Maarten Maartensz

Text Philosophy - Chamfort
 


 


About Chamfort:

There is relatively little that is known about Chamfort. Here is a summary.

He was probably born in 1740 in Clermont-Ferrand; he was probably an illegitimate child; he was raised by the family Nicolas; he was a very good pupil, and attended the Collège des Grassins in Paris (for poor but gifted boys) from age five or six, and was quite succesful, winning many prizes for scholarship; he refused to take religious orders, and tried a career as a journalist and writer for the stage, in both of which he had some successes; he was both very attractive and very witty; he knew most of the leading men and women of his time; he had much success with women but soon got a venereal disease that, possibly with other ailments, made him weak or ill much of his adult life; he was befriended by noble men and by the court, but did not much enjoy being a wit, and spoke and wrote often about removing himself from society; he never married; he was elected to the Académie Francaise; he supported the French Revolution and was a member of Club of Jacobins, and also one of those who left it when it became very radical; he wrote and spoke in favour of the Revolution, and wrote or improved speeches of Mirabeau and Talleyrand; he was arrested during the régime of Marat and Robespierre and maltreated in prison; when he was arrested again he attempted suicide, which failed painfully, and he died after half a year of suffering on April 13, 1794.

Soon after his death his collected works were printed in four volumes, which included Products of the perfected civilization, that contains his Maxims and Thoughts, and that was once enlarged with two appendixes in a new edition of 1869, from what remained of the originals, after which these disappeared.

Chamfort is known after his death only because of his Products of the perfected civilization, and especially his Maxims and Thoughts, which are some 90 printed pages of aphorisms, sayings and thoughts, that are mostly thought to be both cynical and misanthropic, for which reason Chamfort is also known as 'the laughing misanthrope':

"La meilleure Philosophie, rélativement au monde, est d'allier, à son régard, le sarcasme de gaité avec l'indulgence du mépris."

"The best philosophy, with regards to the social world, is to combine the sarcasm of amusement with the indulgence of contempt."

but that were much admired by men such as Hazlitt, John Stuart Mill, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

The title is probably satirical after Rousseau, who was admired, if not uncritically, by Chamfort, and who maintained that the civilised state of mankind - France first - was a poor parody, a falsification, a travesty, a hypocrisy of natural man, who was perhaps a savage, but at least a noble savage, and naturally good.

By implication, the France of Chamfort, of the Enlightenment including the court, the courtiers, the noblemen, the savants and wits, at once were the highest in civilization, science and technological achievements and arts, and the lowest in morality and in genuine humanity, being false, phoney and hypocritical through and through, and in effect, as Chamfort says somewhere, formed class of some 700.000 rich exploiters, collectively forming the nobility and clergy, plus hangers on, who parasited  on some 24 million poor people, who had virtually no rights, no means, and no riches.

The genesis of the work is also curious:

It seems to have been written in the last ten years of Chamfort's life, when he had ceased to publish, except when moved by the Revolution, and anyway had ceased to look for literary fame, of which he had found enough so as to be elected as a member of the Académie Francaise.

It was written on small square scraps of paper that were sorted pell-mell  by Chamfort in boxes, without any indication of what he wanted to do with them. After he died - during a time of revolutionary terror and upheaval - many of these boxes were destroyed. The few that remained were put in an order by his literary editors, and published as part of his collected works.

Hence "the real Chamfort" - selon lui même - is somewhat of a mystery, in as much as what what we have and what his fame is based on is, apparently, only a small part of a large collection of many papers with many sayings assembled for an unknown purpose.

On the other hand, it is clear from what we have that Chamfort sought to speak his mind in Products of the perfected civilization, about men, women, society, human relations, and human illusions, hypocrisies, and weaknesses, and that many but not all of the fragments were polished, as intentional aphorisms, paradoxes or witticisms.

Also, a considerable part of his collected sayings are not by himself - especially in 'Caractères et Anecdotes', that is not part of the present edition, and is the last part of Products of the perfected civilization - but by others, sometimes named, sometimes merely indicated by letters or abbreviations. This then also is a collection of wit in the highest French circles during the Enlightenment.

To me, Chamfort appears as an extra-ordinarily perceptive and extra-ordinarily intelligent man, who saw deep into men, women and society, and who happened to be very well placed to judge his time and circumstances, knowing so much of it on so many levels, and being of very independent mind - and be it noted also that, in spite of the cynism and misanthropy so often attributed to him, he was neither a social failure nor a poor or young man when he wrote his maxims and thoughts.

And he was a great writer - so that one can only lament that so much of what he really meant to say seems to has been as irretrievably lost as Aristotle's published writings.

Those who have not read Chamfort, La Rochefoucauld, Swift, and Bierce have missed much about men and women, and their ways and weaknesses, that has been expressed very wittely by very fine human minds, who dared to write truly and honestly, and could do so extra-ordinately well.

About 'Question':

This opens Products of the perfected civilization, and stands by itself. Presumably it is Chamfort's somewhat sarcastic introduction to what follows. The briefest summary seems to be:

Reader, I wrote honestly. If we disagree it must be because we are not alike. Make of it what you want, according to your abilities.