L

La Bruyère, Jean de French, 1645-1696

The story is told about La Bruyère that he often visited Étienne Michallet, who would eventually become his publisher, and enjoyed playing with the book dealer's young daughter. On the day he offered Michallet the manuscript of Les Caractères ou mœurs de ce siècle (The Characters, or the Manners of the Age), La Bruyère, uncertain of the book's chances for success, proposed that any profits from the work become the dowry of Michallet's daughter. Since her dowry was substantial, the story may well be true. The author who emerges from the pages of the Characters, however, is anything but a carefree, resilient man given to spontaneous gestures of liberality. On the contrary, La Bruyère is a sharp, at times bitter observer of the foibles of humankind. His trenchant prose cuts to the core -- often unpleasant -- of issues and personalities. In its acuity of perception, attention to detail, and insistence on stylistic perfection, La Bruyère's work reflects, above all, the author's devotion to writing.

La Bruyère is best known for his Characters, first published in 1688 together with his translation of the Characters of Theophrastus (wr. c. 319 BCE). The translation of Theophrastus is based primarily upon the Latin translation by Isaac Casaubon ( 1592 and 1599), although La Bruyère clearly knew Greek and consulted the original text. In 1693, La Bruyère was elected to membership of the French Academy. The Discours (Discourse) he delivered on the day of his reception was immediately attacked, and he had it reprinted in the eighth edition of his Characters, this time with a preface in which he defends himself. Aside from some letters, most of them to Louis II de Bourbon, Prince de Condé about his grandson, for whom La Bruyère had been appointed tutor, the author's only other published work is the Dialogues sur le quiétisme (Dialogues on Quietism). Here La Bruyère sides with his friend and supporter the Bishop of Meaux, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, against the Quietists, a small sect of religious mystics who believed in the total abandonment of the human will in the contemplation of God's presence. The nine dialogues were published posthumously in 1698, but carry a 1699 publication date. Ellies du Pin, their editor, appears to have written the last two dialogues and undoubtedly altered the others. This work is not an important literary achievement. La Bruyère is, finally, a writer whose greatness rests on one text -- the Characters.

That work was far more popular than either its author or its publisher had foreseen. During La Bruyère's lifetime, eight successive editions appeared, and in the course of their publication, the work more than doubled in size. Taking his society and its inhabitants as raw material, La Bruyère set out, as he says in the preface of the Characters, to "paint mankind in general." He was simply giving back to the public what it had given him. This he did in a series of aphorisms, remarks, descriptive passages, and portraits, organized into 16 chapters whose titles cover a wide diversity of subjects, among them the works of the mind, women, the heart, the court, the town, the sovereign, humankind, the pulpit, and freethinkers. La Bruyère claimed that the individual fragments of each chapter had "a certain gradual connection," but this seems to be more self-justification than the enunciation of a principle to which he consciously adhered as he wrote.

The most memorable and controversial passages in the Characters are the portraits of imaginary individuals. These are drawn with brilliant stylistic finesse and are recognized as models of literary portraiture. Some of the best known of these character studies are those of Ménippe, who has no thoughts of his own but merely repeats the sentiments of others; the hopelessly absent-minded Ménalque; the hyper-hypocritical Onuphre, based on Molière's Tartuffe; and the couple Giton and Phédon, whose physical beings correspond exactly to their financial circumstances of extraordinary wealth in the one case and abject penury in the other.

From shortly after the first appearance of the Characters, clefs (keys) claiming to identify the imaginary characters began to be published. However, La Bruyère maintained that he did not, in creating each portrait, take specific people as his subjects. The real interest of the Characters has little to do with whom La Bruyère may have had in mind in any particular passage. In the preface to his speech before the French Academy, he asserts that "every writer is a painter, and every excellent writer an excellent painter." He later defends his Characters as being precisely what he had said they would be: a portrayal of "mankind in general."

La Bruyère's portrait of humankind as it develops through the editions of the Characters has a paradoxical quality. As one of the major moralistes of 17th-century French literature, La Bruyère, like his counterparts La Rochefoucauld and Pascal, is a keen observer of human beings. What he observes, however, does not always correspond perfectly with what this orthodox Catholic monarchist believes; and therein lies something of the fascination that his work holds for readers today.

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Encyclopedia of the Essay
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Editor's Note vii
  • Advisers ix
  • List of Entries xiii
  • Preface xix
  • A 1
  • C 137
  • D 203
  • E 239
  • F 273
  • G 319
  • H 373
  • I 419
  • J 425
  • K 443
  • L 457
  • M 503
  • N 591
  • O 611
  • P 629
  • Q 683
  • R 685
  • S 725
  • T 829
  • U 865
  • V 871
  • W 883
  • Y 911
  • Z 915
  • Indexes 925
  • General Index 961
  • Notes on Advisers and Contributors 981
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