Nonfiction > Marquis de Vauvenargues > Selections
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Vauvenargues (1715–1747).  Selections from the Characters, Reflexions and Maxims.  1903.
 
Reflexions and Maxims
 
IT is easier to say new things than to reconcile those which have already been said.  1
  Clearness is the ornament of deep thought.  2
  Obscurity is the kingdom of error.  3
  Where an author often errs is in believing that he can express things exactly as he sees or feels them.  4
  We should be more tolerant of the ideas contained in a piece of writing if we conceived them in the same way as their author.  5
  We rarely fathom another’s thoughts; consequently if it happens that later a similar reflexion occurs to us, so many sides does it present which had escaped us that we are easily persuaded it is new.  6
  To praise moderately is always a sign of mediocrity.  7
  Rapid fortunes of any kind are the least solid, because they are rarely the result of merit. The perfect but laborious outcome of prudence is always of tardy growth.  8
  Prosperity makes few friends.  9
  Sometimes a lengthened period of prosperity melts away in a moment; just as the heat of summer flies before a day of tempest.  10
  Courage has more resources against misfortune than has reason.  11
  Reason and independence are incompatible with weakness.  12
  War is less burdensome than servitude.  13
  Servitude degrades men even to making them love it.  14
  Before attacking an abuse we must find out if its foundations can be destroyed.  15
  We have no right to render miserable those whom we cannot render good.  16
  No one can be just who is not humane.  17
  Some authors regard morality in the same light as we regard modern architecture. Convenience is the first thing to be looked for.  18
  No one likes to be pitied for his faults.  19
  The tempests of youth are mingled with days of brilliant sunshine.  20
  Women and young people do not distinguish their esteem from their inclinations.  21
  Habit is everything—even in love.  22
  Few passions are constant, but many are sincere.  23
  It is proof of a narrow mind when things worthy of esteem are distinguished from things worthy of love. Great minds naturally love whatever is worthy of their esteem.  24
  When we feel that we lack the wherewithal to secure a certain man’s esteem, we come very near hating him.  25
  Pleasures teach princes to recognize their genus.  26
  The man who can render his wealth useful, practises a great and noble economy.  27
  Fools do not understand men of intelligence.  28
  A man can hardly be said to have made a fortune if he does not know how to enjoy it.  29
  To attain fortune, you must act warily. You must be supple and amusing. You must be concerned in plots and yet offend no one; you must make yourself agreeable to women, and to men in power, take your share of business and pleasure, hide your secret, and know how to bore yourself a whole night at table and play three games of quadrille without leaving your chair. Even after all that you can be certain of nothing. How much annoyance and anxiety might be spared if glory was only to be attained by merit.  30
  The man who rises before eight o’clock in the morning to hear a case in court, or to see an exhibition of pictures at the Louvre, or to attend the rehearsal of a new play, and who prides himself on being a judge of every sort of work done by other people, is a man who often lacks nothing but intelligence and taste.  31
  We are less offended by the contempt of fools than by the moderate esteem of men of intelligence.  32
  You sometimes offend a man by bestowing on him praise which marks out the limit of his deserving; few men are modest enough to endure being appreciated.  33
  It is difficult to esteem a man as he desires to be esteemed.  34
  Reason and extravagance, virtue and vice, have their favoured ones. Contentment is not a sign of merit.  35
  Should calmness of mind be regarded as a proof of virtue? Good health ensures it.  36
  The moderation of great men only sets a limit to their vices. The moderation of weak men is mediocrity.  37
  There are none so sour as those who are sweet to order.  38
  What is arrogance in the weak is elevation in the strong; just as the strength of the sick is frenzy and that of the whole is vigour.  39
  One does not gain much by mere cleverness.  40
  Consciousness of our strength increases it.  41
  It is not true that poverty calls forth virtue in men more than wealth does.  42
  You must maintain strength of body in order to preserve strength of mind.  43
  Those who think they have no need of others become unreasonable.  44
  Every man thinks himself worthy of the highest office; but nature, who has not made him capable of holding it, likewise makes him able to live contentedly in the lowest.  45
  Men despise great projects when they do not feel themselves capable of great successes.  46
  Great men undertake great things because the things are great; fools undertake them because they deem them easy.  47
  It is sometimes easier to form a party than to attain by degrees the head of a party already formed.  48
  Those who do not know how to gain by intercourse with others are not generally very accessible.  49
  Extreme distrust is not less harmful than its opposite; the greater part of men are useless to him who will not risk being deceived.  50
  Everything is to hoped, everything to be feared, from time and from mankind.  51
