Wednesday, August 06, 2008

17th-Century Maxims for Today

The latest entry in Norm Geras' "Writer's choice" series is from Alain de Botton, who writes about his appreciation for La Rochefoucauld's Maxims. An early (and still one of the best) aphorist, La Rochefoucauld was withering. He wrote, "How comes it that our memories are good enough to retain even the minutest details of what has befallen us, but not to recollect how many times we have recounted them to the same person?"

It is this droll cynicism that de Botton loves most about Maxims. He writes:
La Rochefoucauld was writing in order to hold up a mirror to his own age, but unwittingly, he speaks for others down the centuries, and perhaps never more clearly than to our own time, because what La Rochefoucauld hates above all is sentimentality, and there are perhaps few more sentimental periods than our own. That's why the maxim of his that is most quoted concerns romantic love. It seems almost designed to shock us away from our taste in emotional melodrama, Hollywood films and saccharine pop music: 'Il y a des gens qui n'auraient jamais été amoureux s'ils n'avaient jamais entendu parler de l'amour' ('There are those who would never have fallen in love had they never heard love being talked about').
It's true that La Rochefoucauld is at his best when deconstructing us, but like most people who openly disdain sentimentality, he was capable of it himself. After all, another of his maxims goes, "The accent of one's birthplace persists in the mind and heart as much as in speech."

(Not too long ago, I started an Aphorism of the Week feature around here, which was short-lived. But I do hope to post them from time to time. I'll just have to rename the feature Aphorism of Time to Time.)


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