“I have traveled much, and devoted much study to human beings individually and collectively, but I have only found real sociability among the French: for they alone know how to joke; and fine, sub-tle joking, enlivening conversation is what makes up the charm of society.”

—The Memoirs of Casanova

Visiting Paris in 1752, the celebrated Italian adventurer Giacomo Casanova was struck, as so many other foreign travelers had been, by the peculiarly French combination of brilliant conversation and graceful manners. Largely owing to the example of Mme. de Rambouillet, who, around 1620, had opened her famous Paris salon to members of a self-selected elite, including both court aristocracy and talented commoners, the qualities of politesse and bienséances—decorum, the right forms of behavior—became central to an entire way of life. Nobody better explained the meaning of bienséances than Lord Chesterfield, who in 1750 sent his son to Paris to perfect a gentleman’s education and learn the “graces.”

Les bienséances are a most necessary part of the knowledge of the world. They consist in the relations of persons, things, time, and place; good sense points them out, good company perfects them (supposing always an attention and a desire to please), and good policy recommends them.

Were you to converse with a king, you ought to be as easy and unembarrassed as with your own valet de chambre; but yet, every look, word and action, should imply the utmost respect. What would be proper and well-bred with others, much your superiors, would be absurd and ill-bred with one so very much so. You must wait till you are spoken to; you must receive, not give, the subject of conversation; and you must even take care that the given subject of such conversation do not lead you into any impropriety. The art would be to carry it, if possible, to some indirect flattery; such as commending those virtues in some other person, in which that prince either thinks he does, or at least would be thought by others to excel.1

With the beginning of the eighteenth century, “sociability” had become an indispensable ingredient of French national identity. Montesquieu said as much with playful irony through his character Rica in Lettres persanes, published in 1721:

It is said that man is a social animal. On that basis, it strikes me that a Frenchman is more human than anyone else; he is man par excellence, for he seems to have been made solely for society.

The mainstay of this French art of creating a witty milieu, naturally enough, was conversation. Made possible by noble leisure, conversation offered distraction, amusement, and instruction, creating an atmosphere of consensus and harmony that, while playing down social inequalities between participants, emphasized sympathies and affinities. Hommes de lettres, some from the middle class, were an essential part of salon life, the most eloquent example being the poet Vincent Voiture, the son of a wine merchant, who said he had been “regenerated” by the company of Mme. de Rambouillet. Conversation transformed the processes of mutual seduction into a form of general politeness. Only a close knowledge of the rules of worldly society could allow a circle of conversationalists to play with fanciful utopian ideas without losing their grasp of the real. For a few hours, it was said, the enchantment of the spoken word would spread a balm of forgetfulness, creating a contagious euphoria and a sense of well-being that amounted to a powerful soothing agent for all of life’s dramas and difficulties. One of the most eloquent accounts of this effect appears in Mme. de La Fayette’s portrait of her friend, the celebrated Mme. de Sévigné:

When you are caught up in a conversation from which all constraint has been banished, everything you say has such charm and suits you so well that your words attract laughter and grace around you, and your brilliance imparts such a glow to your complexion and your eyes that, even though it seems your thought should only have touched the ears, it is clear that it is inspiring to the spirit.2

The fascinating and complex cultural phenomenon of the sociabilité of the ancien régime has been the subject of a distinguished tradition of study in France that goes back to the nineteenth century, and has recently been attracting renewed critical attention,3 with important contributions from the US, particularly from the women’s studies departments of American universities.4

This interest is understandable. In no other moment of European history did women appear to enjoy a condition of prestige comparable to that of the female elite of the French seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But if the culture of French high society, with its language, literature, salons, and psychology, was to a great extent created by women, at the same time it could hardly have developed without the close relations between the male and female worlds that distinguished the French aristocracy from as far back as the Middle Ages. The art of conversation was the main vehicle of these relations.


Among many critical works on the subject that have appeared in recent years, the texts collected by Jacqueline Hellegouarc’h in L’Art de la conversation are particularly useful. Until the invention of the tape recorder, conversation was the most ephemeral of genres and we can do no more than catch an echo of the voices of the ancien régime in the literary forms closest to the spoken word: memoirs, letters, dialogues, plays, and novels. On the other hand we can get a very clear sense of the aesthetic, moral, and social importance of conversation from the critical reflections of contemporaries and the many pedagogical tracts written about it. Hellegouarc’h’s anthology gives an excellent selection of such writings, most of them previously unavailable. Her book takes us straight to the heart of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century controversy over the utility, moral value, and truthfulness of the art of conversation, a debate that included Rousseau, who saw it as frivolous, and Charles Pinot Duclos (1704-1772), the witty novelist, historian, and secretary of the Académie Française, who took a more nuanced critical view.

