La Rochefoucauld

I just wanted to register here another of those “see it once, then see it everywhere” moments. Do we have a name for this? Anyway, I am reading From Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik, and in one chapter he writes about the trial of Maurice Papon, a secretary general of the Gironde province during WWII, for complicity in war crimes including the deportation of French Jews, including children, to concentration camps. The chapter ends with one paragraph too many. In that extra paragraph, Gopnik explains that Papon fled France just before he was to be jailed, taking the alias of La Rochefoucauld “the great French skeptic, a man of culture to the end.”

Then I was reading through the list of “Notable Essays” in the Best American Essays 2002 edition and found an essay by Theodore Dalrymple called “Discovering La Rochefoucauld” in The New Criterion. As luck would have it, Academic Search Premier (EBSCO), a database service that Ohio U library (and a lot of other libraries, including Morris County) has online, includes full-text articles from The New Criterion. But before I read Dalrymple’s article, I read another notable essay, by Joseph Epstein, whom I had read and enjoyed before, called “Talking to Oneself.” It turned out that Epstein’s essay was about keeping a writer’s journal, something I have been struggling with for some time now, but Epstein gave me hope because he didn’t start his journal in earnest until he was 33. And there in the middle of his essay he wrote: “How’s this for cut-rate La Rochefoucauld: ‘Vanity without foundation in either physical beauty or true talent is one of the most pathetic of human spectacles.”’

That was enough for me. I can understand a sign when it comes to me. I looked up this La Rochefoucauld fellow in my computer encyclopedia. I found out that:

La Rochefoucauld, pronounced la rawsh foo KOH, Duc de (1613-1680), was a French writer famous for his Maxims (1665). This work is a collection of about 500 sayings written to expose the vanity and hypocrisy the author saw underlying behavior. For example, he wrote, “We always love those who admire us, but we do not always love those whom we admire,” and “True love, however rare, is still more common than true friendship.” The Maxims have been called pessimistic, implying in nonreligious terms the fall into sin that is a part of Christian doctrine. They have also been called a representation of chance and temperament as determining human destiny.

Francois de La Rochefoucauld was born into a noble family in Paris. In 1652, he was wounded fighting with the nobles against French king Louis XIV in an unsuccessful revolt called the Fronde.

I am already interested in maxims, or proverbs, or aphorisms, as evidenced by my longstanding project on mixed proverbs or clichés titled “If you can’t beat a dead horse, join him.” I’ve enjoyed recently a book by James Richardson called Vectors, which is full of new “aphorisms and ten-second essays.” I’ve been heavily influenced by the shorter side of creative nonfiction writing, the world between the essay and the aphorism, and their intersection. A lot of my current writing is aiming at that kind of stuff. This La Rochefoucauld sounds perfect for me!

Here are some sites I’ve found with some La Rochefoucauld maxims.

And all this in the course of two days. To think that this guy has been around for over 350 years, and I only learned about him recently! How much more there must be out in the world for me to discover! The thought makes me feel both incredibly happy and overwhelmed.

PatrickConnections05/13/03 4 comments


Dad • 05/13/03 9:54 PM:

Isn’t there a magazine called Maxim?

Patrick • 05/14/03 1:11 AM:

So are you saying that the next logical place to follow my research is to this magazine Maxim? To look at sexy women in provocative poses with only their hands to cover their breasts? Because this would be a manifestation of La Rochefoucauld’s maxim that “We criticize the faults of others more out of pride than goodness; and we criticize them not so much to correct them as to persuade them that we are free from their faults” (in some strange, convoluted way)?

David • 05/14/03 9:35 AM:

What a triumphant story! I love it. I am always struck and ‘happy and overwhelmed’ when I learn of knew things I feel I should already have known. It’s a great feeling - humbling and encouraging at the same time. I agree most with the last paragraph of Pat’s entry - learning all this in two days when the fellow’s been around for 350.

I also have a tendency, upon learning stuff like this, to think that now that I know it, everybody either already knows it, or should know it. So I try to bring it up as many times as possible in conversation (maybe similar to how you’re taught to use new vocabulary words in daily conversation so as to fully integrate them into your own vocab). And even if I just heard of it yesterday, I still expect others to already know. It’s that weird? You know what I’m saying?

Further proof Patrick that “the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know” (or something like that). Is that a La Rochefoucauld (I’m still having trouble with the pronounciation) maxim?

Also, for good aphorisms, check out “Tuesdays With Morrie” by Mitch Albom. It’s got a ton.

Time to learn some more! And just think, I’m only 27!

Dan • 05/14/03 8:56 PM:


dave, mis”pronounciation” is the name of the game where we say “con grah too lah tee ons” and “oh rye on tah tye on”.

tuesdays with morrie isn’t that good. i reread it last summer. it’s ok, but a lot of the stuff in it is kinda cheeseball dumb. maybe that’s just me.

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