In 1795, the year following the Terror, the critic Pierre-Louis Ginguené published in four volumes the Works of his late friend and mentor Nicolas Chamfort, including in them some hundreds of “Maxims, Characters, and Anecdotes.” In his prefatory memoir he explained their origin: Chamfort, he said, had been

for many years in the habit of writing, each day, on little squares of paper the fruits of his reflections, reduced to maxims; the anecdotes he had gleaned; the events, illustrative of the history of manners, that he had witnessed in society; and the piquant epigrams and brilliant repartees he had heard or had perpetrated himself.

He had, wrote Ginguené, thrown all these little scraps pell-mell into folders, telling nobody what he intended to do with them, and it was from what remained of these notes after his death—a large number having mysteriously gone missing—that Ginguené had made his selection.

These “Maxims, Characters, and Anecdotes” caught the world’s imagination instantly, both for their own sake and because of the romance of their origin. For here was a man fêted and pampered by the grand monde of the ancien régime—the very prototype of pensioned idleness and frivolous salon display—who all the time had been taking secret notes on this monde and bestowing drops of acid upon it. Here, moreover, was a parasite of the “great” who had welcomed the Revolution with open arms, with a euphoria as intense as his fate under it was to be horrific.

For these first readers, as for later ones, Chamfort was an intriguingly ambivalent figure. He was so, for instance, for Chateaubriand. As a young man, Chateaubriand had known Chamfort and felt overshadowed by him, and when he was exiled to London by the Revolution, he read Ginguené’s volumes with tears. In an Essai sur les révolutions, which he wrote at this time, he characterized Chamfort and his witty sayings, together with those of La Rochefoucauld, as—no less—the type of modern wisdom, compared with that of the Seven Sages. When he reread this thirty years later, the disgust of the ambassadorial Chateaubriand had no bounds. “Let alone the impertinence of comparing certain witty maxims of Chamfort with the maxims of the Sages of Greece,” he exploded in a footnote, “there is total error in the judgment that I bring here on Chamfort himself. I retract, in all the maturity of my age, what I said about this man in my youth.” By this time, indeed, he had already settled accounts with Chamfort in his memoirs, describing him as “beyond dispute the most bilious” of the men of letters he had known before the Revolution.

Stricken with the disease which created Jacobins, he could not forgive mankind for the accident of his birth [Chamfort was an illegitimate child]. He betrayed the confidence of the houses which gave him admittance; he mistook the cynicism of his own language for a painting of the Court. To him, in his arrogance, the bonnet rouge was merely another kind of crown, and sans-culottisme a sort of nobility, of which the Marats and the Robespierres were the grands seigneur.

For many years there was a mystery about Chamfort’s birth. The true story, as we learn from Claude Arnaud’s vivid and fascinating biography, first published in 1988, appears to be that his mother, a married woman of noble family from Clermont-Ferrand, had become pregnant by a canon of Clermont Cathedral. When the infant of a local grocer happened to die at the moment of her lying-in, she arranged an exchange, so that the future Chamfort was passed off to the world as Sébastien Roch Nicolas, son of the grocer François Nicolas and his wife Thérèse. His foster-mother looked after him with the greatest devotion. She arranged (no doubt with his natural mother’s help) for him to have a first-class education, first under a tutor and then at the Collège des Grassins in Paris. He was, according to Claude Arnaud, “a privileged child in an underprivileged environment,” and by his mid-teens he had become the premier student in France. By this time, however—indeed most probably at the age of seven or eight—he had learned the truth about his birth and parentage, and the knowledge had a powerful effect on him. It gave him a grievance against the world that colored all his later career.

As a young man Chamfort was exceedingly good-looking, blue-eyed and delicate, also engagingly cocky and arrogant, and, according to a schoolfriend, “impetuous and cunning, studious and mischievous.” There had been plans for him to enter the church, but he told his college principal that this would never do: “I am too fond of sleep, philosophy, women, honor and real fame; and not fond enough of quarrels, hypocrisy, honors, and money.” For a year or two after leaving college he lived from hand to mouth, supporting himself by tutoring and the like, but before very long he had acquired well-to-do patrons, and, at the age of twenty-one, had rebaptized himself in “noble” fashion as “Nicolas de Chamfort.” In 1764 his comedy La Jeune Indienne, on the fashionable “noble savage” theme, was put on by the Comédie Française and became a considerable hit. It was performed subsequently across half of Europe, and won him the influential friendship of the Comte d’Angiviller, tutor to the royal princes, and of the count’s mistress, Mme. de Marchais, who launched him in high society. By now he had a reputation as a wit, a lover, and a rake, and he seemed a made man. Diderot met him at about this time and, in a letter to Sophie Volland, described him as “a young poet with an adequate amount of talent, the finest exterior in the world, and the best-furnished self-confidence…. He is a little balloon, from which a pin-prick will release a mighty gust of wind.”


