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"Ridentem Dicere Verum Quid Vetat?" – Unmasking Seneca in François de La Rochefoucauld’s Maximes

Stephanie Fan

Princeton University

1) The frontispiece of the Maximes

The frontispiece was used in the first four editions of Maximes, as “illustration in itself summarizing in a purely iconic way the spirit of the book”. It depicts an angel unmasking a statue of Seneca who is perplexed. Étienne Picard parodied the work of his predecessors, such as Rubens. The Seneca depicted in Rubens’ painting “The Four Philosophers” has a stern yet composed appearance. The “deep-set eyes” reflects the ideal persona of Seneca, “a writer of tragedies expressed sorrow, death and passion” as well as a Stoic philosopher contemplating the natural law and practicing spiritual exercise daily to achieve tranquility (ataraxia). Here, Seneca’s facial features are distorted by an ardent perplexity. Seneca is frowning, which indicates that Stoic tranquility can hardly be achieved through his moral doctrines. While the epigraph “quid vetat” is an abridged version of “ridentem dicere verum | quid vetat” (Horace, Sermones 1.1.24-25), namely, “a man can speak the truth with a smile”.

2) Appropriation and innovation of Proverbia Senecae

Proverbia Senecae is a much-read collection of proverbs among early modern French authors. Unlike the messy repertoire of the extracts of books containing pedantic maxims, the Atticist brevity and rejection of Ciceronian abundance of the Maximes, functioned as “intellectual weapons of a Christian humanist intending to conciliate reason and belief in the vein of a quite new liberalism”. Originally, the title of La Rochefoucauld’s Maximes was Réflexions ou sentences et maximes morales although both maxims and sentences seem to inculcate into the readers a universally valid truth concerning the morality and the wisdom of life through some witticism. Contrarily, the maxim is less impersonal and characterized by irony and other literary effects to surprise the reader in revealing the author’s character and his intended relation to his readers. Thus, as a man of worldly society, he prefers to provoke his readers, instead of pedantically instilling dogmatic doctrines to his readers.

3) The criticism of Senecan moral values

The keynote of the Maximes is never lightly smiling, but pungent criticism of many Stoic moral values with a gloomy tone. The Epicurean inscription pokes fun at and unmasks the unrelenting and inflexible Stoic virtue. Several maxims disclose the latent self-interest behind Stoic virtues such as clemency, constancy, pity and two direct references to Seneca. La Rochefoucauld criticized Stoic presumption (présomption) and thought that the Stoics denied their miserable condition as human beings. The Stoic virtues are epitomes of self- love and masks of their pride: “The philosophers––and Seneca above all––did not eradicate crime by the advice they gave; they only used it to build up their own pride”. In an Augustinian vein, for La Rochefoucauld, the Stoics turned their back on the grace endowed by God.

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Seneca in the Renaissance

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