Jean de La Bruyère Biography

Author(1645–c. 1696)
Jean de La Bruyère was a 17th century French writer known for his satirical work The Characters, or the Manners of the Age, with The Characters of Theophrastus.

Synopsis

Jean de La Bruyère, born in Paris in August 1645, studied law at the University of Orléans and went on to become a royal tutor. In 1688, he published the satirical work The Characters, or the Manners of the Age, with The Characters of Theophrastus, which critiqued class disparities found in aristocratic society. La Bruyère was elected to the French Academy in 1693. He died in Versailles, France, in May 1696.

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Early Life

French satirist Jean de La Bruyère was born in August 1645 and baptized in Paris. Not much is known of his early life: He was solidly middle class, the son of a comptroller general of municipal revenue. It is presumed that he was educated by the Oratorains (as Montesquieu would be about a half century later) and then obtained a law degree at the University of Orléans. But thanks to a small inheritance from an uncle, he was able to give up his position as an advocate in the Parlement of Paris, to purchase a post from the treasurer of finances at Caen in 1673. It was probably this position that introduced him to the noted theologian, orator and humanist Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, who was able to get La Bruyère installed in the noble household of the Grand Condé, Louis II de Bourbon, as tutor to his grandson.

The Condés were known to pride themselves on their association with men of letters, and La Bruyère was noted for his impressive vocabulary.

Success as an Author

As a writer, Jean de La Bruyère is basically a one-hit wonder, but his big success, The Characters, or the Manners of the Age, with The Characters of Theophrastus, published in 1688, catapulted him into the pantheon of French literary authors.

Part classical translation, part philosophy, and part satire and moralist posturing, The Characters went through eight editions in the author's lifetime alone, with him adding more and more contemporary references to each subsequent edition, so that it morphed from emphasis on a translation of the Greek philosopher Theophrastus to pungent social commentary. La Bruyère's middle-class upbringing and proximity to court life gave him a bird's-eye view of each stratum of society, which both infuriated and fascinated his readers.

A good degree of his success has to be attributed to what amounted to "blind items" in the character studies, which proved so tantalizing that "keys" were published as companion pieces to the book to help identify the "fictional" characters.

Naturally, this made La Bruyère many enemies, coupled with his taciturn nature and ungainly physical presence. But with the popularity and incisiveness of the work, as well the protection of the Condés, he was elected to the Académie Française in 1693.

Death and Legacy

Jean de La Bruyère died suddenly at Versailles on May 10 or 11, 1696. There was some speculation of foul play, which was eventually ruled out.

A treatise against religious mysticism, Dialogues sur le Quiétisme (Dialogues on Quietism) by La Bruyère, was published just after his death but never reached the height of popularity that The Characters enjoyed. The Duke de Saint-Simon defended his nature, and authors Gustave Flaubert and Marcel Proust were noted fans.

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