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Posts Tagged "Duc de la Rochefoucauld":

Temptation: Thought for the First Sunday in Lent

 The collect for today is:

Almighty God,
whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness,
and was tempted as we are, yet without sin:
give us grace to discipline ourselves in obedience to your Spirit;
and, as you know our weakness,
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Temptation, like the teenage term of approval ‘wicked’, gets rather a good press these days – if you put the word in your internet search engine, you will get page after page offering you the delights of assorted temptations. The process of overcoming your misgivings to yield to the seven deadly sins of anger, avarice, envy, gluttony, lust, sloth, and pride is presented as at least as enjoyable as the ‘sinful’ (term of approval again) pleasure itself. Advertisers capitalise on this trend to market everything from fast cars to chocolate.

All of the deadly sins (with the notable exception of envy) give at least momentary pleasure when merely sipped, as it were, and in homeopathic quantities could scarcely be described as sinful (no doubt the Archbishop of Canterbury himself is occasionally tempted by a teeny- weeny glass of sherry or a spoonful of chocolate mousse and he is obviously neither a drunk nor a glutton). And without a modicum of lust, the human race would be extinct.


The risk is the one taken by the young lady in the limerick:

There was a young lady of Riga
Who went for a ride on a tiger.
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside,
And a smile on the face of the tiger.

Mick Jagger summed it up:
It’s all right letting yourself go, as long as you can get yourself back.
In other words, who is in control: the temptee or the tempter?

In the words of Thomas JeffersonDo not bite at the bait of pleasure till you know there is no hook beneath it.

Or, as we read in the first letter of St Peter: Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.

Not that the Devil has it all his own way, as Hilaire Belloc tells us. Sometimes he too is in the position of the lady from Riga:

The Devil, having nothing else to do,
Went off to tempt My Lady Poltagrue.
My Lady, tempted by a private whim,
To his extreme annoyance, tempted him’

The Bible repeatedly warns us of the dangers:

Let no one say when he is tempted ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death. James 1:13-15

The problem is the relative strength of the temptation concerned versus our consciences. As La Rochefoucauld said:

If we resist our passions, it is more because of their weakness than because of our strength.

Edmund Cooke warns us:

So you tell yourself you are pretty fine clay,
To have tricked temptation and turned it away.
But wait, my friend, for a different day;
Wait till you want to want to!

If we repeatedly overrule our conscience when it pricks, it will eventually wither away, like a muscle that is never used. Books of quotations are full of one-liners on this subject. Some recommend giving in at the first hurdle:

I can resist anything except temptation Oscar Wilde;


I deal with temptation by yielding to it.  Mark Twain

Or you can regard all attempts as doomed in advance:

Temptation is an irresistible force at work on a moveable body : H L Mencken.

Just saying ‘no’ may be difficult, but it is not impossible:

I count he who overcomes his desires braver than he who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is the victory over self : Aristotle.

Or this, by C S Lewis:

A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is….A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in.

Mere Christianity Book 3 Chapter 21

The corollary is that each successful attempt at overcoming temptation strengthens the sinews:

Every conquering temptation represents a new fund of moral energy. Every trial endured and weathered in the right spirit makes a soul nobler and stronger than it was before.
William Butler Yeats

John Bunyan makes a similar point:

Temptations, when we meet them at first, are as the lion that roared upon Samson; but if we overcome them, the next time we see them we shall find a nest of honey within them.

Of course, what makes resisting temptation difficult for many people is they don’t want to discourage it completely. As St Augustine of Hippo famously said:

Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.

Franklin P Jones suggests: 

Nothing makes it easier to resist temptation than a proper up-bringing, a sound set of values – and witnesses


But, joking apart, being in the grip of temptation, unable to resist, is no laughing matter, as Danzae Pace knew:

Being out of control is one of the worst feelings in the world, sometimes even worse than pain. It is its own kind of pain.

Clarissa Dickson Wright describes the searing pain of the alcoholic, trying to climb back to the light after having descended into the pit:

After my father’s retirement from hospital, there was a huge upsurge of violence. From then onwards my mother and I… were bashed about on a weekly basis, sometimes just bruises, sometimes broken or cracked ribs, and always verbal abuse…when my father had gone it was as if a gale had stopped blowing or a great black cloud had passed away…sometimes people for various reasons, particularly grief, will drink heavily for a while, but then come to their senses and stop. This is not the way for us alcoholics: once the illness has kicked in there is no way we can go back to controlling our drinking. …there is a saying that religion is for those who don’t want to go to hell, spirituality is for those who have been there. The (AA) steps are all designed to focus on a power greater than yourself, whether it is God or the power of the group…just so long as it isn’t you.
‘Spilling the Beans’

