Jean de La Bruyère and the Characters

Jean de La Bruyère

Jean de La Bruyère

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.

Jean de La Bruyère studied law at Orléans. He later became tutor to the Duke de Bourbon, grandson of the Prince de Condé, 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”.

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 the 4th-century BC character writer Theophrastus. La Bruyère 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.

Jean de La Bruyère was elected to the French Academy in 1693. The Duke de Saint-Simon, the diplomat and memoirist, described him as honourable, lovable, and unpretentious. La Bruyère died very suddenly, and not long after his admission to the Academy, in 1696.

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