The Triumph of Art over Nature in the Maximes

  • Robert McBride


In a letter of 1664 to Père Thomas Esprit La Rochefoucauld discusses the reactions of the first readers of his Maximes and avers that his objective is to show that without religious faith, the apparent virtues of man in general and the philosophers of antiquity in particular are false.1 The latter part of this objective is confirmed by the frontispiece of the first edition of the Maximes on which a winged child who symbolizes ‘L’Amour de la Vérité’ strips the smooth mask of benign reason and smiling virtue from the bust of Seneca to display the scowling human features. In this way the Maximes explicitly align themselves against writers such as Père Sirmond and La Mothe Le Vayer who, in order to refute the doctrine of Jansenius as embodied in the Augustinus (1640) had written respectively Défense de La Vertu (1641) and De la Vertu des Payens (1642). Both argued in favour of the merits of good works performed without the aid of supernatural grace which the Jansenists considered fundamental to salvation. La Rochefoucauld’s attack on antique philosophy places him on the same side of the theological divide as the Jansenists. But in spite of the letter quoted above and the passage in La Rochefoucauld’s Avis au Lecteur (1666) stating that he had viewed man in his natural state of sin, the Maximes point up the contradictions lurking under the mask of reason and virtue without reference to the need of divine grace. They do not seek to affect what Pascal called ‘ce vilain fond de l’homme, ce figmentum malum’, which to the Jansenists rendered good works morally null and void.2


Human Nature Antique Philosophy Divine Grace Violent Passion Benign Reason 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 4.
    Sainte-Beuve, Portraits de Femmes (Paris, 1854), p. 296.Google Scholar
  2. 6.
    P. E. Lewis in La Rochefoucauld: the Art of Abstraction (Ithaca and London, 1977) revives the view of the predominance of self-love in the Maximes whilst conceding that their author was not intent on constructing a system.Google Scholar
  3. 18.
    Erasmus, Eloge de la Folie, tr. P. de Nolhac (Paris, 1953), p. 56.Google Scholar
  4. 22.
    For a discussion of folie in this play and in the work of Molière’s friend, La Mothe Le Vayer, see R. McBride, The Sceptical Vision of Molière (London, 1977), pp. 143–50.Google Scholar
  5. 28.
    P. Bénichou, Morales du grand siècle (Paris, 1948), pp. 97–111.Google Scholar
  6. 40.
    Faret, L’honneste homme, ou l’art de plaire à la cour (Paris, 1630), p. 35;Google Scholar
  7. 40.
    Méré, Oeuvres complètes (Paris, 1930), II, pp. 36–7.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Robert McBride 1979

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert McBride
    • 1
  1. 1.The Queen’s University of BelfastUK

Personalised recommendations