LIKE Bossuet, La Bruyère was closely associated with the Condé household, but unlike Bossuet, whom he knew and admired, he was never in a position to assert himself in that or any other milieu. The tribute of the Oraison funèbre on le Grand Condé is from one great man to another, but in La Bruyère it is the total absence of any sort of greatness which perhaps more than any other factor characterizes his work. Whether dealing with his patrons and employers, or with the Académie, or with society in general, La Bruyère shows his constant awareness of a personal mediocrity from which he never tried to escape. For a penetrating and masterly study of Louis XIV and his age we may prefer to turn to Saint-Simon, even Voltaire, but if we want to know what it felt like to be alive in the dawn--and sunset too-- of le roi Soleil, La Bruyère is the man to tell us.
Totally engagé in the system of which he was at once part and critic, La Bruyère came of bourgeois stock as modest as his own achievements. He lacks the lofty, and cynical, condescension which so often exasperates the reader of the Maximes; as a sincere but conventional Catholic he neither inspires nor dismays as does Pascal in the Pensées; in his range of experience and intention he is probably closer to Molière, without the genius, than to either of the moralistes with whom his name is often linked. In their chosen field of observation, the Caractères range much more widely than the aristocratic Maximes, and even the Pensées, whose social context is determined by the status of the type of unbeliever to whom Pascal specifically addressed his apology, though its universal message transcends social limitations. In La Bruyère the canvas is fuller and more representative: from the peasant toiling in the field to Louis shining on his throne all classes make an appearance. Even allowing for a generation's development it is remarkable how often La Bruyère's observations confirm and amplify those of his predecessors. There remains the paradox that the very accuracy and detail of his work from which it derives