Duke François VI de La Rochefoucauld, the writer of the Maximes. Image: Wikimedia Commons

I remember the day I discovered La Rochefoucauld; or rather, to put it the way round that is now de rigueur among historians of the Spanish conquest of America, the day La Rochefoucauld discovered me. I was twelve years old, and I had been sent to the local barbers for my two-weekly haircut. I had half a crown pocket money to spend, and I was in the habit of buying books that were slightly too difficult for me to read. Those were the last days in British history when people wanted to appear cleverer, instead of stupider, than they were.

Next door to the barbershop was a newsagent that had a small revolving rack of books. How can I put this without sounding absurdly nostalgic or golden-ageist? You could go to a lot of newsagents in England nowadays without finding a copy of La Rochefoucauld. Anyway, this Penguin Classic, whose bright green border I remember vividly, suited my purposes admirably; a slender volume, it offered a high ratio of intellectual kudos to number of pages.

I took it with me to the barbers. Sometimes I had to wait a long time for my haircut because a small boy was always at the end of the queue, no matter how many people arrived after him. I didn’t mind, so long as I had a book with me, and I have since learned that there is no surer way of irritating the officious than contentedly to read while they make you wait.

Those were the last days in British history when people wanted to appear cleverer, instead of stupider, than they were.

I didn’t much like haircuts, but I liked the barbers who worked in the shop. I admired the way they sharpened their cutthroat razors on the thick leather straps attached by metal rings to the basin stands. I admired the tauromachian flourish with which, at the end of a haircut, they removed the white bib they had placed around their customers’ necks. I was intrigued by the little mauve and purple envelopes propped up against the mirrors, that my older brother eventually told me contained condoms. I wasn’t much the wiser for this information, however, because in those days they still taught you in school to recite Wordsworth (“Earth has not anything to show more fair,” etc.) rather than how to slip prophylactics over bananas—a skill that, oddly enough, has not proved incompatible with an enormous rise in the number of teenage pregnancies.

The barbers also ran an illegal operation: a betting shop. In those days, off-course betting was still illegal in England—how primitive we were!—and gamblers had to resort to a network of clandestine bookies. The barbers would rush to the phone when it rang—leaving their customers half shaved or their scalps still wrapped, turban-like, in a steaming white towel—and speak a strange argot, which even now I do not fully understand, into the receiver, sotto voce in case the mirrors had ears. Two to one against, three to one on, a fiver each way: I could have asked an uncle of mine, who dissipated a small fortune on what some have called the sport of kings, but he called the gee-gees, for the meaning of these arcane phrases, but I never did. I nonetheless sensed that something mildly disreputable, though not truly wicked, was taking place; I also realized also that these men, who wrote nothing down, were possessed of formidable memories. They remembered everything, as preliterate people remember epics and their genealogy. The barbershop was not a place in which I ever expected to have one of the formative literary experiences of my life.

Disregarding copies of The Sporting Life and The Racing Times left on the chairs for the entertainment of waiting customers, I started to read the maxims of the good duke. I was captivated at once, and it struck me as being not in the least strange that a failed intriguer at the court of Louis XIII and vanquished Frondeur should have had something to say to a suburban London schoolboy almost exactly three centuries later. It didn’t strike me as strange because at the time I knew nothing of French history other than the military defeats that the French seemed invariably to suffer at the hands of my own dear nation; they had a walk-on part in history, as it were, which was to be smartly and patriotically biffed on the nose. I learnt about the various Louis only two years later: my first school essay on that subject beginning with a stern reprimand to the Sun King. “Louis XIV,” I wrote, “was not a good king.” A bas Versailles!

I didn’t know much about life, but I already knew enough about myself to know that La Rochefoucauld had me in mind when he wrote his maxims. But how, I wondered, did he know so much about me almost three centuries before I was even born? It was uncanny, as if he had not only been watching me closely, but had also entered my brain and read my guilty thoughts—or rather, my thoughts that ought to have been guilty. His maxims exerted an almost physical effect on me, like a sharpened bicycle spoke pushed straight into my solar plexus.

There was another strange thing about them; they came with the force of revelation, and yet at the same time they said things that I had known all along. How was this paradox to be explained? How could something be totally new and utterly familiar at the same time? The answer could only be that the human mind was not as straightforward as I had supposed it to be.

