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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA035-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 11, 2021, from

Article Summary

The moralistes constitute a tradition of secular French writing about human nature and political and social behaviour principally in the context of the court and the salon. Their non-systematic observations about mankind are couched in literary forms, such as the maxim and the pen-portrait, appropriate to the social context from which they emerged. The four principal moralistes of the ancien régime were La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère, Vauvenargues and Chamfort. La Rochefoucauld’s Maximes (1665) constitute a sharp attack on the neo-Stoic moral optimism of the first half of the seventeenth century, and determine self-love to be the mainspring of all human behaviour. La Bruyère’s Caractères (1688) is a more diverse work in both form and content: it contains a satire of the follies and vices of his age, as well as vivid pen-portraits. There are implicit contradictions in the moral norms governing this often indignant denunciation of men and society. Vauvenargues, writing some fifty years later, expresses more confidence in human nature, rehabilitating the passions and arguing for the moral value of self-love of a certain kind. This optimism is not shared by Chamfort, whose Maximes et pensées (1795) reverts to the cynical tone of his seventeenth-century predecessors in the genre. These writers do not attempt to systematize their thoughts, and they choose to express themselves in urbane and witty ways rather than in sober prose, but they carry out the Cartesian programme of employing ‘common sense’ and native intellectual powers to the end of uncovering aspects of human nature and behaviour accessible to observant people free from moral or religious preconceptions.

Citing this article:
MacLean, Ian. Moralistes, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA035-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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