The Aphorisms of Nicholas Chamfort

Chamfort was killed, of course, by the French Revolution—not for being a nobleman, (which he was) but because even as a devoted Jacobin (which he also was) he could not stop dropping witty zings. “Be my brother or I’ll kill you,” was how he summed up the revolutionary philosophy. Chamfort was their brother, and they killed him anyway.

These aphorisms are from The Cynic’s Breviary, translated in 1902 by William G. Hutchison. I have taken the liberty of bolding a few that are especially relevant to this blog’s usual discussions.

The worst wasted of all days is that during which one has not laughed.

The best philosophical attitude to adopt towards the world is a union of the sarcasm of gaiety with the indulgence of contempt.

We must be just before being generous, as we must possess shirts before having lace embroideries.

The one great social principle is to be just both to yourself and to others. If you must love your neighbour as yourself, it is at least as fair to love yourself as your neighbour.

I cannot conceive of a wisdom that lacks distrust: according to the Scriptures the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God—I believe it is rather the fear of men.

Vanity is often the motive that forces a man to summon up all the energy of his soul. Wood added to a steel point makes a dart, two feathers added to the wood make an arrow.

What I have learnt I no longer know; what I still know has come to me by intuition.

Man can aspire to virtue; he cannot reasonably aim at finding truth.

The philosopher who would fain extinguish his passions resembles the chemist who would like to let his furnace go out.

Hope is but a charlatan that ceases not to deceive us. For myself happiness only began when I had lost it. I would fain inscribe upon the gate of Paradise the line that Dante wrote upon that of Hell—“Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate.”

When I hear it argued that, taking everything into account, the least sensitive folk are the happiest, I remember the Indian proverb: “Better to be seated than standing, better to be lying than seated, but better than all else to be dead.”

The new friends whom we make after attaining a certain age and by whom we would fain replace those whom we have lost, are…glass eyes, false teeth and wooden legs.

What makes the success of many books consists in the affinity there is between the mediocrity of the author’s ideas and those of the public.

The majority of the books of our time give one the impression of having been manufactured in a day out of books read the day before.

Some one has said that to plagiarise from the ancients is to play the pirate beyond the Equator, but that to steal from the moderns is to pick pockets at street corners.

Physical scourges and the calamities of human nature rendered society necessary. Society has added to natural misfortunes. The drawbacks of society have made government necessary, and government adds to society’s misfortunes. There is the history of human nature in a nutshell.

Said a witty misanthrope to me à propos of the iniquities of men, “It is only the uselessness of the first Deluge that preserves us from being visited by a second.”

Change in fashion is the tax which the industry of the poor levies on the vanity of the rich.

The nobility, say the nobles, is an intermediary between the king and the people…Precisely; just as the hound is the intermediary between the huntsman and the hares.

Mademoiselle Duthé having lost a lover, and the affair causing some talk, a man who called to see her found her playing the harp, and said with surprise: “Good heavens! I was expecting to find you desolated with grief.” “Ah,” she exclaimed in a pathetic tone, “you ought to have seen me yesterday!”

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