Maarten Maartensz

Notes Philosophy - Chamfort - Maxims and Thoughts
 


 


II

MAXIMS AND THOUGHTS


CHAPTER ONE


GENERAL MAXIMS


Maxims and axioms, like summaries, are the work of talented men, who have worked, it seems, for the use of lazy or mediocre minds. The lazy use a maxim as if it would dispense them from making for themselves the observations that led the author of the maxim to the result that he shares with his reader. The lazy and the mediocre believe they are dispensed from going from there, and give the maxim a generality that the Author, at least if he himself is not mediocre, which sometimes happens, did not pretend it to have given. The superior man knows at once the analogies and the differences that make the maxim more or less applicable to this or that case, or where it does not apply at all. It is here as in natural history, where the desire to simplify has imagined classes and divisions. It required intelligence to do so, for it required investigation and observation, but the great naturalist, the man of genius, sees that is a marvel of individual and distinct things, and sees the insufficiency of divisions and classes, that are so very useful for mediocre of lazy minds. Indeed, mediocrity and laziness hang together: it is often the same thing, and often they are cause and effect.

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Most of the collectors of verses or witty sayings resemble those who eat cherries or oysters, since these start by chosing the best, and end by eating all.
 

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It would be a curious thing to find a book that pointed out all the ideas that corrupt the human mind, human society, and human morals, that one finds developed or presupposed in the most famous writings, and in the most praised authors: those ideas that propagate religious superstition, bad political principles, despotism, the vanity of rank, the popular prejudices of every kind. One would see that almost all books are corrupters, and that the very best do almost as much harm as good.

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There is no cessation in the writings about education, and the works on this subject have produced a few happy ideas and a few useful methods: in a word, they have done some partial good. But what good, on a large scale, can such writings do, if one cannot first make the necessary reforms in law, in religion, in public opinion? Education has no other end than conforming the mind of the child to the public reasoning about these three subjects, yet what instructions can one give if these three things are in battle? And while forming the minds of children, what are you doing other than preparing them to see even sooner the absurdity of the opinions sanctified by the seal of sacred authority, whether public or judicial, and thus to teach him contempt?

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It is a source of pleasure and of philosophy to analyze the ideas that contribute to the various judgments of some man or some society. The examination of the ideas that determine this or that public opinion is no less interesting, and is often more so.

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It is with civilisation as it is with cooking. If one sees a table with light dishes, healthy and well-prepared, one is happy to conclude that cooking has become a science, but when one sees there gravies, rich bouillons, truffled patés, one curses the cooks and their awful art: it all depends on how art is practiced.

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Man, in the present state of society, seems to me to be more corrupted by his reason than by his passions. His passions (I mean those which he shares with primive man) have conserved, in the social order, that little of nature which one still finds in it.

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Society is not, as one usually believes, a natural development, but rather a natural decomposition and its entire reconstruction. It is a second building, built with the ruins from the first. One rediscovers the fragments with a mixture of pleasure and surprise. It is the same sentiment that is evoked by a naive expression of some natural feeling when this happens in society, and this is especially so if the person who expressed it has some high rank, and thus is farther removed from nature. It is charming in a king, for a king is farthest removed from nature. It is like the remains of the ancient doric or corinthian architecture, set in a crude and modern context.

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In general, if society were not such a fabric of pretensions, all simple and true sentiments would not produce the great effect they do: it then would please without astonishing, yet it astonishes and pleases. Our surprise is a satire on society; our pleasure is a hommage to nature.

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Swindlers always have some need for their honor, rather like police informers, who are paid less when they inform on the lower strata of society. 

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A man of the people, a beggar, may let himself be despised, without giving rise to the idea of his being a base man, when the contempt does not seem to address anything but his exterior, but the same beggar, if he would let his conscience be insulted, even by the first of Europe's rulers, would become as base in his person as in his station.

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It must be admitted that it is impossible to live in society without playing a part from time to time. What distinguishes the honest man from the swindler is that the former does not play and pretend unless he is forced, and tries to escape such danger, whereas the latter searches out such opportunities.

