9. Of Great Nobles
From Characters by Jean De La Bruyère (1688)

1. The popular prejudice in favour of the great is so blind, and the infatuation with their gestures, their expressions, their tone of voice and their manners is so widespread that, if they only chose to be good, it would amount to idolatry.

2. If you are born vicious, O Theagenes, I pity you; if you become vicious from a weakness for those whose interest lies in making you so, who have sworn among themselves to corrupt you and are already boasting of their success, allow me to despise you. But if you are wise, temperate, modest, civil, generous, grateful, industrious, being moreover fitted by rank and birth to set examples rather than follow them, and to make rules rather than obey them, you should make a bargain with such people, agreeing to comply indulgently with their excesses, their vices and follies, once they, out of the respect they owe you, have practised all the virtues you hold dear; this harsh but useful irony is well suited to safeguard your own morals, to overthrow their schemes and make them opt for continuing as they are and allowing you to remain what you are.

3. Great nobles have one immense advantage over other men: they may keep their good fare, their rich furnishings, their hounds and horses, their apes and dwarfs, fools and flatterers; but I envy them the good fortune of having in their service men who are their equals and sometimes their betters in mind and in heart.

4. Great nobles pride themselves on cutting an avenue through a forest, on building long retaining-walls for an estate, on gilding ceilings, on conveying a foot of water into their pools, on stocking an orangery; but as for bringing contentment to a human heart, filling another's soul with joy, forestalling extreme need or remedying it, their interest does not extend that far.

5. When we compare the different conditions of men, each with its troubles and advantages, do we not observe a blend, or a sort of compensation between good and evil, making one state equal, or at least hardly preferable, to another? The man who is powerful and rich, and who lacks nothing, may ask such a question; but it must be answered by a poor man.

None the less there seems to be a kind of spell attached to each of the various conditions of men, which clings to it until distress has driven it away. Thus the pleasure of the great is in extravagance, while the humble like moderation; the former enjoy exercising their superiority and authority, and the latter are pleased and even proud to serve and obey them; the great have people paying them court, bowing and deferring; the humble pay their court, bow and scrape; and so everyone is happy.

6. It costs great folk so little to give mere words, and their rank exempts them so fully from keeping the fine promises they have made you, that it shows great moderation on their part not to promise even more lavishly.

7. 'He is old and worn out,' says a great noble, 'he has killed himself in my service; what's to be done with him?' Another, younger man carries off the hoped-for reward, and obtains the post which is denied the poor wretch only because he has deserved it too well.

8. 'I don't know how it is,' you say with a cold, disdainful air, 'Philanthus has ability, wit and charm, he fulfils his duties conscientiously and shows loyalty and devotion to his master, who none the less has a lukewarm appreciation of him; Philanthus is not liked, he is not in favour.' Explain yourself; which are you condemning, Philanthus or the great lord whom he serves?

9. It is often more profitable to leave the service of the great than to complain of them.

10. Who can say why some people win first prize in the lottery, or some others the favour of the great?

11. Great nobles are so fortunate that they do not even suffer, throughout their lives, the vexation of mourning the loss of their most faithful servants, or of the men, each illustrious in his own line, from whom they have gained the greatest pleasure and profit. The first action of sycophants, after the death of these unique and irreplaceable men, is to ascribe to them weaknesses from which their successors are declared to be exempt: to maintain that the new man is as able and brilliant as his predecessor, and yet free from his faults; by which means princes are enabled to console themselves for the loss of what was great and excellent by means of the mediocre.

12. Great nobles disdain intelligent men who have nothing but their intellect; intelligent men despise great nobles who have nothing but their rank. Good men pity those who have either greatness or intellect without virtue.

13. When, on the one hand, I see certain quick-witted, busy, scheming adventurers, dangerous and mischievous men, in close proximity to the great, admitted to their table and sometimes to their intimacy, and when on the other I consider how hard it is for deserving people to come near them, I do not invariably conclude that they put up with villains out of self-interest, or that they have no use for upright men; I prefer to find confirmation of my belief that greatness and discernment are two different things, and that a love of virtue and of virtuous people is different from either.

14. Lucillus chooses to wear out his life persuading a few great nobles to endure him, rather than be reduced to living on familiar terms with his equals. The principle of frequenting one's social superiors has its inevitable limitations. It needs extraordinary talents, sometimes, to put it into practice.

