A Sociable Misanthrope

The Life and Death of Nicolas Chamfort

Why care about an obscure French playwright and philosopher from the 18th century?

Because we’re still living in an era ever so infatuated with gaining social status; where selling one’s principles — assuming one ever had them in the first place — for fame and fortune is not so much the exception but the rule; and where renown and wealth are thought of as the ultimate standards upon which to judge the true worth of a person, not, say, their intelligence, courage, individuality, or wit.

Because the general public is too indoctrinated to realize that the self-assumed authorities they bow down before because they are too weak to stand alone and too stupid to think for themselves are only interested in using them to further their own agendas of petty self-interest.

And because, despite there being more than seven billion people on Earth, the courage to think differently (and not just slightly differently) is still about as rare as a black 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible.

In other words, it’s business as usual.

And in such a world, Chamfort, who ridiculed high society, despised money, abhorred subservience, championed individualism, and, above all, remained true to himself, remains as relevant as ever.

So if you find yourself constantly at odds with the society at large and find nothing more unthinkable than to compromise your principles before it, then you may find a kindred soul in Chamfort. His is an uplifting pessimism that can help one laugh rather than to weep at society’s stupidities, of which, to be sure, there is never a short supply.

What attitude should the person that sees through the illusions of society adapt towards it? According to Chamfort:

Although he was of semi-noble birth, Nicolas Chamfort was an illegitimate child, and would therefore have to forgo the many benefits he would have otherwise enjoyed.

In school he proved to be an excellent pupil. Yet after graduation, when his headmaster suggested priesthood for his future course, he replied: “I’d never become a priest; I’m too fond of peace and quiet, philosophy and women, honour and true fame and not fond enough of squabbling, hypocrisy, honours and money.”

He worked as a composer of sermons for priests, wrote occasional bits of journalism, and hired himself out for private tutoring, which he wasn’t very good at. Although widely-read and very smart, he often found it difficult to make a decent living.

Eventually, he was able to find more suitable employment and worked on several reputable publications, including an important dictionary. Soon, his intelligence, character, and wit brought him into the middle of the intellectual community of his day and he came to know many of the leading writers and thinkers of the era, such as Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau.

Still desiring “true fame”, he decided to go into theatre. His first two comedies achieved some initial success but were quickly forgotten. It was his first tragedy, however, which made Queen Marie-Antoinette herself openly weep at its performance, and king Louis XVI was so impressed by it that he granted Chamfort a life-time pension. (Of course, not all lives were necessarily going to last for very long in these pre-revolutionary times.)

The critics, on the other hand, were not so kind, even going so far as to accuse him of plagiarising an earlier play on a similar theme. In any case, much like his other plays, it was soon forgotten. Chamfort, after realizing that he would never achieve in theatre the kind of fame he wanted, blamed public taste instead of himself for this failure. “A good number of works,” he later said in one of his reflections, “owe their success to the mediocrity of their authors’ ideas, which match the mediocrity of those of the general public.”

Chamfort felt that the dishonest and foolish tended to have greater success in society than the honest and intelligent. Why? Because the former “find it easier to adapt, since, generally speaking, society is both dishonest and foolish”, while the latter “find it difficult to come to terms with this so quickly and waste valuable time before they can hope to succeed.”

Soon after he had abandoned the world of theatre, he contracted a disease (which according to modern medicine was probably granulomatosis) which both debilitated and disfigured him. He was only 25. And although the disease had frequent intermissions, it would never be entirely cured.

To add to his misfortune, the love of his life, who happened to be ten years older than him, died just six months after they decided to live together in the countryside. Thus he was left a bitter man. Although good-looking — at least before his disfiguring illness — and always a bit of a Casanova when it came to women, love for him was now all but dead. As indeed had already been his love for society.

After he finally gained honorary entrance into the prestigious French Academy, he rarely attended it, despising the people there and the way it was run. Later, during the French Revolution, he even collaborated in a report proposing its abolishment.

It was approximately at around this time that he began to write more assiduously the witty and acerbic reflections for which he would ultimately achieve his posthumous fame — the only kind he cared about by then. Biting criticisms of society appeared time and again in these reflections. Here, for example, is an especially merciless one:

Society, what people call the world, is nothing more than the war of a thousand petty opposed interests, an eternal strife of all the vanities, which, turn in turn wounded and humiliated one by the other, intercross, come into collision, and on the morrow expiate the triumph of the eve in the bitterness of defeat. To live alone, to remain unjostled in this miserable struggle, where for a moment one draws the eyes of the spectators, to be crushed a moment later — this is what is called being a nonentity, having no existence. Poor humanity!

Chamfort’s aphorisms would end up being adored by the likes of Pushkin, Balzac, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Camus, to name only a few. Nietzsche, who once said that it was his ambition to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book, seems to have been particularly inspired by Chamfort’s short and to the point style of aphoristic thought. Consider, for instance, the following two maxims, the first from Chamfort and the second from Nietzsche:

There is no man who can be by himself alone so contemptible as a body of men, and there is no body of men that can be so contemptible as the public at large.

