Jean de La Bruyère

17th-century French writer and philosopher (1645–1696)

Jean de La Bruyère (16 August 164510 May 1696) was a French essayist and moralist.

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.
See also: Les Caractères


  • 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.
  • Avoid lawsuits beyond all things; they pervert your conscience, impair your health and dissipate your property.
Les Caractères - Complete French text at Project Gutenberg - Translated as The "Characters" of Jean de la Bruyère by Henri Van Laun (1885)
See also: Les Caractères
  • Of the sixteen chapters which compose it, there are fifteen wholly employed in detecting the fallacy and ridicule to be found in the objects of human passions and inclinations, and in demolishing such obstacles as at first weaken, and afterwards extinguish, any knowledge of God in mankind ;
    Therefore, these chapters are merely preparatory to the sixteenth and last, wherein atheism is attacked, and perhaps routed, wherein the proofs of a God, such at least as weak man is capable of receiving, are produced ; wherein the providence of God is defended against the insults and complaints of free-thinkers.
    • On the purpose of writing Les Carácteres, Preface to La Bruyere's "Characters," p. v
  • A preacher must have some intelligence to charm the people by his florid style, by his exhilarating system of morality, by the repetition of his figures of speech, his brilliant remarks and vivid descriptions ; but, after all, he has not too much of it, for if he possessed some of the right quality he would neglect these extraneous ornaments, unworthy of the Gospel, and preach naturally, forcibly, and like a Christian.
    • Of The Pulpit (8)
  • The heroic virtues of some great men have been the cause of the corruption of eloquence, or have, at least, enervated the style of most preachers. Instead of joining with the people in rendering thanks to Heaven for the extraordinary gifts it has bestowed on those great men, these very preachers have enrolled themselves among authors and poets, and become panegyrists ; they have even uttered more extravagant praises than are found in dedications, verses, or prologues ; they have turned the Word of God into a whole warp of praises, which, though well deserved, are out of place, bestowed from selfish motives, not required, and ill-suited to their calling. It is fortunate indeed, if, while they are celebrating their heroes in the sanctuary, they even mention the name of that God or of that religion they ought to preach. Some have wished to preach the Gospel, which is for all men, only to one person, and have been so disconcerted when by accident that person was kept away, that they were unable to pronounce a Christian discourse before an assembly of Christian men, because it was not prepared for them, so that other orators have been obliged to take their places, who had only sufficient leisure to praise God in an extemporary exhortation.!
    • Of the Pulpit (13)
  • What can be more discouraging to a man than to doubt if his soul be material, like a stone or a reptile, and subject to corruption like the vilest creatures ? And does it not prove much more strength of mind and grandeur to be able to conceive the idea of a Being superior to all other beings, by whom and for whom all things were made; of a Being absolutely perfect and pure, without beginning or end, of whom our soul is the image, and of whom, if I may say so, it is a part, because it is spiritual and immortal?
    • Of Freethinkers (1)
  • I call those men worldly, earthly, or coarse, whose hearts and minds are wholly fixed on this earth, that small part of the universe they are placed in; who value and love nothing beyond it; whose minds are as cramped as that narrow spot of ground they call their estate, of which the extent is measured, the acres are numbered, and the limits well known. I am not astonished that men who lean, as it were, on an atom, should stumble at the smallest efforts they make for discovering the truth; that, being so short-sighted, they do not reach beyond the heavens and the stars, to contemplate God Himself; that, not being able to perceive the excellency of what is spiritual, or the dignity of the soul, they should be still less sensible of the difficulty of satisfying it; how very inferior the entire world is in comparison to it; how necessary is to it an all-perfect Being, which is God; and how absolutely it needs a religion to find out that God, and to be assured of His reality. I can easily understand that incredulity or indifference are but natural to such men, that they make use of God and religion only as a piece of policy, as far as they may be conducive to the order and decorum of this world, the only thing in their opinion worth thinking of.
    • Of Freethinkers (3)
  • All kinds of music are not suited to praise God and to be heard in the sanctuary; all methods of philosophy are not fit for discoursing worthily of God, His power, the principles of His operations, and His mysteries.
    • Of Freethinkers (23)
  • A man in health questions whether there is a God, and he also doubts whether it be a sin to have intercourse with a woman, who is at liberty to refuse; but when he falls ill, or when his mistress is with child, she is discarded, and he believes in God.
    • Of Freethinkers (6)

