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The Characters of Jean de La Bruyère Jean de La Bruyère

The Characters of Jean de La Bruyère

Jean de La Bruyère

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442 pages
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 About the Book 

T is a common practice for translators to state to the public that the author they are going to introduce, and whom they sometimes traduce, is one of the greatest men of the age, and that already for a long time a general desire has been felt to makeMoreT is a common practice for translators to state to the public that the author they are going to introduce, and whom they sometimes traduce, is one of the greatest men of the age, and that already for a long time a general desire has been felt to make the acquaintance of such a master-mind. It would be an insult to French scholars to speak thus of La Bruyère, for the merits of his “Characters” are known- but, for the benefit of those who are not so well acquainted with our author, I may state that he is neither so terse, epigrammatic, sublime, nor profound as either Pascal or La Rochefoucauld are, but that he is infinitely more readable, as he is always trying to please his readers, and now and then sacrifices even a certain depth of thought to attain his object.La Bruyère takes good care to tell us that he has not imitated any one- Pascal “makes metaphysics subservient to religion, explains the nature of the soul, its passions and vices- treats of the great and serious motives which lead to virtue, and endeavours to make a man a Christian-” La Rochefoucauldʼs “mind, instructed by his knowledge of society, and with a delicacy equal to his penetration, observed that self-love in man was the cause of all his errors, and attacked it without intermission, wherever it was found- and this one thought, multiplied as it were in a thousand different ways by a choice of words and a variety of expression, has always the charm of novelty.”1 Our author, on the contrary, openly declares: “I did not wish to write any maxims, for they are like moral laws, and I acknowledge that I possess neither sufficient authority nor genius for a legislator.”2What is the plan and idea of the book of “Characters?” Let La Bruyère himself answer this: “Of the sixteen chapters which compose it, there are fifteen wholly employed in detecting the fallacy and ridicule to be found in the objects of human passions and inclinations, and in demolishing such obstacles as at first weaken, and afterwards extinguish, any knowledge of God in mankind- therefore, these chapters are merely preparatory to the sixteenth and last, wherein atheism is attacked, and perhaps routed, wherein the proofs of a God, such at least as weak man is capable of receiving, are produced- wherein the providence of God is defended against the insults and complaints of freethinkers.”3La Bruyère is not a speculative moralist, but an observer of the manners of men, or, as he likes to call himself a philosopher, and above all a Christian philosopher, such as a friend of Bossuet ought to be. He was the first to make morality attractive, and to paint characters in a literary and delicate manner- he does not dogmatise, and above all shows neither personal hatred nor venom- in other words, to use his own expressions, he “gives back to the public what it lent”4 him.Underneath the literary man people often look for the man, with all his passion, his likes and dislikes- hence the many “Keys” of the “Characters,” published during the authorʼs lifetime and after his death, in which all kinds of allusions were attempted, and all sorts of hypothetical explanations ventured on.Of the concocters of the “Keys” La Bruyère speaks as follows:“They make it their business, if possible, to discover to which of their friends or enemies these portraits can apply- they neglect everything that seems like a sound remark or a serious reflection, though almost the whole book consists of them- they dwell upon nothing but the portraits or characters, and after having explained them in their own way, and after they imagine they have found out the originals, they publish to the world long lists, or, as they call them, ‘Keys,&rsq