Comments on La Rochefoucauld

I will be posting short essays on each of La Rouchefoucauld's Maxims

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I am the author of "Diaphysics," a poet, playwright, and interdisciplinary scholar. I am married and have a daughter and two sons. I have a Ph.D. in the Humanities, a M.A. in English, and a B.A. in recombinant gene technology and chemistry.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Maxim 630

"Of all our passions the least well understood by ourselves is laziness. It is the most violent and malignant of all, though its violence is imperceptible and its ravages exceedingly difficult to see. If we carefully examine its power we shall see that in every eventuality it takes over the mastery of our emotions, interests and pleasures. It is the remora, which has the strength to bring the mightiest ships to a standstill, the calm that is more dangerous to important affairs than breakers and the fiercest tempests. The tranquility of laziness casts a secret spell over the soul that suddenly puts a stop to the most relentless pursuits and brings to nought the most unbreakable resolutions. In conclusion, this passion can best be described by saying that laziness is as it were a blissful state of the soul that consoles it for every loss and is welcomed as a substitute for every good."

If we take a sociobiological view, we can understand that laziness is something common among social mammals – including our closest kin, the chimpanzees, who spend far more hours lying around doing nothing than hunting or gathering. Of course, much of this laziness is brought about from living in the tropics, where too much activity in the heat and humidity could be fatal – thus, laziness is a necessary behavioral adaptation. Considering that humans evolved in the African tropics too, our own laziness can be understood.

And yet, lazy people live off the work of others. Lazy people prevent us from having as much material well-being as we could have. Lazy people prevent the hard workers from having all they have earned, and thus create resentment in the world.

And yet, we need to be lazy, to rejuvenate and contemplate. We need to be lazy to enjoy the fruits of our labors. We need to be lazy because life is not all work and material rewards.

I heard a joke one time about an American capitalist meeting a third world fisherman. The fisherman was napping during the middle of the day, and the American chastised him, pointing out that if the man were working, he could catch more fish, which would bring him more money, and with the money he could buy a bigger boat and hire people to catch even more fish to make even more money, and that the man could then buy more boats, hire more people, catch even more fish, and make even more money. The fisherman looked up at the American and said, "Why would I want to spend my entire life working so hard?" The American replied, "Well, when you’re rich enough, you can retire and take it easy." The fisherman put his hat back over his head and said, "What do you think I’m doing now?"

Of course, both men are right. The fisherman will get to be lazy now, and in the future. The American will get to be lazy only in the future. But what is not shown in the joke is that the fisherman being lazy now means his town will remain poor, while if he took the American’s advice, his town would become much more wealthy, and more people in the town would be able to eat more and better, and all of those people would be able to live long enough to retire.

Maxim 631

"Men make virtues out of various acts thrown together by mere chance."

Let us consider some of the words La Rouchefoucauld uses here. The word "virtue" comes from the Latin for "manliness." So, to be virtuous is to be manly. And what does it mean to be "manly"? The various answers to that give us our various virtues. Next, to act means both to do something, and to pretend to do something. If one acts "in life," one is doing something, while if one acts "on the stage," one pretends that one is doing something. Further, plays are divided up into "acts," or parts that are small wholes that together make up a larger whole. The actions in the acts make up the action of the play, and the meaning of the play. But the playwright goes not throw his acts together by mere chance, but by plan. Do men live according to their plans? How many people have actually lived their lives fully according to a preformualted plan? You cannot plan for all the things that will happen to you – from your perspective, there is too much that will happen randomly, by mere chance. And how do we react to what happens to us by mere chance? It is easy to act virtuously in a world where each action is planned, where chance is removed. But the world is not one where chance is removed. And what do we do under those circumstances? Do we act virtuously, or do we look back on our actions, read them into a consistent narrative, see the acts placed together in their proper order, and read our actions as having been virtuous? When we are consistent with our interpretation of what it means to be manly, we make these out to be virtues, and ourselves to have been virtuous.

Incidentally, since virtue is manliness, is it any wonder that American feminists have associated acting like men with good action? Goethe associates virtue with manliness (consistent with the etymology), and aesthetics with womanliness, or the feminine. Thus, we can understand what Goethe means at the end of Faust when he writes "The eternal feminine draws us on high," in combination with issues of virtue in the poem. Ethics and aesthetics need to be brought together – the masculine and the feminine unified as yin and yang – bound together as they should be, in an attractive-repulsive bond.

Maxim 632

"We enjoy seeing through others, but not being seen through."

To take this "literally," or to take it as a play on words. We do like being able to "see through" others, to have them transparent to our gaze, to understand their motivations, to know what they really mean. This is why we have Bible literalists – they want a work that is transparent, something truly impossible, since the world is interpretable, and this most obviously includes written texts such as the Bible. But at the same time, we don’t want to be transparent. We want to be mysterious, to have our motivations not fully understood. By being mysterious, we remain interesting.

But if we think about the wording another way: we enjoy seeing the world through others... Which we do, because the different perspectives will either help to inform our own views, or they will give us something to be against. We love to be a part of a larger group – we are social mammals, after all – but at the same time, to be part of a larger group means to also be against another group. Thus, we have to be for, and against. Us versus Them.

But does this latter interpretation make sense for the second part of the sentence? How many writers would be completely satisfied if everything they wrote were completely, unqualifiedly understood? We all like to fancy ourselves better writers than that. Which makes it all the more ironic that Bible literalists insist that the Bible is so poorly written as to be transparently obvious in what it means.