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.
  • C'est un métier que de faire un livre, comme de faire une pendule: il faut plus que de l'esprit pour être auteur.
    • 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.
  • Il y a de certaines choses dont la médiocrité est insupportable: la poésie, la musique, la peinture, le discours public. Quel supplice que celui d'entendre déclamer pompeusement un froid discours, ou prononcer de médiocres vers avec toute l'emphase d'un mauvais poète!
    • 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
  • Amas d'épithètes, mauvaises louanges: ce sont les faits qui louent, et la manière de les raconter.
    • A heap of epithets is poor praise: the praise lies in the facts, and in the way of telling them.
    • Aphorism 13
  • L'on voit bien que l'Opéra est l'ébauche d'un grand spectacle; il en donne l'idée.
    • The Opera is obviously the first draft of a fine spectacle; it suggests the idea of one.
    • Aphorism 47
  • La critique souvent n'est pas une science; c'est un métier, où il faut plus de santé que d'esprit, plus de travail que de capacité, plus d'habitude que de génie. Si elle vient d'un homme qui ait moins de discernement que de lecture, et qu'elle s'exerce sur de certains chapitres, elle corrompt et les lecteurs et l'écrivain.
    • 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
  • Horace ou Despréaux l'a dit avant vous.—Je le crois sur votre parole; mais je l'ai dit comme mien. Ne puis-je pas penser après eux une chose vraie, et que d'autres encore penseront après moi?
    • “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?”
    • Aphorism 69

Du mérite personnel

["Of Personal Merit"]
  • Il ne manque cependant à l'oisiveté du sage qu'un meilleur nom, et que méditer, parler, lire, et être tranquille s'appelât travailler.
    • 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.”
    • Aphorism 12
  • Un extérieur simple est l'habit des hommes vulgaires, il est taillé pour eux et sur leur mesure; mais c'est une parure pour ceux qui ont rempli leur vie de grandes actions: je les compare à une beauté négligée, mais plus piquante.
    • 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
  • S'il est heureux d'avoir de la naissance, il ne l'est pas moins d'être tel qu'on ne s'informe plus si vous en avez.
    • 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
  • Il apparaît de temps en temps sur la surface de la terre des hommes rares, exquis, qui brillent par leur vertu, et dont les qualités éminentes jettent un éclat prodigieux. Semblables à ces étoiles extraordinaires dont on ignore les causes, et dont on sait encore moins ce qu'elles deviennent après avoir disparu, ils n'ont ni aïeuls, ni descendants: ils composent seuls toute leur race.
    • 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
  • [I]l semble que le mariage met tout le monde dans son ordre.
    • Marriage, it seems, confines every man to his proper rank.
    • Aphorism 25
  • Il n'y a guère d'homme si accompli et si nécessaire aux siens, qu'il n'ait de quoi se faire moins regretter.
    • No man is so perfect, so necessary to his friends, as to give them no cause to miss him less.
    • Aphorism 35
  • Chassez un chien du fauteuil du Roi, il grimpe à la chaire du prédicateur; il regarde le monde indifféremment, sans embarras, sans pudeur; il n'a pas, non plus que le sot, de quoi rougir.
    • 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
  • Ménippe est l'oiseau paré de divers plumages qui ne sont pas à lui. Il ne parle pas, il ne sent pas; il répète des sentiments et des discours, se sert même si naturellement de l'esprit des autres qu'il y est le premier trompé, et qu'il croit souvent dire son goût ou expliquer sa pensée, lorsqu'il n'est que l'écho de quelqu'un qu'il vient de quitter.
    • 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.
    • Aphorism 40
  • La fausse grandeur est farouche et inaccessible: comme elle sent son faible, elle se cache, ou du moins ne se montre pas de front, et ne se fait voir qu'autant qu'il faut pour imposer et ne paraître point ce qu'elle est, je veux dire une vraie petitesse. La véritable grandeur est libre, douce, familière, populaire; elle se laisse toucher et manier, elle ne perd rien à être vue de près; plus on la connaît, plus on l'admire.
    • 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
  • Le sage guérit de l'ambition par l'ambition même; il tend à de si grandes choses, qu'il ne peut se borner à ce qu'on appelle des trésors, des postes, la fortune et la faveur.
    • A wise man is cured of ambition by ambition itself; his aim is so exalted that riches, office, fortune, and favor cannot satisfy him.
    • Aphorism 43
  • Celui-là est bon qui fait du bien aux autres; s'il souffre pour le bien qu'il fait, il est très bon; s'il souffre de ceux à qui il a fait ce bien, il a une si grande bonté qu'elle ne peut être augmentée que dans le cas où ses souffrances viendraient à croître; et s'il en meurt, sa vertu ne saurait aller plus loin: elle est héroïque, elle est parfaite.
    • 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"]
  • Les femmes sont extrêmes: elles sont meilleures ou pires que les hommes.
    • Women run to extremes; they are either better or worse than men.
    • Aphorism 53
  • Les douleurs muettes et stupides sont hors d'usage: on pleure, on récite, on répète, on est si touchée de la mort de son mari, qu'on n'en oublie pas la moindre circonstance.
    • 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

