relatively little that is known about Chamfort. Here is a
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.