Characters by Jean de la Bruyère
Jean de la Bruyère was born in Paris, in August, 1645. He
studied law and became a barrister, but at the age of twenty-eight
gave up that profession, which did not agree with his
tendencies to meditation and his scrupulous mind. In 1673, he
bought the office of Treasurer of the Finances, and led an independent
and studious life. In 1684, he became a tutor to the
Duc de Bourbon, grandson of the great Condé, and continued
to reside in the Condé household until his death in 1696. In
the "Caractères," which first appeared in 1688, La Bruyère
has recorded his impressions of men. In 1687 the manuscript
was handed to Michallet, a publisher in whose shop La Bruyère
spent many hours every week. "Will you print this?" asked
the author. "I don't know whether it will be to your advantage;
but should it prove a success, the money will be for my dear
friend, your little daughter." The sale of the book produced
over $40,000. When La Bruyère was elected a member of the
French Academy, his enemies declared that the "Characters"
consisted of satirical portraits of leading personalities, and
"keys" to the portraits were widely circulated. The pen
sketches, however, are not only applicable to that period, but to
I.—On Men and Books
All has been said, and one comes too late after the
seven thousand years during which men have existed—and
thought. All that one can do is to think and speak
rightly, without attempting to force one's tastes and feelings
Mediocrity in poetry, music, painting, and oratory is
There is in art a certain degree of perfection, as there
is in Nature an ideal point of matureness. To go beyond,
or to remain below that degree is faulty.
The ability of a writer consists mainly in giving good
definitions and apt descriptions. The superiority of
Moses, Homer, Plato, Virgil, and Horace resides in the
beauty of their expressions and images. One has to express
the truth to write in a natural, powerful, and refined
It has taken centuries for men to return to the ideal of
the ancients and to all that is simple and natural.
We feed on the classics and the able, modern authors.
Then, when we become authors ourselves, we ill-use our
masters, like those children who, strengthened by the
milk they have suckled, beat their nurses.
Read your works to those who are able to criticise and
appreciate them. A good and careful writer often finds
that the expression he had so long looked for was most
simple and natural, and one which ought to have occurred
to him at once and without effort.
The pleasure there is in criticising takes from us the
joy of being moved by that which is really beautiful.
Arsène, from the top of his mind, looks down upon
humanity; and, owing to the distance from which he sees
men, is almost frightened at their smallness. He is so
filled with his own sublime thoughts that he hardly finds
time to deliver a few precious oracles.
Théocrine knows things which are rather useless; his
ideas are always strange, his memory always at work.
He is a supercilious dreamer, and always seems to laugh
at those whom he considers as his inferiors. I read my
book to him; he listens. Afterwards, he speaks to me
about his own book. What does he think of mine? I
told you so before: he speaks to me of his own work!
What an amazing difference there is between a beautiful
book and a perfect book!
When a book elevates your mind, and inspires you with
noble thoughts, you require nothing else to judge it; it is
a good and masterly work.
The fools do not understand what they read. The
mediocre think they understand thoroughly. Great
minds do not always understand every page of a book;
they think obscure that which is obscure, and clear that
which is clear. The pedantic find obscure that which is
not, and refuse to understand that which is perfectly
Molière would have been a perfect writer had he only
avoided jargon and barbarisms, and written more purely.
Ronsard had in him enough good and bad to form
great disciples in prose and verse.
Corneille, at his best, is original and inimitable, but he
is uneven. He had a sublime mind, and has written a
few verses which are among the best ever written.
Racine is more human. He has imitated the Greek
classics, and in his tragedies there is simplicity, clearness,
Corneille paints men as they ought to be; Racine paints
them as they are. Corneille is more moral; Racine is
more natural. The former, it seems, owes much to Sophocles;
the latter, to Euripides.
How is it that people at the theatre laugh so freely, and
yet are ashamed to weep? Is it less natural to be moved
by all that is worthy of pity than to burst out laughing
at all that is ridiculous? Is it that we consider it weak
to cry, especially when the cause of our emotion is an
artificial one? But the cause of our laughter at the
theatre is also artificial. Some persons think it is as
childish to laugh excessively as to sob.
Not only should plays not be immoral; they should be
Logic is the art of convincing oneself of some truth.
Eloquence is a gift of the soul which makes one capable
of conquering the hearts and minds of the listeners and
of making them believe anything one pleases.
He who pays attention only to the taste of his own
century thinks more of himself than of his writings.
One should always aim at perfection. If our contemporaries
fail to do us justice, posterity may do so.
Horace and Boileau have said all this before. I take
your word for it; but may I not, after them, "think a
true thought," which others will think after me?
There are more tools than workers, and among the
latter, more bad than good ones.
There is, in this world, no task more painful than that
of making a name for oneself; we die before having even
sketched our work. It takes, in France, much firmness
of purpose and much broadmindedness to be indifferent
to public functions and offices, and to consent to remain
at home and do nothing.
Hardly anyone has enough merit to assume that part
in a dignified manner, or enough brains to fill the gap of
time without what is generally called business.
All that is required is a better name for idleness; and
that meditation, conversation, reading, and repose should
be called work.
You tell me that there is gold sparkling on Philémon's
clothes. So there is on the clothes at the draper's. He
is covered with the most gorgeous fabrics. I can see
those fabrics in the shops. But the embroidery and
ornaments on Philémon's clothes further increase their
magnificence. If so, I praise the embroiderer's workmanship.
If someone asks him the time, he takes from
his pocket a jewelled watch; the hilt of his sword is made
of onyx; he displays a dazzling diamond on his finger
and wears all the curious and pretty trifles of fashion and
vanity. You arouse my interest at last. I ought to see
those precious things. Send me the clothes and jewels
of Philémon; I don't require to see him.
It is difficult to tell the hero from the great man at
war. Both have military virtues. However, the former
is generally young, enterprising, gifted, self-controlled
even in danger, and courageous; the latter has much judgment,
foresees events, and is endowed with much ability
and experience. Perhaps one might say that Alexander
was only a hero and that Cæsar was a great man.
Ménippe is a bird adorned with feathers which are not
his own. He has nothing to say; he has no feelings, no
thoughts. He repeats what others have said, and uses
their ideas so instinctively that he deceives himself, and
is his first victim. He often believes that he is expressing
his own thoughts, while he is only an echo of someone
whom he has just left. He believes childishly that
the amount of wit he possesses is all that man ever possessed.
He therefore looks like a man who has nothing
II.—On Women and Wealth
From the age of thirteen to the age of twenty-one, a
girl wishes she were beautiful; afterwards she wishes
she were a man.
An unfaithful woman is a woman who has ceased to
A light-hearted woman is a woman who already loves
A fickle woman is a woman who does not know
whether she loves or not, and who does not know what
or whom she loves.
An indifferent woman is a woman who loves nothing.
There is a false modesty which is vanity; a false glory
which is light-mindedness; a false greatness which is
smallness; a false virtue which is hypocrisy; a false
wisdom which is prudishness.
Why make men responsible for the fact that women
are ignorant? Have any laws or decrees been issued
forbidding them to open their eyes, to read, to remember
what they have read, and to show that they understood
it in their conversations and their works? Have they
not themselves decided to know little or nothing, because
of their physical weakness, or the sluggishness of their
minds; because of the time their beauty requires; because
of their light-mindedness which prevents them from
studying; because they have only talent and genius for
needlework or house-managing; or because they instinctively
dislike all that is earnest and demands some
Women go to extremes. They are better or worse
Women go farther than men in love; but men make
It is because of men that women dislike one another.
It is nothing for a woman to say what she does not
mean; it is easier still for a man to say all what he thinks.
Time strengthens the ties of friendship and loosens
those of love.
There is less distance between hatred and love than
between dislike and love.
One can no more decide to love for ever than decide
never to love at all.
One comes across men who irritate one by their
ridiculous expressions, the strangeness and unfitness of
the words they use. Their weird jargon becomes to them
a natural language. They are delighted with themselves
and their wit. True, they have some wit, but one pities
them for having so little of it; and, what is more, one
suffers from it.
Arrias has read and seen everything, and he wants
people to know it. He is a universal man; he prefers to
lie rather than keep silent or appear ignorant about something.
The subject of the conversation is the court of a
certain northern country. He at once starts talking, and
speaks of it as if he had been born in that country; he
gives details on the manners and customs, the women
and the laws: he tells anecdotes and laughs loudly at his
own wit. Someone ventures to contradict him and
proves to him that he is not accurate in his statements.
Arrias turns to the interrupter: "I am telling nothing
that is not exact," he says. "I heard all those details
from Sethon, ambassador of France to that court.
Sethon returned recently; I know him well, and had a
long conversation with him on this matter." Arrias was
resuming his story with more confidence than ever, when
one of the guests said to him: "I am Sethon, and have
just returned from my mission."
Cléante is a most honest man. His wife is the most
reasonable person in the world. Both make everybody
happy wherever they go, and it were impossible to find
a more delightful and refined couple. Yet they separate
At thirty you think about making your fortune; at
fifty you have not made it; when you are old, you start
building, and you die while the painters are still at work.
Numberless persons ruin themselves by gambling, and
tell you coolly they cannot live without gambling. What
nonsense! Would it be allowed to say that one cannot
live without stealing, murdering, or leading a riotous
Giton has a fresh complexion, and an aggressive expression.
He is broad-shouldered and corpulent. He
speaks with confidence. He blows his nose noisily, spits
to a great distance, and sneezes loudly. He sleeps a
great deal, and snores whenever he pleases. When he
takes a walk with his equals he occupies the centre; when
he stops, they stop; when he advances again, they do the
same. No one ever interrupts him. He is jovial, impatient,
haughty, irritable, independent. He believes
himself witty and gifted. He is rich.
