were intended to refer to the reader himself, but only to all other persons, he invited the reaction which led Huet, Bishop of Avranches, to appeal against the morality of the "Maximes," as suited only to the vices of wicked persons, "improborum hominum vitiis," and to issue a warning against the too-sweeping cynicism of Roccapucaldius, as he called the Duke. This was, perhaps, the beginning of the dead-set against La Rochefoucauld. It encouraged Rousseau, a century later, to talk of "ce triste livre," and to declare, in the true romantic spirit, that "Bad maxims are worse than bad acts." There have always been, and always will be, people who experience a sort of malaise, an ill-defined discomfort, as though they sat in an east wind, while they read La Rochefoucauld. This is particularly true of Englishmen, who resent being told that "Our virtues are often only our vices in disguise," and who also, by the way, are constitutionally impatient of the French genius for making what is ugly, and even what is detestable, pleasing by the surface of style.
There is an element of unmercifulness in the candour of La Rochefoucauld which is distressing to sentimentalists. But this was characteristic of the age, which looked upon compassion as a frailty, as a break-down of noble personal reserve. He shall speak on this matter for himself—
"I am little sensible of pity, and if I had my way, I would avoid it altogether. At the same time, there is nothing I would not do to relieve an afflicted person: and I believe as a matter of fact that one ought to go so far as to express compassion for the misfortunes of such a man, since the unhappy are so stupid that compassion does them more good than anything else in the world. But I also hold that one should confine one's self to professions of pity and be very careful not to feel any. Pity is a passion which is wholly useless to a well-constituted mind; it can but weaken the heart, and it ought to be left to people who, carrying nothing out in a logical manner, require passion to constrain them to do things."
He seems to paint himself in tones of Prussian blue, but we must really think of him as of a man timid, and at the same time preternaturally wide-awake, who was determined at all risks not to be taken at a disadvantage. When he was an old man, when much communing with Mme de La Fayette had allayed his suspicion of mankind, La Rochefoucauld said to Mlle de Scudery, "I hope that clemency will come into fashion, and that we shall see no more men unhappy."  He professed to found politeness on extreme amour-propre, but perhaps in a still closer analysis he would have discovered its basis in kindness of heart. He resists the temptation to weaken his own pessimism, just as in his biting sarcasms about love we may trace a tender soul still bleeding from the wounds which Mme de Longueville's levity had inflicted on it.
[Footnote 4: Mme de Sevigne told her daughter that she was sure that if one could peep at the Duke and Mme de La Fayette "when they were alone with the cat," one would find all the restraints of society flung aside, and see them without the mask, their cynicism forgotten, mingling cries and tears over the sorrows of the world. But neither she nor any third person would ever see their social discretion thus betrayed, and she concludes, in her droll way, "C'est une vision!" In another letter to Mme de Grignan (June 6, 1672) she says of the Duke, "Il connait quasi aussi bien que moi la tendresse maternelle."]
[Footnote 5: There was unquestionably a strong vein of tenderness running through the stoical character of the Duke, and if we were more intimately acquainted with his private life we should probably see many traces of it. Such traces exist as it is. We have Mme de Sevigne's account of his reception of the news of the Passage of the Rhine. It was announced to him, on the 17th of June, 1672, at the house of Mme de La Fayette, in the presence of Mme de Sevigne, that in that terrible disaster his eldest son had been dangerously wounded and his fourth son, the Chevalier, killed. The tears seemed to start out of the depth of his heart, and they brimmed his eyes, although his self-command prevented an outbreak of grief. But there was a further complication. The young Duke of Longueville was also killed at the Rhine, and he, as a select circle of intimate friends were perfectly aware, was really the love-child of La Rochefoucauld. Mme de Sevigne, having given a superficial account of the incident, characteristically goes on to say, "Alas! I am telling a lie; between ourselves, my dear, he does not feel the loss of the Chevalier so much; it is that of the young man whom all the world regrets which leaves him so inconsolable." And again she says: "I saw the secrets of his heart revealed under this cruel blow; and no one that I have ever seen surpasses him in courage, in honour, in tenderness, in balance of mind." This is a tribute not to be overlooked.]