Hellegouarc’h’s book is published by the Classiques Garnier, whose editor Marc Fumaroli has during the last ten years revitalized research in the French art of conversation; he has analyzed its rhetoric and style, and thrown light on its historical setting and its many implications, whether cultural, artistic, or political.5 In his masterly preface to the anthology, Fumaroli now puts the subject in a larger perspective. Exploring the origins of Western conversation, he finds its archetypal model in the Athens of the fifth century BC; only after considering its metamorphoses in European culture does he consider its final triumph in the France of the ancien régime.

It is in Plato’s dialogues, and in particular around the figure of Socrates, Fumaroli argues, that the conversational ideal emerges for the first time. As he remarks, conversation in the dialogues “carves out…a time-out-of-time in which one attains supreme happiness, a search among friends, under the sign of love, for the divine ideas of the true, the beautiful, the good.” In the company of others like himself, Platonic man could exercise “the deepest vocation of the soul, which public life sought to deny him.”

From Aristotle down to the twilight of the classical world, under the late Roman emperors, this ideal of pagan philosophy would celebrate, in a rural setting, the happy liberty of private conversation, in contrast to the eloquence of the public forum; it would place otium—leisure—before negotium —business. Scholarly quiet took precedence over the tumult of civil passions.

The same ideal, Fumaroli argues, was to reappear in Renaissance Italy, coexisting with the Christian tradition. He brings out deep connections between the idea of the philosophical convivio and the Christian banquet (the wedding at Cana, the supper at Emmaus, the Last Supper), and between Christian conversatio, which takes place in heaven, and Platonic conversation, which is of this earth but also aspires to another life, outside “the city.” The analogy is again evident in the appropriation by Renaissance writers of the myth of Arcadia, in which man could hope to rediscover the happiness and innocence of his origins. It was against the same bucolic background, Fumaroli reminds us, that a new genre of painting developed in the sixteenth century with the “Sacred Conversations” of Giovanni Bellini and Fra Bartolomeo, in which the saints take the place of the shepherds in ecstatic contemplation of the Virgin and Child.

This tradition of conviviality can be linked to the origins of French conversation, but the rules had changed. In seventeenth-century France the criterion of participation was no longer friendship but respect for the bienséances; the purpose no longer a search for happiness but pure amusement. Renaissance conviviality had opposed private life to public life; but with the art of conversation different oppositions were in play: the life of the cour was seen as opposed to the life of the ville; royal absolutism was opposed to civil society. For the French nobility, otium was now imposed rather than chosen. Their political ambitions thwarted by the modern and centralized monarchy, above all that of Louis XIV, the privileged classes took refuge in a variety of pastimes—loisirs—establishing their own sphere of freedom outside the court, in their own social world, providing a model to be followed by writers and prominent members of the bourgeoisie. Yet in this playful space beyond the reach of the censor, where conversation was supposed to be carefree and an end in itself, people did not, in fact, stop thinking and talking about literature, religion, morality, and philosophy. Thus words spoken in private society, as Daniel Gordon has suggested in a recent study,6 came to make up for the absence of accepted public language; and polite society developed for its own uses the forum that, when it was extended to include politics in the next century, came to be known as public opinion.


Louis XIV slowed down the expansion of Parisian society and salon life by concentrating it in Versailles, but after 1715, with the ascendance of Philippe, duc d’Orléans, to the Regency, it was to become an independent power, often at odds with the interests and political strategy of the monarchical state. At this point Paris attracted admiration throughout Europe because, as Fumaroli writes, Europe saw in Paris the realization of “that genius of civilized leisure, of spiritually exalted repose that since antiquity has been the pinnacle of political and philosophical success.”

