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Retz and La Rochefoucauld

J.H.M. Salmon portrays two men of letters - François de La Rochefoucauld and Jean François Paul de Gondi - as mirrors to both each other, and to the seventeenth century French society they wrote about.

Among the literary remains of the Grand Siècle the Maximes of Francois VI, duc de La Rochefoucauld, and the posthumous Mémoires of Paul de Gondi, Cardinal de Retz, have a very particular place. They appeal not only because they are masterpieces in their respective genres, but also because they mirror both the difference between their authors’ personalities and the feud they conducted in their lifetime. Polite conventions barely concealed their mutual animosity in the portraits they left of each other. Retz reproached La Rochefoucauld for his pettiness and irresolution, and declared his maxims lacking in virtue. The Duke, he said, would have been more successful if he had understood his limitations, and tempered his actions to his ability. La Rochefoucauld, for his part, held Retz to be so lacking in positive qualities that he had been obliged to seek celebrity by displaying his defects in a flattering light. The Cardinal was portrayed as a blend of indolence and superficiality, whose singular career was marked by ostentation rather than greatness of soul.

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