Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Selected Reflections
By François, duc de La Rochefoucauld (1613–1680)
Translation of A. S. Bolton (see full text)

On Society

IN speaking of society, it is not my intention to speak of friendship: although they have some connection, they are nevertheless very different; of the two, the second has more elevation and humility, and the greatest merit of the other is to resemble it.  1
  I shall speak, then, at present only of the particular intercourse which well-bred people ought to have with each other. It would be useless to say how necessary society is to man. All desire it, and all seek it; but few make use of the means to render it pleasant and to make it lasting. Every one wishes to find his own pleasure and advantage at the expense of others: we always prefer ourselves to those we propose to live with; and we almost always make them feel this preference: it is this which disturbs and breaks up society. We ought at least to know how to conceal this preference, since it is too much part of our nature for us to be able to conquer it. We ought to derive our pleasure from that of others, to spare their self-love, and never to wound it.  2
  The mind has a large part in so great a work; but alone, it does not suffice to lead us in the various roads we must travel. The harmony which is met with between minds would not long preserve society if it were not ruled and supported by good sense, by temper, and by the regard which ought to exist between people who wish to live together. If it sometimes happens that persons opposed in temper and in mind appear to be united, they doubtless hold together from extraneous causes, which do not last long. We may also be in society with persons to whom we are superior by birth or by personal qualities: but those who have this advantage ought not to abuse it; they ought seldom to make it felt, and only make use of it for the instruction of others. They ought to make them see that they need to be guided, and lead them by reason, adapting themselves as much as is possible to their feelings and their interests.  3
  To make society agreeable, all its members should preserve their liberty. They should either not see each other, or should see each other without constraint, and with a view to mutual enjoyment. They should be able to part without that parting causing a change. They should be able to do without each other, if they would not expose themselves sometimes to being in the way; and they should remember that they often bore others when they think it impossible ever to bore them. They should contribute as much as is possible to the amusement of those with whom they desire to live, but they should not always burden themselves with the care of contributing to it. In society, compliance with the wishes of others is necessary, but it ought to have limits: it becomes a slavery when it is excessive. It should at least appear to be free; and that in following the sentiments of our friends they should believe we are also following our own.  4
  It should be easy to find excuses for our friends when their faults are born with them, and when they are fewer than their good qualities. We should often avoid letting them see that we have observed them and are shocked at them. We should endeavor so to manage that they may see them themselves, to leave them the merit of correcting them.  5
  There is a kind of politeness which is necessary in the intercourse of well-bred people: it makes them familiar with raillery, and prevents them from taking or giving offense by sharp and hard forms of speech, which often escape us without our thinking of it when we support our opinion with warmth.  6
  Intercourse between well-bred people cannot exist without a certain sort of confidence: it ought to be common among them; every one should have an air of security and discretion which never gives rise to fear that anything could be said imprudently.  7
  There should be variety in the mind: those who have only one kind of mind cannot please long. We may take various roads, not having the same talents, provided that we contribute to the pleasure of society, and observe in it the same propriety which different voices and different instruments ought to observe in music.  8
  As it is not easy for several persons to have the same interests, they must at least, for the comfort of society, have no conflicting ones. We ought to anticipate what may please our friends, seek the means of being useful to them, save them from troubles, let them see that we share them with them when we cannot turn them aside, efface them insensibly without pretending to pluck them away at once, and replace them with agreeable subjects, or at least with such as engage their attention. We may talk to them of their own concerns; but only so far as they allow us to do so, and in that we ought to observe great discretion. There is politeness and sometimes even humanity in not going too far into the recesses of their heart: people often feel pain in showing all they know of them, and still more when we penetrate to what they do not know well. Although the intercourse which well-bred people have together gives them familiarity, and supplies them with numberless topics for frank conversation, scarcely any one has sufficient docility and good sense to receive in good part much of the advice that is necessary for preserving society. We like to be advised up to a certain point, but we do not like to be so in all things; and we are afraid to know all kinds of truths.  9
  As we ought to preserve distances in order to see objects, we should preserve them also for society. Every one has his point of view from which he desires to be seen; we are generally right in not liking to be seen too closely, and scarcely any man likes to be seen in all things such as he is.  10
On Conversation

THE REASON why so few people are agreeable in conversation is, that every one thinks more of what he wishes to say than of what others say. We should listen to those who speak, if we would be listened to by them; we should allow them to make themselves understood, and even to say pointless things. Instead of contradicting or interrupting them, as we often do, we ought on the contrary to enter into their mind and into their taste, show that we understand them, praise what they say so far as it deserves to be praised, and make them see that it is rather from choice that we praise them than from courtesy. We should avoid disputing about indifferent things, seldom ask questions (which are almost always useless), never let them think that we pretend to more sense than others, and easily cede the advantage of deciding a question.
  We ought to talk of things naturally, easily, and more or less seriously, according to the temper and inclination of the persons we entertain; never press them to approve what we say, nor even to reply to it. When we have thus complied with the duties of politeness, we may express our opinions, without prejudice or obstinacy, in making it appear that we seek to support them with the opinions of those who are listening.  12
  We should avoid talking much of ourselves, and often giving ourselves as example. We cannot take too much pains to understand the bent and the compass of those we are talking with, in order to link ourselves to the mind of him whose mind is the most highly endowed; and to add his thoughts to our own, while making him think as much as is possible that it is from him we take them. There is cleverness in not exhausting the subjects we treat, and in always leaving to others something to think of and say.  13
  We ought never to talk with an air of authority, nor make use of words and expressions grander than the things. We may keep our opinions, if they are reasonable; but in keeping them, we should never wound the feelings of others, or appear to be shocked at what they have said. It is dangerous to wish to be always master of the conversation, and to talk of the same thing too often; we ought to enter indifferently on all agreeable subjects which offer, and never let it be seen that we wish to draw the conversation to a subject we wish to talk of.  14
  It is necessary to observe that every kind of conversation, however polite or however intelligent it may be, is not equally proper for all kinds of well-bred persons; we should choose what is suited to each, and choose even the time for saying it: but if there be much art in knowing how to talk to the purpose, there is not less in knowing how to be silent. There is an eloquent silence,—it serves sometimes to approve or to condemn; there is a mocking silence; there is a respectful silence. There are, in short, airs, tones, and manners in conversation which often make up what is agreeable or disagreeable, delicate or shocking: the secret for making good use of them is given to few persons, those even who make rules for them mistake them sometimes; the surest, in my opinion, is to have none that we cannot change, to let our conversation be careless rather than affected, to listen, to speak seldom, and never to force ourselves to talk.  15

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