But the most tempting temptation of all must be the one that appears to Christ: to do something that is in the interests of those he came to save:

After forty days in the desert, Christ is first tempted with bread. To use his divine power to satisfy extreme hunger seems reasonable enough. What use will he be in God’s service if he is physically weak? The second temptation sees the tempter…turning the words of scripture back upon him. ‘It is written…’ so surely it must carry divine approval if he demonstrates his confidence in God’s protection? The third temptation is also carefully angled. Surely it is in the interests of those he came to save that he should control the world as soon as possible? Each temptation seeks to justify the means by the end. Jesus’ rejection of these temptations commits him to a life of hardship and self-denial, to patient trust in his heavenly Father’s care and to achieving God’s mission by God’s means. 
‘The Ministry of the Word’, by the Rt Revd David Stancliffe

O Lord, we have no strength against those multitudes of temptations that daily assault us: be thou pleased either to restrain them or to assist us, and in thy faithfulness suffer us not to be tempted above that we are able to overcome. Amen.
Prayer of Richard Allestree

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The illustration is a photograph taken by masyras and downloaded from wikimedia under CCL of ‘Temptation of Christ and Satan in the desert’ at Chora Church in Istanbul.

The Duc de la Rochefoucauld: Master of the One-Liner

When I was 13, I longed to be 30. I pictured myself, the height of witty sophistication, as a guest at Holly Golightly’s New York cocktail parties. Dressed in my little black dress, elegant chignon, stiletto heels, and rivers of pearls, I would exchange witticisms with Dorothy Parker and the other habitués of the Algonquin Round Table (or their latter-day equivalent). My father – who was later to recommend Marcus Aurelius – pointed out that it might be useful, if I really wanted to be part of this set, to have a few witticisms ready which I could drop into the conversation – nothing is more annoying than staircase wit. The educators among you will have spotted the ingenuity of this paternal introduction to the Maximes of the Duc de la Rochefoucauld. I devoured my father’s copy cover to cover, practising my delivery for the day it would be needed. Dorothy Parker knew all about La Rochefoucauld as her insomniac character in ‘The Little Hours’ ponders on his statement that if nobody had learned to read, very few people would be in love:

This is no time to be getting all steamed up about La Rochefoucauld. It’s only a question of minutes before I’m going to be pretty darned good and sick of La Rochefoucauld, once and for all. La Rochefoucauld this and La Rochefoucauld that. Yes, well, let me tell you that if nobody had ever learned to quote, very few people would be in love with La Rochefoucauld. I bet you I don’t know ten souls who read him without a middleman.

In the unlikely event that you, too,  do not already know all about François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, Prince de Marcillac (15 September 1613 – 17 March 1680), may I serve as your middleman? He has had a rather bad press from a Christian point of view.  Lord Chesterfield, for example, said:

Till you come to know mankind by your experience, I know no thing nor no man that can in the meantime bring you so well acquainted with them as Le Duc de la Rochefoucauld. His little book of maxims, which I would advise you to look into for some moments at least every day of your life, is, I fear, too like and too exact a picture of human nature. I own it seems to degrade it, but yet my experience does not convince me that it degrades it unjustly.

Joseph Addison and Jonathan Swift wrote in similar vein. But I think this is to miss the point. While some of the duke’s sayings are about getting on in worldly society, many others are direct comments on mankind’s failure to behave in a truly moral way. His wit is indeed barbed like a rapier, and niggles away at our consciences. To me La Rochefoucauld has every bit as much claim to be described as a Christian moralist as anyone. If you are guilty of any of the failings he describes, a word to the wise is perhaps sufficient?


 Il ne faut pas s’offenser que les autres nous cachent la vérité, puisque nous nous la cachons si souvent à nous-mêmes.

We should not be upset that others hide the truth from us, when we hide it so often from ourselves. Maxim 11.


Nous avons tous assez de force pour supporter les maux d’autrui.

We all have strength enough to endure the misfortunes of others. Maxim 19.


La philosophie triomphe aisément des maux passés et des maux à venir. Mais les maux présents triomphent d’elle.

Philosophy triumphs easily over past and future evils; but present evils triumph over it. Maxim 22.


Il faut de plus grandes vertus pour soutenir la bonne fortune que la mauvaise.

We need greater virtues to sustain good than evil fortune. Maxim 25.


Le soleil ni la mort ne se peuvent regarder fixement.

Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily. Maxim 26.


Si nous n’avions point de défauts, nous ne prendrions pas tant de plaisir à en remarquer dans les autres.

