Let us spend half an hour with this perceptive earl. He typified the English aristocracy of the age, except that he wrote a good book. His Letters to His Son, which it has been the fashion to depreciate, is a treasury of wisdom in sterling prose, a compact guide to the manners and ideals of his class, and an engaging revelation of a subtle and gracious intelligence.
At baptism (1694) he was Philip Dormer Stanhope, son of Philip Stanhope, third Earl of Chesterfield, and of Lady Elizabeth Savile, daughter of George Savile, Marquess of Halifax, the wily “Trimmer” of preceding reigns. His mother died in his childhood; his father neglected him; he was brought up by the Marchioness of Halifax. Under a private tutor he learned the classics and French uncommonly well, so that the culture of Rome and France in their maturity became part of his mind. He had a year at Cambridge, and set out in 1714 on the grand tour. At The Hague he gambled for heavy stakes; in Paris he sampled women with discriminating promiscuity. From Paris he wrote (December 7, 1714):
I shall not give you my opinion of the French, because I am very often taken for one of them; and several have paid me the highest possible compliment they think it in their power to bestow, which is: “Sir, you are just like ourselves.” I shall only tell you that I am insolent, I talk a great deal, I am very loud and peremptory, I sing and dance as I walk along; and, above all, I spend an immense sum on hair, powder, feathers, and white gloves.97
On his return to England he was appointed gentleman of the bedchamber to the current Prince of Wales (later George II). George I’s favorite minister, James Stanhope, was Philip’s relative. A borough was found for him to represent, and for eleven years he sat in Commons as a Whig. Becoming fourth Earl of Chesterfield on the death of his father (1726), he was transferred to the House of Lords, which he later called “the House of Incurables.” Sent to The Hague as ambassador (1728), he managed his mission so well that he was rewarded with a knightly Garter and appointment as lord high steward. In 1732 a mistress, Mile, du Bouchet, presented him with a son, Philip Stanhope, future recipient of the Letters. A year later he married the Countess of Walsingham, natural daughter of George I by the Duchess of Kendal. He may have expected her to bring him a royal dowry; she did not, and the marriage proved genteelly miserable.
He might have risen to higher place had he not opposed Walpole’s bill for an excise tax on tobacco and wine. He helped to defeat the measure, and was soon dismissed from the government (1733). He labored for Walpole’s fall, lost his health, retired to the Continent (1741), visited Voltaire in Brussels, associated with Fontenelle and Montesquieu in Paris. Back in England, he continued in opposition. The articles that he contributed as “Jeffrey Broadbottom” to a new journal, Old England, so pleased Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, that she willed him twenty thousand pounds. In 1744 his “Broad Bottom” party won. He joined Pelham in the ministry, and was sent to The Hague to persuade the Dutch to join England in the War of the Austrian Succession. He accomplished this with tact and skill, and was advanced to the lord-lieutenancy of Ireland (1745). His one year in Ireland was the most successful in his career. He established schools and industries, cleansed the government of corruption and jobbery, administered affairs with competence and impartiality. He ended the persecution of Catholics, promoted several of them to office, and so earned the respect of the Catholic population that when the Young Pretender invaded England from Scotland, and England expected a simultaneous revolt in Ireland, the Irish refused to rise against Chesterfield.
He was brought back to London as secretary of state (1746). But now the master of delicacy and tact made a ruinous mistake: he paid court to the King’s mistress rather than to the Queen, and Caroline succeeded in maneuvering his fall. In 1748 he abandoned public life, and retired to “my horse, my books, and my friends.”98 He was offered a dukedom by George II; he declined it. In 1751 he led the movement to adopt the Gregorian calendar, and bore the brunt of popular resentment against the “Popish theft” of eleven days from the English people. In 1755 he fell under Johnson’s blunderbuss over the dedication to the Dictionary; we shall look at that fracas later on.