When La Rochefoucauld wrote that “There is in the misfortunes of our friends something not entirely unpleasing,” and followed it up by asking “How can we expect anyone to keep our secret if we cannot keep it ourself?,” he must surely have been thinking of my friendship, apparently close, with Charlie H.

Charlie H. was taller than I, but what he had in superior height he made up for in lack of intelligence. I was therefore able to achieve over him the easy ascendancy that is the cynosure of lazy young minds such as mine. He regarded me with something approaching awe, considering every word of mine to be both wise and true. Since I knew myself to be less than invariably truthful, this provided me with a golden opportunity to test the outer limits of human, or at least of puerile, credulity.

One day I told Charlie H. that I was in possession of the most valuable stamp in the world (we all collected stamps, and to this day my visual images of Eva Perón and President Hindenburg are purely philatelic). I told him that I was not, alas, in a position to let him have it for nothing, but he could have it for sixpence: at today’s exchange rate, slightly less than 3.75 cents, though then still enough to buy a bar of chocolate.

I remember the stamp still. It was of recent issue, and of low denomination in Mozambican escudos, being in design a tropical butterfly on a pale turquoise-green ground. It was what the stamp catalogues of the day, rather sniffily, described as “multicolored”—philatelic multicoloration being a comparatively recent and regrettably vulgar innovation that started with the independence issues by Ghana in 1957. The garish African colors soon spread round the world, replacing the restrained and tasteful monochromes that until then had reigned supreme. At the time, I thought the multicoloration of stamps a philatelic liberation, but now, though I am no longer interested in such matters, I see that I was mistaken. What youth considers liberation, maturity considers tasteless excess.

Charlie H. took the bait and meekly handed over his sixpence. I had done my homework: according to the catalogue, in which the prices were at least double what any of us would pay, the stamp was worth a halfpenny. It was the very implausibility of my offer that had prompted me maliciously to make it, and the greater my victim’s gullibility, the cleverer I felt myself to be by contrast with him. As La Rochefoucauld says, a clever man would often be at a loss without the company of fools.

I do not know whether Charlie H. ever discovered my swindle: if so, perhaps another of La Rochefoucauld’s maxims might have brought him some comfort. It is more shameful, says the duke, to distrust one’s friends than to be deceived by them. And a little while later, Charlie H. took me aside in the playground and said that he had a terrible secret that he wanted to reveal to me, and to me alone. I therefore willingly swore myself to a secrecy that I knew even as I uttered the words that I should not keep. Charlie H. told me that his father was in prison.

With what secret joy I heard these words wrung from the depths of my companion’s soul! Naturally, I spoke sympathetically and adopted a grave facial expression: for, as La Rochefoucauld says, we are all strong enough to bear the misfortunes of others. I couldn’t wait to spread the news. But if I had been asked—before I read the Maxims —whether knowledge of Charlie H.’s terrible secret had given me pleasure, I should have denied it vehemently, and believed my own denial, though at the same time knowing perfectly well that I was lying. Here was the solution to the Rochefoucauldian paradox, that he said things that were both deeply revelatory and already well-known, but it was his unflinching courage in acknowledging the facts of human nature that allowed him (and us, if we read him aright) to overcome the double consciousness that causes a man to know and know not, to behave badly and think well of himself. La Rochefoucauld, indeed, offers us a genuine liberation, namely from humbug. And since humbug is the besetting sin of our age, he is the most apposite author imaginable, though now three and a half centuries old.

The traditional view of La Rochefoucauld, of course, is that he was a wicked though witty cynic, embittered by his personal experiences. When Madame de La Fayette, later the tender companion of his old age and author of the first modern French novel, La Princesse de Clèves, first read the Maxims, she exclaimed, “Ah, what corruption of mind and heart one must have to be able to imagine all that!” And it is hardly surprising that Rousseau, one of the greatest humbugs of all time, hated the maxims, calling them “ce triste livre” and remarking that “Bad maxims are worse than bad deeds,” the presumed corollary of which is that good maxims are better than good deeds: thus inaugurating our current era of psychological romanticism, that of the real-me as distinct from the merely-phenomenal-me. The merely-phenomenal-me might behave badly, cheat on his wife, tell lies, and so forth, but it doesn’t matter much because the real-me preserves his essential core of goodness, because he holds no bad maxims and adheres to good ones. Feeling your pain is better than causing you no pain in the first place.