Under the guidance of the philosophes of the eighteenth century, this leisure-loving and highly literate class embarked on the most daring political speculations. Their salons were no longer mere “fortunate isles” in which they might escape the interference and brutality of power; they became an agora in which some of the participants were ready to transform all of France into a utopia. More and more burdened by the sense of its importance, more and more the prisoner of its own influence, the practice of conversation increasingly lost its vocation for intimacy and private pleasure and thus prepared the way for its own downfall. With the Revolution of 1789, the monopoly on intellectual discourse and discussion of new ideas would pass from the private to the public sphere. After centuries of silence the art of political oratory was finally rediscovered on the benches of the National Assembly.


Hellegouarc’h’s anthology is remarkable first of all for allowing us to follow from beginning to end the trajectory of French conversation in the ancien régime. This enables us to appreciate how, notwithstanding many changes in tone and subject, the aristocratic aesthetic of grâce and naturel that first emerged in the daily life of Mme. de Rambouillet’s hôtel, and the rules of polite society that went with it, remained stable until the French Revolution. All the writers selected from a period covering a hundred and fifty years had direct experience of life in high society; some were themselves brilliant conversationalists, and each has a different interest, whether in style, morals, psychology, pedagogy, or social analysis. Thus, one by one, we see the main themes in the discussion of the moral value of conversation emerging and being elaborated from author to author; and we quickly sense how a frivolous and ephemeral social ritual could nevertheless consist of moments when a person was intensely exposed, whether physically or intellectually, to the attention and scrutiny of others. We sense as well how conversation in a salon could serve as a testing ground for a science of human nature.

In his Les Entretiens d’Ariste et d’Eugène (1671), the learned Jesuit Père Dominique Bouhours (1628-1702), the most subtle critic of the “classical age” during the second half of the seventeenth century, emphasizes the importance of the correct use of language at a moment when French, thanks to its purity, elegance, and clarity (not to mention the expansionist policies of the Sun King) was assuming a dominant position in Europe. Usage, he points out, was being established not by scholars but by the daily practice of those in society, the “idle, enemies of work and restraint,” since it is “only in fine conversation that one learns to speak nobly and naturally.” Natural talent was not enough: the art of conversation, like that of bienséances, demanded direct contact with a world of initiates.

Antoine Gombaud, chevalier de Méré (1607-1684), saw conversation as a source of happiness, a chance to start a friendship and to encourage reciprocal affection. What he actually gives us in his Discours de la conversation (1677) is a subtle strategy of seduction based on our capacity to intuit the personality of others and adapt ourselves to them in such a way as to obtain their good will. Méré defines this capacity as a form of “witchcraft,” but all were agreed that psychological skill was essential for success in society. In the view of Pierre d’Ortigue de Vaumorière (1610-1693), author of L’Art de plaire dans la conversation (1688), the intensive effort one made to involve another in the conversation game, which encouraged each participant to do his best, could help the initial speaker to discover intellectual qualities he didn’t know he had.

Vaumorière goes beyond generalizations to give examples of the kind of behavior people should adopt or avoid, and he insists on the central importance of memory insofar as it allows us to draw on a huge repertoire of stories, anecdotes, and jokes. Here, for example, is how a rich widower on the point of remarrying responds to his furious children, who demand to know why he is so unhappy with them as to want to produce other heirs: “Je suis si content de vous que je ne me remarie que pour avoir d’autres enfants qui vous puissent ressembler” (I am so happy with you that I am remarrying only to have other children to resemble you).

In his chapter on conversation in his Essais sur différents sujets de littérature et de morale (1735), the eighteenth century’s foremost tract writer, Abbé Nicolas Trublet (1697-1770), returns to the central themes of the seventeenth-century debate over values, beginning with the question of amour propre—self-esteem, vanity, and ego—which had been the subject of moralizing writers, such as Pascal. But when the abbé goes on to talk of the irreplaceable role of conversation in communicating thoughts on which society depends, and when he remarks that it is “the main source of spiritual wealth,” we can be sure that the Enlightenment is now in full swing.

As the philosophes see it, the spoken word should be in the service of the truth, rather than a mere source of entertainment. Thus in his Considérations sur les moeurs de ce siècle (1751), the learned Charles Duclos decided to declare war on those who betray the truth in order to achieve success; this, he said, was absolutely typical of the “homme aimable” who was “often the least worthy of being loved,” confined as he was by his frivolous narcissism and indifference to the public good. Identifying a concern that was increasingly widespread, Duclos condemned the depersonalization enforced by the bienséances on people who were all obliged to follow the same rules of behavior; he thus attacked the aesthetic of high society at its very roots.

