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Jean de La Bruyère

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Born at Paris in 1645; died at Chantilly in 1696. He was the son of a comptroller general of municipal revenue. An advocate in the Parlement of Paris, he soon gave up the bar and purchased a post from the Treasurer of Finances at Caen (1673), continuing to reside at Paris. He was leading a studious life there "in the solitude of his study" according to his own expression, when Bossuet's friendship secured his admission into the house of Condé to teach history to the Duc de Bourbon, grandson of the victor of Rocroi. This boy was then six years old, and for two years received lessons from his new tutor. The latter only half succeeded in his task, but he secured the friendship of the great Condé, and remained at Chantilly attached to the duke's person, with a pension of 3000 livres, until he died of an attack of apoplexy in 1696, having been for three years a member of the French Academy. Favourably placed for seeing the world, and led to judge it without indulgence, both because of the rebuffs which he must have experienced in his subordinate position and because of his upright but proud and morose nature, he published anonymously in 1688 "Les Caractères de Théophraste, traduits du Grec, avec les caractères et les moeurs de ce siècle." The book met with great success. Though his means were modest, the author freely gave his manuscript to the bookseller Michallet as a contribution towards the dowry of his daughter, and it is claimed that it brought in nearly 300,000 francs. The first part of the book was a not very remarkable translation of a faulty text. The second part assumed larger proportions, especially as regards the "portraits." La Bruyère continued to add to it from the first edition (1689) to the ninth (1696). The first fifteen chapters, he said with some complacency in his rather loosely-drawn plan, "are preparations for the sixteenth and last, 'Des esprits forts,' in which Atheism is attacked and perhaps overthrown."

La Bruyère must not be regarded as a profound and powerful moralist like Pascal. He is a keen, honest, Christian observer and, above all, an admirable writer. But the stylist and the artist are too much in evidence; he lacks the large simplicity of the authors of the preceding generation. His art is, however, inimitable. Particularly striking is the variety, the finish of detail, the profusion of wit, the skill in securing an effect, the inexhaustible resources of his diction; his works are an inventory of the powers of the French language. By his ideas as well as his life he belongs to the seventeenth century, but his brief and sententious phrases foreshadow the eighteenth.


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