Mariano Akerman recalls Maurois' "Open Letter to a Youth" (Lettre ouverte à un jeune homme sur la conduite de la vie, 1967)
When I was a teenager I was interested in books. Selectively interested. Among those that were important to me I remember one by André Maurois (1885-1967), Open Letter to a Youth. In the lines of that book I’ve founded a real friend. Today, I don't have a physical exemplar of it. But, fortunately, I’ve found some excerpts from it among my own notes and comments on the Open Letter. Half quotation, half paraphrase, my notes were basically a personal way to study and internalize Maurois’ ideas and advice. As they remain important to me up to now, I’d like to share some of those excerpts with you.
The text I was reading, in 1980, was in Spanish; my notes were all made in the same language. Here you have "Maurois in a nutshell," which is my free translation of some of his words into the English language:
1. Instead of erasing a past that nobody can abolish, try to build a present that makes you feel at ease. To disagree with your own self is the worst of all evils.
2. Every person that lives for other people forgets marvelously his/her own anxiety and all other minor issues.
3. Become who you actually are.
4. The future is never predetermined. It is important to believe in the power of our will to transform it.
5. Fidelity is very important. Fidelity to words, promises, oneself. You must belong to that sort of men that never disappoint.
6. Accept your weaknesses. If you cannot dominate them, try at least to keep yourself as vigorous as you can.
7. In the world you’ll find as many sublime ways of behaving as despicable ones.
8. Ovid says that “while you are happy, you’ll have many friends; but in bad times, you’ll be alone.” He is wrong: it's precisely in bad times when you'll discover who your true friends are.
9. If you are successful (and even when your success is deserved), you’ll have enemies. It's a natural law. There will be individuals who could not even stand your presence; it’s impossible to be liked by everyone. Your success will irritate those who aspired to have your place or your audience. Besides, you’ll talk, and what one says is always too much. You will judge frankly those who do not tolerate to be judged frankly. And your judgments will be repeated. Just an ironic or severe word is enough to guarantee you an enemy for life.
10. A frustrated relationship engenders ferocious hate. The world is full of people that rejoice themselves with the sorrows they produce in others and the rumors they spread all around. These people will create you enemies even if you haven’t made them your enemies yourself. And there are those who will feel an instinctive repulsion at the very sight of you.
I can accept a person whose ideas oppose mine: we corroborate that we disagree and that’s all. By contrast, I’ve met in my life individuals to whom everything should have brought me closer to them and for whom—incredible as it sounds—I had an aversion that I felt mutual: it was not an opposition of ideas, it was opposition of temperaments.
11. The aggressive, violent man, the one who is against everything, hurts the calm one, the person who is for conciliation. An individual who despises everyone despises even more those who make a true effort to love him/her. The moderate exasperates the fanatic.
Along your life you will meet adversaries. You will say to yourself confused: “why is it that he/she dislikes me so much? I haven’t done anything to him/her.” But of course you have. And the worst offense possible: you yourself are the living negation of his/her nature.
12. So, what to do? Do not respond to hate with hate. Sometimes the best is to end all at once, for it is preferable a frank break than a bittersweet compromise.
13. Those who hate us undermine us and depress us. Let’s live with those who really love us.
14. We can discuss any topic only on the basis of mutual respect.
15. One needs to get rid of vanity as much as one needs to go outdoors to have some fresh air.
16. I’d like to see you generous, audacious, and ready to accept reforms based on justice, even if this is against your personal interests.
17. The more we will discover, the more we will know how little we know.
18. Do not despise the masters of the past, because if they have survived it’s because they deserved so.
19. Do not embrace new forms, unless you find real beauty in them.
20. If you desire to build a great work (never mind its type), give yourself completely to it. Life is short, art is long. [First aphorism of Hippocrates, “Ars longa, vita brevis.”] Learn to do the most insignificant of things with the most significant grandeur. The aim is neither success nor fame, but to do, in the best way you can, what you have chosen to do.
21. If you can keep decency, dignity and courage no matter the circumstances, and concede nothing essential, you will never be vanquished.
22. Do at every moment what your soul and brain show you as the wisest and most reasonable way to act. The purpose is not immortality. It simply has to do with building up a little eternity every day.
23. Beginning modestly, you'll finish gloriously.
24. Art is not a game. The most important art is also the most serious. It liberates and reconciles. To art you’ll ask what life cannot give you—imagination.
25. Art gives to the spirit what the world refuses giving to it: the union of contemplation and peace.
26. As Spinoza used to teach, it is always preferable to talk to man about his liberty than his slavery.
27. Life is too brief to be insignificant.
Ovid: Publio Ovidio Nason, Latin poet, 43 B.C.E.-17 C.E.; Hippocrates: Greek physician, the father of medicine, 460-377 B.C.E.); Baruch Spinoza: Pantheist philosopher, 1632-1677). André Maurois (1885-1967), La conducción en la vida: carta abierta a un joven (Open Letter to a Youth), free translation and paraphrase by Mariano Akerman, 7 August 2006