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French Forum 26.2 (2001) 23-42

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La Bruyère and the "Usage" of Childhood: The Idea of Pedagogy in the Caractères

Mark A. Cohen

However difficult it might be to define precisely the historical phenomenon of humanism, certain of its contours are clear, in particular the centrality of pedagogy to its early modern genesis as well as to its enduring influence today. For French Classicism the question of humanism takes on a special interest because on the one hand its greatest practitioners were all open champions of the ancients, but on the other the received critical opinion is that they displayed what one modern commentator has called "une étrange indifférence" towards childhood, the very age of life when pedagogy is of most pressing importance. 1 In considering this occluded nexus of literature and moral reflection, La Bruyère presents a fruitful case for further study. Like the other classiques he is rarely associated with themes of childhood, yet in the two years immediately preceding the publication of the Caractères he had in fact been a practicing tutor. 2 If it can be shown that pedagogy had an impact on his literary work, we can offer not only a new interpretation of the Caractères as a whole but also contribute to the continuing discussion of how and to what extent French Classicism was fundamentally a humanist phenomenon. 3

The passages of the Caractères dealing with childhood are not numerous, to be sure, comprising some half dozen remarks from just two chapters, De l'homme and De quelques usages. Yet when linked to the rest of the Caractères, they suggest that the Caractères was intended to be a pedagogy for adults. La Bruyère's Characters offered a mondain readership what are in effect typical elements of a humanist education: childish objects, in this case ridiculous figures from everyday life in the text itself, and a learned apparatus framing it (biography, translation and imitation of an ancient exemplar, Theophrastus), an exquisitely calibrated amalgam of modern excess and ancient poise in which the latter discretely contained the former. The immediate effect [End Page 23] of the Characters themselves was to capture the attention of essentially frivolous beings in order to then inculcate higher moral principles that would otherwise be ignored were they simply presented in abstract formulas. Whatever La Bruyère's denials on this score, his decision to give his Characters proper names (Ménalque, Giton etc.), as opposed to the type-names or abstract vices of the original Characters of Theophrastus (The Talker, Of Dissimulation), was a move calculated to inflame the ill-intentioned curiosity of the gossip-ridden society of Louis XIV's France. The clés (anonymously published lists purporting to match the Characters with real personalities of the day) that proliferated in the wake of the Caractères' success were therefore a distinctly predictable result, even a necessary element in his audience's reception of his work. In this light, the Caractères appears as a form of moral instruction that was well adapted to its "pupils," playing on the essentially amoral and irrational energies of their imagination to lead them towards reason and self-correction. We need to see La Bruyère therefore not only as a lay preacher, a prototypical writer or philosophe,4 but also as a pedagogue.

La Bruyère was no stranger to pedagogy. His first appearance on the public stage was his appointment in the Summer of 1684 as preceptor to the fourteen year old Duke Louis of Bourbon, grandson of the Great Condé and cousin of Louis XIV. Equally, from the late 1670 s on, his closest intellectual ties were with the so-called Petit Concile, a Christian reformist discussion group, led by Bishop Bossuet. Bossuet garnered the prestige that his own tenure as preceptor to the Dauphin from 1670 to 1680 had conferred upon him to make the Petit Concile the most important single source of pedagogues for the greatest families of the land. It was through...


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