Meanwhile, since 1737, he had been writing letters to his son. His love for this by-product of his first embassy to Holland betrays the tenderness that he kept hidden from the public through most of his career. “From the time that you have had life,” he told the youth, “it has been the principal and favorite object of mine to make you as perfect as the imperfections of human nature will allow.”99 He planned Philip’s education not to make him a model Christian, but to prepare him for statesmanship and diplomacy. He began when the boy was five, with letters on classical mythology and history. Two years later he struck the note that was to recur so persistently in the correspondence:
In my last I wrote concerning the politeness of people of fashion, such as are used to courts, the elegant part of mankind. Their politeness is easy and natural, and you must distinguish it from the civilities of inferior people and rustics, which are always constraining or trouble some.… A well-bred man shows a constant desire of pleasing, and takes care that his attentions be not troublesome. Few English are thoroughly polite; either they are shamefaced or impudent; whereas most French people are easy and polite in their manners. And as by the better half you are a little Frenchman, so I hope you will at least be half polite. You will be more distinguished in a country where politeness is not very common.100
So, when Philip was fourteen, his father sent him to Paris as the finishing school of manners, though quite aware that Paris would finish his morals too. The young man had to learn the ways of the world if he was to be useful to his government. The proper study of a statesman is man. After schooling Philip through tutors and letters in classic and literary lore, the Earl, who had such lore at his fingers’ ends, steered him back from books to men.
MY DEAR FRIEND: Very few celebrated negotiators have been eminent for their learning.… The late Duke of Marlborough, who was at least as able a negotiator as a general, was exceedingly ignorant of books but extremely knowing in men, whereas the learned Grotius appeared, both in Sweden and in France, to be a very bungling minister.101
If Philip proposed to enter government, he should, above all, study the governing classes, their background, morals, manners, aims, and means. He should read only the best literature, in order to acquire a good style of writing, for this too is part of the art of rule; and he should be acquainted with music and the arts; but God forbid that he should aspire to be an author or a musician.102 He should study carefully the modern history of the European states, their kings and ministers, their laws and constitutions, their finances and diplomacy. He should read La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère on the nature of man; they are cynical, but there would be no great mistake, at least in politics, in expecting every man to pursue his own interest as he sees it; let us suspect any politician who pretends anything else. Don’t expect men to be reasonable; allow for their prejudices. “Our prejudices are our mistresses; reason is at best our wife, very often heard indeed, but seldom minded.”103 Learn to flatter, for only the greatest sages and saints are immune to flattery; but the higher you go, the more delicate and indirect your flattery must be. Study the genealogy of the most important families, for men are prouder of their pedigrees than of their virtues.104 Make your court to women, chiefly to get their help; for even powerful statesmen are influenced by weak women, especially if these are not their wives.
In matters of sex Chesterfield’s advice to his son amused the French and horrified the English. He thought a few liaisons were an excellent preparation for marriage and maturity. He merely insisted that Philip’s mistresses should be women of good manners, so that they might refine him while sinning. He recommended Mme. du Pin because of her “good breeding and delicacy.”105 He instructed his son in the strategy of seduction. No refusal should be supinely accepted, for
the most virtuous woman, far from being offended at a declaration of love, is flattered by it, if it is made in a polite and agreeable manner.… If she listens, and allows you to repeat your declaration, be persuaded that if you do not dare all the rest, she will laugh at you.… If you are not listened to the first time, try a second, a third, and a fourth. If the place is not already taken, depend upon it, it may be conquered.106
The Earl, having had no luck or taste in marriage, passed on to his son no very high opinion about women:
I will, upon this subject, let you into certain Arcana that will be very useful to you to know, but which you must, with the utmost care, conceal and never seem to know. Women, then, are only children of a larger growth; they have an entertaining tattle, and sometimes wit; but for solid reasoning, good sense, I never knew in my life one that had, or who reasoned or acted consequentially for four-and-twenty hours together.… A man of sense only trifles with them, plays with them, humors and flatters them, … but he neither consults them about, nor trusts them with, serious matters, though he often makes them believe that he does both; which is the thing in the world that they are most proud of; for they love mightily to be dabbling in business (which, by the way, they always spoil).… No flattery is either too high or too low for them. They will greedily swallow the highest, and gratefully accept the lowest; and you may safely flatter any woman from her understanding down to the exquisite taste of her fan. Women who are indisputably beautiful, or indisputably ugly, are best flattered on the score of their understanding.107
In France, said the Earl, it is necessary to flatter women with both assiduity and tact, for two reasons: they can make or break a man at court, and they can teach him the graces of life. It is by their grace of movement, manners, and speech, rather than by their beauty, that women maintain their lure; beauty without grace becomes invisible, but grace without beauty can still charm. “Women are the only refiners of the merit of men; it is true, they cannot add weight, but they polish and give luster to it.”108 The Earl cautioned his son against speaking ill of women; that would be trite, vulgar, foolish, and unfair; for women have done much less harm in this world than men. Besides, it is never wise to attack “whole bodies,” classes, or groups; “individuals forgive, sometimes; but bodies and societies never do.”109
Chesterfield never tired of inculcating good manners.
