Last reviewed: June 2018
French memoirist and social critic
September 15, 1613
March 17, 1680
François de La Rochefoucauld (lah rawsh-few-koh), a French aphorist of the seventeenth century, was born into the high nobility and educated primarily as a soldier and a courtier. Until his father’s death in 1650, he was known as Prince de Marcillac. He never considered himself a writer as such, although he did once state: “I write good prose, I compose good verse; and, if I desired the glory that comes with such things, I believe that with little work I could acquire for myself a sufficient reputation.” Ironically, in the affairs of government—the one area in which his ambitions lay—he acquired for himself no reputation at all. What fame he actually achieved in his lifetime, and his entire reputation as far as posterity is concerned, came entirely from those writings which were not originally intended for publication. François de La Rochefoucauld.
François de La Rochefoucauld.
As has been suggested by F. G. Stevens, his editor and translator, the times were not right, either for the employment of La Rochefoucauld’s great intellectual gifts in affairs of state or for the full development of his talents as a writer. In the first place, as a nobleman and a member of the military caste, he received a minimum of education. Born in Paris on September 15, 1613, he was married for family purposes at the age of fifteen and began his active service as an officer of the king a year later. In the second place, his was not a period during which any nobleman in France could aspire to a high position in the government. Louis XIII was an absolute monarch, and the only delegation of power in the realm was into the hands of two successive cardinal ministers.
The situation was certainly one that could embitter a young man of La Rochefoucauld’s temperament. In the end he was completely disillusioned, but not until after he had twice tried to do something about it. The first attempt was by means of a conspiracy with Louis’s queen, Anne of Austria, who, suspected justifiably by Cardinal Richelieu of plotting with Spain, suggested to La Rochefoucauld that he abduct her and carry her to the Netherlands. La Rochefoucauld readily agreed, but the plot was discovered and he was promptly thrown into the Bastille. He was later banished to his country estates. When Louis XIII died shortly after Richelieu, and Anne became regent for the five-year-old Louis XIV, La Rochefoucauld returned to court in expectation of favor to repay his former devotion. He found, instead, that the queen mother was completely under the domination of Cardinal Mazarin (Richelieu’s successor) and that he was no closer to an important position than he had been under the late king. This fresh source of disillusionment prompted him to join forces with the Prince de Conde in the Frondist rebellion, which began in 1648 and ended without victory for the rebels in 1653. (The Fronde was a civil war begun by judges and members of the nobility in an effort to impose limitations on the absolute power of French kings. French judges, especially those in the various appeals courts, wanted to preserve their right to examine the constitutionality of royal decrees, and noblemen wished to maintain political influence in their own provinces.) La Rochefoucauld fought for the entire duration of the uprising and was wounded severely, but once again nothing came of his efforts.
He returned once more to the capital, where he lived out his days. There he became attached to the literary circle that contained such brilliant figures as Madame de Sable, Madame de Sevigne, and his close friend Madame de Lafayette, author of The Princess of Clèves. Within this group he found a worthy audience (and subject) for his brilliant and penetrating mind and his famous Maxims, which tear the protective film from human vanity, exposing it to his studied cynicism.
His Maxims were first published in 1665, and La Rochefoucauld revised them extensively before his death in Paris in 1680. These pithy insights into the motivations for human behavior contrast appearance and reality and explore the powerful influence of self-love, passions, vice, and virtue in people’s personal lives and social interactions. The Maxims are marvelously ambiguous: More than three centuries after his death, critics are still divided as to whether La Rochefoucauld was a cynic or a Christian moralist.
Since his death, volumes of his complete memoirs and complete works have been published.