To know thyself by aphorism

“Philosophy triumphs easily over past evils and future evils; but present evils triumph over it.”

François de La Rochefoucauld, 1664

I’d like to know if that is just an observation, based on the French nobleman’s own experiences and those of the people he saw around him, or a timeless truth. What do you think?

La Rochefoulcauld, Inner Court, by Thierry de Villepin [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

La Rochefoulcauld, Inner Court, by Thierry de Villepin [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

An aphorism is a short, pithy statement of an evident truth concerned with life or nature. The word was first used by Hippocrates in 400 BCE in his collection that started with the words: “Life is short and Art long; the crisis fleeting…”

Everyone who thinks they’ve heard that before doesn’t need to be convinced of the usefulness of aphorisms: they stick in your mind, even though they are often remembered incorrectly or misappropriated. Such a short statement easily gets misinterpreted, of course, but I like to think that is part of its charm. I first encountered La Rochefoucauld’s collection because Nietzsche apparently read them, when he was in Sorrento working on Human, All Too Human in the company of Paul Rée. Nietzsche remarked that writing aphorisms in German is almost impossible, because one always ends up with a cumbersome load of auxiliary verbs at the end of an otherwise terse sentence. He also wondered if a person who had never tried to write one could appreciate the work involved.

“…for even the subtlest mind is not capable of properly appreciating the art of polishing maxims if he has not himself been brought up for it and competed at it … Hence, the present-day readers of maxims get a relatively paltry satisfaction from them, hardly any pleasure in tasting them, so that they respond to them just like people generally do in looking at cameos: they praise them because they cannot love them, and are quick to admire and even quicker to run away.”

Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, I: 35 SUP 1995

Cameo, by Bellezzedinapoli [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Cameo, by Bellezzedinapoli [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

On a French website, I read how La Rochefoucauld used the second half of his life to write about his experiences in the first half. And most of those were disappointing. He was married at fifteen and joined the army a year later. He fought in the aristocratic uprisings of his time and got seriously wounded, once by a bullet in the head. These experiences and his being a French nobleman made him a pessimist in a detached, elitist way.

“We are never so happy or so unhappy as we suppose.”

In the introduction to his “Reflections; or Sentences and Moral Maxims” he makes such an effort to describe his own face to his readers that I wasn’t surprised to find quite a few thoughts on vanity and  amour-propre. He writes that self-love is the greatest of flatterers and that “Whatever discoveries have been made in the region of self-love, there remain many unexplored territories there.” This inspired the translator to say that La Rochefoucauld wished to find a motive for all our actions in pride, vanity and egotism.

La Rochefoucauld, salon, by Thierry de Villepin [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

La Rochefoucauld, salon, by Thierry de Villepin [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

La Rochefoucauld certainly identifies these as our driving forces, rather than nobility, morality and love:

“If there is a pure love, exempt from the mixture of our other passions, it is that which is concealed at the bottom of the heart and of which even ourselves are ignorant.”

Nietzsche writes about the pros and cons of these psychological observations and decides they are necessary, not from a need for witty coquettishness, but because they tell us how we are human. A good aphorism looks us in the eye and tells us an uncomfortable truth, which was certainly Nietzsche’s intention. To end on a suitably pessimist note:

“We have all sufficient strength to support the misfortunes of others.”

La Rochefoucauld