Maarten Maartensz

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I like aphorisms and I like La Rochefoucauld. But he was a bit too cynical. Here is a list of my aphoristic comments on La Rochefoucauld's Maxims. La Rochefoucauld's maxims are identified by number, and can be obtained in many editions. What follows are my own comments on selected maxims, and a short indication of my basic disagreements.

The text in [] brackets is by the translators, who regularly quote others; the text in {} seems to be by the editors of the translation for the Gutenberg project. In both cases I have made the text smaller than my own if I used these parts, and have deleted most.

The underlined stars at the end of each aphorism (note, comment), link back to the English translation at that note.


Our virtues are most frequently but vices disguised.

0. [This epigraph which is the key to the system of La Rochefoucauld, is found in another form as No. 179 of the maxims of the first edition, 1665, it is omitted from the 2nd and 3rd, and reappears for the first time in the 4th edition, in 1675, as at present, at the head of the Reflections.—Aimé Martin. Its best answer is arrived at by reversing the predicate and the subject, and you at once form a contradictory maxim equally true, our vices are most frequently but virtues disguised.]

This remark of the translators I agree with more than not, so I have let it stand in my comments to Rochefoucauld's text.

But what seems more true to me is that Rochefoucauld's maxims are mostly based on the assumption that human actions depend most on egoism and vanity rather than the more noble motives people pretend to, and that his maxims are often less aimed at the truth than at shocking his readers.

Both weaknesses - for such they are, apart from the fact that moralizing by ways of maxims may not be the most adequate way to do so, if it is the wittiest - seem to derive from the facts that Rochefoucauld lived, thought and wrote as a courtier.  *


1. Virtuous acts are often done for vile reasons, and vile acts for virtuous reasons. The worst deeds are often done for the best of reasons and nearly always excused by a pretense of the noblest intentions. *

The translators supplied a verse of Pope:

["Who combats bravely is not therefore brave,
   He dreads a death-bed like the meanest slave;
   Who reasons wisely is not therefore wise,
   His pride in reasoning, not in acting, lies."
      Pope, Moral Essays, Ep. i. line 115.] 


2. People explain all human acts in terms pleasing to themselves.  *


. It is not egoism that is bad, but its abuse.

Lack of self-control is a much more important human weakness than is self-love, which seems mostly unavoidable anyway, since all that any man ever knows and feels are his (or her) own beliefs and feelings.  *

The translators supply this note, that seems mostly correct:

[This is the first hint of the system the author tries to develop. He wishes to find in vice a motive for all our actions, but this does not suffice him; he is obliged to call other passions to the help of his system and to confound pride, vanity, interest and egotism with self love. This confusion destroys the unity of his principle.—Aimé Martin.]


5. We cannot will feelings, but we can will beliefs that enhance or decrease the feelings.  *


6. Noone can be rational when passionate (though one may be reasonable).  *


7. Events can be predicted and produced by plans, but extraordinary events require extraordinary circumstances.  *


8. It seems to me that - in spite of Hume's ageeing: "Reason is and must be always the slaves of the passions" - it is not true that "The passions are the only advocates which always persuade":

In between our feelings, passions, needs, values and desires and our acting upon these stand judgement, free will, conscience, or deliberation, which are four names for the same faculty.

If it were otherwise, no imputation of personal responsibility makes sense, for these all involve the notion that one could have acted differently, if only one had thought better, deliberated better, chosen better, had more self-control, or done's one duty like other men in similar circumstances.  *


9. Every passion excludes others, and noone impassioned can impartially survey all possible evidence about the subject of his passions.  *


10. People live adrift an ocean of moods, tossed about by waves of feelings. Noone can control his emotions, but all may control their expressions and the beliefs that embed them.  *


11. People identify with what they have strong positive feelings about and have strong positive feelings about what they identify with. People feel attacked when they feel their interests criticized.  *


12. Hypocrisy can usually be seen, heard, or felt, and when it is not, it usually is not because people are wilfully blind to those hypocrisies they agree with as proper.  *

The translators supply this, which seems right:

[The 1st edition, 1665, preserves the image perhaps better—"however we may conceal our passions under the veil, etc., there is always some place where they peep out."]


14. It is easier to be ungrateful than grateful, and apart from passion the great motivators are ease and comfort.  *


16. Moral qualities in most men are mostly conformism. There are far more loyal people than there are principled people. For most men, being a social animal is being a conforming animal. Few people have sufficient courage to stand on their own feet and make independent personal judgements unbiased by the fear of what their acquaitances may think of them.  *


19. People only can feel their own feelings and are forever locked up within the limits of their own incapacities. All fellow-feeling depends on the imagination or instinct.

