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De La Rochefoucault

THE maxims of this noble author are in the hands of every one. To those who choose to derive every motive and every action from the solitary principle of self-love, they are inestimable. They form one continued satire on human nature; but then are not reconcilable to the feelings of the man of more generous dispositions, or to him who passes through life with the firm integrity of virtue. Even at court we find a Sully, a Malesherbes, and a Clarendon, as well as a Rochefoucault and a Chesterfield.

The Duke de la Rochefoucault, says Segrais, had not studied; but he was endowed with a wonderful degree of discernment, and knew the world perfectly well. This afforded him opportunities of making reflections, and reducing into maxims those discoveries which he had made in the heart of man, of which he displayed an admirable knowledge.

It is perhaps worthy of observation that this celebrated French duke, according to Olivet in his History of the French Academy, could never summon resolution, at his election, to address the Academy. Although chosen a member, he never entered; for such was his timidity, that he could not face an audience and pronounce the usual compliment on his introduction; he whose courage, whose birth, and whose genius, were alike distinguished. The fact is, as it appears by Mad. de Sévigné, that Rochefoucault lived a close domestic life; there must be at least as much theoretical as practical knowledge in the opinions of such a retired philosopher.

Chesterfield, our English Rochefoucault, we are also informed, possessed an admirable knowledge of the heart of man; and he too has drawn a similar picture of human nature! These are two noble authors whose chief studies seem to have been made in courts. May it not be possible, allowing these authors not to have written a sentence of apocrypha, that the fault lies not so much in human nature as in the satellites of Power?

Editor’s Notes

 ¶ This article is revised and slightly expanded from its original in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities.