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 every age.

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 upon others.

Mediocrity in poetry, music, painting, and oratory is unbearable.

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 manner.

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 clear.

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, and pathos.

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 elevating.

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 to desire.

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 love.

A light-hearted woman is a woman who already loves another.

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 effort?

Women go to extremes. They are better or worse than men.

Women go farther than men in love; but men make better friends.

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 to-morrow!

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 existence?

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 career.

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 to worship.

Lucile prefers to waste his life as the protégé of a few aristocrats than to live on familiar terms with his peers.

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 world.

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 Nature.

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 surprise me.