By The Duc de la Rochefoucauld
‘There’s no fool like an old fool’…’The world is full of pots calling kettles black’… ‘We can no more set a term to our passions than to our life’. These are just three of the aphorisms that made the collection of Maxims by François, Duc de la Rochefoucauld an enduring influence upon succeeding generations following their initial publication in 1665. And the effect continued up to the present day – his admirers have included figures as varied as Lord Chesterfield, Thomas Hardy, Nietzsche, Stendhal, Gide; and in more recent times even Dorothy Parker, herself a prolific producer of epigrams. Rochefoucauld (1613-1680) a well-known member of the French nobility, had a rich life with a bold military career. He proved courageous in battle, was wounded several times, and nearly lost his sight. Not always finding himself on the successful side of politics, his career, and standing in high circles, was curtailed. However, he was also involved in literary salons, and was respected as a moralist and man of letters at a time when it was fashionable to read maxims out loud at gatherings. A number of editions of his Maxims appeared during his lifetime as he revised his choices, deleting some and adding others. In total, a little over 600 have survived which can be confidently ascribed to La Rochefoucauld. They vary considerably in style, length and content. Many are short (as those mentioned above); but others are longer, aiming at observations or truths which go beyond the witty flourish or the acutely pointed barb. For La Rochefoucauld was a perceptive observer of humanity in all its multi-faceted guises. Often he gave little quarter to human foibles, especially in the area of (in his celebrated phrase) ‘amour-propre’, or self-love, and clearly enjoyed cataloguing a range of emotions and effects where this comes into human play. ‘Self-love is the greatest flatterer of them all,’ is the second maxim in the collection; the third is ‘Though the realm of self-love has been explored, its uncharted territories remain vast;’ and the fourth: ‘Self-love can still outwit the shrewdest of men.’ But this collection is much more than a basket of one-liners. He discusses aspects of death in an 800-word paragraph – a matter on which he could speak with some authority having faced it on many occasions in battle. He addresses laziness: ‘Of all our emotions, laziness is the one of which we are ourselves least aware. It is also the most intense and malignant of them all, though its violence be imperceptible and the damage it causes remain very well hidden.’ This recording presents a scholarly but accessible 20th century translation by Constantine FitzGibbon, and opens with an introduction to the life and works of La Rochefoucauld, as well as his own description of himself. And it closes with a brief but interesting bibliography, in which FitzGibbon brings clarity to the various editions. It is presented in a very listenable manner by David Rintoul, who gives each maxim the weight and character it deserves.
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