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Sometimes people reason strangely when in society. For example, a man is told, when he wants to speak up in favor of someone else: "He is your friend. Well, I ask you! Yes, he is my friend because the good that I tell of him is true, because he is as I ... You confuse cause and effect. Why do you suppose that I speak well of him because he is my friend, and why do you not much rather suppose he is my friend, because there is good to be told about him? "

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There are two classes of moralists and politics: those which cannot see human nature from the side of what is odious or ridiculous, and that is the greatest number: Lucan, Montaigne, La Bruyère, La Rochefoucauld, Swift, Mandeville, Helvétius, etc.; those who cannot see it except from the side of what is beautiful and perfect: Shaftesbury and some others. The first do not know the palace without having seen the ..., the second are enthusiasts who turn their eyes away from what offends them, even though it exists.
Est in medio verum.

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If one wanted proof of the complete uselessness of all books of morals, sermons etc., one only needs to look to the prejudices on the basis of hereditary nobility. Is there any fault against which the philosophers, the orators, the poets have launched more satirical tracts, that has more exercised the wits of all sorts, that has given birth to more sarcasms? Has this killed pretensions, or the fantasy to board an expensive coach? Has it removed the employment of Chérin? (*)

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In the theatre, one aims at effect, but what distinguishes the good from the bad poet is that the first want to produce effects by reasonable means, while for the latter all means are excellent. It is here as with honest men and swindlers, both of whom desire to make their fortunes: the first only use honorable means, while the latter use any means.

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Philosophy, like medicine, has many drugs, very few good remedies, and almost no cures.

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There are some fifty million souls in Europe, the double of that in Africa, more than three times as much in Asia, and while admitting that America and the Australian territories do not contain as much as half as does our hemisphere, one may be sure that there die every day, on our globe, more than hundred thousand human beings. A man who has not lived more than thirty years, has escaped this fearful destruction some fourteen hundred times.

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I have seen men who were not gifted with more than a simple and straightforward capacity for reasoning, without great knowledge or much wit, and their simple reason sufficed for taming the human vanities and follies, and gave them the feeling of their own personal dignity, and made them value the same in others. I have seen women of whom more or less the same was true, for whom sincere and well-tested feeling led to the same ideas. It follows from these two observations that those who attach great importance to human vanity and folly belong to the lowest class of our species.

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Who does not know how to return pleasantries, and who lacks a ready wit, very often finds himself in the necessity to be either false or pedantic - a vexing alternative that an honest man usually escapes by good manners and good humor.

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Often some opinion or custom begins by seeming absurd to us in our first youth, while, as one advances in life, one finds the reason, and it seems less absurd. Should one conclude from this that certain customs are less ridiculous? One is sometimes led to think that they have been established by men who had read the entire book of life, and that they are judged by men who, in spite of their intelligence, have read nothing but a few pages.

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It seems as if according to the received ideas about social decency, a priest or a curare ought to believe a little so as not to be hypocrites, but not so much as to be intolerant. The lordly vicar may smile a little at an argument against religion, the bishop may laugh outright, and the cardinal may add some himself.

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The majority of the noblemen makes one think of their ancestors rather as an Italian cicerone makes on think of Cicero.

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I have read, I don't know in which traveller, that certain savages in Africa believe in the immortality of the soul. Without pretending to know why, they believe it moves about, after death, in the brushwood that surrounds their homesteads, and they search for it for several days. Not having found it, they abandon this search, and think no more about it. This is more or less as our philosophers have done, since they have to do better things.

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An honest man should receive public esteem without having courted it, and, so to speak, in spite of himself. Those who have courted the public have shown their quality.

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It is a nice allegory, in the bible, that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil produced death. Doesn't this emblem mean that, if one has penetrated to the foundation of things, the loss of illusions leads to the death of the soul, that is to say to a complete disinterest in all that concerns and occupies other men?