15. What is Theophilus's incurable ailment? It has afflicted him for over thirty years, and he gets no better: he wants to be spiritual director to the great, he always has and he always will; death alone will deprive him of this thirst for control and ascendancy over men's minds. Is it through zeal on behalf of his neighbour? is it from habit? is it through an overweening opinion of himself? There is no palace into which he does not worm his way; and he never halts in the middle of a room, but makes for a window-recess or a closet; and everyone waits for an audience, or to be seen, until he has finished talking, at great length and with many gestures. He shares in the private life of families, he is involved in whatever befalls them, good or bad; he makes advances, he offers his services, he interferes, he will not be denied. There are ten thousand souls for whom he is responsible before God as for his own, and yet this care is not enough to occupy his time or satisfy his ambition: there are others of higher rank and greater distinction for whom he is not accountable, and of whom he prefers to be in charge. He listens, be keeps a watchful eye on anything that may satisfy his passion for intrigue, for acting the go-between and for manoeuvring. A great noble has no sooner set foot in the country than Theophilus grabs hold of him, and is heard to declare 'I am his director', before you could suspect that he even thought of directing him.

16. A rebuff or a cold look from those who are above us in rank may make us hate them, but a greeting or a smile soon reconciles us.

17. Certain proud men are humbled and subdued by their rivals' promotion; misfortune actually forces them to acknowledge your bow; but time, which softens all blows, restores their natural haughtiness in the end.

18. The contempt that great nobles have for ordinary people makes them indifferent to the flattery or praise that they receive from these, and tempers their vanity; in the same way princes, being endlessly and unremittingly praised by nobles and courtiers, would be better satisfied if they held a higher opinion of those that praise them.

19. Great nobles think that they alone are perfect, will scarcely admit that other men may have sound sense, talents or delicacy, and assume possession of these precious qualities as their birthright. Yet they are grossly mistaken when they cherish such illusions; for they are not invariably responsible for the truest thoughts, the finest expressions, the best writing or the most accomplished productions. They have great estates and a long string of ancestors; nobody will dispute them that.

20. Have you wit, greatness of mind, ability, taste and understanding? am I to believe those prejudiced flatterers who boldly proclaim your merit? I hold them suspect, and I challenge them. Must I let myself be dazzled by that superior and haughty manner which allows you to ignore what others do or say or write, and which makes you so chary of praise that the slightest word of approval can hardly be wrung from you? A more natural conclusion from all this is that you enjoy favour and influence, and that you are very rich. How is one to define you, Telepho? you are as unapproachable as fire, and one must keep one's distance; whereas in order to pass a sound and rational judgement on you one would need to examine you closely, to have dealings with you and confront you with your fellows. Your confidential servant, who is on familiar terms with you and whose advice you seek, for whom you have rejected Socrates and Aristides, who joins in your laughter and laughs louder than yourself, namely Davus, is very well known to me; and doesn't that tell me enough about yourself?

21. Some men, if they could know themselves and know those below them, would be ashamed of taking precedence.

22. True, there are few excellent orators, but is there really an audience for these? There are not enough good writers, but where are the men who know how to read? In the same way, we are always told how few statesmen prove capable of counselling kings and helping them in the administration of their affairs; but when such able and intelligent men do, in fact, appear, when they act as they think best and wisest, are they loved and respected as they deserve? Are they praised for what they plan and do for their country? They live, and that's enough; they are blamed if they fail and envied if they succeed. We must blame the populace when it would be absurd to excuse it. Its discontent and jealousy, which are taken for granted by the great and powerful, have led the latter, by imperceptible degrees, to disregard it, and to neglect popular opinion in all they undertake, even making this a rule of their policy.

The common people hate one another when their interests clash. They detest the great, because of the harm these do them and the good they fail to do them: the great are responsible for their obscurity, their poverty and their misfortune, or at least they seem to be.

