On August 16, 1645, French philosopher and moralist Jean de La Bruyère was born. La Bruyère is best known for one work, Les Caractères de Théophraste traduits du grec avec Les Caractères ou les moeurs de ce siècle (1688; The Characters, or the Manners of the Age, with The Characters of Theophrastus), which is considered to be one of the masterpieces of French literature.
“Life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think.”
— Jean de la Bruyere
A Lawyer and Private Scholar
Jean de La Bruyère came from a middle-class family that had probably only recently moved to Paris and, after studying law in Orléans in 1665, was admitted as a lawyer to the highest Parisian court, the Parlement. In 1671 he inherited a rich uncle with his three younger siblings and in 1673 he bought a position in the financial administration in Caen, which ennobled him pro forma, but did not require him to be present locally. Rather, he lived on as a reindeer in Paris and dilettanteed as a private scholar. Here he came across the character studies of the ancient polygraphist and Aristotle student Theophrastos (3rd century BC), which he began to translate from Greek.
The Power of Money in a Demoralized Society
“Making a book is a craft, like making a clock; it needs more than native wit to be an author.”
– Jean de la Bruyère, Des Ouvrages de l’Esprit
In 1684, on the recommendation of the bishop, prince educator and great preacher Bossuet, he was appointed précepteur (tutor) by the Prince de Condé, the head of a sideline of the royal house, to his grandson, the Duc de Bourbon, and remained in the Condé household as librarian at Chantilly. It is believed that his years there were rather unhappy. Even though La Bruyère was proud of his middle-class origin, he was a constant butt of ridicule because of his ungainly figure, morose manner, and biting tongue. However, his position also allowed La Bruyère to make observations “on the power of money in a demoralized society, the tyranny of social custom, and the perils of aristocratic idleness, fads, and fashions“.
Becoming a Sharp Observer
After he was married in 1687, La Bruyère remained in the Duc’s service as “gentilhomme” (a kind of noble domestic) and secretary and lived in his tow mainly in Paris, Chantilly and Versailles. As a marginal figure in the aristocratic milieu, he became its sharp observer and subsequently enriched Theophrastus’ “characters” with the representation of social types of his own time, whereby he preferred to focus on certain noble and pseudo-noble behaviors, but also on general human-all-human weaknesses, manias and ticks.
In 1688, Jean de La Bruyère’s Caractères was published. As Nicolas de Malézieu had predicted, the work brought him “bien des lecteurs et bien des ennemis” (many readers and many enemies). It appeared as an appendage to his translation of Theophrastus. La Bruyère’s aim was also that of Theophrastus: “to define qualities such as dissimulation, flattery, or rusticity and then to give instances of them in actual people, making reflections on the ‘characters’, or ‘characteristics’, of the time, for the purpose of reforming manners.” During La Bruyère’s lifetime, eight editions of the Caractères appeared. Because of their popularity, the portrait sketches were expanded and readers even started to put real names to the personages. La Bruyère’s satire was constantly sharpened by variety of presentation, and he achieves vivid stylistic effects, which were admired by such eminent writers as the 19th-century novelists Gustave Flaubert and the Goncourt brothers. The plan of the book is thoroughly original, if that term may be accorded to a novel, and skillful combination of elements exists in it. The treatise of Theophrastus may have furnished the concept, but it gave little more. With the ethical generalizations and social Dutch paintings accompanying his original, La Bruyère combined the peculiarities of the Montaigne Essais, of the Pensées, and Maximes of which Pascal and La Rochefoucauld are the masters respectively, and lastly of that peculiar seventeenth century product, the “portrait” or elaborate literary picture of the personal and mental characteristics of an individual.
“It is fortunate to be of high birth, but it is no less so to be of such character that people do not care to know whether you are or are not.”
– Jean de La Bruyère, Du mérite personnel
After a first unsuccessful attempt in 1691, La Bruyère’s dream came true in 1693: he was elected to the Académie française with the help of the King – in the conflict between traditionalists and progressives as candidates for the traditionalist “Anciens” and against the resistance of the progressive “Modernes“, which now set the tone there and which he deliberately provoked with his inaugural address. His unpopularity was, however, chiefly confined to the subjects of his sarcastic portraiture and to the hack writers of the time, of whom he was wont to speak with a disdain only surpassed by that of Alexander Pope. The Duke de Saint-Simon, the diplomat and memoirist, described him as honourable, lovable, and unpretentious. Shortly before his sudden death from a stroke, he wrote Dialogues sur le quiétisme, with which he supported his former patron Bossuet in his fight against Mme de Guyon and Fénelon.
Jean de La Bruyère died very suddenly, and not long after his admission to the Academy, in 1696.
References and Further Reading:
-  Jean de La Bruyère at Britannica Online
-  Jean de La Bruyère at Biography.com
-  Full text of “The “Characters” of Jean de la Bruyère”
-  Gustave Flaubert’s Scrupulous Devotion to Style and Aesthetics, SciHi Blog
-  Works by or about Jean de La Bruyère at Internet Archive
-  Jean de La Bruyere at wikidata
-  Timeline for Jean de la Bruyere, via Wikidata