Next to Dorothy Parker's ""lovable old cynic La Rochefoucault,"" Chamfort, although very little known in this country and long out of print, was France's greatest aphorist. Mr. Merwin, a poet in his own right, has re-translated the main body of his work and provided a 100 page biography and critique. Rationalist, moralist, not perhaps an important or original thinker, Chamfort was always the ""apostle of pessimism"" and the facts of his life must have contributed enormously to his bewildered, bitter dissidence: the uncertain birth and plebian background; the everpresent poverty; the years of illness (venereal disease); the increasing distress and disappointment with life veering toward political involvement during the revolution when he attempted to take his own life. The Maxims and Thoughts (re-ordered from his scattered notes found at his death) are presented complete along with selected Characters and Anecdotes and assorted essays. The primary pleasure will be in the aphorisms (""Man can aspire to virtue; he cannot reasonably pretend to find truth."" or ""Courtiers are poor men who have become rich by begging"") which are incisive, ironic commentaries on the imperfect civilization of all time.