Friday, October 03, 2014

Toward a Theory of Human Motivations

What follows is a selection from La Rochefoucauld (Tr. Leonard Tancock). Maxims. London: Penguin Books, 1959 (1678):

“One of the reasons why so few people are to be found who seem sensible and pleasant in conversation is that almost everybody is thinking about what he wants to say himself rather than about answering clearly what is being said to him. The more clever and polite think it enough simply to put on an attentive expression, while all the time you can see in their eyes and train of thought that they are far removed from what you are saying and anxious to get back to  what they want to say. They ought, on the contrary, to reflect that such keenness to please oneself is a bad way of pleasing and persuading others, and that to listen well and answer to the point is one of the most perfect qualities one can have in conversation.”

“Our self-esteem is more inclined to resent criticism of our tastes than of our opinions.

“We all have strength enough to endure the troubles of others.”

“We often pride ourselves on even the most criminal passions, but envy is a timid and shamefaced passion we never dare acknowledge.”

“Greater virtues are needed to bear good fortune than bad.”

“Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.”

“Our promises are made in proportion to our hopes, but kept in proportion to our fears.”

“What makes us so unstable in our friendships is that it is difficult to get to know qualities of soul but easy to see those of mind.”

“Everybody complains of his memory, but nobody of his judgment.”

“To be known well, things must be known in detail, but as detail is almost infinite, our knowledge is always superficial and imperfect.” [This is virtually identical to a key proposition found in Jain epistemology and provides one part of the justification of a relativistic and pluralist theory of knowledge.] 

“Nothing is less sincere than the way people ask and give advice. The asker appears to have deferential respect for his friend’s sentiments, although his sole object is to get his own approved and transfer responsibility for his conduct; whereas the giver repays with tireless and disinterested energy the confidence that has been placed in him, although most often the advice he gives is calculated to further his own interests or reputation alone.”

“We are so used to disguising ourselves from others that we end by disguising ourselves from ourselves.”

“The glory of great men must always be measured by the means they used to acquire it.”

“The virtues lose themselves in self-interest like rivers in the sea.”

“Spiritual health is no more stable than bodily; and though we may seem unaffected by the passions we are just as liable to be carried away by them as to fall ill when in good health.”

“Virtue would not go so far without vanity to bear it company.”

“Nothing is so contagious as example, and our every really good or bad action implies a similar one. We imitate good deeds through emulation and evil ones because of the evil of our nature which, having been held in check by shame, is now set free by example.

“Not many know how to be old.”

“We should often blush at our noblest deeds if the world were to see all their underlying motives.”

“It is far easier to stifle a first desire than to satisfy all the ensuing ones.”

“In order to succeed in the world people do their utmost to appear successful.”

“Alone among the moralists, La Rochefoucauld offered something like a theory of human motivations. In fact, his views about unconscious motivation and unconscious cognition are probably more valuable than anything found in twentieth-century psychology. To some extent it is true, as Jean Lafond says, that ‘a certain verbal exuberance together with the exaggeration required for an original assertion turns the psychology into mythology.’ Yet…some systematic views can be extracted from what first appear as a random collection of diamond-like maxims.”

—Jon Elster, from the section on “the French Moralists” in a work that evidences his singular capacity to see with remarkable clarity both the forest and the trees: Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions (Cambridge University Press, 1999). The four writers he treats in the part of the book—Montaigne, Pascal, La Rouchefoucauld, La Bruyère—“mark the beginning and the end of the greatest era in French intellectual and cultural history.” (Whether or not he intended it as such, we might read this, in part at least, as an indirect comment on the overweening infatuation with postmodern French philosophers among more than a few academic intellectuals.)


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