Then there was a hitch. Chamfort fell ill with some disorder which the doctors could not fathom. Also, his friend, the benevolent d’Angiviller, had mildly rebuked him for “living dressed in velvet and lace, with actresses and opera-dancers, while his mother starved in a garret.” It seems that the rebuke about his mother (or rather foster mother) was not merited and that Chamfort looked after her tenderly. However, the accusation disturbed him; and he suffered some kind of minor breakdown, during which he took to talking in a “black” and misanthropic style.

During the next twenty years or so the pattern of success, setback, illness, and withdrawal repeated itself many times. Convalescing at a spa in 1774, he met and with his conversation enchanted the Duchesse de Gramont, sister of the great ex-minister Choiseul, and with the backing of the Choiseul clan he was once more riding on a wave of worldly success. His long-promised, long-postponed magnum opus, the verse-tragedy Mustapha et Zéangir, at last took shape and was put on with great éclat at Fontainebleau. Louis XVI wept at its fervent celebrations of brotherly love, and Marie-Antoinette adopted it as “her” play. When it was staged at the Comédie Française the following year, however, it was undermined by a cabal of actors who gave such an exaggerated and poor performance that it was stopped several times by a heckling audience, and a rumor spread that it was a plagiarism. Chamfort resolved to give up writing and retired in pique to a country cottage on the outskirts of Paris (even though the country bored him) and began to amass his hoard of stinging aphorisms on the human condition. For example:

Everything I have learned I no longer know. The little that I still know, I have guessed.

The rareness of genuine feeling sometimes makes me stop in the street to watch a dog gnawing a bone.

It has to be admitted: to be happy, living in the world, there are sides of the soul one must entirely paralyze.

Then there was a further surprise. The cynic and misogynist Chamfort met the middle-aged Marthe Buffon, a conversationalist as brilliant and vociferous as himself, and fell in love. He retired to the countryside with her, the real country this time—Marthe had a house near Etampes—and for six months enjoyed health and unclouded happiness, until Marthe fell ill and died.

Heartbroken, he fell ill again, and his aristocratic friends Choiseul-Gouffier and Narbonne had to rescue him and take him on a tour of the Netherlands. (Joseph Epstein, in his lively foreword to the present volume, speaks of Chamfort as “all but friendless.” This seems a very odd remark—he seemed, on the contrary, to have an endless supply of friends.) He was gloomy company, but against all odds he managed to make his friends laugh; interrupting an anecdote of theirs, about some aristocratic acquaintance, he ceremoniously took them by the hand, asking solemnly: “Do you really know of anything duller, anything more abysmally stupid, than a French gentleman?” It was, Narbonne wrote later, a sort of prefiguring of the Tennis-Court Oath.

We have reached the last stage of Chamfort’s prerevolutionary life. He became the house guest and bosom friend of a very glittering Court figure, the Comte de Vaudreuil, “Grand Falconer” to the king and crony of the king’s brother the Comte d’Artois. For some years now Chamfort had been pensioned by the king and the Prince de Condé, and he took a sinecure post or two at Versailles. There was no need for writing of the sordid business of literary rivalry: all that was asked of him was to talk, which he did wittily, oracularly, and incessantly.


But almost at the same moment, he became the close friend of Mirabeau, the avowed enemy of the establishment. Mirabeau appointed him as his mentor, and indeed regarded him almost as a superman. With Mirabeau, in turn, Chamfort discovered the role that suited him best of all: that of prompter, phrase-maker for others, and inspirer of action from behind the scenes. It appears that he was responsible for the momentous first words of Siéyès’s famous pamphlet: “What is the Third Estate? Everything. What does it own? Nothing.”

