There’s a belief that philosophy, when properly done,
should sound dense, forbidding, a little confusing,
as if it might have been awkwardly translated from the German.
But at the dawn of the Modern age,
lived a French philosopher
who trusted in a very different way of presenting his thoughts,
a man who wrote a very slim book, barely sixty pages long,
that can deservedly be counted
as one of the true masterpieces of philosophy.
The book is a compendium of acerbic,
melancholy observations about the human condition,
each of them only a sentence or two long
which nevertheless present an exceptional number of
timely, wise, and oddly consoling lessons
for our morally confused and wildly distracted age.
The Duke de La Rochefoucauld was born in Paris in 1613.
And despite his many initial advantages: wealth, connections, good looks,
尽管他有许多先天优势：财富 人脉 俊朗的外表
and a very beautiful and ancient name,
he had a thoroughly difficult and often miserable life.
He fell in love with a couple of duchesses who didn’t treat him well.
He ended up in prison after some bungled
but honourable political maneuvering.
He was forced into exile from his beloved Paris on four occasions.
He never advanced as far as he wanted at court.
He got shot in the eye during a rebellion and almost went blind.
在一次叛乱中 他的眼睛中了枪 差点失明
He lost most of his money,
and some enemies published what they falsely purported to be his memoirs
full of insults against people whom he liked and depended upon
who then turned against him and refused to believe in his innocence.
After all this betrayal, imprisonment,
impoverishment, injury, plagiarism, and libel,
贫困 伤害 剽窃和诽谤之后
La Rochefoucauld can readily be forgiven
when he declared that he’d had enough of the act of life
and would henceforth retreat
to quieter, contemplative pursuits instead.
So he hung up his sword
and spent his time in the living rooms
of two leading intellectual figures of his day:
the Marquise de Sable and the Comtesse de Lafayette
who regularly invited writers and artists
to sit with them in their Parisian salons
in order to discuss the great themes of existence
often over lemonade and light snacks.
The salons rewarded wit and spark.
They weren’t lecture halls or seminar rooms.
There was no tolerance for lead nurse or pomposity here.
So winning over listeners required particular skills
that came to shape La Rochefoucauld’s mind and work.
It was in the salons that La Rochefoucauld developed
the literary genre for which he has become known:
that of the maxim or aphorism, a pithy statement
that deftly captures a dark insight into the human soul,
reminding us of a wise and often uncomfortable truth.
In good hands,
an aphorism should deliver its punch in less than three seconds.
One might be competing with the arrival of an asparagus tart.
In the salons,
La Rochefoucauld perfected and honed the 504 aphorisms,
which made his name.
He watched how his fellow guests reacted
and tweaked his work accordingly.
His aphorisms covered all manner of psychological topics;
though issues of envy, vanity, love, and ambition
但嫉妒 虚荣 爱情和野心
were recurring themes.
A typical La Rochefoucauld aphorism
begins by addressing the reader with a we or one,
inviting consent with gentle coercion.
The aphorism then subverts an accepted piety about human nature
in a cynical or skeptical direction.
It’s in the last third of the sentence that the sting is generally delivered,
and it often makes us laugh as can happen when we’re
forced to acknowledge the falsity of a previously
sentimental or hypocritical position.
Perhaps the most classic and perfect of all La Rochefoucauld’s aphorism is,
“We all have strength enough to bear the misfortunes of others.”
It’s closely followed by the equally effective,
“There are some people who would never have fallen in love,
if they hadn’t heard there was such a thing.”
And the no less accomplished,
“He that refuses praise the first time it’s offered
does it because he would like to hear it a second.”
Voltaire said that La Rochefoucauld’s maxims
was the book that had most powerfully shaped the character of the French people;
giving them their taste for psychological reflection, precision, and cynicism.
Behind almost every one of the maxims lies a challenge
to an ordinary, flattering view of ourselves.
La Rochefoucauld relishes revelations of the debt
that kindness owes to egoism
and insists that we’re never far from being
vain, arrogant, selfish, and petty,
and in fact never nearer than when we trust
in our own goodness.
Having suffered unduly in its name,
La Rochefoucauld was particularly suspicious of romantic love.
“The reasons lovers never tire of one another’s company
is because they never talk of anything but themselves.”
“If one were to judge of love according the greatest part of the effects it produces,
it might very justly pass for hatred rather than kindness.”
“To say that one never flirts
is in itself a form of flirtation.”
La Rochefoucauld wrote as he did
because he wanted his ideas to persuade people
whom he knew had little time
and wouldn’t necessarily be on his side.
If most philosophers since have, with the odd exception,
felt no need to write with his elegance, wit, and concision,
it’s because they’ve trusted, wrongly,
that so long as one’s ideas are important,
the style in which one delivers them is of no issue.
La Rochefoucauld knew otherwise.
Most of us are so distracted if someone wants to get a point across to us,
they must use all the devices of art and writing
to seize our attention,
and burn them into our memories.
The history of Philosophy would have been so different if its practitioners
had all imagined themselves to be writing
for an impatient, non-professional audience
with meandering minds in the midst of a chatty Parisian salon.
But history offers us a new chance.
The 140 characters of our own digital salons
now offer us a second chance
to try to put La Rochefoucauld genius into action.