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There must be a bit of everything in the world; there must be, even in the hypocrisies of the social system, some men who oppose nature to society, truth to opinion, reality to conformism. This is a type of mind and character that is strong and striking, and that has more influence than some think. There are men to whom one only needs to show what is true, to make them run to it with unaffected and interested surprise. They are amazed that so striking a thing (when one knows how to present it) has escaped them until then.

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It is believed that the deaf are unhappy in society. Isn't this judgement inspired by the love of self in society, that says: "Doesn't that man there have much to suffer by not being able to hear what we say?".

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Thought has consolation for everything and remedies for everything. If ever she has done you ill, ask her to remedy the ill she did, and she will give it.

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There are, as one cannot deny it, a few great characters in modern history, but one cannot understand how they came to be: It seems they are out of place, as if they are ...

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The best philosophy, speaking of society, is to combine the sarcasm of amusement with the indulgence of contempt.

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I am no more astonished to see one man tired of glory as I am to see another man irritated by the noises in his waiting room.

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I have seen, in the social world, that people continuously sacrifice the esteem of honest people to gain renown, and sacrifice their own leisure to find celebrity.

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According to Dorilas, a strong argument for the existence of God is the existence of man, that is, the man of excellence, in that sense of the word which is the least ambiguous, and the most precise, and therefore a little circumscribed, in a word, the nobility. This is the master piece of Providence, or rather the only direct work that came from His hands. But there are some who pretend, who are certain, that there are persons who are perfectly like these priviliged beings. Dorilas says: "Is that true? What! The same figure, the same external appearance!" Well, the existence of such individuals, of such men, if one may call them so, which others have denied, and which he, to his grand surprise, has seen admitted by several of his peers, which is the sole reason he does not deny their existence more formally, and about which anyway he is very vague, and full of pardonable doubts, which he can't help, and against which he satisfies himself by protesting his great height, and by forgetting politeness, or by the goodness of his disdain - how can he explain the existence of these creatures, who are without a doubt so ill defined; what is he to make of them? How can he square these phenomena with his theory? In which system of physics or metaphysics, or, if it is necessary, of mythology, will he search for the solution to this problem? He reasons, he dreams, he is of good faith, but the problem remains, and he is shaken. He has with, he has knowledge, he must find the clue to this enigma - and he has found it, he grasps it, and his eyes shine with joy. Silence. You know that, in the theology of the Persians, there is the doctrine of the two principles, those of the good and the bad. Well then! You did not get it? Nothing could be simpler. Genius, talent, and virtue are all inventions of the bad principle, from Orizman, the Devil, to show clearly and evidently that there are some miserable wretches, evident plebeians, real commoners, or at best barely gentry.

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How many distinguished military men, how many generals have died, without having transmitted their names to posterity - in which they have been less fortunate than Bucephalos, and even the Spanish mastiff Bérécillo, who devoured the indians of Santo Domingo, and had the pay of three soldiers!

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One desires the bad to be lazy and the fools to be silent.

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The best explanation why dishonest men, and sometimes even stupid ones, almost always succeed better in finding their way in society than honest men or intelligent men, is that dishonest men and stupid men have less trouble to adapt to the habits and the tone of the world, that generally consists of nothing but dishonesty and foolishness, whereas honest men and men of sense, who cannot enter as rapidly into commerce with society, loose precious time to make their fortunes. The former are merchants who, knowing the language of the country, barter and deal immediately, whereas the latter are obliged to learn the language of the dealers and the customers, before they can expose their wares and start trading. Often indeed they disdain to learn the language, and therefore must return without making a single deal.

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There is a kind of prudence that is superior to what one ordinarily means by that term: the one is the prudence of the eagle, the other that of the mole. The former consists in boldly living according to one's character, while courageously accepting whatever disadvantages and inconveniences this may produce.

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To be able to forgive reason for the ills it has done to the majority of men, one must consider what man would be without his reason. It was a necessary evil.

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There are well-educated idiocies, just as there are well-dressed idiots.