With the confidence of a man who was successful in making his own way in society, François-Augustin Paradis de Moncrif (1687-1770) in his Essais sur la nécessité et sur les moyens de plaire (1738) maintained that savoir-vivre and politesse should not be seen as a constriction but as a generous impulse of the heart. Twenty-five years later, Rousseau’s Nouvelle Héloïse would denounce the falseness of salon culture and the power plays hidden behind the exquisite courtesy of French high society and its art of conversation. La Rochefoucauld and Méré had made similar observations a hun-dred years before, but without Jean-Jacques’s sense of indignation.

Rousseau’s enormous success did not stop Parisians from enjoying intense conversations about human knowledge, or from writing down their reflections on the subject. But to appreciate the seduction, complexity, and importance of French conversation at its peak—“the noblest pleasure of which human nature is capable”—one must read the works of the spirited polemicist and contributor to the Encyclopédie Abbé André Morellet (1727- 1819) in De la conversation (written in 1778 and published in 1812) and again in his Mémoires, and Mme. de Staël (1766-1817) in her De l’Allemagne (1814). These are remarkable texts not just because they come from two gifted people who had been close to the heart of French intellectual and political life and excelled in their use of language, but because they give an appraisal of an experience that was now over. Written after the French Revolution, they bring us the flavor and excitement of a lost world, and have the breadth and clarity of vision that only distance can give, as in Mme. de Staël’s account of the importance of conversation:

The feeling of satisfaction that characterizes an animated conversation does not so much consist of its subject matter. Neither the ideas nor the knowledge that may emerge within it are of primary interest. Rather, it is a certain manner in which some people have an effect on others; of reciprocally and rapidly giving one another pleasure; of speaking just as quickly as one thinks; of spontaneously enjoying oneself;…of expressing one’s understanding through all the nuances of accent, gesture, and look, in order to produce at will a sort of electricity that causes sparks, and that relieves some people of the burden of their excess vivacity and awakens others from a state of painful apathy.

Hellegouarc’h’s anthology rightly includes some passages from Madeleine de Scudéry (1607-1701), a popular novelist whose Conversations was one of the key theoretical texts on seventeenth-century conversation. Scudéry, who came from the minor aristocracy, was neither rich nor beautiful, and remained unmarried, but was able to articulate and illustrate the social aesthetic of her time and class in her essays and works of fiction. Her best sellers were stories of ancient Rome and Persia with obvious allusions to contemporary society in which readers could easily find their own idealized images. In the long and frequent conversations that characterize the narrative of both Arthamène ou le Grand Cyrus (1649-1653) and Clélie, histoire romaine (1651-1660), Mlle. de Scudéry wants to present a recognizable reflection of French society, its values, foibles, and amusements.

Scudéry compiled her Conversations by reworking material from the novels and publishing it separately, with much success; her books became essential documents for any study of French salon culture, yet modern critics haven’t given them the attention they deserve. Only in the last twenty years7 has there been a gradual rediscovery of Mlle. de Scudéry, and her qualities as a moralist, a novelist, and, finally, with Delphine Denis’s excellent recent book, of her aesthetic of conversation.8

As Denis remarks, these dialogues amount to an inquiry “into the conditions of a happy sociability that ensures a harmonious relation between oneself and others,” the vision of conversation in which politesse, naturel, and air galant were central. In particular, galant and galanterie were key words in the French seventeenth century, but they eluded definition, changing their meaning according to the context. Certainly for Mlle. de Scudéry and the Parisian élites of the 1640s and 1650s these concepts applied to love and passion but also went beyond them, and their use was not limited to relations between the sexes. Galanterie could characterize every nuance of behavior in society: it was a synonym at once of politesse, urbanity, and courtesy; it suggested the desire to please, gratify, and raise the spirits of others, a desire that, as Jean Starobinski has noted, served to sublimate the aggressive instincts of a warrior caste by giving erotic overtones to every aspect of social life.

