Nicolas Chamfort : Thoughts on society






{"Sébastien-Roch Nicolas, known in his adult life as Nicolas Chamfort, (6 April 1741 – 13 April 1794), was a French writer, best known for his epigrams and aphorisms.

The writings of Chamfort include comedies, political articles, literary criticisms, portraits, letters, and verses. His Maximes et Pensées, highly praised by John Stuart Mill, are, after those of La Rochefoucauld, among the most brilliant and suggestive sayings of the modern era." Wikipedia}




Extracts from:

Nicolas Chamfort

Maxims and thoughts. Characters and anecdotes

(1795)





"Most of the men who live in society live there so scatterbrainedly, and think so little, that they do not know the world that is constantly under their eyes. "They do not know it", said M. de B... pleasantly, "for the same reason that beetles do not know natural history"."



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"We do not know men who we only know in part; things that we only know three-quaters about, we do not know at all. These two reflections are enough to appreciate nearly every speech that is made in society."



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"When a person wants to please people in society, he must allow himself to learn very many things that he already knows from people who are ignorant about them."



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"To have a just idea of things, one must understand words in the opposite meaning that they are supposed to have in society. Misanthrope, for example, this means Philanthropist; a bad Frenchman, this means a good citizen who indicates certain monstrous abuses; a philosopher, a simple man who knows that two and two make four, etc."



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"Society, circles, salons, what people call the world, is a wretched play, a bad opera, without anything that deserves a persons interest, which makes itself a little bearable through gadgets and decorations."



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"Any man who lives in society very often persuades me that he doesn't have much feeling; because, I see nearly nothing there that can interest a heart, or rather nothing that doesn't harden it: what rules there is a spectacle of senselessness, frivolity, and vanity."



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"One wishes for laziness in wicked men and silence in fools."



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"Prejudice, vanity, and calculation, that is what governs the world. A person whose conduct is only ruled by reason, truth, and feeling has nearly nothing in common with society. He must look for nearly all of his happiness in himself."



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"Too superior of qualities often make a man less fit for society. One doesn't go to the market with gold bars; one goes with money or small change."



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"When one sees the trouble that social conventions seem to take to dismiss merit from any position where it could be useful to society, when one observes the leagues of fools against people with spirit, one would think that there was a conspiracy of valets against their masters."



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"Mme de Tencin said that people with spirit make many mistakes in their actions because they never believe that society is brutish enough, as brutish as it is."



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"What best explains that dishonest men, and sometimes even fools, nearly always have more success in society than honest men and men with spirit, is that dishonest men and fools don't have to go through as much trouble to adjust to the current and tone of society, which in general is only dishonesty and foolishness; whereas honest and sensible men, being unable to enter so fast into the commerce of the world, lose precious time in making their fortunes.


The first are salesmen who, knowing the language of the country, sell and restock their merchandise immediately, whereas the others are obliged to learn the language of their suppliers and customers. Before revealing their merchandise and making deals with such people, they often even scorn learning this language, and they go back home before revealing their wares a single time."



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"A philosopher regards what people call a position in society in the same way that Tartars regard a city, that is, as a prison. It is a circle where ideas become narrower, more one-sided, and take vastness and expansion away from a persons soul and intelligence. A man who has a high position in society has a grander and more ornate prison. Someone who only has a small position is in solitary confinement. The man who does not have a position is the only man who is free, provided that he has sufficient funds, or at least that he doesn't have any need of men."



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"An intelligent man was claiming, in front of millionaires, that one could be happy with making 2,000 écus a year. They bitterly and even passionately maintained the contrary. When he left where they had been, he looked for the cause of this bitterness on the part of people who were his friends. Finally, he found it. It's because with a proposition like his, a person makes rich people see that he is not dependant on them. Every man who has few needs seems to menace the wealthy with the constant threat of escaping from them. Tyrants see in such a proposition the loss of a slave.


One can apply this reflection to all passions in general. A man who has conquered his inclination to fall in love shows an indifference to women that is always odious to them. They immediately stop being interested in him. It's perhaps for this reason that no one is interested in the good or bad fortune of a philosopher: he does not have the passions that move society. One sees that he can do nearly nothing for ones happiness, and one leaves him where he is."



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"A man who obstinately refuses to allow his reason and honesty, or even his delicacy, to bend under the weight of any of the absurd or dishonest conventions of society, who never yields in circumstances where it would be in his self-interest to yield, infallibly ends up helpless, with no other friend than an abstract being that people call virtue, who lets him die of hunger."



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"M... said that a wise and penetrating spirit, who saw society as it is, would only find bitterness everywhere. It is absolutely necessary for a person to direct his view to pleasant things, and accustom himself to only viewing man as a puppet and society as the planks he hops on. As soon as this is done, everything changes; the spirit of different conditions, the vanity particular to each of them, the different nuances in individuals, the knavery, etc. everything becomes entertaining, and a person conserves his health."



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"The best philosophy, relative to the world, is an alliance between the sarcasm that comes from gaiety and the indulgence that comes with scorn."



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"There is no need to be surprised that J.-J. Rousseau had a taste for solitude: such souls find themselves alone and live isolated, like eagles ; but, like them, the breadth of their vision and the height of their flight is the charm of their solitude."



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"When I renounced society and fortune, I found happiness, calm, health and even wealth; and despite the proverb, I find that whoever quits a game wins it."



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