To understand the wholesome influence which La Rochefoucauld has exercised on French character, we must keep constantly in sight his hatred of falsehood. If he is angry and sardonic, it is because he sees, or thinks he sees, falsehood everywhere masquerading as virtue. His foremost duty was to pluck the mask from the false virtues which strutted everywhere through the society and literature of France. Voltaire recognized nothing else in La Rochefoucauld but this sardonic misanthropy, this determination to prove that man is guided solely by self-interest. This Voltaire thought was the seule verite contained in the "Maximes," and in a measure he was right. The moralist saw amour-propre as an Apollyon straddling right across the pathway of mankind; he saw lies flourish everywhere, and proclaim themselves to be the truth. The conscience of mankind was seduced or browbeaten by the impudency of self-love. Thus—
"We have not the courage to say broadly that we ourselves have no defects, and that our enemies have no good qualities; but as a matter of fact that is not far from being what we think."
He believed not at all, or very faintly, in altruism. He had to sweep away affected and therefore erroneous suppositions with regard to morality, and particularly with regard to social motives. He had come back to Paris, after his long and irksome exile, with a terrible clear-sightedness, and he saw that society had gone to pieces and that truth was essential to its rebuilding. He was convinced—and this must be asserted in the face of his own apparent cynicism—he was convinced of the existence of pure virtue, but he thought that amour-propre in the individual, and conventionality (what was then meant by la coutume) in the social order, had made it almost as rare as the dodo. He wished, by his stringent exposure of the arts of lying, to save virtue before it was absolutely extinct. He had the instinct of race-preservation.
[Footnote 6: It is possible that the conversation of Mme de Sable concentrated his thoughts on self-love. A contemporary MS. says of that lady, "Elle flatte fort l'amour propre quand elle parle aux gens." But egotism was a new discovery which fascinated everybody in the third quarter of the century.]
Let us turn to the few, but profoundly beautiful reflections which form the constructive element in La Rochefoucauld's teaching. His aim in edification is to train us to dig through the crust of social sham to the limpid truth which exists in the dark centre of our souls—
"If there is a pure love, he says, exempt from all admixture with other passions, it is that which lies hidden at the bottom of the heart, and of which we ourselves are ignorant."
Unlike Mandeville, our own great cynic of the eighteenth century, La Rochefoucauld, while calling in question the reality of almost all benevolent impulses, stopped short of denying the existence of virtue itself. He would not have said, as the author of the "Fable of the Bees" (1714) did, that the "hunting after this pulchrum et honestum is not much better than a wild-goose chase." But he had a strong contempt for the humbugs of the world, and among them he placed unflinching optimists. One of the main forms of humbug in his day was the legend that everybody acted nobly for the sake of other people. This La Rochefoucauld stoutly denied, but he was not so excessive as his commentators in his condemnation of that self-love which he declares to be the source of all our moral actions. He insinuates the possibility of an innocent and even a beneficial egotism. He says, "The praise which is given us serves to fix us in the practice of virtue," and if that is true, amour-propre must be practically useful. Helvetius, who made some very valuable comments on the "Maximes" a hundred years later, pointed out that amour-propre is not in itself an evil thing, but is a sentiment implanted in us all by nature, and that this sentiment is transformed in every human being into either vice or virtue, so that although we are all egoists, some are good and some are bad.