Du Coeur

["Of the Heart" also translated as "Of the Affections"]
  • Le temps, qui fortifie les amitiés, affaiblit l'amour.
    • Time, which strengthens friendship, weakens love.
    • Aphorism 4
  • L'amour qui naît subitement est le plus long à guérir.
    • Sudden love takes the longest time to be cured.
    • Aphorism 13
  • Le commencement et le déclin de l'amour se font sentir par l'embarras où l'on est de se trouver seuls.
    • We can recognize the dawn and the decline of love by the uneasiness we feel when alone together.
    • Aphorism 33
  • L'on veut faire tout le bonheur, ou si cela ne se peut ainsi, tout le malheur de ce qu'on aime.
    • One seeks to make the loved one entirely happy, or, if that cannot be, entirely wretched.
    • Aphorism 39
  • Regretter ce que l'on aime est un bien, en comparaison de vivre avec ce que l'on hait.
    • Grief at the absence of a loved one is happiness compared to life with a person one hates.
    • Aphorism 40
  • La libéralité consiste moins à donner beaucoup qu'à donner à propos.
    • 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.
  • S'il est vrai que la pitié ou la compassion soit un retour vers nous-mêmes qui nous met en la place des malheureux, pourquoi tirent-ils de nous si peu de soulagement dans leurs misères?
  • 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?
    • Aphorism 48
  • Il faut rire avant que d'être heureux, de peur de mourir sans avoir ri.
    • 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.

De la société et de la conversation

["Of Society and conversation" or "Of Society"]
  • A Man must be very inert to have no character at all.
    • 1
  • A fool is always troublesome, a man of sense perceives when he pleases or is tiresome ; he goes away the very minute before it might have been thought he stayed too long.
    • 2
  • Mischievous wags are a kind of insects which are in everybody's way and plentiful in all countries. Real wit is rarely to be met with, and even if it be innate in a man, it must be very difficult to maintain reputation for it during any length of time; for, commonly, he that makes us laugh does not stand high in our estimation.
    • 3
  • There are a great many obscene minds, yet more railing and satirical, but very few fastidious ones. A man must have good manners, be very polite, and even have a great deal of originality to be able to jest gracefully and be felicitous in his remarks about trifles; to jest in such a manner and to make something out of nothing is to create.
    • 4
  • Some men speak one moment before they think; others tediously study everything they say, and in conversation bore us as painfully as was the travail of their mind; they are, as it were, made up of phrases and quaint expressions, whilst their gestures are as affected as their behaviour. They call themselves "purists," and do not venture to say the most trifling word not in use, however expressive it may be. Nothing comes from them worth remembering, nothing is spontaneous and unrestrained; they speak correctly, but they are very tiresome.
    • 15
  • L'esprit de la conversation consiste bien moins à en montrer beaucoup qu'à en faire trouver aux autres: celui qui sort de votre entretien content de soi et de son esprit, l'est de vous parfaitement. Les hommes n'aiment point à vous admirer, ils veulent plaire; ils cherchent moins à être instruits, et même réjouis, qu'à être goûtés et applaudis.
    • 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.
    • 16
  • It is a sad thing when men have neither enough intelligence to speak well, nor enough sense to hold their tongues; this is the root of all impertinence.
    • 18
    • Variant translation:
    • 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
  • To speak and to offend is with some people but one and the same thing; they are biting and bitter; their words are steeped in gall and wormwood; sneers as well as insolent and insulting words flow from their lips. It had been well for them had they been born mute or stupid; the little vivacity and intelligence they have prejudices them more than dullness does others; they are not always satisfied with giving sharp answers, they often attack arrogantly those who are present, and damage the reputation of those who are absent; they butt all round like rams — for rams, of course, must use their horns. We therefore do not expect, by our sketch of them, to change such coarse, restless, and stubborn individuals. The best thing a man can do is to take to his heels as soon as he perceives them, without even turning round to look behind him.
    • 27
  • Rire des gens d'esprit, c'est le privilège des sots.
    • To laugh at men of sense is the privilege of fools.
    • 56
  • Profound ignorance makes a man dogmatical; he who knows nothing thinks he can teach others what he just now has learned himself; whilst he who knows a great deal can scarcely imagine any one should be unacquainted with what he says, and, therefore, speaks with more indifference.
    • 76