Even so... the English translation of this maxim, with my stress added "We have all sufficient strength to support the misfortunes of others" does seem to express a fact often missed by more forgiving translations:

Most of the misfortunes of men exist because other men don't think it worth their trouble to do anything about them: They choose to be indifferent, look away, keep silent.  Reason:

The vast majority of men are immoral by their very own code of morals - and are so by choice, because this is more profitable or more convenient for them.  *


22. Circumstances are stronger than men.  *


24. Heroism is partial: One party's heroes are another party's monsters or fools. If there is anything commonly admired in heroes it are courage and loyalty.

But Rochefoucauld is mistaken in levelling all heroes to the level of vain hypocrites, if only because some human heroism just can't be explained properly that way.  * 


25. Better opportunities are also better opportunities for abuse: what can be used can be abused. And:

Power invites its own abuse, for it tends to guarantee freedom from the consequences of such abuse.  *

The translators supply:

["Prosperity doth best discover vice, but adversity doth best discover virtue."—Lord Bacon, Essays{, (1625), "Of Adversity"}.]


29. Noone is valued for what he is; all are valued for what they seem to be.  *


30. It is far easier to desire than to do, and far easier to believe than to prove. In general, people believe what they desire to believe and desire what serves their self-interest. Few desire knowledge, but all desire pleasure, though it is true that what pleases depends to a much larger extent on beliefs than people believe.  *


34. The humble take great pride in their humility. There is no virtue that cannot be simulated, and most moral behaviour in society is motivated by self-interest, hypocrisy, conformism or fear rather than by moral principles. Moral stances are far more often hypocritical than honest, and for every hundred people that desire something done at most one will attempt to do it, if it takes trouble or brings personal danger or discomfort.  *

The translators supply:

["The proud are ever most provoked by pride."—Cowper, Conversation 160.]


38. Promises are made and kept proportional to expected benefits. *

The translators supply:

["The reason why the Cardinal (Mazarin) deferred so long to grant the favours he had promised, was because he was persuaded that hope was much more capable of keeping men to their duty than gratitude."—Fragments Historiques. Racine.]


47. Everything a man is and may be depends on temperament: We all are creatures of our moods. The most important ability insofar as one's well-being is concerned is the ability to make and control one's moods.  *


48. It is we ourselves who design our appreciation of the world, even if this is not done deliberately. The facts are given to us, but we infuse the values and impose the explanation.  *


49. All judgements involving oneself are exaggerated and partial.  *


51. All are fickle; all are frail; all are fallible, and constancy is death.  *


53. Every success is in part due to design and in equal or greater part to luck.  *


54. Not all philosophers are as contemptibly ordinary and hypocritical as ordinary hypocritical men try to make them out to be.  *

The translators supply

["It is always easy as well as agreeable for the inferior ranks of mankind to claim merit from the contempt of that pomp and pleasure which fortune has placed beyond their reach. The virtue of the primitive Christians, like that of the first Romans, was very frequently guarded by poverty and ignorance."—Gibbon, Decline And Fall, Chap. 15.]


56. In matters social, appearance is far more important than reality. * 


57. The reasons people give for deeds are rarely the reasons the deeds have, and usually the reasons people desire the deeds to have.  *


59. Everything can be plausibly explained and excused. *


61. Human happines depends mostly on mood.  *


64. Society is based on lies, pretenses and hypocrisy, and could not exist without it.  * 


65. Ordinary prudence does help men not to give into their ambitions or feelings, but it is true this mostly depends on self-interest and self-control.  *


66. Greed galls everything it lusts after and seeks to possess where it is wiser to enjoy.  *


68. Love is the desire to help others. The best illustration is the relation between parents and children.

The love epigrammatical moralists talk of is not love but sex or secual need or lust by another name.  *


69. Pure love is far more common between parents and children than between parents.  *


76. Of course there is real human love for other human beings: Without it, parents would butcher their children for being such expensive and demanding nuisances.  *

The translators supply this - and see my 68.

["Oh Love! no habitant of earth thou art—
  An unseen seraph, we believe in thee—
  A faith whose martyrs are the broken heart,—
  But never yet hath seen, nor e'er shall see
  The naked eye, thy form as it should be."
     —Lord Byron, }Childe Harold, Canto iv., stanza 121.]