Claude Arnaud makes much of Chamfort’s bastardy, describing it, and his sense of social dispossession and rage against his mother, as the key to his career. He also holds that Chamfort thought of his successes, such as they had been, as triumphs for the Third Estate—that in his relations with the ancien régime, as with the Revolution, he identified himself with the “People.” One is inclined to question this, for the way in which he first welcomed the Revolution seems rather to show intense contempt for the “People.” When his friend Marmontel asked if Chamfort and his friends might not be going further than the nation wanted, he replied with scorn: “Does the nation know what it wants?” No, he told Marmontel, the throne and the altar would soon be falling together, each being the buttresses of the other. It was all arranged: the difficulties had been foreseen and the means calculated. It was a matter of using, not the fine salon speechifiers, but the hungry and reckless. Decent people were too timid. “The advantage of the People in revolution lies in their having no morals. Mirabeau is right: not one of our old virtues can serve us now. The People do not need virtues, or they need ones of a different kind.” The elitist tone of this, the appeal to “superiority” and theatrical hints of plots and inside knowledge are just what, in view of Chamfort’s career so far, one might gloomily have predicted.

Yet Chamfort the revolutionary was not a fraud. Significantly, soon after the attack on the Bastille he anonymously contributed almost all his savings to the cause of the Revolution—after all a pretty convincing pledge of sincerity—much as a year or two later, as an Academician, he would demand the abolition of the Académie. The truth seems rather to be that neither before the Revolution nor during it did he have much idea where he was going—like most of us, perhaps, but distinctly less than some. He was buffeted by the Revolution; made bold moves, like joining the Jacobins, and then withdrew; he praised violence and then kept ambiguous silence toward it. In 1972, in a brief access of revolutionary fervor, he did his best to strip himself of all traces of his old identity. He dressed like a pauper, declaimed against literature and all such frivolities, and walked the streets gesticulating strangely (the royalist press likened him to “a walking mummy”); and later he moved toward a Condorcet-like faith in “science,” progress, and human perfectability. He had, meanwhile, and from early on, found his real function—the one for which he was truly equipped. If the painter David was the Revolution’s décor artist, Chamfort was its joker and slogan-maker. It was he who suggested rewording “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death” as “Be my brother or I’ll kill you,” and who composed the marching song:

Troupes guerrières
Sur vos drapeaux
Placez couplets:
Paix aux chaumières,
Guerre aux châteaux.1

His end was terrible and strange. He threw in his lot with the Girondins, and Roland appointed him co-director of the Bibliothèque Nationale, where he proved a frugal and efficient bureaucrat, turning the library into an Ali Baba cave of spoils from ransacked churches and palaces. In the salon of Mme. Roland, the young, attractive wife of the interior minister, whose house was a meeting place for such revolutionary figures as Robespierre and Brissot, he talked and shone in his old dominating way. Then the Girondins fell; Roland went into exile, and Chamfort, denounced as a royalist by a member of his staff, was imprisoned with most of his staff in the foulest of all the Paris prisons, the Madelonnettes. He was released after two nights, but the experience had horrified him beyond measure, and when, a few weeks later, the gendarmes came to arrest him again, it was too much. Slipping away to the lavatory, he shot himself in the head, managing only to destroy his right eye; whereupon, in sheer rage against life, he hacked his throat, his chest, and the rest of his body with a razor.

Remarkably, this was not the finish. His friends rescued him, and, terribly disfigured, he recovered—made indeed so relatively full a recovery that he regained his wit, had a mild flirtation with Deism, and came close to launching a new periodical, the later, famous Decade philosophique, dying serenely five months, later, at the very height of the Terror.

In coming to a judgment on Chamfort, one needs, I think, to decide what one thinks of the maxim that comes first in many of the editions.

Maxims or axioms are, like abridgements, the work of men of genius who have labored, or so it would seem, on behalf of the lazy or mediocre. The lazy person swallows a maxim whole, dispensing himself from making the observations which have led the author to his conclusion. The lazy and mediocre feel no obligation to go further than this; they give a generality to the maxim which the author, unless he himself is mediocre, which sometimes happens, has not claimed for it.

