Jean de La Bruyère
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.
Last modified on 11 June 2013, at 08:18
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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"]
- Tout est dit, et l'on vient trop tard depuis plus de sept mille ans qu'il y a des hommes qui pensent.
- 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!
- A heap of epithets is poor praise: the praise lies in the facts, and in the way of telling them.
- The Opera is obviously the first draft of a fine spectacle; it suggests the idea of one.
- 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.
- “Horace or Boileau have said such a thing before you.”—”I take your word for it, but I have used it as my own. May I not have the same correct thought after them, as others may have after me?”
Du mérite personnel
- ["Of Personal Merit"]
- There is, however, nothing wanting to the idleness of a philosopher but a better name, and that meditation, conversation, and reading should be called “work.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Marriage, it seems, confines every man to his proper rank.
- No man is so perfect, so necessary to his friends, as to give them no cause to miss him less.
- 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.
- Menippus is a bird decked in various feathers which are not his. He neither says nor feels anything, but repeats the feelings and sayings of others; it is so natural for him to make use of other people’s minds that he is the first deceived by it, and often believes he speaks his own mind or expresses his own thoughts when he is but the echo of some man he just parted with.
- 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.
- A wise man is cured of ambition by ambition itself; his aim is so exalted that riches, office, fortune, and favor cannot satisfy him.
- 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.
- ["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.
- Women run to extremes; they are either better or worse than men.
- ["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.
- One seeks to make the loved one entirely happy, or, if that cannot be, entirely wretched.
- Grief at the absence of a loved one is happiness compared to life with a person one hates.
- 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.
- The true spirit of conversation consists more in bringing out the cleverness of others than in showing a great deal of it yourself; he who goes away pleased with himself and his own wit is also greatly pleased with you. Most men would rather please than admire you; they seek less to be instructed, and even to be amused, than to be praised and applauded.
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.
- Let us not envy a certain class of men for their enormous riches; they have paid such an equivalent for them that it would not suit us; they have given for them their peace of mind, their health, their honour, and their conscience; this is rather too dear, and there is nothing to be made out of such a bargain.
- 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.
- If it is true that one is poor on account of all the things one wants, the ambitious and the avaricious languish in extreme poverty.
- There are only two ways of getting on in the world: by one's own industry, or by the stupidity of others.
- Il y a des âmes sales, pétries de boue et d’ordure, éprises du gain et de l’intérêt, comme les belles âmes le sont de la gloire et de la vertu; capables d’une seule volupté, qui est celle d’acquérir ou de ne point perdre.
- There are some sordid minds, formed of slime and filth, to whom interest and gain are what glory and virtue are to superior souls; they feel no other pleasure but to acquire money.
- We must laugh before we are happy, for fear we die before we laugh at all.
De la ville
- ["On the City"]
- 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.
De la cour
- ["Of the Court"]
- The giving is the hardest part; what does it cost to add a smile?
- ["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.
- ["About Man"]
- Lofty posts make great men greater still, and small men much smaller.
- 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.
- One mark of a second-rate mind is to be always telling stories.
- Between good sense and good taste there lies the difference between a cause and its effect.
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.