Maarten Maartensz

Notes Philosophy - Chamfort - Maxims and Thoughts - Notes by MM
 


 


This is a file of notes by Maarten Maartensz to his English translation of the French text by Chamfort. Every star in this file links back to the aphorism the text immediately above it is related to.


CHAPTER TWO


GENERAL MAXIMS, CONTINUED



2.1: Most wit, especially of those who are famous for it, is not spontaneous but cultivated or learned by heart. This is not wit but its pretense.

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2.2:: Public opinion is the product of the human average, educated and led by the nose as it has been by priests, clergy and media. Accordingly, it cannot be other than base, prejudiced, misinformed and banal.

There are few things as contemptible or as dangerous as public opinion in times of religious or political fanaticism.

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2.3: Public opinion always is an artificially colored excretion of the tastes and ideas of some human average.

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2.4: As long as one hopes, one lives.

Nothing promises as much, and delivers as little, as human hope.

Human beings live virtually all day in hopes, in dreams, in illusions, in wishful thinking. This is typically human, and is a source of much that is good, whereas it only tends to be bad when people start acting on falsehoods they believe in, especially when it moves them to persecute others.

There are very few human ends that turn out as one expected, and this is the more so the more emotions one invested in one's ends.

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2.5: Nearly all social careers have been made by men who would have sold their souls to the devil if only they could.

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2.6: The ambitious deserve neither admiration nor commiseration: They are all egotists, and nearly all hypocrites.

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2.7: Intuitively speaking, the ratios of good to bad men, and of intelligent to stupid men, are both similar and independent, and in the order of one in ten.

The prime weakness of all intelligent and good men is that, being both rational and reasonable, they lack or avoid the usual means of the stupid and the bad.

To be reasonable among ordinary men tends to be as easy and pleasant as it is to be sane in a madhouse.

The good lack the means of personal aggrandizements and self-defense that seem natural and necessary to the bad.

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2.8: Human society is a conscious attempt to improve the chances of life and happines of its members, generally at the costs of all men in the neighbouring human societies, and of the weak, the stupid and the honest men in one's own.

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2.9: A democracy where the majority of the ignorant and fools may decide who will govern them, seems like Russian roulette on a social scale - as testified by the rise of Mussolini and Hitler.

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2.10: In ordinary society, everything is makebelief, pose, and pretense, including the pretense that this is slander of ordinary men. The reason is not that men are natural born liars and deceivers, but that, as men usually are, it is much easier to become rich or a social success by lies and deception than by truth or honesty.

There are very few socially successful men who do not look down with deep disdain, distrust and dislike upon those who donot wish to lie and deceive to make a career.

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2.11: There would be far fewer great and evil men, if there were far fewer willing executioners for them.

The great human problem does not consist in the small minority of depraved leaders, but in the great majority of depraved and eager followers.

(Titus was one of the greatest of Roman emperors, together with Marcus Aurelius. Sejanus, Narcissus and Tigellinus were corrupt, depraved or torturing assistants of the worst of Roman emperors.)

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2.12: Fame, wealth and status generally require the same sort of character to reach them: In human society as it is and has been, the real bastards are the most successful.

The great and the bad in any society, especially in politics and religion, often are the same.

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2.13: There are fair and independent judgments of men by men, but never if self-interest or prejudice are involved, and this is the usual case.

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2.14: Public opinion, like all opinion, deserves respect in just two kinds of circumstances: When it is informed or rational, and when it is violent or dangerous.

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2.15: Vanity is pleasure in what others believe that one is; pride is pleasure in what one believes oneself that one is.

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2.16: If you have wit and you are honest, the only way to make a career is on the stage, as a buffoon or a comedian.

It is impossible to tell the truth about men to most men without being much hated or despised by them - not because they know that one lies, but because they know that one speaks the truth about what they falsified in order to prosper themselves: A hunchback also doesn't like to be called hunchback.

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2.17: True human greatness generally requires lack of self-interest.

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2.18: All power corrupts, because power enables one to avoid or repress all honest discussion of one's weaknesses and faults.

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2.19: It is impossible to be a public success without being a personal fraud.

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2.20: Very few people like men who are evidently more honest or more intelligent than they are.

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2.21: Lord Chesterfield famously and rightly remarked that "If you want to be pleased, then please!". It is the same with great gifts: if the majority is not pleased with what one does with them, one is despised rather than admired, since one is not like ordinary folks. 

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2.22: Almost always, it are the vain who become socially successful, and always only the vain desire to be a social success.

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2.23: Those whose end is a happy life rarely find it. If you want to be happy, try to become just or learned or able, and hope for the best.

