17th-century French Moralists

Literary/ Cultural Context Essay

Elena Ciocoiu (Independent Scholar - Europe)
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Seventeenth-Century French Moralists

 “Nulle lecture n’est plus propice à la rêverie, nulle ne suscite mieux la méditation, l’interrogation sur les êtres” [No other reading is more favourable to the reverie, no other reading arouses meditation, the interrogation on beings in a better manner], wrote Louis Van Delft in his 1993 study Littérature et Anthropologie: Nature humaine et caractère à l’âge classique. Contemporary readers can reflect on this statement by discovering several texts by La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680), La Bruyère (1645-1696), Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), Pierre Nicole (1625-1695), the canonical French moralists on whom dictionaries and histories of literature generally focus when referring to a particular type of seeing and examining the world during the seventeenth century. For a better comprehension of the complex literary phenomenon which they represented, their writings can be confronted with those of several less known moralists, such as Madeleine de Souvré, Madame de Sablé (1599-1678), Antoine Gombaud, the chevalier de Méré (1607-1684), Damien Mitton (1618-1690) and Jean Domat (1625-1696). The comprehensive anthology Moralistes du XVIIe siècle: De Pibrac à Dufresny, edited under the supervision of Jean Lafond, also presents information on a plethora of minor moralists (including Jean Puget de La Serre, Madame de la Sablière and Monsieur de Moncade), whose texts perfectly complement the works of the canonical moralists.

What is a Moraliste?

It is important to note that seventeenth-century French moralists were not necessarily moralizers; their object of study was less akin to what we understand today as la morale [ethics] (a doctrine or a code focusing upon goodness, values and right actions), than it was to les mœurs (the customs and the practices of their contemporaries). Moreover, this group of authors did not regard themselves as moralistes, defined as judgmental authorities. In fact, the term moraliste, so often used today by literary historians and critics referring to the works of these writers, did not even appear in Jean Nicot’s Trésor de la langue française (1606) or César-Pierre Richelet’s Dictionnaire français (1680). Its first appearance in a French Dictionary was in 1690, in the context of Antoine Furetière’s Dictionnaire universel. Furetière defined le moraliste as an “auteur qui écrit, qui traite de la morale” [“author who writes, who deals with ethics”] ;  and he defined la morale as “la doctrine des mœurs, science qui enseigne à conduire sa vie, ses actions” [“the doctrine of customs, the science which teaches one how to live their life, how to lead their actions”]. It appears that in Furetière’s dictionary the difference between la morale and les mœurs was not yet clearly presented. Much later, in 1762, in the fourth edition of Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, the moraliste was to be defined as “[un] écrivain qui traite des mœurs” [“(a) writer who deals with customs”].

Beyond these summary definitions, it can be argued that, although they were preoccupied with the problematization of an axiology, most seventeenth-century French moralists were more interested in describing what they noticed around them than they were in teaching people how to live by invoking a particular set of moral codes or social regulations.  In the texts of most moralists, objective descriptions and universal statements are more frequent than normative or critical remarks. From this point of view, we should make a distinction between secular moralists, such as La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère, and religious moralists, such as Blaise Pascal and Pierre Nicole. Unlike La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère, Pierre Nicole often employs a didactic tone, in accordance with the Christian ethic that serves as a reference system for his Essais de Morale and for his role as a teacher at the Petites Écoles of Port-Royal, where he taught philosophy and humanities. However, it may be asserted that a particular set of behavioural norms and values are often implicitly privileged in the non-didactic texts of many moralists during Louis XIV’s reign, a period characterized by aesthetic, economic and social normalization.

Territories of Investigation

The seventeenth-century French moralists’ reflections on human behaviour was both inspired and perpetuated by the social circles they frequented along with the other bourgeois and aristocratic intellectuals of the time: the court and the salon. La Bruyère was, in his youth, the private tutor of le Grand Condé’s grandson, the chevalier de Méré served the duchesse de Lesdiguières and the duc de La Rochefoucauld was often present in Madame de Sablé’s salon. The fact that these authors had an insider’s perspective on the social dynamics of their time is suggested by the vivid, oral tone of many remarks appearing in their writings. But the reflections that the moralists formulated were also illuminated by the values promoted in texts by classical authors with whom many of them were familiar, the truths of which had been verified by the moralists’ direct experiences with them. Tacitus and Seneca, for example, served both as points of reference and as stylistic models for this influential group of authors.

