What François De La Rochefoucauld Has To Teach Us About Cynicism

Is there any merit in taking a cynical view of life?  Are the observations of cynicism realistic, brave observations on human nature, freed from sentimentality, or are they only the somber commentary offered by one who is a loser at the game of life, taking solace in his weakness and failure?  There are compelling arguments either way.  What is not disputed, however, is that  François de La Rouchefoucauld was one of the most brilliantly cynical epigrammers who ever lived.

It probably did not help that he came from a long line of noblemen, for nothing so enfeebles the soul as much as inherited wealth and titles.  He was born in 1613 and inherited the title of duke on the death of his father in 1650.  Receiving the usual education of his class, he dabbled in military matters in his teens.  Various itinerant love affairs followed with well-placed women, but some of these ended badly; we find him imprisoned in Bastille for a week in 1636 for political intrigue.

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Although married, he continued to pursue other women, as was the custom of the time and his station.  Marriages in those days were business affairs to be ignored at each party’s pleasure or necessity; one such dalliance resulted in an illegitimate child, but the woman eventually rejected him for a more appealing competitor.  In 1652 he found himself mixed up with a quasi-revolt called the Fronde, an adventure that left him with impaired sight when he was struck with a musket ball in the head.  Health problems also intervened to add to his misery in the form of gout and melancholy.

In late seventeenth century France, the Paris salons were centers of debate, discussion, and the flowering of controversial ideas.  By now La Rochefoucauld had acquired an acrid talent for stinging prose, and he knew how to use it.  His failures in love and war had primed his spirit for a cynical view of life, and this predilection meshed well with the taste of the salons for savage wit.  Nothing is so shallow as sophistication.

From his frequent visits to the salon of Mme. de Sable in Paris, he had begun to piece together a body of epigrams that represented his worldview.  One of his peers had more commercial goals in mind, for a bootleg collection of 189 of his sayings was first published without his permission (and with no attribution) in 1663.  Two years later he finally put out a proper edition; this contained 317 maxims.  The volume was titled Sentences et maximes morales, but this is usually shortened to Maxims.

There is a philosophy here.  It centers around the idea that all men are self-seeking egoists to a fault; any “virtue” a man displays is only a smokescreen concealing his self-love:  “Our virtues are only vices in disguise.”  Human vanity takes precedence over nearly all else:  “Virtues are lost in self-interest, as rivers are in the sea.”  Even the nobler emotions like love and altruism, according to La Rochefoucauld, are only a “kind of traffic in which self-love ever proposes to be the gainer.”  He took a dim view of women, finding them fit only for love (for men such as himself, of course) and procreation.  One of his crueler maxims was “few women’s worth lasts longer than their beauty.”

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But life’s realities eventually caught up with him, softening his rougher edges.  His wife, who had cared for him in his infirmities for eighteen years, died in 1670; his mother’s death followed two years later.  Two of his sons would eventually die of injuries received in France’s ruinous wars of the period.

This gloomy picture was brightened by the entry into his life of the Mme. de La Fayette, who was twenty years his junior.  She invited him to stay with her in Paris, and he was carried there with difficulty.  She seems to have viewed him as a reform project; she would later say that “He gave me understanding, but I reformed his heart.”  Perhaps his fame made him an interesting captive.  The union worked, and seemed to alleviate his dark picture of humanity; and when his final hours came, he asked for, and received, the last rites of the Church in 1680.

A fair assessment of La Rochefoucauld must take into account his undeniable wit, his probing sensitivity, and his ability to strip away the pretenses behind many human actions.  Yet all in all, his maxims are meager in result.  Many of them are superficial and shallow, the product of a personality still nursing the wounds of an early disillusionment.  We weary of his aphorisms after two or three pages, and hesitate to reopen his book later.

Worse still, he was wrong to say that virtue and altruism are shams.  Nothing is more vital to life, and we can see them around us every day, if only we know where to look, and as long as our senses are not blinded by fear.  Timor animi auribus officit, as Sallust says:  fear blocks out the ears.