On top of all this, the air galant was something else too: an ineffable, elusive, indefinable quality that only “les honnêtes gens“—gentlemen and gentlewomen—can achieve and that “les rend aimables; et ce qui les fait aimer,” makes them lovable and makes them love. One could have an air galant in everything, the way one dressed, one’s manner and behavior, but above all in the way one spoke. Mlle. de Scudéry wrote, “There is, indeed, a tendency to say things in a way that gives them a new value: and it is constantly true that those who have a galant cast of mind can often say what others would dare only to think.” All the same, even here the dominant aesthetic trait was still the naturel:

But in my opinion the gallant air in conversation consists mainly in thinking about things in a relaxed and natural manner [d’une manière aisée, et naturelle]; tending more toward mildness and playfulness than toward seriousness and harshness: speaking simply, and plainly, without affectation.

In Conversations Mlle. de Scudéry’s practical examples are offered side by side with theoretical reflections. But throughout, her text itself reproduces the pattern of salon conversation, its subjects, its language, and its style. And it is quickly apparent that Mlle. de Scudéry’s observations have lost none of their relevance with the passage of time. A passage taken from the dialogues of De la politesse could easily apply to a cocktail party today.

You are too reasonable and polite to have those horrid dinners that people sometimes have in order to repay in one day all the meals they have been given over a year; dinners with a crowd of people who, for the most part, don’t know one another, and don’t know what to speak about, where conversation is more a confused noise than genuine society…where boredom and anxiety are pervasive, where most of the people make one regret that one can’t simply be alone….


One of the requirements of society was to be able to write a letter with the same grace and naturalness one displayed in conversation. All sorts of circumstances—births, deaths, weddings, promotions, recommendations, expressions of thanks and apology—would oblige one to pick up one’s pen, and Mlle. de Scudéry covers them all in her De la manière d’écrire des lettres. But inevitably she concentrates on what is the society letter par excellence, the lettre galante, on which the publication in 1650 of the letters of Vincent Voiture had recently conferred the status of a literary genre and that was, as Mlle. de Scudéry puts it, “strictly speaking, a conversation of absent people.” Like the galant conversation, a letter that aspired to the same standard would have a style that was “calm, noble, altogether natural” and would avoid “a certain sort of stiff bel esprit that savors of textbooks,” trusting instead to good taste and improvisation.

Yet, despite these similarities, letter writing had much broader social application. People who were not part of the cultured elites and didn’t know the ways of the world or the intricacies of the bienséances communicated through letters; some of them didn’t know how to read and had the help of professional letter writers. When it came to composing letters, how did these people cope with the task? We can find some answers in the essays of Roger Chartier, Alain Boureau, and Cécile Dauphin in Correspondence: Models of Letter-Writing from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century.

In “The Letter-Writing Norm, a Mediaeval Invention” Alain Boureau goes back to the origins of modern letter writing, showing how the appearance of the first manuals on epistolary technique (l’ars dictaminis) in the last years of the eleventh century and the first of the twelfth coincided with the emergence in Italy and France of a new branch of rhetoric dedicated to the art of letter writing. Such rhetoric had an essentially public function and could claim to descend from two equally prestigious traditions, the classical school of Ciceronian oratory and the Christian example of the epistles of Saint Paul.

The master letter writers sought to carve out an official role as intermediaries between citizen and institutions (the law, public administrations, lay and ecclesiastic authorities), in the hope “that a class of verbal ministers might be created between society’s estates.” But their aspirations were to be frustrated by the emergence, with the connivance of the state, of various new professions, including notaries and iuris doctores, legal experts who soon took over official correspondence, forcing the letter writers to give up their “public ambitions” and fall back “on the domain of private life, which became the principal focus of subsequent treatises throughout the modern period and until the present day.”

Roger Chartier turns to the devel-opment of this new model of private letter writing in aristocratic and Church circles in his chapter “Secrétaires for the People? Model Letters of the Ancien Régime: Between Court Literature and Popular Chapbooks.” During the sixteenth century, while scholars in humanist circles continued to correspond in Latin, there nevertheless flourished, first in Italy then in France, a tradition of printing, in the local languages, collections of model letters that show “the complete compatibility that exists between the art of the letter and the vernacular language.” The huge and longstanding success of Emile du Tronchet’s Lettres missives et familières, which ran to twenty-six editions between 1569 and 1623, leaves us in no doubt that the many models it supplied were much in demand.

In the seventeeth century, with the growth of a salon culture and the development of sociabilité, these manuals, like the tracts on conversation and politesse, offered models to wider and wider sectors of society. They were generally called secrétaires, a word that, as Furetière’s Dictionnaire (1690) put it, referred to “a book containing various models of letters and compliments for those who do not know how to compose them.”

