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Brief Lives

Chamfort (1740-1794)

Martin Jenkins looks at the life of a wry observer of society, cut short by that society’s revolutionary turmoil.

Montaigne invented the essay. Another Frenchman, La Rochefoucauld, invented the maxim: the presentation of profound ideas in short self-standing statements. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche used that form extensively; but most practitioners seem to have been French. The French call them moralistes, which, like its English equivalent, implies commentators on the moeurs, or customs, of society.

What is the attraction of expressing ideas as aphorisms, usually without argument, inviting the reader to accept them as ‘self-evident truths’? One suggestion is:

“Maxims, axioms, are, like summaries, the work of people of spirit [or of ‘wit’], who, it seems, have laboured for the benefit of mediocre or lazy minds.