Bastard child of a canon, Chamfort was born near Clermont-Ferrand and raised by his mother, who was married to François Nicolas, a grocer.
Admitted to the Collège des Grassins in Paris on a grant, he was a brilliant but unruly student. Having decided he liked philosophy and women too much to become a priest, he adopted the nom de plume "Nicolas de Chamfort" and began a career as a journalist and a writer.
Though celebrated for his wit and looks in Paris' aristocratic circles, he initially sympathized with the ideals of the Revolution but opposed Robespierre's Reign of Terror. Several times arrested, fearing emprisonment and execution, he tried to commit suicide on September 10, 1793, but was saved. He nevertheless died from the consequences of this abortive suicide attempt several months later.
Chamfort was elected to the Académie française in 1781 and appointed librarian of the Bibliothèque Nationale at the end of his life. Today he is only remembered for his Maximes et Pensées, Caractères et Anecdotes, a collection of maxims and epigrams published in 1795. His acute observations on morals, art and politics still provide thoroughly enjoyable reading.