25 Aphorisms from Chamfort

To Soothe Your Cynical Soul

Another day. Another disappointment. Hmm. Is this what being an adult is all about?

Fortunately, I happened to stumble upon my collection of Chamfort quotes and . . . well, it is usually enough to read just a few to already feel better about myself.

I have already written an article about Chamfort before, which, to be sure, very few read—but that’s what you get for writing about an obscure 18th century French writer who had almost nothing good to say about humanity. So I doubt anyone will read this one either; they’d rather read inane and vapid shit with titles such as “Ten Tips for Staying Positive”.

Anyway, without further ado, here are in my opinion some of the best aphorisms from Chamfort, whom Nietzsche called the “wittiest of all moralists”.


It must be admitted that in society it’s impossible to avoid occasionally having to play-act. The distinction between a gentleman and a rogue is that the first play-acts only when forced or to protect himself, whereas the rogue actively looks for opportunities to do so.


In society, people pity the deaf. Isn’t this just conceit? Aren’t they really thinking: “How dreadful it must be for someone not to be able to hear what I’m saying?”


The physical world seems to be the work of a good and powerful being, forced to leave part of his program to be completed by some evil creature; but the moral world seems to have been created by some capricious, demented Devil.


In important matters, men display themselves as they want to be seen; in minor matters as they really are.


Few vices are more certain to prevent you from having lots of friends than possessing too many virtues.


In order not to find life unbearable, you must accept two things: the ravages of time and the injustices of man.


Poets, orators, even philosophers, say the same things about fame we were told as boys to encourage us to win prizes. What they tell children to make them prefer being praised to eating jam tarts is the same idea constantly drummed into us to encourage us to sacrifice our real interests in the hope of being praised by our contemporaries or by posterity.


Men whose only concern is other people’s opinion of them are like actors who put on a poor performance to win the applause of people of poor taste; some of them would be capable of good acting in front of a good audience. A decent man plays his part to the best of his ability, regardless of the taste of the gallery.


Nature didn’t tell me “Don’t be poor”; and certainly didn’t say: “Get rich”; but she did shout: “Always be independent!”


Most social institutions seem to be designed to keep man in a state of intellectual and emotional mediocrity that makes him more fit to govern or be governed.


I once read that there’s nothing worse for everyone concerned than a reign that’s lasted too long. I’ve also heard that God is eternal.


That tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Bible is a fine allegory. Is it not intended to signify that when one has penetrated to the depths of things, the consequent loss of illusions brings about the death of the soul — that is to say a complete detachment from all that moves and interests other men?


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.”


Living is a disease from the pains of which sleep eases us every sixteen hours; sleep is but a palliative, death alone is the cure.


By learning the evil elements in nature we despise death, by learning those of society we despise life.


It must be admitted that in order to live happy in the world there are sides to the soul which we must absolutely paralyze.


Such is the miserable condition of men, that they must need to seek consolation in society for the evils of nature, and in nature for the evils of society. How many have failed to find either in one or the other distraction from their troubles!”


Weakness of character or lack of ideas, in a word all that can withhold us from living a solitary life, are things that preserve many a man from misanthropy.


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.


There are well-dressed foolish ideas just as there are well-dressed fools.


The tragic drama has the great moral drawback of attaching too high an importance to life and death.


Speron-Speroni admirably explains how it is that an author who, in his own opinion, delivers himself clearly, is sometimes obscure to his reader. It is because,” he says, “the author proceeds from the thought to the expression, the reader from the expression to the thought.


A man is not clever simply because he has many ideas, just as he is not necessarily a good general because he has many soldiers.


It may be argued that every public idea, every accepted convention, is a piece of stupidity, for has it not commended itself to the greatest number?


Hope is a fake which constantly misleads; I only achieved happiness myself once I’d given up hoping. Over the entrance to my Paradise, I’d gladly write what Dante put over the entrance to his Inferno: ‘All hope abandon, ye who enter here.’

A young Chamfort

Note: The sources for these quotations are Chamfort: Reflections on Life, Love & Society, The Cynic’s Breviary (free to read online) and a couple of quotes from Wikiquote.