23. It's bad enough to have to share one's faith and one's God with the common people: how can one bear to be called Peter, John or James, like the tradesman or the farm labourer? Let us avoid having anything in common with the mob; let us cultivate, on the contrary, everything that may distinguish us from it. Let plebeians keep the twelve apostles, their disciples, the first martyrs (suitable patrons for such followers); let them joyfully celebrate, every year, the return of each one's name-day. We who are of noble rank may have recourse to less hallowed names: we may have ourselves christened Hannibal, Caesar or Pompey, these were great men; or Lucrece, who was an illustrious Roman lady; or Renaud, Oliver and Tancred, who were noble knights, incomparable heroes of romance; or Hector, Achilles or Hercules, all demi-gods; or even Phoebus or Diana; and what's to prevent us from calling ourselves Jupiter or Mercury, Venus or Adonis?

24. While great nobles are content to know nothing, not merely about matters of State and the interests of princes but about their own private affairs; while they remain ignorant of household administration and all that the head of a family should know, and pride themselves on this ignorance; while they let themselves be robbed and ruled by bailiffs, while they are satisfied with being gourmets or connoisseurs of wine, with frequenting Thais and Phryne, talking about the first and second pack or how many stages there are between Paris and Besançon or Philisbourg, certain bourgeois have been learning all about the internal and external affairs of the kingdom, have studied the art of government, have become shrewd politicians, acquainted with the strength and weakness of the whole State, have sought promotion, have gained promotion, have risen high, grown powerful; and relieved the prince of part of his public responsibilities. Those nobles who once scorned them now revere them, and are happy to become their sons-in-law.

25. A comparison between the two opposite extremes of the social scale, between great nobles and the common people, shows that the latter are content with the necessaries of life, while the former, who enjoy its superfluities, feel dissatisfied and deprived. A man of the people can do no harm; a great noble is unwilling to do good, and is capable of doing much evil. The one by training and by trade practises only useful arts; the other introduces harmful ones. The one ingenuously displays a rude but honest nature; the other hides a corrupt and vicious spirit under a rind of politeness. The people have no wit, and the nobility have no soul; the former are basically good, and lack veneer; the latter have veneer, and nothing underneath it. Am I to choose? I'll not hesitate; I'll belong to the common people.

26. However cunning great courtiers may be, however adept at appearing what they are not and at not appearing as they really are, they cannot conceal their spite, their immoderate tendency to laugh at others' expense, often holding up to ridicule that which is not ridiculous. These fine talents are recognizable at a first glance, and are invaluable no doubt for entrapping a dupe and making a fool seem foolish, but are even more liable to deprive them of the pleasure they might get from the company of an intelligent man, who could have entertained them in countless delightful and amusing ways, did not the dangerous character of the courtier compel him to exercise extreme restraint. Confronting the courtier, he assumes a serious character, and confines himself to that; and he is so successful that the mockers, for all their evil intentions, have no opportunity to make game of him.

27. Thanks to material comforts, abundance and the serenity due to great wealth, princes have merriment to spare with which, to laugh at a dwarf, a monkey, a fool or a silly story; less fortunate people laugh only at what is laughable.

28. A nobleman loves Champagne and detests Brie wine; he gets tipsy on better wine than a man of the people; that's the only difference that drunkenness admits between the most widely different social ranks, between the great lord and his groom.

29. One might think at first glance that part of a prince's pleasure lay in inconveniencing other people. But it's not so; princes are like other men; they think of themselves, follow their own taste, their passions, seek their own convenience; it's only natural.

30. Apparently the first rule of official bodies, of people in authority or in power, is to inflict on those who depend on them for the settlement of their affairs all the setbacks they could possibly apprehend.

31. I cannot conceive in what way a great noble may be happier than other men, except perhaps in frequently having the power and opportunity to give pleasure; and if such an occasion should occur, he ought surely to make use of it. Should it be in favour of a virtuous person, he must take care not to let it escape him; but since the cause is a just one, he must anticipate the request, and be seen only to be thanked; and if the favour was easy to grant, he must not even insist on thanks. If he refuses, I pity both men.

32. Some men are born inaccessible, and they are precisely those on whom others depend and whom they need. Such men never stand still; mobile as quicksilver, they whirl about, gesticulate, shout and bestir themselves; like the cardboard puppets displayed at a public festival, they scatter fire and flame, they thunder and lighten; nobody goes near them until, when the firework dies down, they collapse, and their fall renders them manageable, but useless.