  The bad are always greatly surprised to find cleverness in the good.  52
  Too much and too little reserve about our affairs testify equally to a weak mind.  53
  The maxims of men reveal their hearts.  54
  Few maxims are true in every respect.  55
  We find in ourselves what others hide from us; and we recognize in others what we hide from ourselves.  56
  Men say few solid things when they try to say extraordinary things.  57
  The best authors say too much.  58
  A man who neither dines nor sups at home thinks himself vastly occupied. And another who spends the morning at his toilette, and in giving audience to his embroiderer, laughs at the idleness of a newsmonger who takes a walk every day before dinner.  59
  Few men would be happy if others had the determining of their occupations and pleasures.  60
  If passion sometimes counsels greater boldness than does reflexion, it gives more strength to execute it.  61
  If passion commits more faults than judgment does, those who govern commit more faults by reason than do private men.  62
  Great thoughts come from the heart. 1  63
  Magnanimity owes no account to prudence of its motives. 2  64
  No one is more liable to make mistakes than he who acts only on reflexion.  65
  Conscience, the organ of the feeling which dominates us and of the opinions which rule us, is presumptuous in the strong, timid in the weak and unfortunate, uneasy in the undecided.  66
  Strength or weakness at the hour of death depends on the nature of the last illness.  67
  Disease extinguishes courage in some men, fear, and even love of life, in others.  68
  It is unjust to exact of a soul crushed and vanquished by some irremediable evil, that it shall preserve the same strength it had at other times. Are we surprised if a sick man cannot walk, or keep awake, or stand upright? Would it not be more strange if he was the same man as when he was well? If we have a headache, or have slept badly, we are excused for feeling incapable of work, and yet no one suspects us of being always lazy. Shall we deny a dying man the privilege we grant a man with a headache? And dare we assert that the man who lacks courage in his last agony never possessed that virtue when he was well.  69
  To accomplish great things we must live as though we had never to die.  70
  The thought of death deceives us; for it causes us to neglect to live.  71
  I sometimes say to myself: “Life is too short to be worth troubling about.” Yet if a bore calls on me, prevents me from going out or from dressing myself, I lose patience and cannot endure to be bored for half an hour.  72
  The falsest of all philosophies is that which, under the pretext of delivering men from the embarrassment of their passions, counsels idleness, and the abandonment and neglect of themselves.  73
  If all our foresight cannot render our lives happy, how much less our indifference.  74
  No one says in the morning: A day is soon past, let us wait for the night. On the contrary, in the evening we consider what we shall do next day. We should be very sorry to spend even one day at the mercy of time and of bores. We should not dare leave the disposal of a few hours to chance, and we are right. For who can be certain of spending an hour without being bored, if he takes no care to fill even that short period according to his pleasure. Yet what we cannot be certain of for an hour, we sometimes feel assured of for life, and say:—“If death is the end of everything, why give ourselves so much trouble?” We are extremely foolish to make such a pother about the future: that is to say, we are extremely foolish not to entrust our destinies to chance, and to provide for the interval which lies between us and death.  75
  Reason and emotion counsel and supplement each other. Whoever heeds only the one, and puts aside the other, recklessly deprives himself of a portion of the aid granted us for the regulation of our conduct.  76
  We owe perhaps to the passions the greatest advantages of the intellect.  77
  In the childhood of nations, as in that of individuals, feeling precedes reflexion, and is their first teacher.  78
  Young people suffer less from their faults than from the prudence of the old.  79
  The counsels of the old, like the winter sun, shine, but give no heat.  80
  The common excuse of those who bring misfortune on others, is that they desire their good.  81
  It is unjust to exact that men shall do out of deference to our advice what they have no desire to do for themselves.  82
  Whoever is more severe than the laws is a tyrant.  83
  To punish unnecessarily is to entrench on God’s clemency.  84
  Mercy is of greater value than justice.  85
  We censure the unfortunate for the slightest faults, and pity them little for the greatest misfortunes.  86
  We reserve our indulgence for the perfect.  87
  No man is weak from choice.  88
  The most odious form of ingratitude, yet the most common and the most ancient, is that of children towards their fathers.  89
  Generosity is affected by the misfortunes of others as if it were itself responsible for them.  90
  We are not greatly pleased that our friends should respect our good qualities if they venture to perceive our faults.  91
  We do not condole with a man for being a fool, and perhaps rightly; but it is very delightful to imagine that it is his fault.  92