78. Most men love justice to the extent they profit from it.  *


81. Whatever we think or feel is to a considerable extent our own creation and relative to our own position.  *


82. Peace exists between two parties after one is defeated. *


83. Friendship, if genuine, is companionship based on some mutual interest and some mutual capacity and willingness to please.  *


87. Social life is for the most part mutual deceit to protect each other's feelings and further each self's interests.

Indeed, see Mandeville.

The translators supply this - and are mistaken and misleading, or at least their Aimé Martin is:

[A maxim, adds Aimé Martin, "Which may enter into the code of a vulgar rogue, but one is astonished to find it in a moral treatise." Yet we have scriptural authority for it: "Deceiving and being deceived."—2 TIM. iii. 13.]

In fact, II Timothy III.13 reads in full: "But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived" - which is or should be fair enough, for Christians, if they believe mankind consists of sinners mostly.  *


89. Everybody complains about the judgements of others, but very few try to remedy the shortcomings in their own judgements.  *


90. We are rarely valued for what we are worth. *


97. To be able to see things as they are is almost as rare a capacity as to be able to explain why things are as they are. Few are willing to see the facts; fewer are able to see the facts; and fewer still are able to explain the facts.  * 


98. Few deny they are good men, though all know they are poor reasoners. Nothing blinds as well as self-interest.  *


102. It is very difficult to reason against one's feelings and inclinations - but one can do so, namely on the basis of values and beliefs one arrived at before the present feelings and inclinations.  *


103. It is much easier to understand an argument than the things argued about.  *


104. Adequate perspective is required for adequate judgement.  *


105. A rational man is one who argues conclusions logically from assumptions and tests his assumptions by comparing his conclusions with experience. However, this will not be of any avail, unless one as a faculty for finding adequate assumptions.  *


106. All knowledge is knowledge of outlines only. If there were not so much capable of true summary judgement, men would not have survived. The simplicity of the universe corresponds to the finiteness of our understanding.  *


110. It is far easier to give advice than to give help. Generally, the givers of advice are more helped by their giving advice than the receivers are by the advice.  *


115. People deceive themselves as easily as they deceive others. Besides, all know only the surface of others, and few men have adequate knowledge of the character and lives of those they depend on.  *


116. Between human beings, things are rarely what they would seem, for all play roles nearly all of the time, and even if they don't try most of the time to avoid hurting other's feelings.

One of the things Rochefoucauld missed was that there is some genuine disinterestedness in human beings - inclinations, values and tastes that concern the things rathers their own interests, benefits, or standing.  *

The translators supply:

["I have often thought how ill-natured a maxim it was which on many occasions I have heard from people of good understanding, ‘That as to what related to private conduct no one was ever the better for advice.' But upon further examination I have resolved with myself that the maxim might be admitted without any violent prejudice to mankind. For in the manner advice was generally given there was no reason I thought to wonder it should be so ill received, something there was which strangely inverted the case, and made the giver to be the only gainer. For by what I could observe in many occurrences of our lives, that which we called giving advice was properly taking an occasion to show our own wisdom at another's expense. On the other side to be instructed or to receive advice on the terms usually prescribed to us was little better than tamely to afford another the occasion of raising himself a character from our defects."—Lord Shaftesbury, Characteristics, i., 153.]


119. People quickly come to believe their own pretensions about themselves. It tends to be much easier to believe that one is as one likes to be than to be it, whereas imagined qualities often are as pleasant and effective as real ones. In social life it rarely matters what is - appearance and hypocrisy not only count for but in many cases are what they pretend to be: A creditable travesty of the real thing.  *


120. It is easier to be weak than to be good. *


121. Much good is done as necessary precondition for remunerative evil.  *


122. Noone can resist his passions - all one may hope to do is to act or fail to act wisely upon them.  *


125. Cunning consists in three things: First, the desire to be better of oneself; second, the desire to deceive others to achieve this; and third, the ability to lie and deceive while not being found out.

The ability to lie and deceive while not being found out is in all men and women who reached adulthood without being locked up for deviances: It is the common currency of social transactions between people not belonging to the same group. *


135. Character is real, but much of character is enacted. Both roles and character depend on purpose: We play at being such and such person to further our ends, and if we pretend long enough we will become what we pretend, if we have the capacity. *


136. Love tends to be a euphemism for lust. *


138. People like to talk of themselves most of all.  *

The translators supply this:

["Montaigne's vanity led him to talk perpetually of himself, and as often happens to vain men, he would rather talk of his own failings than of any foreign subject."— Hallam, Literature Of Europe.]


