We do not like to praise, and we never praise without a motive.
François Duc de La Rochefoucauld was something of a bungler in life. The scion of a great house, the beneficiary of a princely education, the young nobleman got himself mixed up in all sort of plots and intrigues, eventually getting himself locked in the Bastille and later banished to his estate. As a result of this rather undistinguished career in the world, he developed into a man-of-letters, achieving far more success on the page than in the palace.
La Rochefoucauld made a permanent contribution to literature with his Maximes: a collection of cutting aphorisms on the vanity of human nature. His perspective is cynical: seeing bad motives behind even the best actions. Or in his opening words: “Our virtues are most frequently but vices disguised.” And I do not think that one must be a defeated aristocrat in order to see the truth in many of his pronouncements. Here he is his describing me:
One of the reasons that we find so few persons rational and agreeable in conversation is there is hardly a person who does not think more of what he wants to say than of his answer to what is said. The most clever and polite content themselves with only seeming attentive while we perceive in their mind and eyes that at the very time they are wandering from what is said and desire to return to what they want to say.
This also certainly applies to me: “How is it that our memory is good enough to retain the least triviality that happens to us, and yet not good enough to recollect how often we have told it to the same person?” But do not think that I am somehow superior for admitting to these shortcomings; for “We own to small faults to persuade others that we have not great ones.” And do not attempt to compliment me: “The refusal of praise is only the wish to be praised twice.” There is no way out.
I often found myself laughing at these aphorisms. So many of them ring true to my experience. And they represent a perspective too rarely expressed in daily life. Selfless action is a deeply appealing concept; and many people wish fervently to believe in it. Yet it is an incontestable fact that most of what we do, even apparently altruistic actions, benefits ourselves in one way or another.
Politicians fight to pass legislation to benefit their constituents, who then return the politician to power; businessmen give their employees a raise, who thus work harder and take less vacation; a friend picks me up from the airport, but he expects me to do something for him in the future; a man returns a wallet he found on the street, is given a reward, and then is lauded on social media. And of course, altruism towards one’s family is the easiest thing to explain this way, since the family is just an extension of the self—psychologically and genetically.
Some may find this way of thinking gloomy and unproductive. But I do think it is important to keep in mind our tendency to act out of self-interest; for, in my experience, it is those who are most attached to the idea of selfless action who most often treat other people badly. It is a dangerous thing to think that virtue is on your side. And, personally, I find it a great relief to see myself as an ordinary animal rather than a moral machine. Self-knowledge requires knowledge of our less honorable motives; and pretending otherwise can lead to a kind of self-alienation: “We become so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others that at last we are disguised to ourselves.”
But this dark view of human nature must be tempered in two respects. First, not even La Rochefoucauld thought that all actions were driven by vice. He thinks true virtue is rare, but that it does exist. Second, La Rouchefoucauld often points out that our vices prompt us to act more virtuously than virtue ever could: “The praise bestowed upon us is at least useful in rooting us in the practice of virtue.” Or, elsewhere: “Interest which is accused of all our misdeeds often should be praised for our good deeds.” After all, the actions I described above are all virtuous actions.
And this, for me, is the key insight of La Rochefoucauld’s cynicism: seeing our self-interest, not as inherently bad, but as a kind of neutral force which can be channeled for good or for evil. This insight alone could prevent a lot of needless guilt. More importantly, once we accept this premise, we can more easily shape our lives and societies. For we have discovered the secret of living together: finding arrangement in which self-interest overlaps.