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If Adam had been told, on the morning after the death of Abel, that in a few centuries there would be places where some seven or eight hundredthousand men would be thrown and bundled together in an area of some four square leagues, would he have believed that these masses would ever be able to live together? Wouldn't he have had an even more awful idea about the crimes and monstrosities to be expected in such circumstances? One needs this sort of idea to console oneself about the abuses that accompany such amazing collections of men.

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Pretensions are a source of much misery, and the time of happiness in life starts on the moment one finishes with them. Is a woman still pretty when her beauty fades? It is her pretensions that made here ridiculous or unhappy, and ten years later, older and uglier, she is calm and tranquil. Consider a man who is in the age where one must succeed or fail with women, and who exposes himself to trouble and even insults, and when he has become a nothing and lost his uncertainties, he is tranquil. The harm arises from not having fixed and settled ideas, and it is better to be less but to be it unquestionably. The position of dukes and peers, well consolidated, is much better than that of foreign princes who must struggle continuously to acquire preeminence. If Chapelain had done as he was adviced to do by Boileau, by the well-known phrase "Why does he not write prose?", he would have saved himself many torments, and might have made himself a name for himself other than being a laughingstock.

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"Aren't you ashamed to have wanted to say more than you can?" said Seneca to one of his sons, who could not find the opening of a speech he had started. One could say the same to those who adopt principles that are too demanding for their characters: "Aren't you ashamed to have wanted to be more of a philosopher than you can be?"

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The majority of men live in the world with so little reason, and think so rarely, that they do not know the world that is always before their eyes. "They do not know it", said M. de B. wittily, "for the same reason as cockchafers don't know natural history".

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When one sees Bacon, in the beginning of the 16th century, point out to the human mind what is the way to reconstruct the edifice of science, on almost ceases to admire the great men who followed him, such as Boyle, Locke etc. He has mapped out the territories they must clear or conquer. He is Ceasar, master of the world after the victory of Pharsalia, who awards kingdoms and provinces to his supporters or favorites.

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Sometimes our reason makes us as unhappy as our passions, and one may say of a man who in such a state, that he is like an ill man who got poisoned by his doctor.

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When one looses the illusions and passions of one's youth, one often has regrets, but sometimes one hates the spell that has deceived one. Thus Armida burned and destroyed the castle where she was enchanted.

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Medical doctors have no better understanding than ordinary men of illness and what happens in the human body. Both are blind, but the medical doctors know the way to and in the hospital much better, and profit more from it.

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You ask how you can make a fortune. Consider what happens in the pit of a theater, on a crowded day, how some stay behind, some at the front fall behind, and some from the back are carried forward. This image is so apt that the word that expresses it has passed into ordinary language: To make one's fortune is to get ahead. "My son, my nephew, got ahead", the vulgar say, and speak of "To advance oneself, to push ahead, to arrive", which are the received terms that manage to avoid naming the accompanying ideas of force, of violence, and of grossness, but even so suggest the main idea.

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The physical world seems like the work of a powerful and good being, who has been obliged to abandon the execution of a part of his plan to a malicious being. But the social world seems like the product of the antics of a devil turned mad.

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Those who do give nothing but their word as a guarantee for a statement that should be proved resemble the man who said "I have the honor of assuring you that the earth turns around the sun."

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In great things, men show themselves as they believe they should appear; in small things, they show themselves as they are.

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What is a philosopher? It is a man who opposes nature to the law, reason to usage, his conscience to opinion, and his judgement to error.

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A fool who has a moment of wit astonishes and shocks, just like coach horses at a gallop.

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To be no one's tool, to be the man after one's own heart, one's own principles, one's own sentimens - that is the rarest thing I've seen.

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Instead of wanting to cure men of certain faults that are intolerable to society, it would be better to help those who suffered from these faults.

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Three quarters of all foolishness is nothing but stupidity.

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Opinion is the queen of the world, because foolishness is the queen of fools.

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One should know how to commit the foolishness that belong to one's character.

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Importance without merit gets regards without respect.

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The great and the small may always fondly say of each other, as did the the coachman to the whores in "Javelle's Mill" : "Your kind and our can't form manage without each other".

