Pith & Vinegar: Francois de La Rochefoucauld

I’m currently re-reading a book called Readings by Michael Dirda. It was published in 2000, and I’m not sure but this is probably my 4th or maybe 5th time through it. It’s one of my all time favorites. It’s a superb book of “essays and literary entertainments.” There is an essay in the book called Maxims, Etc. In this piece Dirda tells us that his favorite type of book has been the journal, or collection of letters, books of maxims and observations—which, I’m happy to say, is a taste both Dirda and I share.

After an opening discussion in his essay, Dirda lists some of his favorite books of this type along with some of his favorite maxims from them under the subtitle Pith and Vinegar. I, too, have a large cash of maxims from my readings in my ever growing digital commonplace book. So, with that in mind, I’ve decided I’m borrowing Dirda’s subtitle for all maxims I post on this diary going forward.

I will begin with a short list of maxims from one of the great maxim-ists of western history, Francois de La Rochefoucauld.

fran

 

The person who lives without folly is not as wise as he thinks.

Little minds are too easily wounded by little things; great minds see all such things without being wounded by them.

Most young people think they are being natural when they are merely uncivil and uncouth.

Average minds usually condemn whatever is beyond their grasp.

Fortune reveals our virtues and vices, just as light reveals objects.

The Art of Swifting

Right now I’m reading a superb biography on Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745) by Leo Damrosch. Swift is one of the most memorable personalities in the history of literature. This biography is hard to put down. The book is a masterpiece of prose and storytelling itself. Swift was an essayist and satirist with a sharp mind and a burning wit. For me, Swift’s most memorable quotes, the ones that remain in my mind when I think of Swift, are:

“The latter part of a wise man’s life is taken up in curing the follies, prejudices, and false opinions he had contracted in the former.”

“Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect: like a man, who hath thought of a good repartee when the discourse is changed, or the company parted; or like a physician, who hath found out an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead.”

“If a man would register all his opinions upon love, politics, religion, learning, etc., beginning from his youth and so go on to old age, what a bundle of inconsistencies and contradictions would appear at last!”

“There is nothing in this world constant, but inconstancy.”

“…the most pernicious race of odious vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.”

Swift is mostly known for his satirical story called Gulliver’s Travels. If you’re over 40 you may have had to read this story in middle school or high school. George Orwell, himself probably one of the top 5 English language essayists to ever pick up a pen, thought Gulliver’s Travels probably meant more to him than any other book ever written. Orwell said there was rarely a year that went by without him dipping into Swift’s classic. Orwell wrote an excellent essay on Swift well worth reading.

What brought me to writing this post was a rather humorous passage in Damrosch’s biography that highlights Swift the writer and Swift the personality. Swift was not, at least in many of his writings, a politically correct writer. He didn’t suffer fools gladly and he had little patience for literary cant. On Page 209 of Damrosch’s book he writes:

Commenting on a history of the Church, he [Swift] once rewrote an overelaborate passage in order to bring it to life. Here is the original text, describing unworthy clergymen: “They are an insensible and degenerate race, who are thinking of nothing but their present advantages; and so that they may now support a luxurious and brutal course of irregular and voluptuous practices, they are easily hired to betray their religion, to sell their country, and to give up that liberty and those properties which are the present felicities and glories of this nation.” That’s barely readable. Swift’s version gets rid of the big words and abstractions, and leaps from the page: “The bulk of the clergy, and one third of the bishops, are stupid sons of whores, who think of nothing but getting money as soon as they can. If they may but procure enough to supply them in gluttony, drunkenness, and whoring, they are ready to turn traitors to God and their country, and make their fellow subjects slaves.”

We could almost say this bitting, straightforward, no pulling punches writing style, is what we might call Swifting or the Art of Swifting.

A Quote to Note

John Ruskin

“A wise man always finds some support for himself in everything, because his gift is in obtaining goodness from everything.” — John Ruskin

Changing our Mind

I’m currently reading Robert Skidelsky’s single-volume biography of John Maynard Keynes. Keynes was one of the most remarkable economist, thinkers and writers of the 20th century. His letters and books are full of witty remarks and unique turns of phrase. Here’s some examples:

  • “But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.”
  • “Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking.”
  • “If you owe your bank a hundred pounds, you have a problem. But if you owe a million, it has.”
  • “There is no harm in being sometimes wrong — especially if one is promptly found out.”
  • “Markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.”
  • “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”
  • “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.”

One of my favorite Keynes quotes involves his reply to a criticism of him for changing his mind on a policy position he’d taken in the past. In a sharp and arresting retort Keynes replied, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

Keynes was insinuating two things in this remark: One, changing our mind is naturally what we do as we become more educated on a subject over time. That’s just common sense old chap! And two, “What do you do, sir?” is Keynes’s way of asking his critic if he’s one of those people who prefers the “hobgoblin” of consistency over intellectual integrity. A question we should all be asking ourselves.

Changing our mind is something honest and thoughtful people must sometimes do. Changing our mind about various ideas and beliefs is something we should be doing over our lifetimes as we experience and learn. It’s the true sign of a mature mind. This is especially true in politics, where many people’s beliefs are based more on gut and party than a thoughtful evaluation of people, policy, facts, and sincere interests. “Life is,” as James Barrie said, “one long lesson in humility.”

The safest course is to always remain humble about knowledge and certainty while remaining open minded and intellectually curious.