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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden


book, "Our virtues are commonly

vices in disguise," expresses its central idea. La Rochefoucauld does not absolutely deny disinterested goodness; there may be some such instinctive virtue lying below all passions which submit to be analysed; he does not consider the love of God, the parental or the filial affections; but wherever he applies analysis, it is to reduce each apparently disinterested feeling to self-love. "We all have strength enough to endure the misfortunes of another;" "When vices desert us, we flatter ourselves with the belief that it is we who desert them;" "With true love it is as with apparitions--every one talks of them, but few persons have seen them;" "Virtues lose themselves in self-interest as rivers lose themselves in the sea;" "In the adversity of our best friends we always find something which does not displease us"--such are the moral comments on life graven in ineffaceable lines by La Rochefoucauld. He is not a philosophic thinker, but he is a penetrating and remorseless critic, who remains at one fixed point of view; self-interest is assuredly a large factor in human conduct, and he exposes much that is real in the heart of man; much also that is not universally true was true of the world in which he had moved; whether we accept or reject his doctrine, we are instructed by a statement so implacable and so precise of the case against human nature as he saw it. Pitiless he was not himself; perhaps his artistic instinct led him to exclude concessions which would have marred the unity
of his conception; possibly his vanity co-operated in producing phrases which live and circulate by virtue of the shock they communicate to our self-esteem. The merit of his _Maximes_ as examples of style--a style which may be described as lapidary--is incomparable; it is impossible to say more, or to say it more adequately, in little; but one wearies in the end of the monotony of an idea unalterably applied, of unqualified brilliance, of unrelieved concision; we anticipate our surprise, and its purpose is defeated. Traces of preciosity are found in some of the earliest sentences; that infirmity was soon overcome by La Rochefoucauld, and his utterances become as clear and as hard as diamond.

He died at the age of sixty-seven, in the arms of Bossuet. His _Memoires_,[1] relating to the period of the Fronde, are written with an air of studied historical coldness, which presents a striking contrast to the brilliant vivacity of Retz.

[Footnote 1: Ed. 1662, surreptitious and incomplete; complete ed., 1868-1884.]

The most interesting figure of the Fronde, its portrait-painter, its analyst, its historian, is CARDINAL DE RETZ (1614-1679). Italian by his family, and Italian in some features of his character, he had, on a scale of grandeur, the very genius of conspiracy. When his first work, _La Conjuration de Fiesque_, was read by Richelieu, the judgment which that great statesman pronounced was penetrating--"Voila un dangereux esprit." Low of stature, ugly, ill-made, short-sighted, Retz played the part of a gallant and a duellist. Never had any one less vocation for the spiritual duties of an ecclesiastic; but, being a churchman, he would be an illustrious actor on the ecclesiastical stage. There was something demoniac in his audacity, and with the spirit of turbulence and intrigue was united a certain power of self-restraint. When fallen, he still tried to be magnificent, though in disgrace: he would resign his archbishopric, pay his enormous debts, resign his cardinalate, exhibit himself as the hero in misfortune. "Having lived as a Catiline," said Voltaire, "he lived as an Atticus." In retirement, as his adventurous life drew towards its close, he wrote, at the request of Madame de Caumartin, those Memoirs which remained unpublished until 1717, and which have insured him a place in literature only second to Saint-Simon.

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