1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Chamfort, Sebastien Roch Nicolas
CHAMFORT, SEBASTIEN ROCH NICOLAS (1741–1794), French man of letters, was born at a little village near Clermont in Auvergne in 1741. He was, according to a baptismal certificate found among his papers, the son of a grocer named Nicolas. A journey to Paris resulted in the boy’s obtaining a bursary at the Collège des Grassins. He worked hard, although he wrote later in one of his most contemptuous epigrams—“Ce que j’ai appris je ne le sais plus; le peu que je sais je l’ai diviné.” His college career ended, Chamfort assumed the dress of a petit abbé. “C’est un costume, et non point un état,” he said; and to the principal of his college who promised him a benefice, he replied that he would never be a priest, inasmuch as he preferred honour to honours—“j'aime l’honneur et non les honneurs.” About this time he assumed the name of Chamfort.
For some time he contrived to exist by teaching and as a booksellers’ hack. His good looks and ready wit, however, soon brought him into notice; but though endowed with immense strength—“Hercule sous la figure d’Adonis,” Madame de Craon called him—he lived so hard that he was glad of the chance of doing a “cure” at Spa when the Belgian minister in Paris, M. van Eyck, took him with him to Germany in 1761. On his return to Paris he produced a comedy, La Jeune Indienne (1764), which was performed with some success, and this was followed by a series of “epistles” in verse, essays and odes. It was not, however, until 1769, when he won the prize of the French Academy for his Éloge on Molière, that his literary reputation was established.
Meanwhile he had lived from hand to mouth, mainly on the hospitality of people who were only too glad to give him board and lodging in exchange for the pleasure of the conversation for which he was famous. Thus Madame Helvétius entertained him at Sèvres for some years. In 1770 another comedy, Le Marchand de Smyrne, brought him still further into notice, and he seemed on the road to fortune, when he was suddenly smitten with a horrible disease. His distress was relieved by the generosity of a friend, who made over to him a pension of 1200 livres charged on the Mercure de France. With this assistance he was able to go to the baths of Contrexéville and to spend some time in the country, where he wrote an Éloge on La Fontaine which won the prize of the Academy of Marseilles (1774). In 1775, while taking the waters at Barèges, he met the duchesse de Grammont, sister of Choiseul, through whose influence he was introduced at court. In 1776 his poor tragedy, Mustapha et Zeangir, was played at Fontainebleau before Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette; the king gave him a further pension of 1200 livres, and the prince de Condé made him his secretary. But he was a Bohemian naturally and by habit, the restraints of the court irked him, and with increasing years he was growing misanthropical. After a year he resigned his post in the prince’s household and retired into solitude at Auteuil. There, comparing the authors of old with the men of his own time, he uttered the famous mot that proclaims the superiority of the dead over the living as companions; and there too he presently fell in love. The lady, attached to the household of the duchesse du Maine, was forty-eight years old, but clever, amusing, a woman of the world; and Chamfort married her. They left Auteuil, and went to Vaucouleurs, where in six months Madame Chamfort died. Chamfort lived in Holland for a time with M. de Narbonne, and returning to Paris received in 1781 the place at the Academy left vacant by the death of La Curne de Sainte-Palaye, the author of the Dictionnaire des antiquités françaises. In 1784, through the influence of Calonne, he became secretary to the king’s sister, Madame Elizabeth, and in 1786 he received a pension of 2000 livres from the royal treasury. He was thus once more attached to the court, and made himself friends in spite of the reach and tendency of his unalterable irony; but he quitted it for ever after an unfortunate and mysterious love affair, and was received into the house of M. de Vaudreuil. Here in 1783 he had met Mirabeau, with whom he remained to the last on terms of intimate friendship whom he assisted with money and influence, and one at least of whose speeches—that on the Academies—he wrote.
The outbreak of the Revolution made a profound change in the relations of Chamfort’s life. Theoretically he had long been a republican, and he now threw himself into the new movement with almost fanatical ardour, devoting all his small fortune to the revolutionary propaganda. His old friends of the court he forgot. “Those who pass the river of revolutions,” he said, “have passed the river of oblivion.” Until the 31st of August 1791 he was secretary of the Jacobin club; he became a street orator and entered the Bastille among the first of the storming party. He worked for the Mercure de France, collaborated with Ginguené in the Feuille villageoise, and drew up for Talleyrand his Adresse au peuple français.
With the reign of Marat and Robespierre, however, his uncompromising Jacobinism grew critical, and with the fall of the Girondins his political life came to an end. But he could not restrain the tongue that had made him famous; he no more spared the Convention than he had spared the court. His notorious republicanism failed to excuse the sarcasms he lavished on the new order of things, and denounced by an assistant in the Bibliothèque Nationale, to a share in the direction of which he had been appointed by Roland, he was taken to the Madelonnettes. Released for a moment, he was threatened again with arrest; but he had determined to prefer death to a repetition of the moral and physical restraint to which he had been subjected. He attempted suicide with pistol and with poniard; and, horribly hacked and shattered, dictated to those who came to arrest him the well-known declaration—“Moi, Sebastien-Roch-Nicolas Chamfort, déclare avoir voulu mourir en homme libre plutôt que d’être reconduit en esclave dans une maison d’arrêt”—which he signed in a firm hand and in his own blood. He did not die at once, but lingered on until the 13th of April 1794 in charge of a gendarme, for whose wardship he paid a crown a day. To the Abbé Sieyès Chamfort had given fortune in the title of a pamphlet (“Qu’est-ce que le Tiers-État? Tout. Qu’a-t-il? Rien”), and to Sieyès did Chamfort retail his supreme sarcasm, the famous “Je m'en vais enfin de ce monde où il faut que le cœur se brise ou se bronze.” The maker of constitutions followed the dead wit to the grave.
The writings of Chamfort, which include comedies, political articles, literary criticisms, portraits, letters, and verses, are colourless and uninteresting in the extreme. As a talker, however, he was of extraordinary force. His Maximes et Pensées, highly praised by John Stuart Mill, are, after those of La Rochefoucauld, the most brilliant and suggestive sayings that have been given to the modern world. The aphorisms of Chamfort, less systematic and psychologically less important than those of La Rochefoucauld, are as significant in their violence and iconoclastic spirit of the period of storm and preparation that gave them birth as the Réflexions in their exquisite restraint and elaborate subtlety are characteristic of the tranquil elegance of their epoch; and they have the advantage in richness of colour, in picturesqueness of phrase, in passion, in audacity. Sainte-Beuve compares them to “well-minted coins that retain their value,” and to keen arrows that “arrivent brusquement et sifflent encore.”
An edition of his works—Œuvres complètes de Nicolas Chamfort—was published at Paris in five volumes in 1824–1825. Selections—Œuvres de Chamfort—in one volume, appeared in 1852, with a biographical and critical preface by Arsène Houssaye, reprinted from the Revue des deux mondes; and Œuvres choisies (2 vols.), with a preface and notes by M. de Lescure (1879). See also Sainte-Beuve, Causeries du Lundi.