The most telling of all the examples Chartier presents is that of Jean Puget de La Serre, author of two epistolary manuals which, like Tronchet’s, had remarkable success. The first, Le Secrétaire de la cour ou la manière d’escrire selon le temps, was published in 1625, a year after the publication of Guez de Balzac’s Lettres, which had proved a major development in modern French culture, and some of whose qualities were shared in the work of La Serre. Breaking with the erudite tradition of a literature for initiates only, and abandoning Latin for French, Balzac, the greatest prose writer of his time, “the only eloquent one,” as he was called, won the admiration of high society; and, like La Serre’s, his work showed that a basic shift in rhetoric had taken place. Chartier writes:

The site at which eloquence was practised and assessed was moving from the court of law, the precinct of the church or the council chamber to worldly and court society…. The genres themselves shifted from a deliberative style (that of parliamentary harangues or of epistles on affairs of state) towards an epideictic style (paying a compliment, offering a service, expressing gratitude or declaring love).

Dedicated as it is to the poet Malherbe, who had been responsible for reforming the French language, La Serre’s Secrétaire de la cour is a perfect illustration of this style. Presented in four parts, “letters of compliment,” “letters of consolation,” “diverse letters,” and “amorous letters,” the book was more popular than any of its competitors, including a new, updated Secrétaire à la mode published by La Serre himself in 1640. For both manuals,

The main thing was to suit the style, subject matter and etiquette of the letter to the situations and persons concerned…. Gradations in age and hierarchies of estate set the rules of epistolary propriety.

Not unlike the art of conversation, epistolary skills depended on an ex-act knowledge and application of the bienséances.

While the success of La Serre’s manuals over an entire century can well be explained by the stability, despite shifting fashions, of the social structure and institutions of the French ancien régime, what is nevertheless surprising is that as late as January 1789, on the very eve of the Revolution, a bookseller in Troyes who specialized in the sale of the cheap editions that went under the name “Bibliothèque bleue,” should have 879 copies of Le Secrétaire à la mode in stock. What interest, Chartier asks, would an uneducated public have in letters written one hundred and fifty years before, presumably in order to assist middle-class and well-to-do provincial readers who were eager to imitate the Parisian elites? These were letters that presupposed a use of language and set of social relations hardly recognizable among the lower classes; they would not have provided useful models for the people who bought them.

Furthermore, Chartier remarks, the few examples that have survived suggest that the letters of the lower classes bear no relation to any epistolary convention, drawing whatever inspiration they have from the sentimental rhetoric of the novel and the religious rhetoric of charity, confession, and forgiveness. Chartier doubts that the publishers of the Bibliothèque bleue were hoping the Secrétaire would instill in the lower classes a sense of social hierarchy and a recognition of their own subordination. Published as they were without any explanation, the letters must have seemed a mystery to those with no knowledge of the ways of a privileged world.

Chartier offers a different and intriguing explanation: the general public’s interest in these letters was “informed not by any acknowledgement of similarity or any desire to ape, but by a curiosity aroused by the very distance that separated them (the letters) from the readers.” The Secrétaires allowed the man in the street to cast a curious glance on a world unknown to him, an exotic world that provided ample scope for fantasy—a form of voyeurism, perhaps, that is not so different from the appeal of today’s tabloids with their accounts of royalty and movie stars. In particular the love letters could be read as fiction, each suggesting a story that could be the subject of the reader’s private fantasies. And wasn’t this appeal for collaboration from the reader, Chartier asks, precisely “one of the essential characteristics of the various texts that make up large-circulation literature and the ‘popular’ library?”

The success of the Secrétaires was to survive the French Revolution, although, as Cécile Dauphine explains, in the nineteenth century publishers brought the formulas and contents up to date, issuing collections with epistolary models that might be of use to every social class. Workers, servants, and farm laborers could now find straightforward examples to suit their needs rather than fictional examples about which they could fantasize. Yet the Secrétaires were testimony to the culture of the past. The extension of education to the entire population during the last two decades of the nineteenth century would make epistolary manuals superfluous; letter writing was now just “one chapter among others in the teaching of the language.” The epistolary ideal handed down by the manuals would continue to remain a prisoner of its origins, having as its model the naturel—the apparently unaffected ease—and the elegance of society conversation. When it came to composing letters there was still little faith in the independence and creativity of the written word.