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Any bitter weakling can be a cynic, but it takes depth of character to accept the world’s—and man’s—faults and foibles, and to balance those against man’s unquestioned capacity for greatness of soul.  Broader life experiences might have corrected La Rochefoucauld’s errors, but he preferred to remain in a state of arrested development while receiving the applause and notoriety of Paris society.  His maxims can bring smiles to our faces, as it is easy to find amusement in the flaws of others; yet we forget that his barbs were directed at us as well.

Montaigne was far wiser, for he took a balanced view of life, accepting the world’s absurdities and joys with the equanimity and calm resolution of a Greek or Roman sage.  He was also a better man.  La Rochefoucauld was intelligent without being wise, and never found the confidence in himself to submit his ego to the consolatory power of a higher philosophical authority in any form.  Cynicism, in the end, strips a man of his most important protective armor, and leaves him naked to face the cruelties of life. No cynic ever died a happy man.

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43 thoughts on “What François De La Rochefoucauld Has To Teach Us About Cynicism”

  1. “La Rochefoucauld was intelligent without being wise, and never found the confidence in himself to submit his ego to the consolatory power of a higher philosophical authority in any form.”
    Philosophical authority? What’s that?
    “No cynic ever died a happy man.”
    That’s kind of a female rhetoric. ‘You will die lonely and sad’ blah blah.

    1. Agreed Tom. Any argument that starts with “real men would….” or “you will die unhappy if you…” seems automatically invalid

      1. “real men would” is just another way of using the No True Scotsman fallacy. That being said, it’s a great shaming tool when one of your buddies tries to order a Mimosa with no apparent girlfriend in sight to bring it to. Heh.

        1. You know for whatever reason I haven’t made that connection but it is totally correct.
          As for buddies ordering mimosas I don’t known any like that because I’m not a queer 🙂

  2. People tend to see others as they see themselves. With the best of intentions, you cannot get a whore to trust you. They assume everyone is out to screw them, just like they are out to screw everyone around them. I tend to trust people more than I should, and have been burned a few times, but that is far better than putting up a wall around yourself.

    1. Totally agree. My take is the same as my father and mother, who taught me to trust somebody until they give you reason not to. They meant this generally, not “trust that pedo looking guy you just met with your 4 year old daughter” of course.

  3. I recommend Schopenhauer for a more comprehensive philosophy that take the eternal cycle of boredom and action to account for much of our emotional state He also references the Will, the blind, unknowing force that is found in every atom.

  4. Excellent post. Despite his cynical views I find some of his maxims quite sharp:
    -“One cannot answer for his courage when he has never been in danger.”
    -“A refusal of praise is a desire to be praised twice.”
    -“Hypocrisy is a tribute that vice pays to virtue.”
    -“The truest way to be deceived is to think oneself more knowing than others.”
    -“Everyone complains of his memory, and no one complains of his judgment.”

    1. That is one thing that bugs me about all these superhero movies lately. Superman is no more courageous than I would be taking on my 4 year old in a wrestling match.
      I admire people who go beyond their comfort zone, who take the risk. Not just bat shit crazy stuff like jumping off a cliff into a lake, but sacrificial acts like in the military, or starting a business, or giving of themselves to raise kids.

      1. Well, courage ends up being kind of a buzzword, I think.
        What’s really courageous?
        A man who does something heroic with ease … might not be courageous.
        A man who succumbs to a challenge that was far beyond his abilities … is considered dumb or a weakling.
        But a man who goes just the right amount outside of his comfort zone without being overwhelmed, that man goes a long way. That we call courageous.
        But isn’t it really just ‘smart’? I mean, it is unlikely that any man out there truly achieved anything that was impossible for him to achieve. So in a way, every man achieves exactly what he is able to achieve.
        So in a way, ‘courage’ ends up being kind of a label for a certain form of behavior we observe which nevertheless is perfectly deterministic. It is just as it could have been and no other way.