Insanity in individuals is something rare — but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs it is the rule.

One of Chamfort’s very best friends, with whom he collaborated on a newspaper and who often showed up in his reflections, was a noble that led the early stages of the French Revolution. Chamfort also threw himself into the revolutionary cause and was even allegedly one of the stormers of the Bastille on 14 July 1789.

So how did Chamfort go from writing comedic plays to storming the Bastille? From having warm relations with the royal family to becoming an antiroyalist? Although he grew more disillusioned with time, he never really thought that his life was particularly consistent to begin with. Indeed, in one of his reflections, he even admitted that it was full of contradictions:

I dislike monarchy and serve a prince and a princess. I am well known for my republican principles yet I have a number of aristocratic friends plastered with royal decorations. I’ve chosen to be poor and enjoy it, while spending my time with the rich. I despise honours, and yet, when offered, have accepted some. Literature is almost my only consolation but I don’t frequent any bright, witty people — nor do I attend sessions of the French Academy. What’s more, I think that men need illusions, while having none myself. I consider that passion has more to offer than reason and I no longer feel any sort of passion.

But then life is contradictory in its very nature. And so to align oneself, especially as a philosopher, as resolutely belonging to a particular group or way of thinking without fail is unnatural and ultimately doomed towards hypocrisy. Better instead to accept that life is neither black nor white but rather various shades of gray. Even though for Chamfort the shades of gray tended to fall more towards the darker end of the spectrum, as can be seen, for instance, in the following reflection:

Chamfort felt that if the cruel and unpleasant truths of the world, which in his view any intelligent man would become aware of by the age of forty, “had been known to him twenty years before, he would either have been plunged into despair or else become corrupt.” And yet there was “a small number of wise men of forty who, despite knowing all these, are neither corrupt nor unhappy.” So what’s their secret? How did they succeed where so many others failed? According to Chamfort, it was “their prudence and goodness” which has “guided them through this maze of corruption” as well as “their strength of character and breadth of understanding” which has “enabled them to overcome the sadness inspired by the perversity of the human race.” And Chamfort surely considered himself as one of the latter.

Although a self-proclaimed misanthrope, he was far from an unmitigated one. According to him there were two sorts of politicians and moralists. Those who saw only the unpleasant or absurd side of human nature and those who saw only man’s finer qualities. “The first know only the latrines of a palace,” he said, and “the second are romantics who carefully avoid seeing anything that might offend them, even though it exists.” The truth for him lay somewhere in between.

Although not an active politician, Chamfort still had some idealism left even in his forties and, wanting to right the wrongs he saw in society, he ended up becoming one of the leading members of the radical Jacobin Club. However, he soon left when the Jacobins were taken over by extremists such as Marat and Robespierre who initiated the increasingly brutal Reign of Terror which ended up executing 17,000 people by the guillotine. Chamfort then decided to join the moderate Girondin faction, which soon became an enemy to the Jacobins, who ultimately executed twenty-two of Girondin deputies.

During this time, Chamfort wrote articles that recorded the events of the Revolution. Due to his acerbic and lampooning style, he ended up making plenty of enemies, especially among the Jacobins. A memorable slogan of his summed up what he saw as the Jacobin pretensions of the day: “Be my brother or I’ll kill you.” The Jacobins, of course, did not take kindly to his witticisms.

When during the Revolution he was offered the position of chief administrator of the National Library, he accepted it; it was, after all, a position that suited him perfectly. However, he was soon accused of endorsing the assassination of Marat by Charlotte Corday (who was sympathetic to the Girondins) and was taken to prison for a brief period of time. His accuser turned out to be his assistant in the library who simply wanted his job.

When he was released, Chamfort resigned his post and, having lost his pension from the king, who was executed during the Revolution, was reduced to poverty. He was also kept permanently under surveillance — for which he had to pay for himself.

It was when he learned that he was to be imprisoned again that he had enough and decided to kill himself, preferring to “die a free man rather than to continue to live as a slave in a prison.”

Yet his suicide attempt turned out to be notoriously unsuccessful. First, he shot himself in the head, but only managed to blow out his right eye. He then slit his throat, which wasn’t enough to kill him. Finally, in sheer desperation he stabbed himself in the arms and legs, inflicting a total of twenty-two wounds on his body. Miraculously, he survived this ordeal and managed to stay alive for five more months, only to eventually die due to the inept treatment of his wounds by his doctor.

Chamfort’s last words are said to have been:

Nicolas Chamfort (1741–1794)

Note: The sources that I’ve mainly used for Chamfort’s biographical details and quotes, aside from those that are already linked in the text, are The Cynic’s Breviary (free to read online) and Chamfort: Reflections on Life, Love & Society.

“Fortune will come my way only if it meets those conditions that my character dictates.” — Chamfort

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