Risking One’s Life and the Demands of Honour

“At the front, most men expose themselves sufficiently to satisfy the demands of honour, but few are willing to risk themselves enough to assure the success of the enterprise for which they are exposing themselves.” — Duke François de la Rochefoucauld (1613–1680): Maxim 224.

On May 8, Robert de la Rochefoucauld, a descendant, died at the age of eighty-eight. He was the mayor of Ouzouer-sur-Trézée, a small village in the Loire Valley, and a hero of the French resistance. He was also the last living member of Churchill’s Special Operations Executive. During the war, he had risked his life many times.

In 1997, he testified on behalf of Maurice Papon, a former official of the Vichy government who was being tried on charges of deporting French Jews who were sent to Nazi death camps. De la Rochefoucauld told the court that Papon had risked his life to help the resistance and the allies.

Papon was convicted.

The only explanation for de la Rochefoucauld’s extraordinary testimony is that the two men had been friends and that this friendship imposed obligations on him transcending the demands of honour.

Before judging him, we must remember Maxim 31 of his famous ancestor: “Had we no faults, we should not take such pleasure in discovering them in others.”

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5 responses to “Risking One’s Life and the Demands of Honour

  1. David Schatzky

    We would all be quite alone in the world if our friends were incapable of looking beyond our faults, flaws and shortcomings. To embrace our friends, warts and all, can be uncomfortable, challenging and sometimes painful. It’s astonishing that friends will do for each other what mere acquaintances would find completely untenable.

  2. Horace Krever

    Does the ethical obligation to support one’s friends, “worts and all” justify lying on their behalf”?

  3. Fred Langan

    Morality aside he is not the last member of Churchill’s SOE.
    I am writing an advance obituary on Sonya d’Artois who parachuted into France as an SOE agent. Her name then was Sonya Butt, and she married a Canadian SOE agent, Guy d’Artois. She is 87 and lives outside Montreal. Her late husband is the basis for my novel, The Obit Man.

  4. So, on a razor’s edge – more information, please. DID Papon help the resistance? Did he also collaborate in the deportation of French jews? (As many Vichy officials did.) Maybe he did both (most of us have never lived in an occupied country. We haven’t faced death if we refused to collaborate. But helping one’s countrymen and acquiescing in the shipping off of dispensable ‘others’… that’s a nightmare that can haunt all our dreams). But there is no honor in such actions, and frankly, somewhat despicable behaviour in defending a friend decades after events – surely a little honest assessment would have been more ‘honorable’?

    • I wish I could answer your questions – or find another Maxim
      that would deal with the moral point you raise.