Good manners are the settled medium of social, as specie is of commercial, life; returns are equally expected for both; and people will no more advance their civility to a bear than their money to a bankrupt.110
Here a good dancing master is helpful; he will at least teach us how to sit, stand, or walk with an economy of attention and energy. Being an aristocrat, the Earl called good manners “good breeding”; unconsciously, and perhaps rightly, he recognized how difficult it is to acquire good manners without being brought up in a family, and moving in a circle, that already has them. A “characteristic of a well-bred man is to converse with his inferiors without insolence, and with his superiors with respect and ease.”111One must not take advantage of the accident of superiority.
You cannot, and I am sure you do not, think yourself superior by nature to the Savoyard who cleans your room, or the footman who cleans your shoes; but you may rejoice, and with reason, at the difference that fortune has made in your favor. Enjoy those advantages, but without insulting those who are unfortunate enough to want them, or even doing anything unnecessarily that may remind them of that want. For my own part, I am more upon my guard as to my behavior to my servants, and others who are called my inferiors, than I am towards my equals: for fear of being suspected of that mean and ungenerous sentiment of desiring to make others feel that difference which fortune has, and perhaps too undeservedly, made between us.112
Good manners are of the mind as well of the body, and both kinds will be influenced by the company we keep.
There are two sorts of good company: one, which is called the beau monde, and consists of the people who have the lead in courts, and in the gay parts of life; the other consists of those who are distinguished by some peculiar merit, or excel in some particular and valuable art or science. For my own part, I used to think myself in company as much above me when I was with Mr. Addison or Mr. Pope, as if I had been with all the princes in Europe.113
In either of these good companies it is advisable to keep a certain reserve: not to speak too much or too candidly; to be “dexterous enough to conceal a truth without telling a lie,” and to appear frank while being reserved.
Even where you are sure, seem rather doubtful; … and if you would convince others, seem open to conviction yourself.… Wear your learning, like your watch, in a private pocket, and do not pull it out … merely to show.114 … Above all things, avoid speaking of yourself, if it be possible.115
Say nothing about religion; if you praise it, sophisticates will smile; if you condemn it the mature will mourn. You will profit by reading Voltaire’s histories, but you will be on your guard against the philosophes who attack religion.
You should by no means seem to approve, encourage, or applaud those libertine notions which strike at religions equally, and which are the poor threadbare topics of half-wits and minute philosophers. Even those who are silly enough to laugh at their jokes are still wise enough to distrust and detest their characters; for, putting moral virtues at their highest, and religion at the lowest, religion must still be allowed to be a collateral security, at least, to virtue, and every prudent man will sooner trust to two securities than to one. Whenever, therefore, you happen to be in company with these pretended esprits forts, or with thoughtless libertines who laugh at all religion to show their wit, … let no word or look of yours intimate the least approbation; on the contrary, let a silent gravity express your dislike; but enter not the subject, and decline such unprofitable and indecent controversies.116
In 1752 Chesterfield recognized in the attack upon religion the first stages of a social revolution. “I foresee that before the end of this century the trade of both king and priest will not be half so good a one as it has been.”117 And in 1753, two years after the appearance of the anticlerical Encyclopédie he wrote to his son:
The affairs of France … grow serious, and in my opinion will grow more and more so every day. The King is despised.… The French nation reasons freely, which they never did before, upon matters of religion and government, and begin to be spregiudicati [unprejudiced]; the officers do too; in short, all the symptoms, which I have ever met with in history previous to great changes and revolutions in government, now exist, and daily increase, in France.118
A delighted study of Chesterfield’s eight hundred pages has given two readers a high opinion of his mind, if not of his morals. His English contemporaries, not having read his letters, tended too readily to classify him as a wit rather than a philosopher. They relished his remark, in the upper house, that “we, my lords, may thank Heaven that we have something better than our brains to depend upon.”119 They saw him gamble like any rake or fool, and they knew (what he confessed to his son) that he had not been a model of chastity. The irate Johnson described the Letters as inculcating “the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master.”120 This, like so many of the Great Cham’s decrees, was somewhat one-sided; Chesterfield was teaching the youth the morals of his time and class, and the manners of the polite political world; we must bear in mind that he was grooming his son for diplomacy; and no diplomat dares to practice Christianity across frontiers.
