Famous Quotes Explained: « One must remain silent about the powerful: there is almost always flattery in speaking well of them; there is peril in speaking ill of them while they live, and cowardice when they are dead, » Les Caractères, La Bruyère, 1688.
Jean de La Bruyère (1645-1696) was a French writer and moralist, a prominent figure of classicism, best known for his work Les Caractères published in 1688. This collection of maxims and satirical portraits provides insightful observations of French society of the time, highlighting human foibles with subtlety and irony.
La Bruyère’s quote, One must remain silent about the powerful: there is almost always flattery in speaking well of them; there is peril in speaking ill of them while they live, and cowardice when they are dead, reflects his critical stance towards power and the caution required when critiquing influential individuals.
This quote can be broken down into three parts, three stages. Firstly, it presents a critique of flattery: La Bruyère suggests that much praise of the powerful is often motivated by flattery rather than a genuine assessment of their actions. He underscores the danger of sycophancy and adulation toward those in positions of authority, denouncing the hypocrisy of courtiers.
Secondly, it emphasizes the peril of criticizing the powerful. La Bruyère warns against the risks associated with publicly criticizing powerful individuals while they are alive. Leaders often have the means to punish or suppress their critics, which can have dire consequences for those who speak out. He advises refraining from such critique out of instinct for self-preservation.
Lastly, he deems criticism of the powerful after their death as an act of cowardice. Here, La Bruyère censures the lack of courage in such an attitude—the courage to confront the powerful, the courage to voice one’s opinion, and the utility of speaking the truth to influence the decisions of the powerful and attempt to correct their errors.
Since all of these attitudes present problems, it is ultimately advisable to remain silent. Overall, this quote underscores the importance of prudence when discussing powerful individuals and encourages reflection on the nature of flattery and criticism in the context of power and influence.
One must remain silent about the powerful: there is almost always flattery in speaking well of them; there is peril in speaking ill of them while they live, and cowardice when they are dead
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