La Rochefoucauld, therefore, while he takes a very dark view of the selfishness of the human race, softens the shades of his picture by admitting that egotism may be, and often must be, advantageous not merely to the individual but to the race. And here we find the key to one of the oddest passages in his works, that in which he attributes his inspiration to two saints, St. Augustine and St. Epicurus! He says—
Everybody wishes to be happy; that is the aim of all the acts of life. Spurious men of the world and spurious men of piety only seek for the appearance of virtue, and I believe that in matters of morality, Seneca was a hypocrite and Epicurus was a saint. I know of nothing in the world so beautiful as nobility of heart and loftiness of mind: from these proceeds that perfect integrity which I set above all other qualities, and which seems to me, at my present stage of life, to be of more price than a royal crown. But I am not sure whether, in order to live happily and as a man of the highest sense of honour, it is not better to be Alcibiades and Phaedo than to be Aristides and Socrates.
It would take us too far out of our path to comment on the relation of this epicureanism to the religion of La Rochefoucauld's day, but a few words seem necessary on this subject. He says extremely little about religion, although he makes the necessary and perhaps not wholly perfunctory, statement that he was orthodox. But the position of a votary of St. Epicurus had grown difficult. Since the Duke's exile, the enmity between the church and the world had become violent, so violent that a man of prominent social and intellectual position was bound to take one side or another. We may note that the years during which the "Maximes" were being composed were precisely those during which Bossuet was thundering from the pulpit his anathemas against worldly luxury and the pride of life. The period marked at one extremity by "L'Amour des Passions" (1660) and at the other by the "Grandeurs Humains" (1663) is precisely that in which the lapidary art of La Rochefoucauld was most assiduous. The church was advocating asceticism and humility with all its authority, and was leading up towards the later phase of the fanatical despotism of Louis XIV.'s old age, with all its attendant hypocrisy. For the moment, in the struggle, La Rochefoucauld, though no devot, would seem a friend of the church rather than a foe, and in fact he retained the intimacy of Bossuet, in whose arms he died. We may be sure that he guarded himself with delicate care from the charge of being what was then called a "libertine," that is a man openly at war with the theory and practice of the theologians.
It is said that La Rochefoucauld invented the word "vraie," "true," to describe the character of Mme de La Fayette. His intimacy with this illustrious lady is one of the most beautiful episodes in the history of literature, and perhaps its purest example of true friendship between the sexes. The phrase we have already quoted shows that in 1663 the two great writers were acquainted but not yet intimate. Marie de la Vergne, Comtesse de La Fayette, was in her thirtieth year, La Rochefoucauld had completed his fiftieth when some cause which remains obscure drew them together with a tie which death alone, after seventeen wonderful years of almost unbroken association, was to sever. There was no scandal about it, even in that scandal-mongering age. The astute Mile de Scudery, writing to her gossip Bussy Rabutin (December 6, 1675), says, "Nothing could be happier for her, or more dignified for him; the fear of God on either side, and perhaps prudence as well, have clipped the wings of love." Twelve years before, when Menage had repeated to her some critical remarks about her novel, "La Princesse de Montpensier," Mme de La Fayette had replied, "I am greatly obliged to M. de la Rochefoucauld for his expressions. They are the result of our similarity of experience, 'de la belle sympathie qui est entre nous.'"
[Footnote 7: Mme de Sevigne seems not to have known this when, in writing to her daughter (July 19, 1671), she claims to have been the first to say vraie when she meant sincere, loyal. "Il y a longtemps que je dis que vous etes vraie"]
The famous friends were excluded by their physical conditions from the activities of life. Mme de La Fayette, who was perhaps something of a hypochondriac, tossed all day among the pillows of that golden bed with the extravagance of which the austerity of Mme de Maintenon upbraided her. La Rochefoucauld, tormented by the gout, lay stretched at her side in his long chair, and the days went by in endless discussion, endless balancing of right and wrong, much gossip, much reading of books new and old, and not a little consultation of artist with artist. They kept their secrets well, and no curiosity of successive critics has been able to discover how much of La Rochefoucauld is hidden in the pages of "La Princesse de Cleves", the earliest of the modern novels of the world, nor how much of Mme de La Fayette in the revised and re-revised text of the "Maximes."  But we know that she was no less sagacious and no less an enemy to illusion than he was, and those are probably not far wrong who have detected a softening influence from her conversation on the late genius of La Rochefoucauld.
