Jean de La Bruyère (French: 16 August 1645 – 11 May 1696) was a French philosopher and moralist.
La Bruyère was born in Paris, (not, as was once thought, at Dourdan (in today’s Essonne département)) in 1645. His family was middle class, and his reference to a certain Geoffroy de La Bruyère, a crusader, is only a satirical illustration of a method of self-ennoblement common in France as in some other countries. Indeed, he himself always signed the name Delabruyère in one word, as evidence of this. La Bruyère could trace his family back on his father’s side at least as far as his great-grandfather who along with his grandfather had been a dedicated member of the Catholic League and had been exiled from France when Henri IV came to the throne.
La Bruyère’s own father had also been active in the League under the Duke of Guise in 1584.His father was also controller general of finance to the Hôtel de Ville, and despite the country’s turmoil was able to pay for La Bruyère’s education and leave him a considerable sum.
The son was educated by the Oratorians and at the University of Orléans; he was called to the bar, and in 1673 bought a post in the revenue department at Caen, which gave him status and an income. His predecessor in the post was a relation of Jacques Benigne Bossuet, and it is thought that the transaction was the cause of La Bruyère’s introduction to the great orator Bossuet, who from the date of his own preceptorship of the Dauphin, was a kind of agent-general for tutorships in the royal family, introduced him in 1684 to the household of the Louis, Prince of Condé (1621–1686), to whose grandson Louis as well as to that prince’s girl-bride Mlle de Nantes, one of Louis XIV’s natural children, La Bruyère became tutor. The rest of his life was passed in the household of the prince or else at court, and he seems to have profited by the inclination which all the Condé family had for the society of men of letters.
Very little is known of the events of this part—or, indeed, of any part—of his life. The impression derived from the few notices of him is of a silent, observant, but somewhat awkward man, resembling in manners Joseph Addison, whose master in literature La Bruyère undoubtedly was. Yet despite the numerous enemies which his book raised up for him, most of these notices are favourable—notably that of Saint-Simon, an acute judge and one bitterly prejudiced against commoners generally. There is, however, a curious passage in a letter from Boileau to Racine in which he regrets that “nature has not made La Bruyère as agreeable as he would like to be.”
La Bruyère’s Caractères appeared in 1688, and at once, as Nicolas de Malézieu had predicted, brought him “bien des lecteurs et bien des ennemis” (many readers and many enemies).
At the head of these were Thomas Corneille, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle and Isaac de Benserade, who were clearly aimed at in the book, as well as innumerable other persons, men and women of letters as well as of society, identifiable by manuscript “keys” compiled by the scribblers of the day. The friendship of Bossuet and protection of the Condés sufficiently defended the author, and he continued to insert fresh portraits of his contemporaries in each new edition of his book, especially in the 4th (1689). Those, however, whom he had attacked were powerful in the Académie française, and numerous defeats awaited La Bruyère before he could make his way into that guarded hold. He was defeated thrice in 1691, and on one memorable occasion he had but seven votes, five of which were those of Bossuet, Boileau, Racine, Paul Pellisson and Bussy-Rabutin.
It was not till 1693 that he was elected, and even then an epigram, which, considering his admitted insignificance in conversation, was not of the worst, haeret lateri:
“Quand La Bruyère se présente
Pourquoi faut il crier haro?
Pour faire un nombre de quarante
Ne falloit il pas un zéro?”
His unpopularity was, however, chiefly confined to the subjects of his sarcastic portraiture, and to the hack writers of the time, of whom he was wont to speak with a disdain only surpassed by that of Alexander Pope. His description of the Mercure galant as “immédiatement au dessous de rien” (immediately below nothing) is the best-remembered specimen of these unwise attacks; and would of itself account for the enmity of the editors, Fontenelle and the younger Corneille. La Bruyère’s discourse of admission at the Academy, one of the best of its kind, was, like his admission itself, severely criticized, especially by the partisans of the “Moderns” in the “Ancient and Modern” quarrel. With the Caractères, the translation of Theophrastus, and a few letters, most of them addressed to the prince de Condé, it completes the list of his literary work, with the exception of a curious and much-disputed posthumous treatise.
La Bruyère died very suddenly, and not long after his admission to the Academy. He is said to have been struck dumb in an assembly of his friends, and, being carried home to the Hôtel de Condé, to have expired of apoplexy a day or two afterwards. It is not surprising that, considering the recent panic about poisoning, the bitter personal enmities which he had excited and the peculiar circumstances of his death, suspicions of foul play should have been entertained, but there was apparently no foundation for them. Two years after his death appeared certain Dialogues sur le Quiétisme, alleged to have been found among his papers incomplete, and to have been completed by the editor.
As these dialogues are far inferior in literary merit to La Bruyère’s other works, their genuineness has been denied. But the straightforward and circumstantial account of their appearance given by this editor, the Abbé du Pin, a man of acknowledged probity, the intimacy of La Bruyère with Bossuet, whose views in his contest with Fénelon these dialogues are designed to further, and the entire absence, at so short a time after the alleged author’s death, of the least protest on the part of his friends and representatives, seem to be decisive in their favour.
Although it is permissible to doubt whether the value of the Caractères has not been somewhat exaggerated by traditional French criticism, they deserve beyond all question a high place.
The plan of the book is thoroughly original, if that term may be accorded to a novel and skilful combination of existing elements. The treatise of Theophrastus may have furnished the first idea, but it gave little more. With the ethical generalizations and social Dutch painting of his original La Bruyère combined the peculiarities of the Montaigne Essais, of the Pensées and Maximes of which Pascal and La Rochefoucauld are the masters respectively, and lastly of that peculiar 17th century product, the “portrait” or elaborate literary picture of the personal and mental characteristics of an individual. The result was quite unlike anything that had been before seen, and it has not been exactly reproduced since, though the essay of Addison and Steele resembles it very closely, especially in the introduction of fancy portraits. La Bruyère’s privileged position at Chantilly provided him with a unique vantage point from which he could witness the hypocrisy and corruption of the Louis XIV’s court. As a Christian moralist, he aimed at reforming people’s manners and ways of thinking through publishing records of his observations of aristocratic foibles and follies, which earned him many enemies at the court.
In the titles of his work, and in its extreme desultoriness, La Bruyère reminds the reader of Montaigne, but he aimed too much at sententiousness to attempt even the apparent continuity of the great essayist. The short paragraphs of which his chapters consist are made up of maxims proper, of criticisms literary and ethical, and above all of the celebrated sketches of individuals baptized with names taken from the plays and romances of the time. These last are the great feature of the work, and that which gave it its immediate if not its enduring popularity. They are wonderfully piquant, extraordinarily lifelike in a certain sense, and must have given great pleasure or more frequently exquisite pain to the originals, who were in many cases unmistakable and in most recognizable.