  We can love with all our hearts those in whom we recognize great faults. It would be impertinent to believe that perfection alone has the right to please us; sometimes our weaknesses attach us to each other as much as our virtues.  93
  If our friends do us a service, we think they owe it to us by their title of friend. We never think that they do not owe us their friendship.  94
  More fortunes are made by energy than by prudence.  95
  Nature does not seem to have made man for independence.  96
  Dependence is born of society.  97
  In order to protect himself from force, man was obliged to submit to justice. Justice or force: he was compelled to choose between the two masters, so little are we made to be independent.  98
  With kings, nations, and private individuals, the strongest assume to themselves rights over the weakest, and the same rule is followed by animals, by matter, by the elements, so that everything is performed in the universe by violence. And that order which we blame with some appearance of justice is the most universal, most absolute, most unchangeable, and most ancient law of nature.  99
  The weak wish to be dependent in order to be protected: those who fear men love the laws.  100
  He who knows how to suffer everything can dare everything.  101
  There are insults which we have to condone if we would not compromise our honour.  102
  It is good to be firm by temperament and pliant by reflexion.  103
  The weak sometimes wish to be thought wicked, but the wicked wish to be thought virtuous.  104
  The law of the mind is not different from that of the body, which can only be supported by continual nourishment.  105
  The fruits of work form the sweetest of pleasures.  106
  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.  107
  Those who laugh at serious tastes have a serious affection for trifles.  108
  We judge works of genius as we would mechanical productions. When we buy a ring we say, that one is too big, the other is too small, until we find one that fits our finger. But none are left at the jeweller’s, for what is too small for one exactly fits another.  109
  The 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.  110
  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.  111
  It is true that the greater number of men are scarcely capable of profound knowledge, but it is equally true that the superficial knowledge they seek only serves to satisfy their vanity. It is hurtful to those who possess true genius; for it necessarily draws them away from their main object, wastes their industry over details and subjects foreign to their needs and natural talent, and lastly does not serve, as they flatter themselves, to prove the breadth of their mind. In all ages there have been men of very moderate intelligence who knew much, and on the contrary, men of the highest intelligence who knew very little. Ignorance is not lack of intelligence, nor knowledge a proof of genius.  112
  There is perhaps as much truth among men as error, as many good qualities as bad, as much pleasure as pain; but we desire to control human nature, to try to raise ourselves above our species, and to enrich ourselves with the consideration of which we try to despoil it. We are so presumptuous that we think we can separate our personal interest from that of humanity, and slander mankind without compromising ourselves. That absurd vanity has filled the books of philosophers with invectives against nature. Man is now in disgrace with all who think, and the prize is to him who loads him with the most vices; but maybe he is on the point of improvement, and of compelling all his virtues to be restored to him. For nothing is stable, and philosophy has its fashions like dress, music, or architecture.  113
  As soon as an opinion becomes common it is sufficient reason for men to abandon it and to uphold the opposite opinion until that in its turn grows old, and they require to distinguish themselves by other things. Thus if they attain their goal in some art or science, we must expect them soon to cast it aside to acquire some fresh fame, and this is partly the reason why the most splendid ages degenerate so quickly, and, scarcely emerged from barbarism, plunge into it again.  114
  Great men in teaching weak men to reflect have set them on the road of error.  115
  The contemplative man, lying in a luxuriously furnished room, abuses the soldier who spends the winter nights on the banks of a river, and silently, under arms, watches over the safety of his country.  116
  A hero does not seek glory in order to carry hunger and misery into the home of his enemies, but to endure them for his country: he does not desire to cause death but to brave it.  117
  Vice stirs up war: virtue fights. If there were no virtue we should have unbroken peace.  118
  It is not true that equality is a law of nature. Nature has made nothing equal, her sovereign law is subordination and dependence.  119
  Necessity moderates more troubles than reason.  120
  Necessity embitters the evils which it cannot cure.  121
  The favourites of fortune or of fame topple from their pedestals before our eyes without diverting us from ambition.  122
  Patience is the art of hoping.  123
  Despair puts the last touch not only to our misery but also to our weakness.  124
  Neither the gifts nor the blows of fortune equal those of nature; in generosity and in rigour nature is alike supreme.  125
  We are forced to respect the gifts of nature, which study and fortune cannot give.  126
