"We all have enough strength to endure the misfortunes of others."
31 maxims from François de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680)
In his 1878 book Human, All Too Human, Friedrich Nietzsche compared François de La Rochefoucauld to a “good marksman” who repeatedly hit “the bull’s-eye of human nature.”
La Rochefoucauld was a seventeenth century essayist, memoirist, and perhaps the greatest maxim writer of France. He had a distinguished military and political career.
By all accounts, he was an honorable man. One reason for this is that he was aware of humanity’s talent for self-deception, and worked hard to overcome it in himself.
In referencing his compendium of penetrating insights into human nature, La Rochefoucauld once said:
“The reason why we argue so much against the maxims that expose the human heart, is that we ourselves are afraid of being exposed by them.”
I first discovered his work from the essays of the great Theodore Dalrymple, who has characterized La Rochefoucauld as a “master of the discomfiting aphorism.”
Here are 31 of my highlights from La Rochefoucauld’s Collected Maxims and Other Reflections, along with some brief commentary.
1. “Great and brilliant deeds that dazzle the onlooker are depicted by strategists as the result of great plans, whereas they are usually the result of temperament and passion. So the war between Augustus and Antony, which is ascribed to their ambition to gain mastery of the world, may merely have been due to jealousy.”
We underestimate how often people’s ambitions are motivated by envy, resentment, and the desire to prove something to others, rather than any kind of objective and impartial desire for power or status.
2. “Not only are men apt to forget favors and insults; they even hate those to whom they are obliged, and stop hating those who have wronged them. Diligence in rewarding a favor and avenging a wrong seems to them a form of bondage, to which they are reluctant to escape.”
3. “The moderation of people who are fortunate comes from the calmness that good fortune gives to their temperament.”
I’ve been poor, and I’ve been broke. The difference between worrying about money versus not is huge in terms of mindset.
4. “Moderation is a fear of falling prey to the envy and disdain that those who are enraptured by their own good fortune deserve: it is a vain and ostentatious display of our mental strength; and finally, the moderation of men at the height of their eminence is a desire to appear greater than their good fortune.”
Reminds me of upper-middle class people talking about how expensive everything is. Pulling out their little glasses at restaurants, carefully scrutinizing every item on the bill like an accountant.
5. “It takes greater virtues to bear good fortune than bad.”
6. “We often pride ourselves on our passions, even the most criminal ones; but envy is a timid, shamefaced passion, which we never dare to acknowledge.”
Of the “seven deadly sins,” envy is the one people are least likely to own up to.
7. “Our evil deeds do not bring on us as much persecution and hatred as our good qualities.”
8. “If we had no faults, we would not derive so much pleasure from noting those of other people.”
9. “If we had no pride, we would not complain of it in other people.”
10. “It seems that nature, which has so wisely arranged the organs of our body for our happiness, has also given us pride to spare us the pain of knowing our deficiencies.”
The psychologist Roy Baumeister has coined the term “optimal margin of illusion,” suggesting people generally think they are a little better than they really are. Relatedly, there’s the better-than-average-effect. Most individuals consider themselves smarter than average, more ethical than average, better drivers than average, and so on. This is likely evolutionarily adaptive; life would be unbearable if we were fully aware of our inadequacies. Interestingly, La Rochefoucauld attributes this feature of the human mind to “nature” rather than God. Even though he existed about two hundred years before Darwin’s discovery of evolution.
11. “There is more pride than kindness in our reprimands to people who are at fault; and we reprove them not so much to correct them as to convince them that we ourselves are free from such wrongdoing.”
Studies suggest that people who loudly condemn others for moral transgressions are subsequently perceived by onlookers as having a strong moral character. This may be a reason moralizers so loudly condemn others—for self-interested reputational management. The thought process of onlookers is something like, “This guy is loudly ridiculing others for being unethical, so he must be a really ethical guy.” Would such a person view himself as particularly ethical? La Rochefoucauld would probably say yes, and I would agree.
12. “We make promises in accordance with our hopes, and we keep them in accordance with our fears.”
13. “Self-interest speaks all kinds of languages and plays all kinds of parts—even that of disinterestedness.”
14. “Our temperament decides the value of everything brought to us by fortune.”
15. “We are never as fortunate or unfortunate as we imagine.”
16. “Those who think they have some merit treat misfortune as an honor, in order to convince other people and themselves that they are worthy of being victimized by fortune.”