33. The porter, the valet, the liveried lackey, if they are no more intelligent than their position requires, rate themselves not according to their own lowly origins but according to the rank and fortune of those they serve, and look down indiscriminately on everyone who comes in through their gates and goes up their stairs, as being beneath them and their masters; so true is it that we are bound to suffer at the hands of the great and of their creatures.

34. A man in a high position should love his Prince, his wife, his children, and next to them, men of intelligence; he should adopt these, be well supplied with them and never run short. He cannot be too lavish, not perhaps of gifts and favours, but of friendly and affectionate gestures, to repay the help and the good offices that he gets from them, albeit unwittingly. How many small rumours they can crush how many stories they can dismiss as legend or fiction! Don't they know how to justify poor results by good intentions, adduce a fortunate issue as proof of the excellence of one's plan and the correctness of one's measures, denounce others' spite and envy while crediting good deeds with even better motives, give favourable explanations for unfortunate appearances, disguise one's petty defects and show only one's virtues, putting these in the best light, mentioning on countless occasions incidents and details that are favourable to one, and directing laughter and contempt against those who venture to doubt these, or who quote other facts to the contrary? I know that great nobles have a maxim that one should let people talk and go on acting; but I know, too, that on many occasions talk has proved a brake on action.

35. To appreciate worth, and once it is recognized to treat it well, are two important steps that should be taken promptly, and of which most great nobles are quite incapable.

36. You are great, you are powerful: that's not enough; win my esteem, so that I may regret having fallen from your favour, or having failed to win it.

37. You tell me that a certain great noble or prominent person is considerate, helpful, always willing to give pleasure; and you confirm this by a long account of what he did in some matter in which he knew you were concerned. I get your meaning: your wishes have been anticipated, you have influence, you're acquainted with the Minister, you're on good terms with men in power; wasn't that all you wanted me to know?

Somebody tells you: 'I am vexed with So-and-so, he has grown proud since his promotion, he looks down on me, he won't recognize me.' 'I have no complaints to make about him,' you reply, 'on the contrary, I think very well of him, and indeed he seems to me most friendly.' I get your meaning again; you want people to know that a man who has a position pays attention to you, and singles you out in the antechamber amid a host of worthy folk from whom he averts his eyes for fear of being unfortunately obliged to return their bow or their smile.

'To think well of someone, to think highly of a great noble', the phrase implies that one thinks highly of oneself because of all the kindness a nobleman has shown one, perhaps without meaning to.

We praise great nobles to show that we are on friendly terms with them, seldom out of respect or gratitude. We often do not know those we praise; vanity or frivolity prevail sometimes over resentment; we are dissatisfied with them, and yet we praise them.

38. If it is dangerous to be involved in a shady affair, it is even more so to become a great noble's accomplice in one; he gets out of it, leaving you to pay twice over, for yourself and for him.

39. A prince's entire fortune is not too much to pay for base subservience, if we judge by all that the man he wishes to reward has sacrificed; and his full powers are not too great to punish it with, if he is to measure his vengeance by the wrong done him.

40. The nobility risk their lives for the safety of the State and the glory of their sovereign; the magistrate relieves the Prince of part of the responsibility of judging the nation: both of these functions are lofty and exceptionally useful; men are scarcely capable of greater things, and I cannot think whence the Law and the Army have derived the contempt they feel for one another.

41. If it is true that a great noble gives more to fortune, when he hazards a life that was destined to be spent amid gaiety, pleasure and plenty, than a humble individual who risks only a life of wretchedness, it must be admitted that this noble finds a very different compensation, namely fame and a high reputation. The soldier feels that he is unknown; he dies in obscurity, one of a crowd: true, he lived in the same fashion, but at least he was alive; and this is one reason for a lack of courage among men of low and servile rank. Those whose birth, on the contrary, distinguishes them from among the crowd and sets them in the public view, exposed to praise or blame, are even capable of overcoming their natural bent, if this should not be to bravery; and in this attitude of heart and mind, handed down from grandsires through fathers to their children, lies that courage so familiar to men of noble birth, and perhaps the essence of nobility.

Send me to join the army as a private soldier, I'll be Thersites; set me at the head of a host for which I am responsible before the whole of Europe, I shall be Achilles.