What tends to keep the unhappy from suicide is some chance that things might get better, eventually, somehow - and indeed they may, though rarely as one thinks or hopes.

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2.24: What is truly in one's power is only what is here and now - everything else is past or hope.

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2.25: Society gives greater opportunities for everyone to serve their own interests - which includes the opportunities of the liars, the cheats, and the hypocrites, who usually are in vast majority.

If one wants to avoid the bad, the mad, and the mediocre, one must form a very small and restricted society.

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2.26: Those who have feared the Lord invariably feared the self-proclaimed servants of the Lord or their lies.

There is no religion without irrational fears, cruel punishments, and false promises.

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2.27: The ordinary weaknesses of ordinary men have prevented much harm and misery.

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2.28: Animals can feel, and machines can calculate: only man can do both.

In humans, intelligence is a kind of feeling and vision, namely for what is rational, what is effective, what works in practice, or explains in principle. It moves by generalities, intimations, and guesses, and should not be confused with the treatises or verbal sum-ups it gives rise to.

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2.29: Real goodness requires highmindedness, because it requires defying the indifference or prejudice of the majority,

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2.30: It is with moral qualities as it is with the art of medicine: The good that most men do, is motivated like the good most doctors do, viz. adequate remuneration.

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2.31: Deserved wealth is nearly as much an oxymoron as is good evil.

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2.32 : One cannot be a thoroughly bad man without doing some good, just as one cannot be a swindler without seeming honest.

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2.33: If a Diogenes were to arise in modern society, he would be promptly put in a madhouse.

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2.34: There is no human society without deception and hypocrisy.

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2.35: If one believes one can be a social success without being a hypocrite, one knows neither men nor society.

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2.36: In human society, nothing happens without some pretense.

To live in society is to play a part all the time - and nearly all believe that the parts they play are the individuals they are.

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2.37: Seeing how much cruelty, stupidity and ignorance there is and always was in human society, it is well to note that there always and everywhere has been a small minority that knew how to avoid these human shortcomings and weaknesses.

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2.38: Nearly all men learn how to falsify themselves fundamentally, somewhere between the ages of fifteen and twentyfive, so as to make some social career, or live peacefully in society - and after that they believe all their lives that they are the parts and roles they play.

There is hardly any succesful deception of men without at least a little self-deception in the deceiver.

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2.39: It is a sobering thought that most men cannot be much better than they are already.

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2.40: Received opinions are full of cant, and are adapted to the tastes and ideas of the majority.

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2.41: In human society, such as it is, almost all greatness that is not purely intellectual or artistic is based on badness or personal corruption.

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2.42: Most human inventions are motivated by need or by curiosity.

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2.43: There are more weak than bad men, as there are more stupid than intelligent men, and the weak and the stupid do at least as much harm as the bad, because they are the loyal tools of the bad, and more numerous.

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2.44: As there are no men without weaknesses, there is a need for palliatives for the miseries of life that would and could be avoided if men were stronger or better than they are. Thus it is, for example, as regards drugs and drinking.

Life may be so painful that one needs some drug to be able to survive it, or not to lose one's mind.

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2.45: If you want to be a celebrity, you cannot have much self-respect.

The talents that make a man famous are much like those that make a prostitute rich.

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2.46: Dr. Johnson spoke fondly of "good haters", but most men do not share that fondness unless they share the hatred.

Those who cannot hate, cannot love either, for men are so constructed that they must hate those who harm whom they love.

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2.47: Men are rarely judged according to their true desserts: during their lives, many of the truly great were considered bad or mad, and when they are dead their lives are written by small men, for money, and to acquire what fame a small man may gather from parasiting on a great man.

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2.48: If you try to be more than you can be, you will fail.

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2.49: To become happy and successful, it is most effective to lie with the majority of liars, to do as the majority of fools, and to be indifferent to everything that does not help oneself.

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2.50: There are few great men who do not make many lesser men seem stupid, weak or incompetent. Therefore there are few great men that are truly loved, except by their peers, who need not feel hurt by what they lack, and who can enjoy what they have in common.

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2.51: It has been said that "If in Rome, do as the Romans do". One may say as well, or better: If with cannibals, do as the cannibals do.

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2.52: There are many who pretend to love of their ennemies, or to love their neighbours like themselves: They are as credible as those who report they saw a griffon.

Some things just are beyond all or most men, however desirable it would be if it were different. Here as in many other cases: Non posse, nemo obligatur. 

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2.53: Why do people get bored? Because they don't have the inner resources not to. That is also why TV is so popular: it fills the void in the minds of most.

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2.54: There are no publicly received ideas and values that have not been trivialized, cheapened, and made common, for ordinary consumption.

