Jean de La Bruyère and the Characters

Jean de La Bruyère

Jean de La Bruyère (1645-1696)

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

Jean de La Bruyère studied law at Orléans.  In 1665 he was admitted to the highest court in Paris, the Parlement. In 1671 he inherited a rich uncle with his three younger siblings and bought an office in Caen in 1673, which ennobled him pro forma but did not require him to have a local presence. He continued to live as a reindeer in Paris and dabbled 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.

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“.

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.

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. 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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