For a long time now, philosophers have liked to remind us that our apparently selfless and altruistic behaviour is not quite as pure as we might think. When we go on an Alpine walk and remark how sweet the cows look, we aren’t displaying a touching enthusiasm for animals, in Friedrich Nietzsche’s analysis, we are expressing our triumph over the defeat of another animal species. When we worry that a friend who is late might have been killed in a car crash, we aren’t really concerned for their road safety, for Sigmund Freud we are avenging ourselves for being delayed by entertaining murderous fantasies.
Though we might believe that this kind of cynicism about human nature is modern, it really has its origins in a slim 17th century volume that Voltaire said was the book that had most powerfully shaped the character of the French people, giving them a taste for psychological reflection and precision: La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims. Behind almost every one of these maxims, there lies a challenge to an ordinary, flattering view of ourselves. La Rochefoucauld repeatedly reveals the debt that nice behaviour owes to its evil shadow. He shows that we are never far from being vain, arrogant, selfish and petty—and in fact, never nearer than when we trust in our own goodness.
For example, we might believe that we’re kind to be concerned about the worries of our friends. Nothing of the sort, mocks La Rochefoucauld, writing a century before the Germans had even thought up the notion of Schadenfreude: ‘Nous avons tous assez de force pour supporter les maux d’autrui.’ The real challenge, he might have added, is to find enough strength to endure others when they have the temerity to succeed.
La Rochefoucauld was writing in order to hold up a mirror to his own age, but unwittingly, he speaks for others down the centuries, and perhaps never more clearly than to our own time, because what La Rochefoucauld hates above all is sentimentality, and there are perhaps few more sentimental periods than our own. That’s why the maxim of his that is most quoted concerns romantic love. It seems almost designed to shock us away from our taste in emotional melodrama, Hollywood films, and saccharine pop music: Il y a des gens qui n’auraient jamais ete amoureux s’ils n’avaient jamais entendu parler de l’amour.
La Rochefoucauld is modern in another way: he recognises the importance of writing his truths in a way that will help them to stick in the mind, in beautifully balanced phrases. If most philosophers feel no need to write like this, it is because they trust that, so long as an argument is logical, the style in which it is presented to the reader will not determine its effectiveness. La Rochefoucauld believed in a different picture of the mind. Arguments are like eels: however logical, they may slip from the mind's weak grasp unless fixed there by beautiful sentences. La Rochefould is therefore an inspiration to anyone who feels divided between the role of a philosopher and a writer: he suggests that you can have the best of both worlds, and indeed went on to inspire some of the greatest of philosophers. It isn’t accidental that he turns out to have been dearly loved by, among others, Kierkegaard, Leopardi, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Cioran.The fact that his maxims continue to surprise us and shock us means that we do not accept—on a daily basis—the wisdom they contain. We keep thinking that we are better than we are. It’s La Rochefoucauld’s achievement to remind us of our difficult reality in a way that leaves us curiously satisfied. To read him is like sucking the juice from the bitterest lime, and enjoying it.