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2.55: Virtue is its own reward, for three reasons: First, if it were otherwise one could set up a remunerative business in virtue; second, because generosity is genuine only if spontaneous, and not contrived; and third, because true virtue is so rare that it has no agreed upon value, and has no market to settle its price.

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2.56: If you only care for yourself, you are better of dead, for all the good that you will intentionally do to others.

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2.57: If you want to have an inkling of the realism of moral ideals, consider Schiller's "Alle Menschen werden Brüder", that Beethoven used for his Ninth Symphony, which these days is the anthem of the European Union: It promises all women a sex change.

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2.58: Human wisdom mostly consists of human folly or weakness that was recognized for what it is.

No one gets wise or good except by valiantly trying to surmount one's own mistakes and weaknesses.

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2.59: In most things one cannot judge properly without preparation and knowledge.

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2.60: Almost all judgments one makes are consequences of judgments and choices one has made.

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2.61: Men's happiness and chances depend far more on circumstances than on effort. Even so, that is no excuse for not trying as good as one can.

Happiness and pleasure are not the same: Happiness is a state of being, pleasure a kind of feeling.

One may be quite happy, while feeling quite miserable: Happiness tends to arise from success, from gaining one's end.

Happiness is not itself the end of life: The end of life is to do as one pleases, when one pleases, for one's own reasons. This is personal freedom, and is co-extensive with power over oneself, and is the means to whatever happiness and pleasure one may find purposively.

Happiness and pleasure are more in the nature of rewards than of ends; more concommittants of what one achieves and does than what one may achieve and do.

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2.62: Those who believe in the goodness or the intelligence of man know nothing of human history: There have been good men, there have been intelligent men, there even have been good and intelligent men, but none of these ever amounted to more than a small minority among men in general.

Most of the evil men do to others is due to stupidity and conformism, not to malevolence.

Most men only murder, persecute or torture other men when these are supposed to be the enemies of their own society.

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2.63: Daydreaming is the surest way to human happiness.

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2.64: There is nothing that can be used that cannot be abused. And the Romans already saw and said well that "abusus optimus pessimus".

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2.65: The most adaptable, the most social, the most pleasing of men, and therefore also the most succesful, are those without character.

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2.66: True love concerns the well-being of someone else; true ambition concerns the well-being of oneself.

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2.67: Nearly all men make themselves into charicatures and parodies of what they might have been, merely to succeed or survive.

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2.68: The good that men do to others is rarely based on justice, and nearly always on sympathy or tit for tat.

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2.69: Dutch wit generally is inspired as is Dutch courage.

Dutch morals is an oxymoron: In Holland all morality is strictly and precisely calculated in terms of monetary profit and loss, and one's value as a human being is precisely proportional to one's wealth.

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2.70: Although the rich have far better means to become happy than the poor, it is rare to see a rich man who is genuinely happy. Why is that? Because generally it takes a corrupted heart to become rich.

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2.71: Although - thanks to science - at present all men could live quite well if only they gave up luxury, most men rather destroy the earth than forego conspicuous consumption.

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2.72: Money is a means, not an end: if you feel differently, it is because you have no talents whatsoever.

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2.73: If you want to avoid to become the slave of bailiffs and lawyers, you must live within your means.

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2.74:  Real friendship is normally based on real similarity. Extra-ordinary men have few real friends; ordinary men tend to abound in false friends.

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2.75: If you believe in the perfectability of man or human society, this must be because your own mind or historical knowledge is far from perfect.

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2.76: The best of men tend to be the most calumniated of men, as indeed the Christians detailed in their tales.

If one is clearly outstanding, one's excellence tends to be an offense in the eyes of ordinary men.

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2.77: If you cannot spontaneously enjoy things, you cannot really enjoy things: it takes some genuine naivity to feel joy and be happy.

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2.78: Every age comes with its own kinds of pleasures and miseries. The usual course is enjoyment of life if a child; enjoyment of sex if an adolescent; enjoyment of money if old.

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2.79: Everyone has been made the subject of so much human unfairness, dishonesty and cruelty, that it would move one to despair if one does not learn to turn one's mind elsewhere.

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2.80: Modest people have learned not to hurt the pride of others, generally from self-interest.

If there were more genuine love of others, there would be less love of self.

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2.81: The only known cure of stupidity and most other faults and weaknesses - in so far as these can be cured - is genuine modesty.

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2.82: There can be no virtue without self-control.

Virtue must be its own reward, because most men are not virtuous, or are so only when under credible threat of punishment.

What is virtue? To help those who suffer. What is vice? To harm others intentionally for gain or pleasure.

Vice tends to be more profitable and more pleasurable than virtue.

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