Des biens de fortune

["Of Worldly Goods"]
  • À mesure que la faveur et les grands biens se retirent d'un homme, ils laissent voir en lui le ridicule qu'ils couvraient, et qui y était sans que personne s'en aperçût.
    • As favor and riches forsake a man, we discover in him the foolishness they concealed, and which no one perceived before.
    • Aphorism 4
  • N'envions point à une sorte de gens leurs grandes richesses; ils les ont à titre onéreux, et qui ne nous accommoderait point: ils ont mis leur repos, leur santé, leur honneur et leur conscience pour les avoir; cela est trop cher, et il n'y a rien à gagner à un tel marché.
    • 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.
    • Aphorism 13
  • Rien ne fait mieux comprendre le peu de chose que Dieu croit donner aux hommes, en leur abandonnant les richesses, l'argent, les grands établissements et les autres biens, que la dispensation qu'il en fait, et le genre d'hommes qui en sont le mieux pourvus.
    • 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
  • S'il est vrai que l'on soit pauvre par toutes les choses que l'on désire, l'ambitieux et l'avare languissent dans une extrême pauvreté.
    • 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.
    • Aphorism 49
  • Il n'y a au monde que deux manières de s'élever, ou par sa propre industrie, ou par l'imbécillité des autres.
    • There are only two ways of getting on in the world: by one's own industry, or by the stupidity of others.
    • Aphorism 52
  • 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.
    • Aphorism 58

De la ville

["On the City"]
  • La ville est partagée en diverses sociétés, qui sont comme autant de petites républiques, qui ont leurs lois, leurs usages, leur jargon, et leurs mots pour rire. Tant que cet assemblage est dans sa force, et que l'entêtement subsiste, l'on ne trouve rien de bien dit ou de bien fait que ce qui part des siens, et l'on est incapable de goûter ce qui vient d'ailleurs: cela va jusques au mépris pour les gens qui ne sont pas initiés dans leurs mystères.
    • 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"]
  • [L]e plus fort et le plus pénible est de donner; que coûte-t-il d'y ajouter un sourire?
    • The giving is the hardest part; what does it cost to add a smile?
    • Aphorism 45

Des grands

["The Great" or "Of Great Nobles"]
  • L'on doit se taire sur les puissants: il y a presque toujours de la flatterie à en dire du bien; il y a du péril à en dire du mal pendant qu'ils vivent, et de la lâcheté quand ils sont morts.
    • 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

["About Man"]
  • Il n'y a pour l'homme que trois événements: naître, vivre et mourir. Il ne se sent pas naître, il souffre à mourir, et il oublie de vivre.
    • 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.
    • Aphorism 48
  • Ainsi les postes éminents rendent les grands hommes encore plus grands, et les petits beaucoup plus petits.
    • Lofty posts make great men greater still, and small men much smaller.
    • Aphorism 95
  • La plupart des hommes emploient la meilleure partie de leur vie à rendre l'autre misérable.
  • Most men make use of the first part of their life to render the last part miserable.
    • Aphorism 102

Des jugements

  • L'une des marques de la médiocrité de l'esprit est de toujours conter.
  • One mark of a second-rate mind is to be always telling stories.
    • Aphorism 52
  • Entre le bon sens et le bon goût il y a la différence de la cause à son effet.
    • Between good sense and good taste there lies the difference between a cause and its effect.
    • Aphorism 56

De la chaire

["Of the Pulpit"]
  • Quel avantage n'a pas un discours prononcé sur un ouvrage qui est écrit! Les hommes sont les dupes de l'action et de la parole, comme de tout l'appareil de l'auditoire. Pour peu de prévention qu'ils aient en faveur de celui qui parle, ils l'admirent, et cherchent ensuite à le comprendre: avant qu'il ait commencé, ils s'écrient qu'il va bien faire; ils s'endorment bientôt, et le discours fini, ils se réveillent pour dire qu'il a bien fait. On se passionne moins pour un auteur: son ouvrage est lu dans le loisir de la campagne, ou dans le silence du cabinet; il n'y a point de rendez-vous publics pour lui applaudir. ... On lit son livre, quelque excellent qu'il soit, dans l'esprit de le trouver médiocre; on le feuillette, on le discute, on le confronte; ce ne sont pas des sons qui se perdent en l'air et qui s'oublient; ce qui est imprimé demeure imprimé.
    • 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.
    • Aphorism 27

Quotes about Jean de la Bruyère

  • La Bruyère is not a speculative moralist, but an observer of the manners of men, or, as he likes to call himself, a philosopher, and above all a Christian philosopher.
    • Preface to La Bruyere's "Characters," page V.
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