Phédon has sunken eyes. He is thin, and his cheeks
are hollow. He sleeps very little. He is a dreamer, and,
although witty, looks stupid. He forgets to say what he
knows, and when he does speak, speaks badly. He
shares the opinion of others; he runs, he flies to oblige
anyone; he is kind and flattering. He is superstitious,
scrupulous, and bashful. He walks stealthily, speaks in
a low voice, and takes no room. He can glide through
the densest crowd without effort. He coughs, and blows
his nose inside his hat, and waits to sneeze until he is
alone. He is poor.
III.—On Men and Manners
Paris is divided into a number of small societies which
are like so many republics. They have their own customs,
laws, language, and even their own jokes.
One grows up, in towns, in a gross ignorance of all
that concerns the country. City-bred men are unable to
tell hemp from flax, and wheat from rye. We are satisfied
as long as we can feed and dress.
When we speak well of a man at court, we invariably
do so for two reasons: firstly, in order that he may hear
that we spoke well of him; secondly, in order that he
may speak well of us in his turn.
To be successful and to secure high offices there are
two ways: the high-road, on which most people pass;
and the cross-road, which is the shorter.
The youth of a prince is the origin of many fortunes.
Court is where joys are evident, but artificial; where
sorrows are concealed, but real.
A slave has one master; an ambitious man has as many
as there are persons who may be useful to him in his
With five or six art terms, people give themselves out
as experts in music, painting, and architecture.
The high opinions people have of the great and mighty
is so blind, and their interest in their gestures, features,
and manners so general, that if the mighty were only
good, the devotion of the people to them would amount
Lucile prefers to waste his life as the protégé of a
few aristocrats than to live on familiar terms with his
It is advisable to say nothing of the mighty. If you
speak well of them, it is flattery. It is dangerous to
speak ill of them during their lifetime, and it is cowardly
to do so after they are dead.
Life is short and annoying. We spend life wishing.
When life is wretched, it is hard to bear; when it is
happy, it is dreadful to lose it. The one alternative is as
bad as the other.
Death occurs only once, but makes itself felt at every
moment of our life. It is more painful to fear it than
to suffer it.
There are but three events for man: birth, life, and
death. He does not realise his birth, he suffers when he
dies, and he forgets to live.
We seek our happiness outside ourselves. We seek it
in the opinions of men whom we know are flatterers, and
who lack sincerity. What folly! Most men spend half
their lives making the other half miserable.
It is easier for many men to acquire one thousand
virtues than to get rid of one defect.
It is as difficult to find a conceited man who believes
himself really happy as to discover a modest man who
thinks himself too unhappy.
The birch is necessary to children. Grown-up men
need a crown, a sceptre, velvet caps and fur-lined robes.
Reason and justice devoid of ornaments would not be
imposing or convincing. Man, who is a mind, is led by
his eyes and his ears!
IV.—On Customs and Religion
Fashion in matters of food, health, taste and conscience
is utterly foolish. Game is at present out of fashion, and
condemned as a food. It is to-day a sin against fashion
to be cured of the ague by blood-letting.
The conceited man thinks every day of the way in
which he will be able to attract attention on the following
day. The philosopher leaves the matter of his clothes
to his tailor. It is just as childish to avoid fashion as to
follow its decrees too closely.
Fashion exists in the domain of religion.
There have been young ladies who were virtuous,
healthy and pious, who wished to enter a convent, but
who were not rich enough to take in a wealthy abbey the
vows of poverty.
How many men one sees who are strong and righteous,
who would never listen to the entreaties of their friends,
but who are easily influenced and corrupted by women.
I would like to hear a sober, moderate, chaste, righteous
man declare that there is no God. At least he would be
speaking in a disinterested manner. But there is no
such man to be found.
The fact that I am unable to prove that God does not
exist establishes for me the fact that God does exist.
Atheism does not exist. If there were real atheists,
it would merely prove that there are monsters in this
Forty years ago I didn't exist, and it was not within
my power to be born. It does not depend upon me who
now exist to be no more. Consequently, I began being
and am going on being, thanks to something which is
beyond me, which will last after me, which is mightier
than I am. If that something is not God, pray tell me
what it is.
Everything is great and worthy of admiration in
O you vain and conceited man, make one of these
worms which you despise! You loathe toads; make a
toad if you can!
Kings, monarchs, potentates, sacred majesties, have I
given you all your supreme names? We, mere men, require
some rain for our crops or even some dew; make
some dew, send to the earth a drop of water!
A certain inequality in the destinies of men, which
maintains order and obedience, is the work of God. It
suggests a divine law.
If the reader does not care for these "characters," it
will surprise me; if he does care for them, it will also