These are impressive words, and one wants to know whether to believe them—it is tempting to do so—or merely take them as part of a theatrical piece, a supreme example of Chamfort’s “knowing” manner. Albert Camus took them quite seriously and made out a case for Chamfort as a great novelist, a writer who was great precisely insofar as he did not generalize. But then Camus (writing in 1944, at the time of the great Stendhal vogue) was arguing the perverse case that novelists are the only effective moralists. The maxim, according to Camus, is a useless curiosity, corresponding to nothing in real life, a barren algebraic equation which can always be reversed to say the opposite. With this the admirers of La Rochefoucauld and Pascal are not likely to agree. Indeed it is beside La Rochefoucauld—so profound, so unsettling, so arresting, however many times one reads him—that Chamfort’s maxims tend often to strike one as tinny. It is neat, but certainly no more than neat, to write: “Society is composed of two great classes: those who have more dinners than appetite, and those who have more appetite than dinners.” It gives one pleasure (prompting one with a smirk to say “how true”) to read the following maxim, but almost entirely on account of its style, which no translation can capture:

On donne des repas de dix louis ou de vingt à des gens en faveur de chacun desquels on ne donnerait pas un petit écu, pour qu’ils fissent une bonne digestion de ce même diner de vingt louis.2

Where one can agree with Camus is that, with certain exceptions, it is Chamfort’s anecdotes, more than his maxims, that really count for us. He would collect his stories from innumerable sources, marking the ones he observed from life with a little “c,” and they are often wonderful—in themselves and in their telling. For example,

During the last illness of Louis XV, which from the very beginning could be seen to be mortal, Dr. Lorry, who was called in together with Dr. Bordeu, used, in his medical advice, the word “Must.” The king, shocked by this word, murmured under his breath, with his expiring voice, “Must!” “Must!”

Nothing could be more charming, too, than the stories (there are several of them) about the centenarian Fontenelle. “A woman aged 90 said to M. de Fontenelle, aged 95: ‘Death has forgotten us.’ ‘Sh!,’ replied Fontenelle, putting his finger to his lips.”

Some years ago I remember wondering while reading Auden and Kronenberger’s Viking Book of Aphorisms,3 why they had included so much from Chamfort, whom I knew nothing about, for his sayings seemed to produce such a dim effect. To make a strong impression in an anthology one needs to be recognizable—to express, like La Rochefoucauld or Nietzsche (or Lichtenberg or Kierkegaard) some central “matter” or project. The truth is that, both in his writing and in his life, Chamfort had no such overarching project. Nor was it a matter of wanting to be ondoyant et divers and to do without a project; for his life is littered with failed projects and frustrated aspirations toward a raison d’être. The reason for my puzzled reaction now seems plain. The trouble was that, essentially, Chamfort was an anthropologist himself—this was where his talent or genius really lay—and you cannot very well anthologize an anthologist.

Claude Arnaud makes much of the concept of Chamfort as a “misanthrope,” but the label is not really apt: misanthropy is one of many poses that Chamfort tries out but cannot make stick. A misanthrope is a disappointed idealist, who decides that humankind is not good enough for him. He is, one might say, the opposite of a pessimist, who protects himself from misanthropy by keeping his expectations low. A misanthrope is one who, logically, ought to resort to solitude—something which Chamfort tried once or twice but found quite beyond him. (How could a specialist in anecdotes, the most sociable of genres, ever make a success of solitude?) Chamfort, moreover, believes in both love and friendship (which is one belief more than Proust managed), and he writes eloquent aphorisms about both. It is not a misanthrope who writes that anyone who does not hate mankind by the age of forty can never have loved it: that is a remark about age no more despairing than Bernard Shaw’s “Every man over forty is a scoundrel.” It should be noticed, too, that when Chamfort employs the actual word “misanthrope,” his tone is usually very genial. (“M. de L…, a known misanthrope, said to me one day about his taste for solitude: ‘You have to love someone a devil of a lot to see him.’ “)

It is doubtful, too, whether Chamfort can even qualify as a pessimist. It would be hard, after all, to adopt a lower view of the human condition than that taken by Christianity; and the basic viewpoint of the worldly La Rochefoucauld, as of the ascetic Pascal, is—unmistakably—Jansenist and Augustinian pessimism, a pessimism which offers no loophole for escape. Chamfort, in comparison, is too apt to flirt with ideas of his own difference and superiority (this is what commended him to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche). It is as if he believed one might be an exception to the human condition, an idea La Rochefoucauld would have considered utterly ludicrous.