139. Few people care about subjects that do not afford them to shine.  *


142. One basic human problem is that the vast majority of men is not able to argue rationally: What they think rational is their own prejudices, that tend to be based on ignorance, fear and stupidity. *

The translators supply:

"Men who are unequal to the labour of discussing an argument or wish to avoid it, are willing enough to suppose that much has been proved because much has been said."— Junius, Jan. 1769.]


148. The translators supply: *

["Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer,
And, without sneering, teach the rest to sneer."
Pope {Essay On Man, (1733), Epistle To Dr. Arbuthnot.}]


151. The only persons fit to rule others are those who do rule themselves.  *


165. Public appreciation is always of chimaeras: Mundus VULT decipi. *


166. If people may choose between appearance and reality they normally choose appearance, because it fits better with their beliefs and desires.  *


171. To believe that at bottom all people seek to do and avoid is due to self-interest confuses the interest people may take in others with the fact that all can only feel their own feelings. Besides, a considerable amount of apparent self-interest is not so much self-interest as cowardice (and cowardice is not the same as self-interest, because it is the motive that keeps many would be thieves from indulging their self-interest).  *


175. Where love is the veneer of lust there is no constancy. Most succesful marriages are not based on love for each other but on friendship, succesful cooperation and love for the offspring.  *


180. Noone feels for another what one feels for oneself, for noone feels another's feelings. All sympathy is based on the imagination (though some instinct is involved).  *


186. In fact, societies of thieves, pirates and thugs also have their morals, and most of these are quite ordinary.

In general, appreciation of people follows rank. Few can see the worth of a person apart from his social status. * 

The translators supply

["If individuals have no virtues their vices may be of use to us."—Junius, 5th Oct. 1771.]


196. We remember what we desire to remember, and endeavour to forget the rest.  *


200. There is no such thing as a pure motive. All motives are mixed. *


201. Noone is irreplacable in society. *


205. The common virtues are based on conformism. Hence the least interesting people tend to be the most virtuous.  * 


207. People do not grow mentally after age 25, nor do they grow older mentally. There is little wisdom based on understanding - most wisdom consists of prettified disillusions and is based on bitter experience.  *


213. Personal power, personal glory and personal riches are the ends of social actions, beyond the need for survival. The egoism that moves all is beneficent to most because (and only if) the egoism of each is checked and balanced by the egoism of others. *


216. People turn into different people when they believe themselves to be watched by other people, and the more so they believe they depend on these. The difference between people and the roles people play is as between one skinned and one unskinned. *


218. Hypocrisy is the foundation of most moral actions. Most good is done for no better reason than to avoid the sanctions imposed on not doing good. Few people spontaneously help others, and those who do help only a few of those in need of help.  *


219. Wars are fought because the combatants on each side rather murder unknown persons who have never harmed them than incur the disapproval of their own fellows.  * 


220. Most personalities are mostly pretense. Very few have the courage to say what they think and do as they feel, and of those who do most are drunk or mad.  *


230. All social behaviour is based on role-playing; all role-playing is based on imitation; all imitation consists in aping others in the hope to acquire what they acquire by their behaviour.  *


234. The social radicals tend to be the ambitious with little chance on a career by normal means.  *


237. The good all too often are the bad without courage. *


240. Much that goes for human beauty is symmetry of otherwise normal features combined with some childish features.  *


247. Loyalty is based on adulation of authority; fear of others; and love of ease. The easiest and surest way to preferment is to be a loyal fool.  * 


250. True eloquence speaks in original similes and maxims.  *


254. All humility is a stratagem to avoid offense to the pride of others. The truly humble are without self-interest; and those without self-interest are dead.  * 


255. Except in simple cases, the expressed emotions and the felt emotions are as different as taste and digestion.  *


256. The world is composed of persons playing roles: "person" comes from "persona" i.e. mask. But while it is true that who functions in society functions in it by playing some role, and also true that most men are hypocrites besides playing roles - and thus wilful deceivers, usually for personal benefit - it is not true all men are. 

The translators supply:

["All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."—Shakespeare, As You Like It{, Act II, Scene VII, Jaques}.

"Life is no more than a dramatic scene, in which the hero should preserve his consistency to the last."—Junius.]