        1. I find it interesting how certain acts like suicide, or running a plane into a building, blowing up yourself in a crowd of people is considered cowardly, just like running away from danger is.
          Courage is that fine line where you are putting yourself at risk, but still cling onto self preservation. Someone who gives of themselves, but still want to hang on to what they have.

        2. There’s another category of courageous. When you sacrifice your life to save others. The man who jumps on a grenade to save his platoon. The man who stays behind to fight the enemy so that the rest of his team mates can get to safety. The man who loses his life helping a total stranger who is helpless. The man who hangs on a cross to save the rest of the human race from hell. All conscious acts where the outcome is more or less assumed. But very courageous.

        3. Most people have no courage, yet try to judge others by it. That is why society’s view of what courage is could be described as shallow utilitarian views of others

        4. “So in a way, ‘courage’ ends up being kind of a label for a certain form
          of behavior we observe which nevertheless is perfectly deterministic. It
          is just as it could have been and no other way.”
          Interesting take.
          What about this: courage is doing what has to be done in spite of your own fear.

  5. Often people who are realists are mistaken for cynics. One easy example being branded a cynic discussing the true nature of women, hypergamy & AWALT.

    1. Also true. Sometimes people get called bitter or cynic purely as a projection. That is, the person who beliefs in the ideal imagines how they would feel if ‘the truth’ were true (bitter), so they project that onto the person who believes that ‘the truth’ is true. And call him bitter.
      Which is very ironic, to say the least. They basically are bitter themselves about the proposed idea, but project it and then judge it, as in: It is bad to feel bitter, that’s definitely not gonna be me, so it’s that person. Bad bitter person!

      1. Sometimes I feel that some people like to live in a illusion. I am one of those called “bitter” all the time.

        1. One is only bitter if they don’t like their own vision of reality. Personally I’m quite aware how low humans can and will be and I like it that way.

      2. Projecting can certainly be one.
        Also shaming tactic to throw you off and put you on a defensive which comes from women who start to panic when you lift the lid on their tactics of using men/orbiters to advance their cause i.e. discussing hypergamy.
        Mostly its the fact you poked a hole in their ideological balloon with a dose of realism. So, while discussing nature of women with a male friend he said: “hey but look, behind every successful man there is a woman”.
        I responded: “but a woman only gets behind a man who is on to something anyways.”
        He tells me how I’m sooooo bitter.

        1. Haha, yeah.
          2 days ago I was having a discussion with some Nigerian guys on Facebook. They all know each other in real life. Some girl snowed in and attacked me with some rhetorical bullshit. You know, the kind that makes her look so reasonable and sweet and caring but is really just passive-agressive bullshit.
          I called her a stupid cunt and look there, within 5 minutes the guy blocked me. Starts to make a lot of sense, this ‘orbiting’ thing. Almost seemed to me like that whole social circle was basically built around a few broads and lots of men who professed how they stood for women’s rights and shit. I argued for hours with the guys but as soon as I insulted the girl (the core of their group that they orbit around?), her word was law and I was blocked.
          Lol.

        2. “her word was law”
          Even the most stand up feminist who is convinced men and women are EQUALS in every capacity expects a crowd of men to jump you if you were to even return half the fire of something she started.
          “social circle was basically built around a few broads and lots of men”
          I don’t make female friends, I mean what good are you if you can’t even keep a secret? Factor in relationships are built on reciprocity (except parents) & with women she will always be considerably better off. Even among guys one friend has done more for other but if given the chance your friend will likely return the favor. I freaking hate these mixed group of friends too.