If we had no faults, we should not take so much pleasure in noting those of others. Maxim 31.


On n’est jamais si heureux ni si malheureux qu’on s’imagine.

One is never so happy or so unhappy as one fancies. Maxim 49.


Il est plus honteux de se défier de ses amis que d’en être trompé.

It is more shameful to distrust our friends than to be deceived by them. Maxim 84.


Tout le monde se plaint de sa mémoire, et personne ne se plaint de son jugement.

Everyone complains about his memory, and no one complains about his judgment. Maxim 89.


Les vieillards aiment à donner de bons préceptes, pour se consoler de n’être plus en état de donner de mauvais exemples.

Old men delight in giving good advice as a consolation for the fact that they can no longer provide bad examples. Maxim 93.


Dans l’adversité de nos meilleurs amis, nous trouvons toujours quelque chose qui ne nous déplaît pas.

In the adversity of our best friends we often find something that is not exactly displeasing. Maxim 99.


On ne donne rien si libéralement que ses conseils.

Nothing is given so profusely as advice. Maxim 110.


Il est plus aisé d’être sage pour les autres que de l’être pour soi-même.

It is easier to be wise for others than for oneself. Maxim 132.


On aime mieux dire du mal de soi-même que de n’en point parler.

We would rather speak ill of ourselves than not talk about ourselves at all. Maxim 138.


Le refus des louanges est un désir d’être loué deux fois.

The refusal of praise is only the wish to be praised twice. Maxim 149.


Il vaut mieux employer notre esprit à supporter les infortunes qui nous arrivent qu’à prévoir celles qui nous peuvent arriver.

It is better to set one’s mind to bearing the misfortunes that are happening than to think of those that may happen. Maxim 174.


Ce qui nous empêche souvent de nous abandonner à un seul vice est que nous en avons plusieurs.

What often prevents us from abandoning ourselves to one vice is that we have several. Maxim 195.


Le désir de paraître habile empêche souvent de le devenir.

The desire to appear clever often prevents one from being so. Maxim 199.


Qui vit sans folie n’est pas si sage qu’il croit.

Who lives without folly is not as wise as he thinks. Maxim 209.


C’est une grande habileté que de savoir cacher son habileté.

There is great skill in knowing how to conceal one’s skill. Maxim 245.


Le plaisir de l’amour est d’aimer; et l’on est plus heureux par la passion que l’on a que par celle que l’on donne.

The pleasure of love is in loving; we are happier in the passion we feel than in what we inspire. Maxim 259.


Nous pardonnons souvent à ceux qui nous ennuient, mais nous ne pouvons pardonner à ceux que nous ennuyons.

We often forgive those who bore us, but we cannot forgive those whom we bore. Maxim 304.


Il y a dans la jalousie plus d’amour-propre que d’amour.

In jealousy there is more of self-love than love. Maxim 324.


Nous n’avouons de petits défauts que pour persuader que nous n’en avons pas de grands.

We confess to little faults only to persuade ourselves we have no great ones. Maxim 327.


Nous ne trouvons guère de gens de bon sens, que ceux qui sont de notre avis.

We hardly find any persons of good sense save those who agree with us. Maxim 347.


Peu de gens savent être vieux.

Few know how to be old. Maxim 423.


Il est plus aisé de connaître l’homme en général que de connaître un homme en particulier.

It is easier to know man in general than to know one man. Maxim 436.


 Les querelles ne dureraient pas longtemps, si le tort n’était que d’un côté.

Quarrels would not last long if the fault were only on one side. Maxim 496.


Comment prétendons-nous qu’un autre puisse garder notre secret, si nous ne pouvons le garder nous-mêmes?

How can we expect others to keep our secrets if we cannot keep them ourselves? Maxim 64 of the Maximes supprimées.


C’est une ennuyeuse maladie que de conserver sa santé par un trop grand régime.

Preserving your health by too strict a diet is a tedious illness. Maxim 72 of the Maximes supprimées.


Ce qui fait que si peu de personnes sont agréables dans la conversation, c’est que chacun songe plus à ce qu’il veut dire qu’à ce que les autres disent.

The reason that there are so few good conversationalists is that most people are thinking about what they are going to say and not about what the others are saying.

Réflexions diverses, IV: De la conversation.


Il faut écouter ceux qui parlent, si on veut en être écouté.

One must listen if one wishes to be listened to. Réflexions diverses, IV: De la conversation.






The clip of Audrey Hepburn looking into the window of Tiffany’s is provided by Wikimedia under a creative commons licence, as is the engraving of La Rochefoucauld.

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