Nicholas Boileau-Despréaux

Honor is like an island, rugged and without shores; once we have left it, we can never return.

Nicholas Boileau-Despréaux

BoileauNicholas Boileau is best remembered today for his classic work, L’Art poétique in which he outlined the structure and principles of French poetry. It was hardly an original work. In writing it, he drew not only on his own ideas, but on the work of other literary theorists of the day. What made the book immediately successful, as well as enduring, was the clarity of his expression, the directness of his prose and his values-centered approach to verse. L’Art poétique is infused with values of truth, reason and sincerity. Those, coupled with the belief that once discovered, truth must be expressed simultaneously with simplicity and grandeur were the basis of both his literary theory and life philosophy. It would be a mistake, however, to write Boileau off as just another stuffy academician. Though an amiable man of warmth and benevolence, he had little tolerance for mediocrity, vanity or hypocrisy—and he didn’t hesitate to publicly express that intolerance. He began and ended his long career as an ardent satirist. Like many practitioners of this craft, Boileau managed to offend vast swaths of society as well as the government officials responsible for letting him publish his opinions. This unhappy state of affairs led to him being charged with “cynicism, debauchery, plagiarism and blasphemy,” early in his career. Eventually, it was his interest in literary theory that won him favor with Louis XIV and with it the approval to publish his books. With the King’s support, Boileau enjoyed decades of productive scholarship, but a renewed interest in satire late in life proved his undoing. When he attacked the Jesuits in his twelfth and final satire, he made powerful enemies in the church and at court. As a result, the Jesuits were successful in suppressing the satire and revoking his publication rights. The frustration associated with these events actually contributed to Boileau’s death.

Boileau’s satire made it clear that that he believed there are some things in life that you just don’t compromise—honor is one of them. Honor is a wonderfully broad word in our language. It has so much gravitas that the mere mention of it makes folks take notice. Some are willing to die to preserve it. Others work for years to earn it. Still more hope that it’s reflected in their behavior. And while it may have a variety of meanings, almost everyone can agree, that it’s a bedrock aspect of character.

At the heart of your personal honor—or character—is integrity. It’s something an honorable person will never sacrifice. It will never be acceptable to cut corners, beat the system or go back on your word. Honorable people don’t nurse grudges or play get-back. They never knowingly commit a wrong or let a mistake go uncorrected. They take responsibility for their actions. Moreover, they never stand silent when they know their voice should be heard. Honorable people are also modest. They don’t trumpet their virtues or seek acclaim because of them. Instead, they go about their daily business with a quiet discipline and a determination to make things better.

Boileau’s image is compelling. It’s a reminder that honor is our greatest strength. No one can take it from us. It’s a rock that can weather the stormiest seas and a secure haven on the darkest night. Don’t ever give it up.        —Ebert  

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