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Someone said that Providence is the Christian name of chance:
some devout person might say that chance is a familiar name of Providence.

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There are few men who permit themselves a vigorous and intrepid use of their reason, and who dare to apply it to all things to the extent of their ability. The time has come where reason must be also applied to all moral  and political things, and to society; to kings, to ministers, to the great, to the philosophers; to the principles of science and art, etc.: Without this, one remains in the mediocrity.

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There are men who have the need to be the first, to lift themselves above others, whatever the price may be. Everything else is indifferent to them, if only they are dealt with in the treatises of charlatans; or are seen in a theatre, on a throne, or on a scaffold - everything is good to them that draws attention to them.

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Men become small as they gather into groups: they are the devils of Milton, obliged to turn themselves into pygmies, so as to enter the pandemonium.

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People destroy their real character in order to attain the regard and attention of the world, and throw themselves into obscurity to escape the danger of being portrayed.

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The physical pains and the calamities of human nature have made society necessary. Society has added evils to nature. The inconveniences of society have led to the necessity of government, which again have added to the evils of society. Such is the history of mankind.

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Ambition comes easier to little souls than to great ones, just as fire catches more easily in straw or thatched cottages than to palaces.

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This man lives often with himself, and is in need of virtue; that man lives with others, and is in need of honor.

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The fable of Tantalus has been almost only applied to avarice, but it applies at least as well to ambition, love for glory and almost all other passions.

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Nature, when giving birth at the same time to reason and to the passions, seems to have wanted to help man by the second gift to alleviate the ills she did by giving him the first, and by not letting him live more than a few years after having lost his passions, and seems to take pity on him by  delivering him quickly from a life in with no other resource than reason.

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All passions exaggerate, as they are passions because they exaggerate.

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The philosopher who desires to extinguish his passions resembles the alchemist who wanted to extinguish his fire.

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The first of the gifts of nature is that force of reason that elevates you beyond your own passions and your weaknesses, and that makes you govern your real qualities, your talents and your virtues.

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Why are there men who are so stupid, too much enslaved by custom or fear to make a testament - who are, in a word, such imbeciles, that they leave their possessions to those who will rejoice at their death rather than to those who will grieve about it?

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Nature has wished illusions on both the wise and the foolish, so as not to make the former too unhappy because of their wisdom.

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When one considers the manners with which the ill are treated in hospitals, one would say that human beings have thought of these sad asylumns, not to take care of the ill, but because of the suffering caused to the happily healthy who were troubled during their festivities by those unfortunately ill.

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In our time, those who love nature have been accused of being romantics.

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Staged tragedies have the great moral shortcoming of giving to much importance to life and to death.

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The most lost of all one's days are those on which one did not laugh.

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Most foolishness stems only from stupidity.

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One falsifies one's mind, one's conscience, one's reason, just as one ruins one's stomach.

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The principles of the secret and the strongbox are the same.

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The mind is often related to the heart as the library of a castle is related to the person of its master.

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What the poets, the orators, and even some philosophers tell us about the love for glory, is what we were told in college to encourage us to win prizes. What is said to children to make them prefer the praise of their maids over their taste for some small pie, is what is repeated to men to make the prefer the praises of their contemporaries or of posterity to their self-interest.

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If one wants to become a philosopher, one should not be discouraged by the first few unpleasant discoveries one makes when trying to understand men. It is necessary, if one is to know them, to overcome the repugnance they cause, just as an anatomist must overcome nature, its organs and his own distaste, in order to become a master in his art.

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By understanding the evils of nature, one learns contempt for death; by understanding human society, one learns contempt for life.

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It is with the value of men as it is with that of diamants, which, if they have a certain measure of size, purity and perfection, have a fixed price and mark, but which, if they fall below that measure, remain without price, and find no buyers.

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(*) The royal genealogist.


This English translation is by Maarten Maartensz and dates from January 2008. It is a first version.

Original: Jan 8, 2008                                        Last edited: Jan 16, 2008