Even so, much of the moral doctrine offered to Philip was excellent. “I have often told you in my former letters (and it is most certainly true) that the strictest and most scrupulous honor and virtue can alone make you esteemed and valued by mankind.”121 The advice about mistresses was probably an attempt to steer the boy away from promiscuity; note the warning: “As to running after women, the consequences of that vice are only the loss of one’s nose, the total destruction of health, and, not infrequently, the being run through the body.”122 Johnson himself, in a forgiving moment, thought that “Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son might be made a very pretty book; take out the immorality, and it should be put into the hands of every young gentleman.”123 Perhaps theLettersinadequately inculcated honor, decency, courage, and fidelity, but it is not true that Chesterfield mistook wealth or place for virtue or wisdom. He lauded Milton, Newton, and Locke far above the politicians of the time. We have seen him cultivating the friendship of the best writers of his day. He had a warm appreciation of good literature, even if he was not fascinated by a dictionary. He himself wrote an English unsurpassed in contemporary prose: simple, vigorous, clear, with just enough lightness to float the burden of his thought. Despite his polyglot and classic range, he preferred the short and racy words of Anglo-Saxon speech. Voltaire ranked the Letters as “the best book on education ever written,”124 and Sainte-Beuve called it “a rich book, not a page of which can be read without our having to remember some happy observation.”125
If we judge a work by its immediate fruits, the Letters failed. Young Philip Stanhope never overcame his sluggish spirit, his careless habits, his awkward manner, his hesitating speech; after all those exhortations, he had, reported Fanny Burney, “as little good breeding as any man I met with.”126 Apparently some quirk of birth or circumstance nullified five pounds of precept. Philip suffered the handicap of having a rich parent and an assured and comfortable place; neither the fear of hunger nor the resentment of subordination stirred him to ambition or enterprise; as the frustrated father told him, he lacked “that vivida vis animi” that living force of soul, “which spurs and excites young men to please, to shine, to excel.”127 It is touching to see the aging Earl lavish so much sage counsel and paternal affection to so little result. “Be persuaded,” he wrote when the boy was fourteen, “that I shall love you extremely while you deserve it, but not one moment longer”;128 however, his final letter to his son, twenty-two years afterward,129 is warm with affection and solicitude. A month later Philip died in Paris (1768), aged thirty-six, leaving a widow and two sons. He had married without his father’s knowledge, but Chesterfield had forgiven him; and now the Earl wrote to the bereaved wife letters that are models of courtesy and consideration.130
He himself, at that time, was frequently at Bath, incapacitated with gout and sadly deaf. “I crawl about this place upon my three legs, but am kept in countenance by my fellow crawlers; the last part of the Sphinx’s riddle approaches, and I shall soon end, as I began, on all fours.”131 He interested himself in the education of his grandchildren; hope springs eternal in the aging breast. Returning to his estate at Blackheath, he took Voltaire’s advice and cultivated his garden, proud of his melons and apples; he was content, he said, to “vegetate in company with them.”132 Voltaire wrote him consolatory letters, reminding him that a good digestion (which the Earl retained) was more conducive to pleasure than good ears. He faced the end with unfailing humor. Of himself and his friend Lord Tyrawley, also old and infirm, he said (perhaps recalling Fontenelle), “Tyrawley and I have been dead these two years, but we do not wish it to be known.”133 He died March 24, 1773, aged seventy-nine, unaware that his letters, whose publication he had forbidden, had been preserved and bequeathed by his son, and would, when printed in the following year, place him at once among the masters of worldly wisdom and English prose.
I. The famous club was burned down in 1733, but was soon restored.