42. Princes, without being instructed in the rules of art, have a natural sense of comparison: they are born and brought up amidst the finest things, and as it were in the very centre of these; and they compare with these whatever they read or see or hear. Anything that is too much unlike Lulli, Racine and Le Brun stands condemned.

43. It is carrying caution too far to keep reminding young princes of what is due to their rank, when the entire Court, out of duty and out of courtesy, pays them respect, and they are far less liable to be ignorant of the deference to which their birth entitles them, than to treat other people all the same, without distinction of rank and title. They have a natural pride, which they assume when the occasion arises; they need only to be taught to control it, and to acquire kindness, good breeding and a sense of discrimination.

44. A man of a certain rank is merely being hypocritical if he does not immediately accept the place to which he is entitled, and which everyone is ready to yield to him. He risks nothing by being modest, mingling in the crowd which then makes way for him, taking a back seat in any gathering so that everyone will see him there and hasten to remove him from it. Modesty is a more painful practice for men of lower rank: if they mingle with the crowd, they are crushed; if they choose an uncomfortable position they stay there.

45. Aristarchus has himself carried to the Square with a herald and a trumpet; the crowd hurries up and gathers to listen. 'Oyez, oyez,' says the herald, 'silence, pray! Aristarchus, whom you see here, is going to do a good deed tomorrow.' To put it plainly and without metaphor:

'A man has acted rightly; does he want to do even better? let me remain ignorant of his good action, or at least let me not suspect him of having told me of it.'

46. The best actions may be spoiled and weakened by the way they are done, and may even make us suspect their motives. The man who protects or praises virtue for virtue's sake, who corrects or indicts a vice because it is vicious, acts simply and naturally, without self-consciousness or eccentricity, display or affectation; he does not make use of grave, sententious remarks, still less of piquant, satirical sallies: he never puts on an act for the public, but merely does his duty, and sets a good example; he provides no gossip for ladies, for conversation-clubs or journalists; he does not give a sociable fellow the wherewithal for a charming story. True, the good deed he has just done remains rather less widely known; but he has done a good deed, and what more can he ask?

47. Great nobles must dislike primitive times, which are hardly flattering for them; it must be sad for them to see that our forebears were all siblings. Men are all one family; there are only degrees of relationship.

48. Theognis dresses with care, and sets forth decked out like a woman; before he has even left home, he puts on the expression which he must wear when he appears in public, so that his eyes and face will be all ready, and passers-by will find him beaming graciously at them; no one will escape him. When he walks through a room he turns to the right, where there's a crowd, and to the left, where there's nobody; he bows to those who are there and to those who are not. He embraces a man who happens to be at hand, and clasps him fondly; then he asks who is the man he has been embracing. Somebody needs his help in a quite straightforward matter; Theognis lends a willing ear, is delighted to be of some assistance, and implores him to take every opportunity of making use of him; when the other persists in his request, he says he will do nothing about it, and appeals to him to put himself in his, Theognis's, place, and judge for himself. The suitor leaves, and is shown out so affectionately that he feels ashamed, and is almost pleased to have met with a refusal.

49. A person in authority shows a very poor opinion of men, and yet a sound knowledge of them, if he thinks he can deceive them by studied gestures of affection, by prolonged and sterile embraces.

50. Pamphilus does not converse with the people he meets, indoors or out; to judge by his solemn air and his raised voice, he holds a reception, grants them an audience and then dismisses them; his expressions are civil and yet haughty, his politeness is arrogant, and used without discrimination; he has a false greatness which debases him, and which is most embarrassing to those who are his friends, and who do not want to despise him.

A man like Pamphilus is full of himself, never loses sight of himself, never stops thinking of his own greatness, of his great connexions, of his functions, of his dignity; he collects all his insignia, so to speak, and spreads them about himself to enhance his worth; he says: My order, my blue ribbon, displaying or concealing them ostentatiously. Pamphilus, in a word, would like to be great, and thinks himself great; but he is only a copy of a great man. If he sometimes grants a smile to a person of the meanest rank, a mere intellectual, he chooses his time so aptly that he is never caught in the act; and he would blush scarlet if he were unfortunately surprised on intimate terms with anyone who is neither wealthy, nor powerful, nor the friend, connexion or dependent of a minister. He is severe and inexorable towards everyone who has not yet achieved success. He may notice you one day in a gallery, and run away from you; supposing, next day, he should meet you in a less public place or, if in public, in the company of some great noble, he plucks up courage and comes up to you, saying: 'You pretended not to see us yesterday.' Sometimes he leaves you suddenly to go up to some grandee or important functionary; another time, if he finds them in conversation with yourself, he cuts in and takes them away from you. Again, you may accost him, and he will not stop to speak to you: he makes you run after him, while he talks as loud as if he were acting a play before the passers-by. People like Pamphilus always seem to be on the stage; they are brought up on insincerity, and hate nothing so much as being natural; they are real play-actors, like Floridor or Mondori.

