Jean de La Bruyère

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It is fortunate to be of high birth, but it is no less so to be of such character that people do not care to know whether you are or are not.

Jean de La Bruyère (16 August 1645 - 10 May 1696) was a French essayist and moralist.

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  • It is a sad thing when men have neither the wit to speak well, nor the judgment to hold their tongues.
    • As quoted in A Dictionary of Thoughts: being A Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors of the World, both Ancient and Modern (1908) edited by Tryon Edwards, p. 560
  • La vie est une tragédie pour celui qui sent, et une comédie pour celui qui pense.
    • Life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think.
      • As quoted in Selected Thoughts from the French: XV Century-XX Century, with English Translations (1913), pp. 132-133, by James Raymond Solly. This may conceivably be a misattribution, because as yet no definite citation of a specific work by La Bruyère has been located, and the statement is very similar to one known to have been made by Horace Walpole in a letter of 31 December 1769: The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel.

Les Caractères (1688)

Les Caractères - Complete French text at Project Gutenberg - Translated as The Characters of Jean de La Bruyère (1929) by Henri van Laun

Des Ouvrages de l'Esprit

["Of the Works of the Spirit" also translated as "Of Books"]
  • We come too late to say anything which has not been said already.
    • Aphorism 1; Variant translation: Everything has been said, and we have come too late, now that men have been living and thinking for seven thousand years and more.
  • Making a book is a craft, like making a clock; it needs more than native wit to be an author.
    • Aphorism 3; Variant translation: It requires more than mere genius to be an author.
  • There are certain things in which mediocrity is intolerable: poetry, music, painting, public eloquence. What torture it is to hear a frigid speech being pompously declaimed, or second-rate verse spoken with all a bad poet's bombast!
    • Aphorism 7
  • A heap of epithets is poor praise: the praise lies in the facts, and in the way of telling them.
    • Aphorism 13
  • The Opera is obviously the first draft of a fine spectacle; it suggests the idea of one.
    • Aphorism 47
  • Criticism is often not a science; it is a craft, requiring more good health than wit, more hard work than talent, more habit than native genius. In the hands of a man who has read widely but lacks judgment, applied to certain subjects it can corrupt both its readers and the writer himself.
    • Aphorism 63

Du mérite personnel

["Of Personal Merit"]
  • Outward simplicity befits ordinary men, like a garment made to measure for them; but it serves as an adornment to those who have filled their lives with great deeds: they might be compared to some beauty carelessly dressed and thereby all the more attractive.
    • Aphorism 17
  • It is fortunate to be of high birth, but it is no less so to be of such character that people do not care to know whether you are or are not.
    • Aphorism 21
  • From time to time there appear on the face of the earth men of rare and consummate excellence, who dazzle us by their virtue, and whose outstanding qualities shed a stupendous light. Like those extraordinary stars of whose origins we are ignorant, and of whose fate, once they have vanished, we know even less, such men have neither forebears nor descendants: they are the whole of their race.
    • Aphorism 22
  • Marriage, it seems, confines every man to his proper rank.
    • Aphorism 25
  • No man is so perfect, so necessary to his friends, as to give them no cause to miss him less.
    • Aphorism 35
  • You may drive a dog off the King's armchair, and it will climb into the preacher's pulpit; he views the world unmoved, unembarrassed, unabashed.
    • Aphorism 38
  • False greatness is unsociable and remote: conscious of its own frailty, it hides, or at least averts its face, and reveals itself only enough to create an illusion and not be recognized as the meanness that it really is. True greatness is free, kind, familiar and popular; it lets itself be touched and handled, it loses nothing by being seen at close quarters; the better one knows it, the more one admires it.
    • Aphorism 42
  • That man is good who does good to others; if he suffers on account of the good he does, he is very good; if he suffers at the hands of those to whom he has done good, then his goodness is so great that it could be enhanced only by greater sufferings; and if he should die at their hands, his virtue can go no further: it is heroic, it is perfect.
    • Aphorism 44

Des Femmes

["The Women"]
  • Grief that is dazed and speechless is out of fashion: the modern woman mourns her husband loudly and tells you the whole story of his death, which distresses her so much that she forgets not the slightest detail about it.
    • Aphorism 79
  • Women run to extremes; they are either better or worse than men.

Du Coeur

["Of the Heart" also translated as "Of the Affections"]
  • We can recognize the dawn and the decline of love by the uneasiness we feel when alone together.
    • Aphorism 33
  • One seeks to make the loved one entirely happy, or, if that cannot be, entirely wretched.
    • Aphorism 39
  • Grief at the absence of a loved one is happiness compared to life with a person one hates.
    • Aphorism 40
  • Liberality consists less in giving a great deal than in gifts well timed.
    • Aphorism 47; Variant translation: Generosity lies less in giving much than in giving at the right moment.
  • We must laugh before we are happy, for fear we die before we laugh at all.
    • Aphorism 63; Variant translation: We should laugh before being happy, for fear of dying without having laughed.
  • Time, which strengthens friendship, weakens love.
  • Sudden love takes the longest time to be cured.
  • If it be true that in showing pity and compassion we think of ourselves, because we fear to be one day or another in the same circumstances as those unfortunate people for whom we feel, why are the latter so sparingly relieved by us of their condition?

De la société et de la conversation

["Of Society and conversation" or "Of Society"]
  • To laugh at men of sense is the privilege of fools.

Des biens de fortune

["Of Worldly Goods"]
  • As favor and riches forsake a man, we discover in him the foolishness they concealed, and which no one perceived before.
    • Aphorism 4
  • Nothing more clearly shows how little God esteems his gift to men of wealth, money, position and other worldly goods, than the way he distributes these, and the sort of men who are most amply provided with them.
    • Aphorism 24
  • There are only two ways of getting on in the world: by one's own industry, or by the stupidity of others.
  • Aphorism 52

De la ville

["Of the Town"]
  • The town is divided into various groups, which form so many little states, each with its own laws and customs, its jargon and its jokes. While the association holds and the fashion lasts, they admit nothing well said or well done except by one of themselves, and they are incapable of appeciating anything from another source, to the point of despising those who are not initiated into their mysteries.
    • Aphorism 4

De la cour

["Of the Court"]
  • The giving is the hardest part; what does it cost to add a smile?
    • Aphorism 45

Des grands

["The Great" or "Of Great Nobles"]
  • We should keep silent about those in power; to speak well of them almost implies flattery; to speak ill of them while they are alive is dangerous, and when they are dead is cowardly.
    • Aphorism 56

De l'Homme

["Of Man"]
  • Lofty posts make great men greater still, and small men much smaller.
    • Aphorism 95
  • There are but three events in a man's life: birth, life and death. He is not conscious of being born, he dies in pain, and he forgets to live.
  • Most men make use of the first part of their life to render the last part miserable.

Des jugements

  • One mark of a second-rate mind is to be always telling stories.
    • Aphorism 52
  • Between good sense and good taste there lies the difference between a cause and its effect.
    • Aphorism 56

De la chaire

["Of the Pulpit"]
  • What a vast advantage has a speech over a written composition. Men are imposed upon by voice and gesture, and by all that is conducive to enhance the performance. Any little prepossession in favor of the speaker raises their admiration, and then they do their best to comprehend him; they commend his performance before he has begun, but they soon fall off asleep, doze all the time he is preaching, and only wake to applaud him. An author has no such passionate admirers; his works are read at leisure in the country or in the solitude of the study; no public meetings are held to applaud him.... However excellent his book may be, it is read with the intention of finding it but middling; it is perused, discussed, and compared to other works; a book is not composed of transient sounds lost in the air and forgotten; what is printed remains.

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