In 1675 Mme de Thiange presented to the Duke du Maine a toy which has long ago disappeared, and for the recovery of which I would gladly exchange many a grand composition of painting and sculpture. It was a sort of gilded doll's house, representing the interior of a salon. Over the door was written, "Chambre des Sublimes." Inside were wax portrait-figures of living celebrities, the Duke du Maine in one arm-chair; in another La Rochefoucauld, who was handing him some manuscript. By the arm-chairs were standing Bossuet, then Bishop of Condom, and La Rochefoucauld's eldest son, M. de Marcillac. At the other end of the alcove Mme de La Fayette and Mme de Thiange were reading verses together. Outside the balustrade, Boileau with a pitchfork was preventing seven or eight bad poets from entering, to the amusement and approval of Racine, who was already inside, and of La Fontaine, who was invited to come forward. The likeness of these little waxen images is said to have been perfect, and there can hardly be fancied a relic of that fine society which would be more valuable to us in re-establishing its social character. We know not what became of it in the next generation. No doubt, the wax grew dusty, and the figures lost their heads and hands, and some petulant chatelaine doomed the ruined treasure to the dustbin.
[Footnote 8: Bussy Rabutin writes to Mme de Sevigne that he hears that La Rochefoucauld and Mme de La Fayette are preparing "quelque chose de fort joli." This shows that before "La Princess de Cleves" was finished the Duke's name was identified with its composition.]
No mention of Mme de Sevigne is made in the inventory of the "Chambre des Sublimes," and yet there is no one to whom we owe an exacter portraiture of its inmates, nor one who was more worthy to animate its golden recesses. For the last ten years of La Rochefoucauld's life she was one of the closest observers of the famous sedentary friendship. Unfortunately she tells us nothing about the original publication of the "Maximes," for his name does not occur in her correspondence before 1668, and does not abound there until 1670. Then we find her for ever at the Duke's house, or meeting him at Mme de La Fayette's bedside. He gratified her by warm and constant praise of Mme de Grignan, whose letters were regularly read to the friends by her infatuated mother. It is vexing that Mme de Sevigne, who might have spared us two or three of her immortal pages, although she incessantly mentions and even quotes La Rochefoucauld, generally refrains from describing him. She and Mme de La Fayette were his guests in the country on May 15, and the three wonderful companions walked in the harmony of "nightingales, hawthorns, lilacs, fountains and fine weather," or played with his pet white mouse. Such touches are rare, and Paris seems best to suit what Mme de Sevigne admirably calls "the grey-brown" thought of La Rochefoucauld.
In 1671 he had a terrible attack of the gout, accompanied by agonies moral and physical which filled the ladies with alarm and pity. Better in 1672, he was able to entertain company to hear Corneille read his new tragedy of "Pulcherie" in January, and Moliere his new comedy, "Les Femmes Savantes," in March. He was now, in premature old age, the venerable figure in the group, the benevolent Nestor of the salons. Let his detractors remember that Mme de Sevigne, who knew what she was talking about, wrote that "he is the most lovable man I have ever known," His sufferings, his disenchantments and disappointments, only seemed to accentuate his beautiful patience. Just before his fatal illness (January 31, 1680) Mme de Sevigne writes again: "I have never seen a man so obliging, nor more amiable in his wish to give pleasure by what he says."  Her detailed and pathetic account of his last hours, which closed on the night of March 16, 1680, testifies to her deep attachment and to Mme de La Fayette's despair.