One could go on and on about men like Pamphilus; they are base and cowardly before princes and ministers; full of arrogance and selfassurance in front of those who are merely virtuous; speechless and embarrassed with learned men; lively, bold and dogmatic with those who know nothing. To lawyers, they talk about war, and to financiers about political matters; with women they know all about history; they are poets to a theologian, and geometricians to a poet. They don't bother about rules of conduct, still less about principles; they live at random, carried along on the wind of favour and drawn by the lure of wealth. They have no opinions of their own; they borrow them as they need them; and the man they turn to is never a wise or learned or virtuous man, but a man who is in the fashion.

51.Towards men of rank and position, we feel a sterile jealousy and an impotent hatred which do not make amends to us for their splendour or their status, and merely add to our own wretchedness the intolerable burden of another's good fortune. What can one do against so inveterate and contagious a sickness of the soul? Let us be content with little, and if possible with even less; let us learn how to endure loss: the prescription is an infallible one, and I am willing to put it to the test. I thus avoid having to bribe a porter or seduce a clerk; being driven from a minister's door by the countless hordes of petitioners or courtiers that it disgorges several times a day; cooling my heels in his waiting-room; begging for my rights, in fear and trembling; enduring his self-importance, his sneering laugh and his curt speech. Then I no longer hate him, I no longer envy him; he has nothing to ask me, nor I him; we are equal, except maybe that he is not at ease, and I am.

52. When the great might help us, they are seldom willing to; they may wish to harm us, but don't always find an opportunity. Thus our worship of them is mistaken, if it is grounded only on hope or fear; and a man may reach the end of a long life without being dependent on them in any respect, or owing his success or failure to them. We should honour them because they are high and we are humble, while we in turn are honoured by those who are humbler than ourselves.

53. At Court and in the City we find the same passions, the same foibles, the same meanness, the same prejudice, the same quarrels within families and between friends, the same envy and the same antipathy. Everywhere daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law, husbands and wives, part in anger and then patch it up; everywhere we find examples of the same caprice, bad temper, injustice, tale-bearing and backbiting. If we have eyes to see, we can easily recognize the small folk of the rue Saint-Dens at V— or at F—. Here, men flatter themselves on hating one another with greater pride and haughtiness, and perhaps with more dignity: they injure one another more cleverly and subtly; they rage more eloquently, and their insults are more polished and better expressed; the purity of the language remains unharmed; only men, or their reputations, are wounded: the outward aspect of vice is brilliant, but underneath it is the same as in the lowest ranks, revealing all that is basest, meanest and most shameful in human nature. These men, so great by birth, privilege or position, these acute and able minds, these civilized and witty women, all despise the common people, and they themselves are common.

This term, the common people, has more than one meaning: its scope is wide, and we might well be surprised to see what it embraces and how far it extends. There is the common people as opposed to the nobility: namely the populace, the mob; and there is the common people as opposed to those who are wise, learned and virtuous: this includes great folk as well as humble.

54.Great nobles are governed by impulse; on such idle souls, everything makes a keen impression to begin with. Something happens, and they talk too much about it; soon they talk about it less; then they stop talking about it, and they will never talk of it again. Actions, behaviour, achievements and events are all forgotten; expect from them neither self-improvement nor foresight, nor reflection, nor gratitude, nor reward.

55.We fly to opposite extremes with regard to certain public figures. After their death, satire is rife among the common people, while churches resound with their praises. Sometimes they deserve neither lampoons nor funeral orations; and sometimes they are worthy of both.

56. We should keep silent about those in power; to speak well of them almost implies flattery; to speak ill of them while they are alive is dangerous, and when they are dead is cowardly.