Reflections: or Sentences and Moral Maxims by La Rochefoucauld (1678): Let’s get cynical

We ought to go on a corporate retreat to help us reconnect with our buried cynicism

François duc de la Rochefoucauld. Photograph: Charles Ciccione/Gamma-Rapho via Getty

François duc de la Rochefoucauld. Photograph: Charles Ciccione/Gamma-Rapho via Getty

 

Until not so long ago, cynicism was the thing. It wasn’t just Generation X: much modern literature favoured a sceptical, mocking outlook that probed righteousness for ulterior motives. What we might call the Justin Trudeauification of networked life in the 2010s demoted cynicism in favour of showy goodness, but behind the shit-eating grin and nice-guy schtick, the same human animal remained. Banished by millennial Manichaeism from our bright public spaces, the Shadow gained power in the offline dark, until it came roaring back with an orange comb-over (if not in blackface).

We ought to go on a corporate retreat to help us reconnect with our buried cynicism, and I know what book to bring. In the 1600s a French aristocrat in his 40s peeled back the skin of societal appearances to reveal the squirming, unlovely truth beneath. La Rochefoucauld intended his collection of incisive observations to stand as a “portrait of man’s heart”, admitting that it was “full of truths unacceptable to human pride”. Across 504 aphorisms, he exposes apparent virtue as vice or weakness in disguise. Self-flattery is led out naked and shivering for pitiless scrutiny. Not lost on La Rochefoucauld is how we tend to grow more “virtuous” in tandem with our declining capacity to do wrong: ‘When vices leave us, we flatter ourselves that we are the ones leaving them.”

The aphorist Don Paterson has noted – in an aphorism – that aphorisms “all sound as if they were delivered by the same disenfranchised, bad-tempered minor deity”. La Rochefoucauld set the tone. “No one deserves to be praised for kindness if he does not have the strength to be bad,” he writes, and centuries later Nietzsche will accord: “Verily, I have often laughed at the weaklings who thought themselves good because they had no claws.” An even closer match: La Rochefoucauld’s “What makes us unable to bear the vanity of other people is the fact that it wounds our own”, mutates into Nietzsche’s, “The vanity of others runs counter to our taste only when it runs counter to our vanity.”

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