17. “The philosophers’ disdain for wealth was a hidden desire to compensate their own merit for injustices of fortune, by showing contempt for the very possessions that she was keeping from them. It was a secret method of protecting themselves against the degradations of poverty; it was an indirect way of attaining the respect that they could not gain by wealth.”
This is similar to the philosopher Robert Nozick’s point in his article on why intellectuals oppose capitalism. The British philosopher Isaiah Berlin called the flight from the desire of worldly goods a “retreat to the inner citadel.” Berlin even suggested that ascetic movements such as Stoicism and Buddhism gained support during historical periods when people were attempting to cope with conditions of material deprivation.
18. “Our resentment at lacking favor is soothed and appeased by disdain for those who possess it; and we deny them our respect because we cannot strip them of what elicits the respect of other people.”
A distillation of the hater mindset. Detractors often experience sharp pangs of envy. And as a result, haters resist expressing any appreciation or admiration of others.
19. “To gain status in the world, we do all we can to appear as if we had already gained it.”
And if you haven’t already gained it, don’t fall for the counter-signaling trap.
20. “No events are ever so unlucky that clever people cannot draw some advantage from them; nor are any so lucky that imprudent people cannot turn them to their own detriment.”
21. “Truth does not do so much good in the world as the appearance of it does evil.”
22. “With most men, love of justice is merely fear of suffering injustice.”
23. “It is more shameful to mistrust our friends than to be deceived by them.”
We should trust trust, and distrust distrust. Especially for friends.
24. “Our own mistrust justifies other people’s deceptions.”
25. “Old people like to give good advice, as a consolation for the fact that they can no longer set bad examples.”
Relatedly, there are a lot of guys who spend their early adulthood partying and hooking up with as many women as possible. Then, typically in their late thirties when their testosterone levels start to decline, they suddenly renounce their hedonistic ways. They return to religion, start intensive therapy, or adopt a major lifestyle change. Charitably, this shift is due to maturity, wisdom, growth, etc. More cynically, factors like aging and associated deteriorating attractiveness, predictable personality changes over the lifespan, frontal lobe development, and T levels dropping are involved. More likely, these reasons are intertwined, and all play some role.
26. “One sign of exceptional merit is that those who envy it most are forced to praise it.”
27. “Nothing is less sincere than the procedure of asking for advice and giving it. The asker seems to display a respectful deference for his friend’s feelings—though his only thought is to get approval for his own, and to make the other person answerable for his conduct.”
This isn’t true of everyone. But I have seen cases where a person asks multiple people for advice and decides to listen to the one person who tells them what they want to hear.
28. “We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves from other people, that in the end we disguise ourselves from ourselves.”
29. “Habitual use of cunning is the sign of a small mind; and it nearly always happens that the person who uses it to protect himself at one point, exposes himself at another.”
Very shrewd people are often arrogant, and make careless mistakes.
30. “The sure way to be deceived is to think yourself more astute than other people.”
31. “We all have enough strength to endure the misfortunes of others.”
Applies to the luxury belief class who claims to support causes that help the dispossessed when in fact they’re indirectly responsible for the most harm.
The English poet Edmund Gosse, in his 1918 book Three French Moralists, wrote that these maxims “are shocking to persons who live in a state of illusion about themselves.”
But adds, “The design of La Rochefoucauld was to make people ashamed of their egotism, and so to help them modify it.”
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Just want to say something about Rob out of appreciation.
When a psychologist does a deep dive into philosophy and the history of philosophy and science I think it is a true reveal of the depth of the person and his professionalism as well as contribution to the field.
Rob doing this strikes me that way about him.
Philosophy predates psychology as a very similar field in terms of their goals of improving humanity, and rather than going for bloggy clickbait Rob goes into this...
I appreciate the meaningful gesture that opposes the superficial science writing we are usually exposed to.
Seriously, thank you Rob.
Regarding the attribution to “nature,” this would not have been an unusual way for Christians to speak at that time in history, especially after Thomas Aquinas (1200’s), who remains highly influential to the present. Natural law, and even a “natural theology” was derivative, rather than positive law, proceeding from a close observation of the way God made the world. Christians would place many of the short aphorisms of the book of Proverbs in thIs category. The “telos,” or the end (purpose) of the things observed suggests an ethical or practical guideline. Some historians even tie the beginnings of modern science to this close observation of the natural world. Evolutionary biology, and psychology, particularly where it aspires, or seems to aspire, to prescriptive suggestions about how to live or behave, would seem to be in this tradition. For my part, this connection is why I find certain aspects of your writing fascinating. You are curious enough to closely observe the natural world in ways that are highly and practically suggestive.