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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.

28 comments on this post:

UKViewer said...

I’m having a Tommy Cooper day, who is my master of the one liners.

My wife had a go at me last night. She said ‘You’ll drive me to my grave’. I had the car out in thirty seconds. 🙂

Lay Anglicana said...

I refer any readers of this blog post to UKViewer’s relentless stream of Tommy Cooper’s one-liners on twitter. As his recipients beg for mercy, I have to admit they are pretty funny…

24 September 2011 20:03
24 September 2011 17:57
Grandmère Mimi said...

Oh, this is wonderful! Thanks for serving as my middlewoman to the maxims of le Duc.

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you, Grandmère Mimi. I am glad you share my fondness for le Duc – his world view seems so modern to me. More rueful than truly cynical?

24 September 2011 20:05
24 September 2011 18:31
UKViewer said...

Well, we are allowed to be silly from time to time. I actually love some of the maxim’s here as well. But they are quite serious and require thinking about and reflecting on.

I might be back with a sensible post later.

25 September 2011 12:20
Lay Anglicana said...

UKViewer I love and have benefited from your serious posts. And I also love your silly ones – I was assuming I was allowed to put Tommy Cooper in the silly category, but if he is a real hero, I will withdraw the description (it was meant as a compliment!)

The maxim of La Rochefoucauld that I find most telling is Maxim 19, ‘we are all strong enough to bear the suffering of others’. I think I am praying the intercessions about the suffering of others with true sincerity. However, I must admit the thought of the suffering of others does not prevent me returning home to a jolly good Sunday lunch. Maybe it should? That is *all* he is saying – but it is quite a message to take in.

UKViewer said...

I have no problem with Tommy Cooper’isms being described as Silly, I was in a Silly Mood when I published them on twitter.

He was a hero for his ability to make one liners, without smut or filth, which unfortunately, most of today’s comedians seem to think is the only way to get a laugh.

The likes of Morcombe and Wise, Ken Dodd, Kenneth Horne etc, had a much broader appeal to whole families, not a narrow appeal to the lowest common denominator.

26 September 2011 06:25
25 September 2011 12:29
UKViewer said...

Having spent some time reading this and some of his Maxims, I’m struck as you describe them,
to similarities to the writings in scripture

Not direct parallels, but the similarity.

“We should not be upset that others hide the truth from us, when we hide it so often from ourselves. Maxim 11”. Is 28:15 for instance.

There is some morality here,pointing out how we try to fool ourselves that we aren’t among the fallen:

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

I wonder if anyone has ever carried out the exercise of matching what he wrote against scripture to match them at least loosely.

My problem with using these maxim’s as quotes is a memory like a sieve and an ability to misquote something. 🙁 So, perhaps I need to get the book and keep it to hand!

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you, UKViewer.
I was going to surprise you with a copy of the Maxims, but I think you must be ex-Directory as I cannot find you in UKphonebook?
I think this is a brilliant idea for a book – the parallels with the bible – and you know your bible better than I do, I’m sure, so if you could email me your address I will get amazon on to it (as a very small token of gratitude for all the help you have given me here).

UKViewer said...


I’ve got the book. Thanks very much.

Lay Anglicana said...

Great! I’d love to talk to you about the book idea when you’ve had a chance to look at it at leisure (you know, all that leisure people said you would have when you retired!)

27 September 2011 15:25
27 September 2011 15:07
26 September 2011 07:03
26 September 2011 06:22
UKViewer said...

Hi Laura,

I’ve sent a pm.


26 September 2011 07:40

Thanks for sharing this!! Really inspirational

09 April 2012 08:51
Elza van Swieten said...

ha! Just learned what staircase wit means, why didn’t I think of that before? Great quotes, this Duc must have been quit introspective.

09 April 2012 08:55
Nicolas Liu said...

Thanks for the translation.

09 April 2012 08:58
Leona said...

True words! Nice post, thy 4 sharing!

09 April 2012 09:22
Helen said...

You are a fantastic writer, I felt that all the quotes at the end was too much and will like to have seen more of the writing with maybe one quot at the end.

Lay Anglicana said...

That’s encouraging – I suppose the ratio of La Rochefoucauld quotes to mine was roughly what I thought our respective talent was, but it is kind of you to like my writing ! 🙂

09 April 2012 10:19
09 April 2012 10:09
Andrew Riggio said...

That’s awesome. I am a big fan of quotes but this is a new source for me.

09 April 2012 11:42
Gremlin said...

Anyone castigated by any church tends to be more interesting merely by reputation; this is no exception.

09 April 2012 11:44
Lindy said...

Well, I had never thought of LaRouchefoucauld as a Christian moralist! Now can you help me get this little black dress zipped?!

Lay Anglicana said...

My favourite comments – both sentences – Attagirl! 🙂

Lindy said...

Anglican Dorothy Parker fans sticking together!

09 April 2012 18:21
09 April 2012 15:13
09 April 2012 12:14
Wayne Hurlbert said...

Duc de la Rochefoucauld always had a marvelous and insightful phrase for every occasion. Thanks for the reminder of his wonderful wit.

09 April 2012 14:02
Leo said...

Thanks for sharing, learned something new and interesting.

09 April 2012 15:02

[…] If you like the sayings of François de la Rochefoucauld, it might amuse you to read the post I wrote about him on my other blog, Duc de la Rochefoucauld, Master of the One-Liner […]

16 March 2013 07:46

philosophy is what some people have instead of a life or vice-versa

Lay Anglicana said...

Interesting idea, but of course I disagree as you would expect! I suggest that everyone has a philosophy, even if that philosophy is simply to do the first thing that comes into your head minute after minute, day after day, without reflecting on the purpose of your activity.

19 March 2013 07:22
19 March 2013 00:27

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