[Footnote 9: Two of La Fontaine's fables, "L'Homme et son Image" and "Les Lapins," were dedicated to La Rochefoucauld in 1668. In the former we read:—
On voit bien ou je veux venir. Je parle a tous, et cette erreur extreme Est un mal que chacun se plait d'entretenir Notre ame, c'est cet homme amoureux de lui-meme; Tant de miroirs, ce sont les sottises d'autrui, Miroirs, de nos defauts les peintres legitimes; Et quant au canal, c'est celui, Que chacun sait: le livre des Maximes.]
When Mme de Sevigne, in 1675, received the third edition of the Duke's book, which contained more than seventy new maxims, she wrote, "Some of them are divine; some of them, I am ashamed to say, I don't understand." Probably she would have partly agreed with some one's criticism of them, "De l'esprit, encore de l'esprit, et toujours de l'esprit—trop d'esprit!"  No doubt, La Rochefoucauld has done his own reputation wrong by the bluster of his scepticism and also by the fact that he sometimes wraps his thoughts up in such a blaze of epigram that we are disconcerted to find, when we analyze them, that they are commonplaces. Contemporaries seemed to have smiled at the excessive subtlety into which their long conversations led Mme de La Fayette and her sublime companion. Mme de Sevigne describes such talks with her delicate irony, and says, "We plunged into subtleties which were beyond our intelligence." An example is the dispute whether "Grace is to the body what good sense is to the mind," or "Grace is to the body what delicacy is to the mind" should be the ultimate form of a maxim. They sometimes drew the spider's thread so fine that it became invisible.
[Footnote 10: The practice of making "maxims," axiomata, encouraged the enlivenment of conversation by the introduction of topsy-turvy statements, such as "Constancy is merely inconstancy arrested," in the manner of Oscar Wilde and Mr. Chesterton.]
[Footnote 11: La Rochefoucauld was not without affectations. He spoke airily about his maniere negligee of writing, whereas no one ever took more pains. Segrais gives very interesting information on this point: he says that the Duke "sent me from time to time what he had been working on, and he wished me to keep these note-books of his for five or six weeks, so as to be able to give them my closest attention, particularly with regard to the turn of the thoughts and the arrangement of the words. Some of his maxims he altered as many as thirty times." But when he wrote to Esprit, in 1660, La Rochefoucauld affected to regard his own writings as trifles thrown off "au coin de mon feu" The great of the earth have these amiable and amusing weaknesses.]
But his clearness of insight was immense, and he was too profoundly intelligent to be a merely destructive or sterile force. He builded better than he knew. For instance, courage, it has been alleged, he denies, and indeed he is so savage in his exposure of braggadocio that it might well be believed that he refused to admit that men could be brave. Yet what does he say?—
"Intrepidity is an extraordinary force of the soul which lifts it above those troubles, disorders and emotions which the aspect of great peril would otherwise excite; it is by this force that heroes maintain themselves in a state of equanimity, preserving the free use of their reason through the most surprising and the most terrible accidents."
This must include the most moving of all accidents, those which call forth moral and physical courage in the face of national danger, and are rewarded by gloire, by public and lasting fame. And we are led on to a consideration of the lengthy reflection on the spirit in which the approach of death should be faced, with which he closed the latest edition of the "Maximes," declaring that "the splendour of dying with a firm spirit, the hope of being regretted, the desire to leave a fair reputation behind us, the assurance of being released from the drudgery of life and of depending no more on the caprices of fortune," are remedies which would medicine our pain in approaching the dreaded goal of our existence.
We must read La Rochefoucauld closely to perceive why a book so searching, and even so cruel as his, has exercised on the genius of France a salutary and a lasting influence. His savage pessimism is not useless, it is not a mere scorn of humanity and a sneer at its weaknesses. It tends, by stripping off all the shams of conduct and digging to the root of action, to make people upright, candid and magnanimous on a new basis of truth. So we come at last to see the significance of Voltaire's dark saying of the "Maximes": "This book is one of those which have contributed most to form the taste of the French nation, and to give it the spirit of accuracy and precision."