        3. Yeah. It was apparent from the way she talked, too. You know, the guys would engage in a debate. But she asked some interrogative bullshit questions. I denied playing into it. She then made some appeal to the crowd that went something like ‘Okay this fella is clearly not [insert honorable word]. We can move on and no longer talk to him’.
          She spoke with authority there. It was revolting.
          I have not accepted any friendship requests on Facebook from women (except two times when I explicitly told them I was only interested in sexting, which ended up being fun, heh). I only have men in my list now. And that’s good. Nobody reports my posts. Nobody keeps commenting with some shaming bullshit. Although, sometimes it happens, when female friends of my male ‘friends’ join in on the fun. And it’s always the same crap and I make it always very clear to them that I am not gonna listen to their crap.
          But when I post something ‘offensive’ in a public group, you can bet your ass that within 2 days, I get a Facebook notification that my post was removed due to a request by some anonymous person. Heh.

  6. I consider myself somewhat cynical but, I’m not bitter, I just realize, it is what it is. Use your trust sparingly because it will be wasted on most people.

  7. “In late seventeenth century France, the Paris salons were centers of
    debate, discussion, and the flowering of controversial ideas. ”
    Pre-Marxian Cultural Marxism
    “Marriages in those days were business affairs to be ignored at each party’s pleasure or necessity” For women too?

  8. You’ll have good pussy some days and bad pussy some days.
    Soon as you try and place a narrative on life the game switches on you.
    —————————————————————————
    Is that to say we should not have beliefs to follow and just say fuck it? No. If anything it should make your belief stronger by realizing that the world flips on itself EVERYDAY. Be a oak tree in the middle of a hurricane or get swept up with the rest of the zombies.
    Good days and bad days are everyday. Do you really want perfection 24/7? Well, stop seeking it Its ALREADY here in THIS MOMENT. You won’t “find” something that you already have.
    ————————————————————————–
    To quote Alan Watts:
    “What is it that you forgot?”
    https://fakephilosophy.com/

  9. As an aspiring realist, I have more respect for cynical people than for optimists since cynical people are much closer to the truth. Life is mostly shit when you get down to it. Most people will screw you over if given the chance. There are diseases and illnesses to contend with. What you can achieve through hard work alone is limited. Evil people always seem to prosper and get away with everything.
    However, there is still some good in the world. There are the close bonds with good family members and friends. There are the simple pleasures of food, drink and sex. Justice sometimes ends up winning. It is possible to improve yourself with hard work as long as you have realistic expectations.

  10. Cynicism shares a basic assumption with socialism and communism…that man is inherently bad. Socialism and communism are among the most ruinous ideas ever created.

  11. “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”
    ~Dread Pirate Roberts (Wesley)

  12. François de La Rochefoucauld has always seemed a peculiarly admirable character. When La Rochefoucauld suffered adversity in life, he did the honest and honorable thing: he became cynical.
    If events go wrong for you, it is right and reasonable to become gloomy. To remain hopeful after a misfortune is to live a lie. It takes a certain bravery to accept things as they are – and become bitter.
    The author is correct: “no cynic ever died a happy man” – but no optimist ever died a wise man.

  13. Thanks for the reminder…read it two years ago, and I will read it again.
    I will share a Maxim that made me think and I started being more…quiet.
    V: 110 We give nothing so generously as our advice.
    Couple of bumper-stickers
    V:474 There are few women whose merit outlasts their beauty
    La Rochefoucauld
    Oaths of women, I inscribe on water
    Sophocles

  14. In my youth, I was an idealist. Later, I became a skeptic. This blossomed into cynicism, which morphed last November into total misanthropy. A logical progression for a 69 year old observer.

  15. A couple of weeks ago, I was drawn into a conversation in which everybody insisted he or she was an optimist. I confessed that I was a pessimist and quite content with it.
    Pressed for an explanation, I explained that an optimist is always expecting the best results. Occasionally things work out very well, but it was only what they were expecting anyway. Usually, things did not turn out so well, so they were regularly disappointed. As a pessimist, I expect things not to go well, and so am not disappointed when my low expectations are met. However, when things do go better than I expected, I am ecstatically happy.
    I think pessimists get far the better of the deal – and certainly are pleased more often.

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