We can see Chamfort, then, less as a thinker than as an anthologist of attitudes. This is, none the less, a potentially worthwhile role, and perhaps an original one. People of many different kinds, certainly, find things to identify with in his maxims and the anecdotes. Nietzsche, for a brief moment, saw in Chamfort the “free spirit” he wished to be himself:

…a man with ample knowledge of the profundities and secret motives of the soul, gloomy, suffering, ardent—a thinker who found laughter necessary as the remedy of life, and who almost gave himself up as lost every day that he had not laughed.

He wrote this in Joyful Wisdom, where he declares himself baffled that “such a judge of men and of the multitude” as Chamfort should, at the Revolution, have sided with the multitude—the only explanation he can find is the accident of his birth. In Genealogy of Morals, a year or two later, the “slave-religion” of Christianity is equated with resentment; and here Nietzsche drops Chamfort, or at all events does not name him.

I am inclined to think, though, that both Nietzsche and Arnaud somewhat overweight Chamfort’s bastardy. It is hard to see (though the unconscious can do strange things) how, having received so many privileges, Chamfort could have gone on imagining himself excluded. Moreover, it is easy to misread the social scene in Chamfort’s France. The contrast with England and Germany is very marked. In France there were, of course, a few real sticklers for pedigree; but in the main the French noblesse was far more accessible than the English peerage, as well as vastly more numerous. (In France, after all, one did not have to have a title to be noble, a mere particle would suffice.) The agonies of young Werther, crudely and brutally made to understand by a patrician assembly that he is a pariah, are hardly conceivable in honnête French circles. There were plenty of vices of which to accuse French high society, and Chamfort did it with great verve, but exclusiveness is hardly one of them.

The most famous of all Chamfort’s sayings is the one about love. “L’amour, tel qu’il existe dans la société, n’est que l’échange de deux fantaisies et le contact de deux épidermes“; and it is a text that might help us focus our thoughts about him. Is it, in the first place, misanthropic? I suggest not. It is an admirable and penetrating remark, which Proust would certainly have gone along with; but the truth it expresses is one we can contemplate perfectly calmly—or if we cannot, then we had better learn to. Then, is the phrase “dans la société” a gibe at French eighteenth-century society, or just—à la Rousseau—a comment on communal life in general? I would say the second, but I could be wrong. Thirdly, what makes the saying so good, so untranslatable? It is an unkindness to Arnaud’s translator, Deke Dusinberre, given this untranslatability, to single out his version, which runs “Love, such as it exists in high society, is merely an exchange of whims and the contact of skins”; but really it is not good at all.4

W.S. Merwin, in his translation of the aphorism in Products of the Perfected Civilization, had a better shot at the famous maxim: “Love as it exists in society is merely the mingling of two fantasies and the contact of two skins.”5 It is, though, still a mile away from the original, and it is unlikely anyone will do better. We lose the force of “échange,” which is so crucial, and the full range of meaning of “fantaisies,” which must include both “whims” and “fantasies,” and likewise the mock-scientific overtones of “épidermes” (“épidermes” being hopelessly wrong musically).

There is style of a high kind in such a saying of Chamfort’s. It cannot be disputed that the French, in the age of Racine, La Rochefoucauld, and La Bruyère, refined the language, together with the science, of ethics in ways that no other culture has quite paralleled. It is a matter of deliberately restricted vocabulary (absolute monarchies encourage such things) and of most delicate discriminations between commonplace and familiar words. Chamfort inherited this achievement and tradition, adding to it his own exquisite ear for music and proportion in sentences. It also seems to be true that certain important truths can only be studied in what is known as a social “world”—grand monde, haut monde, or the like.

Proust, a greater maxim writer even than Chamfort, recognized this, though he refused to confine himself to the “worldly” scene. The quality most prized on the part of “worldly” writers is esprit, (wit, spirit, intelligence) and many are the French writers—Stendhal, the Goncourts, and Paul Léautaud—who have lauded Chamfort as the epitome of esprit, using him as a stick to beat the Romantics, or the post-Romantics. This can become nonsense when it turns into a crusade (the Goncourts dismiss Saint-Simon as “Germanic”), but even the English-speaking reader can see a certain force in it and perceive how the greatly talented Chamfort might lend it support.

This Issue

June 25, 1992