La Rouchefoucauld: “Maxims”Sociability and Informal Relations

Written on November 16, 2007 by Santiago Iñiguez in Philosophy


Ducsmall La Rouchefoucauld(1613-80): “Maxims”

Following on from Arantza’s post on Monday Are Blogs the Salons of the 21st Century?, when she mentions La Rouchefoucauld etc., I would like to add my two pennies worth on the subject.

France’s second half of XVII Century saw the birth of “Salons”, living rooms at selected houses where aristocrats, artists and intellectuals met to discuss and gossip about politics, literature, religion, philosophy and other related issues. Attendance to Salons was by strict invitation and apart from frivolous and social aspects, the gatherers aimed at engaging in elevated conversation. Prominent writers such as Molière, Racine, La Fontaine, Bossuet, François Duc de la Rouchefoucauld –our featured writer here- and many other celebrities of the time met at the houses of Mme. De Montpensier or Mme. De Sévigné for rehearsing their works, perfecting their thoughts or just provoking the audience. Thoughts and opinions were formed lively by participants who looked forward to cultivating social networks and getting recognition from closed social circles.

In our times, cocktails and other evening social events play a similar role. Informal relations are the flipside of formal connections happening inside companies and ambitious managers realise the importance of expanding the range of their personal exposure beyond corporate lands…

Admittedly, many of today’s social gatherings lack the profoundness of French Salons and people rather practice “easy talk” than discuss about philosophy. Given the long working hours of many managers, many find difficult to reconcile professional and family responsibilities with social gatherings. I recently met a graduate of my school, currently CEO of a major company, who told me that he had given up his social agenda. “How do you cope with increasing demands that managers become public figures”? –I asked him. “Well, I have opted for a very methodical and multiple interaction with my company’s stakeholders”. I can tell from experience that it works, given his sustained social prestige.   

Despite La Rouchefoucauld being a regular attendee of Salons, and many would imagine him enjoying being surrounded permanently by others, he was not fortunate in love nor with friendship and his fate exudes most of the reflections contained in his “Maxims”. He shows deep skepticism towards the meaning and the practice of virtues: “Our virtues are usually only vices in disguise” he anticipates at the beginning of the book.

The fact that most maxims are negative and ironic does not preclude some comfort in reading them, as an exercise of detachment from vacuities and tantalizing human aspirations. Indeed, its reading may be good to enhance humbleness, though some think it prompts nihilistic feelings. I enclose a sample:

–    “3. Whatever discoveries have been made in the land of self-love, many regions still remain unexplored”.

–    “22. Philosophy easily triumphs over past ills and ills to come, but present ill triumphs over philosophy” (see a similar reasoning from Umberto Eco in this blog)

Other reflections raise more courageous and positive instincts from readers, like the following which reminds us of Socrates:

–    “295. We are far indeed from knowing all we want”.
–    “405. We come quite fresh to the different stages of life, and in each of them we are usually quite inexperienced, no matter how old we are”.

The last maxim included in modern editions of the book, although withdrawn by the author in life, leaves room for some optimism:

–    “641. If we are strong enough to own up to our misdeeds we must not fret about them”.


No comments yet.

Leave a Comment


We use both our own and third-party cookies to enhance our services and to offer you the content that most suits your preferences by analysing your browsing habits. Your continued use of the site means that you accept these cookies. You may change your settings and obtain more information here. Accept