12mo (128 x 77 mm). , 194,  pp. Title with woodcut device of Thomas Jolly (who shared the edition), woodcut head- and tail-pieces and initials; printed shoulder-notes. Occasional slight marginal discoloration. Contemporary French gold-tooled red morocco, sides with two concentric triple fillet panels, fleurons at corners of the inner panel, spine gold-tooled and lettered in six compartments, board edges gilt, gilt edges, marbled endpapers (in the style of Guilleminot-Chrétien no. 22, produced ca. 1668).***
First Edition, a lovely copy, of a paradoxically erudite exposition of the vanity of all branches of knowledge. While expressed in the language and concepts of the time, the work resonates with the 21st-century reader: La Mothe Le Vayer’s argument was profound, for he circled around the principle of uncertainty, recognized by modern physicists as a fundamental property of our interactions with the world.
La Mothe Le Vayer, the quintessential libertin érudit, saw himself as the heir of Montaigne, like the latter’s “adopted daughter” Marie de Gournay, whose salon he frequented. In this late work he passes in review each of the belles lettres (liberal arts or humanities): Grammar, Rhetoric, Physics (in the broad classical sense, including Natural History and Astronomy), Medicine (the most distinguished of the belles lettres, in his view, but still flawed), and Law (he notes that jurists are called letrados in Spanish), exposing the multiple contradictions within each discipline. Discerning endless inconsistencies and the impossibility of finding a single, unchallengeable truth in any of these subject areas, he affirms the ultimate folly of man’s attempt to understand and impose order and logic on that which is infinite, constantly changing, and often irrational. His arguments are interwoven with classical Latin and Greek citations, testifying to his own massive erudition. And yet, he asserts, years of painful scholarship inevitably lead the scholar to nothing but uncertainty, “difficult to distinguish, if one is to speak frankly, from true ignorance” (p. 11).
Usually tolerant of humanity’s foibles, La Mothe Le Vayer comes closest to expressing biting scorn only for those he labels “Dogmatists.” A pedagogue himself (he tutored Louis XIV and his brother Monsieur), he touches repeatedly on questions of education, especially in the sections on grammar and rhetoric, in which he discusses, for example, the folly of those who insistent rigidly on proper grammar, thus ignoring the properties of real language.
The last section is devoted to the reading and writing of books, the one studious activity in which the author discerns genuine rewards, for the reader is preserved from the anxiety and boredom that plague so many, especially courtiers (those who “follow the Court”), and the writer has the satisfaction of leaving his thoughts and impressions for posterity. Topics include seductive titles which mask mediocre books, plagiarism, squeamish overuse of euphemisms and excessive avoidance of risky homonyms, but also the advisability of discretion and temperance in subject and vocabulary; choosing a happy medium in one’s writing style between the prolix and the telegraphic; and suiting the style to the subject. In conclusion La Mothe le Vayer defends the compatibility of the Philosophie Sceptique with Christianity.
Four American libraries hold copies: U. Indiana, U. Miami, U. Michigan, and Harvard. Tchemerzine 3: 981. Item #4295