  The generality of men are so bound within the sphere of their circumstances that they have not even the courage to get out of them through their ideas, and if we see a few whom, in a way, speculation over great things makes incapable of mean ones, we find still more with whom the practice of small things takes away the feeling for great ones.  127
  The most absurd and the most rash hopes have sometimes been the cause of extraordinary success.  128
  Great resources of mind and heart are needed to enjoy sincerity when it wounds, or to practise it without giving offence: few men have depth enough to hear or to tell the truth.  129
  However we may be reproached for our vanity we have need sometimes to be assured of our merits. 3  130
  We are rarely consoled for great humiliations; we forget them.  131
  The less power a man has in the world, the more he may commit faults with impunity, or possess in vain true merit.  132
  Mediocre minds do not feel the extremes of good and evil.  133
  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 persons of rank.  134
  We sometimes seek the society of men who impose on us by their outward appearance, just as young men lovingly follow a mask, taking it for the most beautiful woman in the world, and worry it until they force it to reveal itself, only to show them a little man with dark complexion and beard.  135
  It is easy to criticize an author: it is difficult to appreciate him.  136
  If we only consider a few of the works of the best authors we are tempted to despise them; to appreciate them fairly we must read all.  137
  Men are not to be judged by what they do not know, but by what they know, and by the manner in which they know it.  138
  A liar is a man who does not know how to deceive, a flatterer one who only deceives fools: he who knows how to make skilful use of the truth, and understands its eloquence, can alone pride himself on his cleverness.  139
  The maxim that men are not to be praised before their death was invented by envy and too lightly adopted by philosophers. I, on the contrary, maintain that they ought to be praised in their lifetime if they merit it; but jealousy and calumny, roused against their virtue or their talent, labour to degrade them if any one ventures to bear testimony to them. It is unjust criticism that they should fear to hazard, not sincere praise.  140
  We are very wrong to think that some fault or other can exclude all virtue, or to consider the alliance of good and evil as a monstrosity or an enigma. It is lack of insight that causes us to reconcile so few things.  141
  Is it against reason or justice to love ourselves? And why is self-love always a vice?  142
  He who seeks glory by the path of virtue has no idea of asking what is to be his reward.  143
  The greater works of the human mind are assuredly the least perfect; the laws which are the most splendid invention of reason have not been able to secure peace for a nation without diminishing its liberty.  144
  The common people and the nobles have neither the same vices nor the same virtues.  145
  We have neither the strength nor the opportunity to accomplish all the good and all the evil which we design.  146
  Intellectual mediocrity and sloth make more philosophers than reason or reflexion.  147
  Commerce is the school of cozenage.  148
  As it is natural to believe many things without proof, so, despite all proof, is it natural to disbelieve others.  149
  Faith is the consolation of the wretched and the terror of the happy.  150
  The shortness of life can neither dissuade us from its pleasures, nor console us for its pains.  151
  Who are those that declare that the world has grown old? I easily believe them. Ambition, fame, love, in short all the passions of earlier ages, do not create the same disorder and the same noise. It is not perhaps that those passions are less keen to-day than they were formerly, but that they are disavowed and combated. I say that the world is like an old man who has preserved the desires of his youth, but who is ashamed of them, and hides them either because he is disillusionized of the merit of many things or because he wishes to appear so.  152
  Men dissimulate their dearest, most constant, and most virtuous inclinations from weakness and a fear of being contemned.  153
  We are too inattentive or too much occupied with ourselves to understand each other. Whoever has seen masks at a ball dance amicably together, and hold hands without knowing each other, to part the moment after to see each other no more, nor to regret each other, can form some idea of society.  154
  As there are many soldiers, and few brave ones, so there are many versifiers and almost no poets. Men crowd into honourable careers without other vocation than their vanity, or at best their love of fame.  155
  Everything has its reason, and everything happens as it ought; there is nothing against feeling nor nature. I agree, but I am not anxious that people should agree with me.  156
  Children are taught to fear and obey; the avarice, pride, or timidity of parents teaches children economy, arrogance, or submission. They are also encouraged to be imitators, a course to which they are already only too much inclined. No one thinks of making them original, courageous, independent.  157