In 1630, Nicolas Faret (1596-1646) published a treatise entitled L’Honnête Homme ou L’Art de plaire à la cour [The Proper Gentleman or the Art of Pleasing at Court], a prescriptive text that would come to present the behavioural model that many moralists would diffuse and refine in the works that followed. According to Faret, an honnête homme was a wise, empathetic and moderate person—a good conversationalist with whom it would be agreeable to spend time at court.  Faret’s treatise, which was republished eight times between 1630 and 1660, continued the tradition of Baldassare Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano [The Book of the Courtier] (1528). In 1680, Baltasar Gracián’s El Discreto [The Complete Gentleman] (published in Spanish in 1646), was translated into French. These three texts contributed to the gradual creation of what Hans Robert Jauss has described as a “horizon of expectation,” facilitating the reception of the moralists’ works during the second part of the seventeenth century.

Like Faret, several moralists were interested in examining the honnête homme as a psychological type and as an attitude in various social contexts modulated by surveillance and self-censorship. The court and the salon became territories of investigation, places where the Other became an object of study for moralists such as La Bruyère, La Rochefoucauld, Damien Mitton, and the chevalier de Méré, who were aware of the social tensions building up around them. It was here that they could observe and reflect upon the opposition of essence and appearance, the role of dissimulation in everyday life, the consequences of antagonistic relationships, the manipulation and supervision of human behavior, and the intricate nature of relationships between individuals and groups. During this period remarkable for theatrical productions, cynical moralists such as La Rochefoucauld revealed that, like the court, the world was no more than a theatre in which every individual had to be willing to change masks in order to survive.  

Some moralists simultaneously ascribed to and reacted against the strongly hierarchized social context that inspired many of their reflections. For instance, unlike many of his fellow writers, who enjoyed the privileges of a happy life at Louis XIV’s court and did not have the courage to question the relationships between the rich and the poor during that period, La Bruyère courageously denounced social injustices in his Caractères

The multiplication of the literary salons in Paris during the seventeenth century—with many emulatating the two famous salons run by the Marquise de Rambouillet and by Madame de Sablé—resulted in a more rigourous selection of the writers who read their works and of the texts which were gradually polished during the informal meetings. For example, La Rochefoucauld began the elaboration of his maxims in the effervescent atmosphere of Madame de Sablé’s literary salon during his conversations with Madame de Sablé and with his good friend Jacques Esprit (1611-1678). The composition of La Bruyère’s portraits also had a collective dimension: the portraits were inspired by a society game often played in Parisian salons during the seventeenth century. This intellectual exercise, in which the participants had to guess the name of the public figure whose portrait was presented or parodied by a talented speaker, was aesthetically crystallized by La Bruyère in his Caractères.

Forms of Expression

During the first half of the seventeenth century, the treatise was the genre frequently used by a series of religious moralists less known or nearly forgotten today, such as Pierre Charron (De la Sagesse) (1601) [On Wisdom], Nicolas Coëffeteau (Tableau des passions humaines) (1620) [Depiction of Human Passions], or Marin Cureau de La Chambre (Les Caractères des Passions) (1640-62) [On the Characters of Passions], Pierre Le Moyne (Les Peintures Morales) (1640-43) [The Moral Paintings]. In 1677-1678, Jacques Esprit treated the Augustinian theme of apparent virtues in a text entitled Fausseté des vertus humaines [Falseness of Human Virtues].

This opposition between false human virtues and real Christian ones appears as a leitmotif in several texts written during the second half of the seventeenth century. Indeed, the frequent use of the third person in the texts of many seventeenth-century French moralists, which suggests a constant search for objectivization, can also be considered a manifestation of their resistance to the overpowering amour-propre [self-love] so often denounced in La Rochefoucauld’s Maximes (1665) and in Pascal’s Pensées (1670), two works that were deeply influenced by Saint Augustine’s ethics. Saint Augustine’s theory of self-love and apparent virtues was brilliantly expressed in La Rochefoucauld’s Maximes as well as in Pierre Nicole’s Essais de Morale (1671-1679). Many moralists writing during the second half of the seventeenth century understood that they had to adapt their message to an audience formed of honnêtes gens: the short form—the maxim with all its variations—was more accessible than the treatise. Instead of writing similar long texts in which they analysed abstractions and defined concepts, several secular moralists adopted a pleasant tone, inspired by conversation, and either focused upon picturesque examples of behaviour (La Bruyère in his Caractères) or concentrated their reflection on human nature in rhythmical phrases (La Rochefoucauld in his Maximes, for example). La Rochefoucauld ingeniously abandoned the systematic approach defining Jacques Esprit’s Fausseté des vertus humaines, instead aiming to express his worldview in short phrases. The incisive style and the remarkable concision and semantic density of La Rochefoucauld’s maxims are the result of several successive revisions made by the author, who was receptive to the suggestions of his listeners.

