Jim Finnegan, proprietor of the ursprache blog and genius loci of Tramp Freighter, on Marquis De Vauvenargues (Luc de Clapiers)

Marquis De Vauvenargues (Luc de Clapiers) (Geary’s Guide, pp. 141-143) was of noble lineage, but born to family with little money. Perhaps then it’s no surprise that his aphorisms combine some of the aristocratic cool we associate with Le Rochefoucauld and some of the social criticism one finds in Chamfort. He served ably in the military as an officer, and his leadership style may have been summed up by this statement: “No one is more liable to make mistakes than he who acts only on reflection.” Unfortunately, some of the campaigns in which he was engaged ended badly for the French side. He also suffered the loss of a younger compatriot with whom he was perhaps smitten, or at least he was obsessed by the young man. Resigning from the military, in ill health, he retired to Paris, and became close with Voltaire, who encouraged the publication of his only volume: Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain. Alas, his lifespan was brief as an aphorism. He died pitiably at the age of 31. He said, “Few maxims are true in every respect.” You decide.

Clearness is the ornament of deep thought.

Obscurity is the kingdom of error.

To praise moderately is always a sign of mediocrity.

Before attacking an abuse we must find out if its foundations can be destroyed.

No one likes to be pitied for his faults.

The man who renders his wealth useful, practices a great and noble economy.

The bad are always greatly surprised to find cleverness in the good.

We find in ourselves what others hide from us; and we recognize in others what we hide from ourselves.

Whoever is more severe than the laws is a tyrant.

More fortunes are made by energy than by prudence.

Dependence is born of society.

It is of no use to possess a lively wit if it is not of right proportion: the perfection of a clock is not to go fast, but to be accurate.

A fool who has a good memory is full of thoughts and facts. But he does not know how to draw conclusions, and everything depends on that.

I do not approve the maxim which desires a man to know a little of everything. Superficial knowledge, knowledge without principles, is almost always useless and sometimes harmful knowledge.

A hero does not seek glory in order to bring hunger and misery in the home of his enemies, but to endure them for his country: he does not desire to cause death but to brave it.

It is not true that equality is a law of nature. Nature has made nothing equal, her sovereign law is subordination and dependence.

Necessity moderates more troubles than reason.

The favorites of fortune and fame topple from their pedestals before our eyes without diverting us from ambition.

Persons of rank do not talk about such trifles as the common people do; but the common people do not busy themselves about such frivolous things as do people of rank.

It is easy to criticize an author; it is difficult to appreciate him.

He who seeks glory by the path of virtue has no idea of asking what is to be his reward.

When we are convinced of some great truths, and feel our convictions keenly, we must not fear to express it, although others have said it before us. Every thought is new when an author expresses it in a manner peculiar to himself.

It is not exactly truth which is most wanting in men’s ideas, but precision and exactitude.

We have not time enough to reflect on all our actions.

He who needs a motive for lying is not born a liar.

Men are so born for dependence that even the laws that govern their weakness do not suffice them: fortune has not given them masters enough, fashion must compensate for this, and rule them even to the cut of their shoes.

Courage is the light of adversity.

From: Marquis De Vauvenargues, Selections from the Characters, Reflexions, and Maxims. Translated by Elizabeth Lee (Archibald Constable & Co., 1903)