  If children had teachers for judgment and eloquence just as they have for languages, if their memory was exercised less than their energy or their natural genius, if instead of deadening their vivacity of mind we tried to elevate the free scope and impulses of their souls, what might not result from a fine disposition? As it is, we forget that courage, or love of truth and glory are the virtues that matter most in youth; and our one endeavour is to subdue our children’s spirits, in order to teach them that dependence and suppleness are the first laws of success in life.  158
  It is in our own mind and not in exterior objects that we perceive most things; fools know scarcely anything because they are empty, and their heart is narrow; but great souls find in themselves a number of exterior things; they have no need to read or to travel or to listen or to work to discover the highest truths; they have only to delve into themselves and search, if we may say so, their own thoughts.  159
  A prince who is only good loves his servants, his ministers, his family, his favourite, and is not attached to his State; it is a great king who loves his people.  160
  A prince is great and lovable when he has the virtues of a king, and the weaknesses of a private man.  161
  Mediocre talent does not prevent great fortune, but neither procures it nor deserves it.  162
  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.  163
  Gaming, devoutness, wit, are three great advantages for women past their youth.  164
  It cannot be a vice in men to be sensible of their strength.  165
  The great do not know the common people, and have no desire to know them.  166
  Nothing endures except truth.  167
  It is not exactly truth which is most wanting in men’s ideas, but precision and exactitude. Absolute falseness is seldom met with in their thoughts, and truth, pure and complete, is still more rarely to be found in their expressions.  168
  We have not time enough to reflect on all our actions.  169
  Every condition has its errors and its lights; every nation has its morals and its genius, according to its fortune; the Greeks, whom we surpass in fastidiousness, surpassed us in simplicity.  170
  How few exact thoughts there are, and how many still remain for well-balanced minds to develop.  171
  He who needs a motive for lying is not born a liar.  172
  Whatever affection we have for our friends or relations, the happiness of others never suffices for our own.  173
  Great men are sometimes so even in small things.  174
  If a man is endowed with a noble and courageous soul, if he is painstaking, proud, ambitious, without meanness, of a profound and deep-seated intelligence, I dare assert that he lacks nothing to be neglected by the great and men in high office, who fear, more than other men, those whom they cannot dominate.  175
  The greatest evil that fortune can bring to men is to endow them with feeble resources and yet to make them ambitious.  176
  Mediocre men sometimes fear great office, and when they do not aim at it, or when they refuse it, all that is to be concluded is that they are aware of their mediocrity.  177
  War is waged at the present time between European nations so humanely, so skilfully, and with so little profit, that without a paradox it may be compared to the litigation of private persons where the expenses diminish the principal, and where men employ cunning rather than strength.  178
  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.  179
  The best things are the most common. You can purchase the mind of Pascal for a crown. Pleasures even cheaper are sold to those who give themselves up to them. It is only luxuries and objects of caprice that are rare and difficult to obtain; unfortunately they are the only things that touch the curiosity and taste of ordinary men.  180
  We must not be timid from a fear of committing faults: the greatest fault of all is to deprive oneself of experience.  181
  The days of early spring have less beauty than the budding virtue of a youth.  182
  The light of the dawn is not so sweet as the first glimpses of fame.  183
  Courage is the light of adversity.  184
  Wisdom is the tyrant of the weak.  185
  Peace renders nations happier and men weaker.  186
  We must not be too much afraid of being deceived.  187
  Nature has endowed mankind with divers talents. Some are born to invent, others to embellish; but the gilder attracts more attention than the architect.  188
  Nothing is more severe than justice.  189
  We are not always as unjust to our enemies as we are to our relations.  190
  In friendship, in marriage, in love, or in any other sort of intercourse, we desire to gain; and as the intercourse between friends, lovers, relations, brothers, and so forth is of a greater magnitude than any other, it is not surprising to find in it more ingratitude and injustice.  191
  The things we know best are those we have not learned.  192
  There does not exist a man sufficiently intelligent never to be tiresome.  193
  Whatever taste we may have for high affairs, there is no reading so tiresome and wearying as that of a treaty between princes.  194
  As nature has not made all men equal by merit, it seems she cannot make them so by fortune.  195
 
Note 1. “Très beau,” said Voltaire of this maxim, “Vauvenargues se peignait luî-même.” [back]
Note 2. Voltaire.—“C’est grand.” [back]
Note 3. ‘And to have our most obvious advantages pointed out to us.’—Later addition by Vauvenargues. [back]
 
 
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