By Francois de La Rochefoucauld, French author and moralist (1613-1680)
Francois de La Rochefoucauld was born into wealth and nobility. He joined the army at an early age and was wounded several times. He later fought with mutinous nobles against the crown and was again wounded, this time almost losing his life. He recovered and decided to be done with fighting, turning instead to intellectual pursuits. His wealth allowed him much time to read, and then to discuss life’s big questions with other aristocrats and intellectuals in the French salons. He is best known for his Maxims, (five editions, 1665-1678), which consist of over 500 concise, but meaningful and powerful reflections on human behavior. These maxims were distilled from his study, conversation, and abundant opportunities to observe human conflict, business, and pleasure. His maxims are not unlike those Biblical proverbs which simply describe, rather than prescribe, our emotions and actions.
The prevalent tone of La Rochefoucauld’s work is cynical, as one of his maxims declares, “our virtues are but vices in disguise.” He would seem to argue that in human behavior “everything is reducible to the motive of self-interest.” He never tires of pointing out the sordid motives behind our most virtuous actions.
Though his maxims contain many true insights, La Rochefoucauld does not proclaim the whole truth. His maxims are profound descriptions of the depths of human sin, but he has nothing to say about the redemption found in Christ Jesus or the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit. Reading La Rochefoucauld will not show you the way to believe in Jesus Christ and save your soul, but it might put you in mind to confess your sins, which is one of the first steps on the way to salvation.
We would frequently be ashamed of our good deeds if people saw all of the motives that produced them.
We should not be upset that others hide the truth from us when we hide it so often from ourselves.
Many people despise wealth, but few know how to give it away.
If we had no faults of our own we would not take so much pleasure in noticing those of others.
There are few people who are more often in the wrong than those who cannot endure to be so.
Before we set our hearts too much upon anything, let us examine how happy those are who already possess it.
Good advice is something a man gives when he is too old to set a bad example.
Hardly any man is clever enough to know all the evil he does.
It is only persons of firmness that can have real gentleness.
Nothing is so contagious as an example. We never do great good or evil without bringing about more of the same on the part of others.
Our enemies get nearer to truth in their judgments of us than we do of ourselves.
The refusal of praise is only the wish to be praised twice.
Small minds are much distressed by little things. Great minds see them all but are not upset by them.
We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others that in the end we become disguised to ourselves.
When we are unable to find tranquility within ourselves, it is useless to seek it elsewhere.
We rarely think people have good sense unless they agree with us.
The truest mark of being born with great qualities is being born without envy.
We need greater virtues to sustain good fortune than evil fortune.
Our desires always disappoint us; for though we meet with something that gives us satisfaction, yet it never thoroughly meets our expectations.
Those who apply themselves too much to little things often become incapable of great ones.
The desire to seem clever often keeps us from being so.
True bravery is to do, without a witness, all that we could do with the world looking on.
It is easier to be wise for others than for ourselves.
We forget our faults easily when they are known to ourselves alone.
What is called generosity is usually only the vanity of giving; we enjoy the vanity more than the thing given.
We pardon to the extent that we love.
To safeguard one’s health at the cost of too strict a diet is a tiresome illness.
As one grows older, one becomes wiser and more foolish.
Few people know how to be old.
Men give away nothing so liberally as their advice.
The intellect is always fooled by the heart.
How can we accept another to keep a secret if we have been unable to keep it ourselves?
True wisdom consists in a thorough knowledge of the real value of things.
We like to see through others, but we don’t like others to see through us.
Bodily labor alleviates the pains of the mind, and from this arises the happiness of the poor.
Jeremiah 17:9-10a — The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? “I the Lord search the heart and test the mind.”
Job 13:9 — Would it turn out well if he (God) examined you? Could you deceive him as you might deceive men?
I John 1:8 — If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
I Corinthians 3:18a — Do not deceive yourselves…
I John 1:9 — If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
Romans 3:22-24 — This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
A PRAYER OF CONFESSION BY MARTIN LUTHER: O Lord, I am your clay and you are the potter. You have declared me a sinner, and I accept your Word. I confess before you my godless condition and my sinful nature, in order that I may be humiliated and you be glorified. I, and all people, are in sin and death; but you, are life and righteousness. I, and all people, are full of evil, but you are the highest good. I am led to this confession not by my reason, but through your Word. Lord, I am in sin, but you are my righteousness. Therefore, I am happy and without fear, for my sin cannot outweigh nor overpower your righteousness. Neither will your righteousness permit me to remain a sinner. Blessed are you, O faithful God, my merciful Redeemer. In you alone do I trust, therefore I shall not be condemned. Amen.