Jean de La Bruyère (1645-1696) was a French man of letters and moralist of the classical period. His only work, "Les Caractères" (1688), captures the psychological, social, and moral profile of French society of his time.
Jean de La Bruyère was born on Aug. 15/16, 1645, into a bourgeois Parisian family. After early studies in Greek, Latin, Italian, German, and rhetoric, he took up law at the University of Orléans, but there is no indication that he ever practiced. In 1673 he purchased the office of tax farmer of the region of Caen. He continued to live with his brother's family in Paris, however, immersing himself in literary and philosophical study.
In August 1684, thanks to Jacques Bénigne Bossuet, La Bruyère was named tutor to Louis III de Bourbon, the 16-year-old grandson of Louis XIV. This event marked the end of La Bruyère's independence, plunging him into the restless, frivolous world of the court, a world to which he never fully adapted. Eager to please, but proud and timid as well, he often suffered because of the social discrepancy between himself and his patrons.
In 1688 La Bruyère published Les Caractères de Théophraste, traduits du grec, avec les caractères ou les moeurs de ce siècle (The Characters of Theophrastes, Translated from the Greek, with the Characters or Manners of This Century), directing that the profits be donated to the dowry of his publisher's daughter. The work comprised a discourse on Theophrastes and La Bruyère's translation of Theophrastes, followed by 420 of La Bruyère's reflections on the manners of his time. The fourth edition was expanded by the addition of 344 more reflections.
La Bruyère's Caractères is a series of short moral observations divided into 16 chapters. Numbered maxims, reflections, and portraits compose each chapter, delineating the defects of a society in crisis: its frivolous nobles, social-climbing commoners, and ambitious lackeys; its suffering common people; and its spiritually bankrupt clergy. La Bruyère's view of man does not attain the generality of that of Blaise Pascal or the Duc de La Rochefoucauld. Yet he carried social and political criticism to new limits and enriched the stylistic range of French classicism by his varied, incisive, and carefully worked style.
La Bruyère was elected to the Académie Française in 1693 after two stormy defeats, perpetuating the controversy in his inaugural speech by championing the ancients against the moderns and the partisans of Pierre Corneille. During his nonetheless tranquil retirement, he composed Dialogues sur le Quiétisme (1699). La Bruyère died of apoplexy on May 11, 1696, while engaged in reediting Les Caractères for the ninth time.
Les Caractèresis available in an English translation by Henri VanLaun (1929), edited by Denys Potts, which includes a biographical memoir of La Bruyère. La Bruyère is discussed in Edmund Gosse, Three French Moralists and the Gallantry of France (1918). He also appears in two useful background works: Charles Henry Conrad Wright, A History of French Literature, vol. 1 (1912; repr. 1969), and I. C. Thimann, A Short History of French Literature (1966). □