In sum, if we attempt to organize the massive literary production of French moralists according to the forms of expression that they used, we can group their texts into the following genres: 1) treatises (like those by Charron, Coëffeteau and Cureau de La Chambre), 2) maxims (the most famous example being La Rochefoucauld’s Maximes), 3) reflections or pensées [thoughts] (in Blaise Pascal’s case, the pensées as a genre stems from the title chosen by editors to designate the fragments of his unfinished Apologie de la Religion Chrétienne [Defence of the Christian Religion] after the author’s death), 4) portraits (La Bruyère’s Caractères), and 5) essays (Pierre Nicole’s Essais de Morale). The choice of these literary genres and the moralists’ general preference for short forms clearly indicate the fact that the purpose of these authors was not a systematic presentation of reality, but a kaleidoscopic questioning of reality, a fragmented reality which scientists explored from many other points of view in the same period. Concomitantly, writers and scientists were looking for taxonomies and were examining laws and rules. The fragmentation characterizing the discourse of most moralists also signifies the explosion of meaning in a world sapped by uncertainty during the second part of the seventeenth century. In a paradoxical manner, by formulating general truths, the moralists sought to combat the noticeable dissolution of truth in everyday life. They attempted to analyse the unchanging human nature in a prosperous kingdom subversively tormented by social instability and by religious debates. As La Bruyère synthetically put it in the Discours sur Théophraste [Discourse on Theophrastus] included in his Caractères: “En effet, les hommes n’ont point changé selon le cœur et selon les passions; ils sont encore tels qu’ils étaient alors et qu’ils sont marqués dans Théophraste: vains, dissimulés, flatteurs, intéressés, effrontés, importuns, défiants, médisants, querelleux, superstitieux” (p. 13) [Indeed, people haven’t changed according to the heart and the passions; they are still as they were at that time and as they have been presented by Theophrastus: vain, hypocritical, flattering, self-interested, insolent, importunate, mistrustful, malicious, quarrelsome, superstitious].

Reception and Impact

The laborious creative process generating the writings of La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère and Pascal explains the strong impact that many of their well-turned phrases with mnemonic qualities have enjoyed since the end of the seventeenth century. Due to the various communication strategies used by these canonical moralists, the reader, who was familiar with the attitudes which they presented, became a partner in the construction of meaning and in the decodification of social practices. In the case of short forms, the construction of meaning is a process more complicated than it seems, because the brevity and the density of the phrases stating general truths, especially in La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims and in Pascal’s Pensées, often result in ambiguity. The fragment, especially when it is as carefully polished as it is with the moralists, has a stimulating function for the reader, who becomes a creative agent.

 It is worth underlining that several texts written by moralists were bestsellers during the seventeenth century: for example, La Rochefoucauld’s Réflexions ou Sentences et Maximes morales was published in 5 editions between 1665 and 1678 and La Bruyère’s Caractères in 9 editions between 1688 and 1696. The huge success of these works can be attributed not only to the psychological acuity defining the general truths they espouse, but also to their precise and expressive language. The writings of canonical moralists still function as a prism indicating the radical transformations undergone by French society and language during the seventeenth century.

It may be asserted that the contemporary reception of the writings of seventeenth-century French moralists implies two potential readings: a contextual reading, which involves the reader’s familiarization with the various mechanisms operating in French society during Louis XIV’s reign, and a non-contextual reading, which focuses upon the universal character of the moralists’ observations. By paraphrasing an expression used by Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) we might say that these moralists can be considered either painters of existence or “philosophers of existence.”  Both readings, the contextual and the non-contextual one, can help us meditate on human nature and analyse our relationships with the world around us. Many texts of the moralists whom we have mentioned here constitute, at the same time, a mirror of seventeenth-century France and a mirror of ourselves.

Works Cited

La Bruyère, Jean de. Les Caractères. Ed. Robert Garapon. Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1962.
Van Delft, Louis. Littérature et Anthropologie: Nature humaine et caractère à l’âge classique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1993.

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Citation: Ciocoiu, Elena. "17th-century French Moralists". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 17 May 2017 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=19498, accessed 29 March 2023.]

19498 17th-century French Moralists 2 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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