The traditional view of La Rochefoucauld, of course, is that he was a wicked though witty cynic, embittered by his personal experiences.

When I read in the barbershop that there is in the misfortune of our friends something not entirely unpleasing, it did not occur to me that La Rochefoucauld was actually congratulating mankind on its nature: he was asking it to see its own nature clearly. And as soon as I read those words, I reviewed my conduct towards Charlie H. (the work of an instant) and felt deeply ashamed at my callowness and shallowness. Edmund Gosse, in his book Three French Moralists, written towards the end of the Great War, got it exactly right: the “Maximes are shocking to persons who live in a state of illusion about themselves.” But, he adds, “The design of La Rochefoucauld was to make people ashamed of their egotism, and so to help them modify it.” In other words, knowing the truth will set us free.

La Rochefoucauld’s major contribution to humanity’s knowledge of itself was his clearsighted recognition of the protean manifestations of self-interest and amour-propre. His little book—not a hundred pages of modern print—tells us more about human nature than thousands of pages of Freud, and incidentally undermines completely any claim of the Freudians that their hero discovered the workings of the unconscious.

That the exposure of self-interest (and therefore of humbug) was the duke’s principal aim is established by a consideration of the first pages of the first edition, published in 1665, which were withdrawn in the later editions published in his lifetime as being too scandalous. The book’s full title was Réflexions ou sentences et maximes morales: that is to say, La Rochefoucauld did not write only in epigrams, but sometimes in short essays. His opening pages are a consideration of self-love, here extracted:

Self-love is love of oneself and of all things with regard to oneself; it makes men worshippers of themselves and would render them tyrants over others if fortune gave them the means; it never regards anything outside itself and never settles on anything else except as bees settle on flowers, to extract from them what is needed. Nothing is so impetuous as its desires, nothing so hidden as its designs, nothing so cunning as its methods; its versatility cannot be encompassed, its transformations exceed those of metamorphosis, its complexities those of chemistry. One can neither sound its depths nor penetrate the darkness of its abyss. It is composed of every contrary: it is imperious and obsequious, sincere and dissimulating, compassionate and cruel, timid and audacious; it has different inclinations according to temperament, in some being devoted to glory, in others to wealth, in yet others to pleasures; it changes according to our age, our fortune and our experiences; it matters not whether it has one desire at a time or several, because it can divide its attention or concentrate on one object when necessary, as it pleases. It is inconstant, and . . . subject to an infinitude of changes from within; . . . it is capricious, and one sometimes sees it striving with the utmost urgency and with incredible laboriousness to obtain things which are not at all advantageous, or are even harmful, but which it pursues simply because it wishes to. It is peculiar, and often devotes itself entirely to the most frivolous activities; it finds all its pleasure in doing the most vapid, and conserves its pride in doing the most despicable, things. Such is the portrait of amour-propre, whose whole life is one great long agitation: it may be likened unto the sea, the continual ebb and flow of whose waves is a faithful image of its turbulent succession of thoughts and restless movements.

There is no mistaking the passionate intensity of this passage, but was La Rochefoucauld right? The intensity with which a belief is held or expressed is not, after all, the guarantor of its truth. But, anyone who has observed close up the operation of the cognitive arm of amour-propre, that is to say self-deception, will not lightly dismiss La Rochefoucauld’s words. When you have seen and heard, as I have on many occasions, a man in the last stages cirrhosis of the liver, with a bottle of and a glass in his hand, strenuously deny—as he has denied for twenty years past—that a drop of the stuff has ever passed his lips, with all appearances of meaning what he says and innocence and outraged honor when disbelieved, you do not lightly underestimate the powers of human self-deception. Likewise when you have heard a murderer account for his deed with the following words, uttered with the implicit demand that the hearer should believe them as the most literal truth: “A fight broke out, a gun arrived, I accidentally took it, and it went off.” Self-deception is to self-love what the personal bodyguard is to the celebrity, and it is the principal cause of misery in the world.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 19 Number 8, on page 28
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