By contrast to these developments, what distinguishes the Caractères of Jean de La Bruyère (1645-1696), the last great portrait of seventeenth-century French society, is an absolute faith in the superiority of the written over the spoken word, coupled with a passionate and even manic search for perfection in style.

La Bruyère was a tutor in the princely house of Condé and had ample opportunity to observe the dignitaries of the day and write about them. “It is a craft to create a book, just as it is to make a clock; it takes more than intellect to be an author,” La Bruyère boldly claims at a time when it was still disreputable to be called a “professional” writer—even after the two decades from 1665 to 1685 when, with Racine, Molière, and La Fontaine, French classicism reached its highest point. The famous opening proposition of the Caractères that “everything has been said, and we have come too late since the more than seven thousand years that men exist and think” was soon to be proved wrong by La Bruyère himself, when he demonstrated how practically any thoughts could be reformulated in a new and original way through the reinvention of style.

The last of the classical moralists, La Bruyère, published his Caractères in 1687, seventeen years after the first posthumous edition of Pascal’s Pensées and twenty-three years after the Maximes of La Rochefoucauld. Like his predecessors, La Bruyère chose to publish collections of brief fragments—more acceptable to high-society reading habits—rather than systematically elaborated essays or tracts. To his own “maxims” and “thoughts,” however, he added the so-called “remarques,” brief dialogues, sketches or scenes from life, and above all his “characters,” disguised portraits of living people modeled on the example of the Greek writer Theophrastus. His observations had neither the penetration of La Rochefoucauld nor the profundity of Pascal but he showed a ruthless ability to capture the involuntary comedy inherent in all that is false. La Bruyère did not look into the depths of the human soul in search of those “thoughts not thought,” as the author of the Maximes had done, anticipating what two centuries later would be called the “unconscious.” He was equally innocent of Pascal’s metaphysical anxiety. Rather he was attracted to the world of appearances. The objects of his study were the people of his own time, with their different characters, ambitions, vices, tics, and obsessions, in short their “ridicules,” all seen against the background of the cour and the ville and within the frame of the political and religious institutions of the ancien régime. The titles of the sixteen chapters9 that make up the Caractères show La Bruyère’s determination to be comprehensive. On the strength of its immediate success he then went on to expand it in nine editions during a period of less than ten years, going from 420 “remarques” in the first edition to 1,120 in the last.

Yet it would be a mistake to suppose that this decidedly literary work, carefully planned by a virtuoso stylist, did not maintain close ties with the spoken word. What clearly emerges from the new critical edition of the Caractères that Louis van Delft, one of the foremost experts on the classical moralists, has prepared for the Imprimerie Nationale is that La Bruyère wrote his “remarques” to be read aloud, something that would help the reader grasp their meaning. Returning to the page layout, capitalization, and punctuation that was indicated in a copy of the ninth edition, corrected by the author himself shortly before his death and kept in the Houghton Library at Harvard, Van Delft reconstructs a fluent, brilliant, and engaging theatrical reading of the Caractères that “does not conform to that rational discourse analysis” that has so far guided modern editors.

In Van Delft’s text and his interpretation of it, the Caractères becomes the doubly theatrical work of an author who is at once spectator and judge. The comic, variegated spectacle of the world as it outwardly appears nevertheless contains, for those capable of discerning it, an apologetic, pessimistic, and tragic vision of the vanity of human ambitions. It is clear that La Bruyère wanted to please “une société du spectacle,” a society used to living according to how others saw them. It should come as no surprise, writes Van Delft, that La Bruyère dedicates an entire chapter “à la société et à la conversation.” To the moralist’s eye, the presentation of oneself in conversation was the theatrical gesture par excellence, with all the risk of being false that this entails. Hence in the vast theatrical spectacle in which La Bruyère chose to present the culture of the later seventeenth century, the life of society emerges as a play within the play. It amounts, Van Delft writes, to “an incomparable ‘chamber theater,’ a piccolo teatro in which are produced, for those with eyes, all the dramatis personae in life’s fable.” It is thus in La Bruyère’s great book, built with the precision of a clock, that we can grasp, perhaps better than in any other text of the time, “the very rhythm, the different characters of voice, the harmony and cacophony” of that original, irrecoverable live concert that goes under the name of French conversation of the ancien régime.

—Translated from the Italian by Tim Parks

This Issue

January 20, 2000