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Virtue
What we term virtue is often but a mass of various actions and divers interests, which fortune, or our own industry, manage to arrange; and it is not always from valour or from chastity that men are brave, and women chaste.

This is the first Maxim in Francois Duc De La Rochefoucauld's long long list. As this is the first we're looking at, how should we go about reading it? Do we search for literary merit or look solely for meaning?

It certainly sounds alright. But isn't it remarkably easy to concur with something when phrased like this? The way he uses 'we' hardly gives us the choice to disagree, and if we were to say 'Wow Duc, that's quite the generalization,' he has the word often included so we know he isn't implying universality.

But I think there must be some truth to it. Think of a soldier on the battle field who fought dearly and helped his country win a triumphant battle. Afterwards he goes home to great parades and ribbons and ceremonies claiming him a God of Virtue. But couldn't he have just been fighting for his own life? To save his own skin? Is that wrong? No it's not wrong, but Duc is right, it's not virtue either. Sometimes the choice to do right by oneself is also touted as bravery.

What is Duc saying then? He is telling us to be weary of titles and honor because we really have no idea which actions were propelled by virtue and which were propelled by self-interest. Do you think though he is directing negativity towards those who let themselves be considered virtuous or chaste? I don't think so, rather I think he is merely drawing attention to our love for the hero and proposing a degree of skepticism to the matter.

What did you all think of his pronoun use? Why did he say "our own industry" rather than "their own industry?"  It must be more than a warning against idolizing a false hero, it is also a warning to us not to fool ourselves. Might this maxim suggest we should look very closely at our own motives so as not to give ourselves undue credit?
Books Discussed
La Rochefoucauld Maxims (Dover Books on Literature & Drama)
by La Rochefoucauld

Hi Annie,
Two small points. 
First, It is usually said in the army that you only get medals of honor for screwing up. If everything goes as it should go than there is nothing to get a medal for. If you screw up, then many times you need to be very brave to exit the situation, some people die, and then you get a medal.

Second, I think his move reflects a move from the single action to the mass of various actions. His book is about maxims, and each one might not carry much weight with it, but a mass of them do. I think from the very first maxim he wants to make it clear that the weight, the virtue, of the book will come from all of them together.
Great idea to start this Annie.
Hi Annie, Hi Georges,

Yes it seems hard to not agree with Les maximes, but it's said that growing old, La Rochefoucauld grew bitter and rewrote some of his maximes in the negative form. And they function just as well.

Just few points.

When he says "...which fortune, or our own industry, know how to arrange..." he points out that we are not aware, we are not a direct conscious part of this process. It's driven by forces above our control. For him these forces are "amour propre", pride, self pride??

If I am not mistaken, La Rochefoucauld was the first writer to make it that clear. Before him, we were more in descriptions of how a brave man should act.

Homere's Achilles was brave: He had strengths and weaknesses, but his persona, his character is complete, thoroughgoing?, wholly converging toward bravery. He doesn't pause, doesn't doubt, he is whole action.

Achilles (Troy movie) fights too but he is not thoroughgoing? he pauses, doubts. He is a modern neurotic hero who fights but doesnt seem to know why. I assume La Rochefoucauld would say his bravery is not virtue. Its origin is not entirely related to Achilles "valour" as a warrior.

I believe La Rochefoucauld invites his contemporaries to take a critical look to their actions, to get closer to awareness regarding what drives their choices.

Thank you for this topic, it forced me to review my classics.

Hicham.
That's an interesting point Hicham about the acting agent in valor. I'm reading with 21st century eyes of course, eyes that have been trained to look with a very Narcissistic lens. Do you think this sentiment exist any longer today? Fortune is a very old agent which many writers and thinkers looked at as an independent force in the world, one that can't be controlled. Now we like to think of ourselves as Gods of our own universe. Might we have anything to gain by reattaining La Rochefoucauld's view that virtues (and perhaps other things such as genius  and creativity ) are independent forces that we are granted from a higher/lower/different/other source other than ourselves? 

The words "manage to arrange" are particularly interesting. Who does the arranging? And what is our part? Do we have any role in our fate? I think that he must be saying that, us the individuals, provide the materials and cooking ingredients for some other entity to bake into something worth tasting. Entity doesn't necessarily mean divinity, it could just mean as he says fortune, our virtues might just be produced from a random generator like thing. But do you think he is suggesting that we have virtues or we don't? Can we grow into them or are we merely victim to mindless arranging and rearranging and luck above everything else?

And if virtue isn't as defined as we think it is, how can we measure our own intentions? How can we grade our own virtues?
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Latest Post: August 21, 2009 at 9:21 AM
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