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The scion of a great house, the beneficiary of a princely education, the young nobleman got himself mixed up in all sort of plots and intrigues, eventually getting himself locked in the Bastille and later banished to his estate. As a result of this rather undistinguished career in the world, he developed into a man-of-letters, achieving far more success on the We do not like to praise, and we never praise without a motive.
As a result of this rather undistinguished career in the world, he developed into a man-of-letters, achieving far more success on the page than in the palace. La Rochefoucauld made a permanent contribution to literature with his Maximes: a collection of cutting aphorisms on the vanity of human nature. His perspective is cynical: seeing bad motives behind even the best actions.
Here he is his describing me: One of the reasons that we find so few persons rational and agreeable in conversation is there is hardly a person who does not think more of what he wants to say than of his answer to what is said. The most clever and polite content themselves with only seeming attentive while we perceive in their mind and eyes that at the very time they are wandering from what is said and desire to return to what they want to say.
I often found myself laughing at these aphorisms. So many of them ring true to my experience. And they represent a perspective too rarely expressed in daily life. Selfless action is a deeply appealing concept; and many people wish fervently to believe in it. Yet it is an incontestable fact that most of what we do, even apparently altruistic actions, benefits ourselves in one way or another.
Politicians fight to pass legislation to benefit their constituents, who then return the politician to power; businessmen give their employees a raise, who thus work harder and take less vacation; a friend picks me up from the airport, but he expects me to do something for him in the future; a man returns a wallet he found on the street, is given a reward, and then is lauded on social media.
Some may find this way of thinking gloomy and unproductive. But I do think it is important to keep in mind our tendency to act out of self-interest; for, in my experience, it is those who are most attached to the idea of selfless action who most often treat other people badly. It is a dangerous thing to think that virtue is on your side.
And, personally, I find it a great relief to see myself as an ordinary animal rather than a moral machine. First, not even La Rochefoucauld thought that all actions were driven by vice. He thinks true virtue is rare, but that it does exist. This insight alone could prevent a lot of needless guilt.
More importantly, once we accept this premise, we can more easily shape our lives and societies. For we have discovered the secret of living together: finding arrangement in which self-interest overlaps.
Réflexions diverses, La Rochefoucauld Introduction : Réflexions ou
Maximes et Réflexions diverses
Maximes et réflexions diverses