Nietzsche and La Rochefoucauld: The Art of Concise and Polemical Writing By Yunus Tuncel

VOLUME IX, ISSUES I & II, FALL 2015 – SPRING 2016


As the stamp of great minds is to suggest much in few words, so, contrariwise, little minds have the gift of talking a great deal and saying nothing.
La Rochefoucauld, Maxims 142

Nietzsche spent six months in Sorrento, Italy, from October 1876 to May 1877 at the house of Malwida von Meysenbug where a group of free spirits—this is what they considered themselves to be—spent time reading, discussing, and writing. In addition to the hostess, Meysenbug, and Nietzsche, Nietzsche’s friend Paul Ree, and Albert Brenner also attended. Their readings included many French writers, including La Rochefoucauld, and Nietzsche starts writing his first book of aphorisms, Human, All Too Human, in this time period, a book written for free spirits. The significant place of La Rochefoucauld in Nietzsche’s style is not only due to his significance in French letters, but also because he was one of the first modern aphorists Nietzsche closely read and studied. Nietzsche recognizes LaRochefoucauld’s place in history in the first aphorisms of Chapter 2 of Human, All Too Human, as he refers to him and other French writers as “masters of psychical examination” (HAH, Aphorism 36, 32) and does not refrain from mentioning his friend, Paul Ree, among the company of masters, though not by his name. In what follows below, I will investigate LaRochefoucauld’s influence on Nietzsche’s aphoristic style—a bigger project would have included other aphorists such as La Bruyere, Vauvenargues, Chamfort, Lichtenberg, and Schopenhauer—and explore their relationship in the following aspects of this art of concise writing: psychological observation (or “psychical examination”); literary devices used such as puns, anaphora, alliteration, and accumulation, and polemic.

I. Psychological Observations

Aphoristic literature offers many insights about the human condition. Relying on this experience and insightfulness, the aphorist experiments with language and pushes its limits beyond what is effable. The list of human conditions is endless; in my research and teaching I usually focus on insights on human emotion among the aphorists. For this paper, I have chosen self-love and pity.

La Rochefoucauld’s book opens with his reflections on self-love, amour-propre, a phrase that is difficult to translate into English. Although it does have the connotation of love of one’s own self, it also connotes being proper in the same of having esteem or pride. In the first edition of his book published in 1665, La Rochefoucauld writes a lengthy aphorism on self-love, more than two pages, as he reveals its hidden layers; the English edition that is often used is based on the edition from 1678. In this edition La Rochefoucauld exposes this underlying “self-centeredness” or narcissism in all things that are human, which usually lies hidden (Aphorisms 2, 3, 4, 41, 81 et al) and ties with such things as self-interest. Even in acts of altruism and sacrifice, La Rochefoucauld detects self-love; the altruist, for instance, pretends not to have any interest. But for La Rochefoucauld this is only a pretense. “Self-love is subtler than the subtlest man of the world.” (Aphorism 4). Even pretension of modesty and humility, common among the pious, is a sign of self-love and self-interest. “Self-interest speaks all manner of tongues and plays all manner of parts, even that of disinterestedness.” (Aphorism 39).

The idea that we are almost always interested and altruism is only a posture of the weak to exercise power in an indirect way is a common theme in Nietzsche. In the last few aphorisms of Daybreak Book III, Nietzsche exposes the workings of altruism and the assumptions of “unegoistic action.” For one thing, there is no such thing as “unegoistic” for Nietzsche. Altruism is either a misunderstanding of ‘love’ or care, or an absence of love: “Cause of ‘altruism’.—Men have on the whole spoken of love with such emphasis and so idolized it because they have had little of it and have never been allowed to eat their fill of this food:…” (D, Aphorism 147). Even love itself is not bereft of the lover’s interest, which manifests itself in different forms. While being ready to die for the beloved, the lover often ensnares the beloved within the scheme of control. Nietzsche observes this aspect of love in Aphorism 14 of The Gay Science. “….indeed, that this love has furnished the concept of love as the opposite of egoism while it actually may be the most ingenuous expression of egoism.” I cannot discuss it at length here, but Aphorism 21 of GS is Nietzsche’s exposition of altruism and its problems.

Another issue I would like to discuss is pity. There are not many maxims La Rochefoucauld wrote on pity. One that I found is Maxim 264 where he writes: “Pity is often feeling our own sufferings in those of others, a shrewd precaution against misfortunes that may befall us…” He does, however, speak of pity in his self-portrait, which piqued Nietzsche’s interest. There La Rochefoucauld asserts that pity should have no place in a noble soul, because it weakens the heart (Maxims 28). Here are the other points he makes there: a) he is not touched by pity; b) he would show compassion and comfort people in affliction; c) pity can counteract misery and the stupidity it brings with it; d) one can show pity, but should not have it oneself (I think he means not harbor it for longer than needed). Nietzsche’s reflection on pity starts, in or around HAH Aphorism 50– there is only one aphorism on the subject just before this one, namely Aphorism 46–with a response to this passage from La Rochefoucauld and pity and the related feelings become central to Zarathustra’s teaching. Nietzsche accepts La Rochefoucauld’s conclusions on pity, but digs deeper and departs from his remarks on the stupidity of people (this may be an aristocratic bias on La Rochefoucauld’s part). Nietzsche adds that those who invoke pity want to inflict suffering on others. What they possess is “the power to hurt;” in this way they feel superior. “In this feeling of superiority of which the manifestation of pity makes him conscious, the unfortunate man gains a sort of pleasure…The thirst for pity is thus a thirst for self-enjoyment, and that at the expense of one’s fellow men…” (Nietzsche 39) These passages are not only Nietzsche’s first insightful observations on pity, but also the beginnings of his philosophy of power. Let’s read a little further from the same aphorism to see how he departs from La Rochefoucauld: “…it displays man in the whole ruthlessness of his own dear self: but not precisely in his ‘stupidity’, as La Rochefoucauld thinks…” Human beings are ruthless as much as they are social and will make their ruthlessness felt at the first opportunity they have; it is their power scheme. To call this stupidity is naïve and misses other layers in human relations. And finally Nietzsche asks in the spirit of a good psychological observer: “But will there be many honest men prepared to admit that causing pain gives pleasure?”

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