257. The translators supply:  *

["Gravity is the very essence of imposture."—Shaftesbury, Characteristics, p. 11, vol. I. "The very essence of gravity is design, and consequently deceit; a taught trick to gain credit with the world for more sense and knowledge than a man was worth, and that with all its pretensions it was no better, but often worse, than what a French wit had long ago defined it—a mysterious carriage of the body to cover the defects of the mind."—Sterne, Tristram Shandy, vol. I., chap. ii.]


264. Pity and compassion are not barter or tit for tat, though they may be, neither need they be based on the imaginary placing oneself in another person's shoes: There does seem to be some natural human fellow feeling, that takes joy in another's joys and commisserates with another's misery.  *

The translators supply:

["Grief for the calamity of another is pity, and ariseth from the imagination that a like calamity may befal himself{;} and therefore is called compassion."—Hobbes' Leviathan{, (1651), Part I, Chapter VI}.]



266. Passions mix like paints in water. Except when in extreme emotion all motives are mixed.  *


269. Noone can see all the consequences nor all the causes of one's acts.  *


323. Very few have good judgement in all matters, for very few have good judgement. What special qualities people have tend to be based on the development of some at the cost of many others.  *


334. Women like to be seen; men to see.  *


360. People do not care for people in general. All love few; like some; and are indifferent to nearly all.  * 


382. The translators supply this explanation:  * 

[The Bouts-Rimés was a literary game popular in the 17th and 18th centuries—the rhymed words at the end of a line being given for others to fill up. Thus Horace Walpole being given, "brook, why, crook, I," returned the burlesque verse— "I sits with my toes in a Brook, And if any one axes me Why? I gies 'em a rap with my Crook, 'Tis constancy makes me, ses I."]


375. Most harm is done by common people: It is the common people who willingly serve as cannonfodder and butchers for the ambitions of their leaders.  *


405. The translators supply:  *

["To most men experience is like the stern lights of a ship which illumine only the track it has passed."— Coleridge.]


414. Nearly all judgements of nearly all people are based on the emotions and not on ascertainable fact and logic.  *


433. The translators supply:  *

["Nemo alienae virtuti invidet qui satis confidet suae." —Cicero In Marc Ant.]  


447. In Dutch, "propriety" translates i.a. as "zeden" or mores, and indeed the non-legal norms and usages of "how things ought to be done" (felt, believed, thought) "in Our Group" tend to go much further than the laws.   *


Remark: There are many editions and many translations of Rochefoucauld's Maxims. The one I reproduced is not the one I used for my remarks, for which reason there are some more in my remarks, starting 513:

513. Men believe what they wish to believe, and are usually not aware of the reasons for their beliefs.  *


533. Public opinions are nearly always means to belong to the flock. What people normally say tends to be cant.  *


572. Our judgements about ourselves are never impartial. Besides, whereas we can compare others to others, it is difficult to compare ourselves to others because how we are to ourselves appears very different to us from how others appear to us.  *


Concluding remarks:

I skipped a lot of comments I might have made, and one reason is that La Rochefoucauld repeats himself a lot. Also, there are few maxims of his I would adopt without qualification, as basically true and well-phrased.

My basic disagreements with La Rochefoucauld are:

1. I do not attach the importance to self-interest he does. See e.g. 171 above. The simple fact is that egoism is the desire to help oneself (i.e. self-love by definition, see 68.); altruism is the desire to help others (i.e. some species of love); and both exist - as exemplified clearly by parents and children.

2. I believe quite a few of the maxims are more cynical than accords with the truth. The reason is La Rochefoucauld was a moralist. An example is his 409: "We should often blush at our noblest deeds if the world were to see all their underlying motives." Well, the underlying motives "the world" can read in ... La Rochefoucauld - self-interest, vanity, cowardice, ambition, ease, as contrasted with the normally pretended altruism, humility, courage, civic mindedness and difficulties overcome - and if "the world" does not read La Rochefoucauld, "the world" generally is smart enough to suspect most of his cynical explanations, even if it is not capable to put it as strikingly in words. Besides, why blush if the deed has achieved more good than evil? And why should we blush, especially if the human condition in fact is as La Rochefoucauld sketched it? Men may be beasts, and often act with a cruelty other beasts seem not to be capable of, but there is little point in complaining about innate incapacities.

3. Some themes occur too often, and others not often enough. Examples of the former are self-interest and love; examples of the latter cowardice, conformism, stupidity, and the roles belief and desire play in the economy of human emotion.

4. Quite a few maxims I would phrase differently.

Maarten Maartensz
Original: 1997
        last update: Oct 27 2009