The thirteenth-century mother church in the town from which Lord Chesterfield's title came has a peculiar steeple, graceful in its lines, but it points askew, from whatever quarter it is seen. The writer of these Letters, which he never dreamed would be published, is the best self-portrayed Gentleman in literature. In everything he was naturally a stylist, perfected by assiduous art, yet the graceful steeple is somehow warped out of the beauty of the perpendicular. His ideal Gentleman is the frigid product of a rigid mechanical drill, with the mien of a posture master, the skin-deep graciousness of a French Marechal, the calculating adventurer who cuts unpretentious worthies to toady to society magnates, who affects the supercilious air of a shallow dandy and cherishes the heart of a frog. True, he repeatedly insists on the obligation of truthfulness in all things, and of, honor in dealing with the world. His Gentleman may; nay, he must, sail with the stream, gamble in moderation if it is the fashion, must stoop to wear ridiculous clothes and ornaments if they are the mode, though despising his weakness all to himself, and no true Gentleman could afford to keep out of the little gallantries which so effectively advertised him as a man of spirit sad charm. Those repeated injunctions of honor are to be the rule, subject to these exceptions, which transcend the common proprieties when the subject is the rising young gentleman of the period and his goal social success. If an undercurrent of shady morality is traceable in this Chesterfieldian philosophy it must, of course, be explained away by the less perfect moral standard of his period as compared with that of our day. Whether this holds strictly true of men may be open to discussion, but his lordship's worldly instructions as to the utility of women as stepping-stones to favor in high places are equally at variance with the principles he so impressively inculcates and with modern conceptions of social honor. The externals of good breeding cannot be over-estimated, if honestly come by, nor is it necessary to examine too deeply into the prime motives of those who urge them upon a generation in whose eyes matter is more important than manner. Superficial refinement is better than none, but the Chesterfield pulpit cannot afford to shirk the duty of proclaiming loud and far that the only courtesy worthy of respect is that 'politesse de coeur,' the politeness of the heart, which finds expression in consideration for others as the ruling principle of conduct. This militates to some extent against the assumption of fine airs without the backing of fine behavior, and if it tends to discourage the effort to use others for selfish ends, it nevertheless pays better in the long run.
Chesterfield's frankness in so many confessions of sharp practice almost merits his canonization as a minor saint of society. Dr. Johnson has indeed placed him on a Simeon Stylites pillar, an immortality of penance from which no good member of the writers' guild is likely to pray his deliverance. He commends the fine art and high science of dissimulation with the gusto of an apostle and the authority of an expert. Dissimulate, but do not simulate, disguise your real sentiments, but do not falsify them. Go through the world with your eyes and ears open and mouth mostly shut. When new or stale gossip is brought to you, never let on that you know it already, nor that it really interests you. The reading of these Letters is better than hearing the average comedy, in which the wit of a single sentence of Chesterfield suffices to carry an act. His man-of-the-world philosophy is as old as the Proverbs of Solomon, but will always be fresh and true, and enjoyable at any age, thanks to his pithy expression, his unfailing common sense, his sparkling wit and charming humor. This latter gift shows in the seeming lapses from his rigid rule requiring absolute elegance of expression at all times, when an unexpected coarseness, in some provincial colloquialism, crops out with picturesque force. The beau ideal of superfineness occasionally enjoys the bliss of harking back to mother English.
Above all the defects that can be charged against the Letters, there rises the substantial merit of an honest effort to exalt the gentle in woman and man--above the merely genteel. "He that is gentil doeth gentil deeds," runs the mediaeval saying which marks the distinction between the genuine and the sham in behavior. A later age had it thus: "Handsome is as handsome does," and in this larger sense we have agreed to accept the motto of William of Wykeham, which declares that "Manners maketh Man."
DEAR BOY: Your distresses in your journey from Heidelberg to Schaffhausen, your lying upon straw, your black bread, and your broken 'berline,' are proper seasonings for the greater fatigues and distresses which you must expect in the course of your travels; and, if one had a mind to moralize, one might call them the samples of the accidents, rubs, and difficulties, which every man meets with in his journey through life. In this journey, the understanding is the 'voiture' that must carry you through; and in proportion as that is stronger or weaker, more or less in repair, your journey will be better or worse; though at best you will now and then find some bad roads, and some bad inns. Take care, therefore, to keep that necessary 'voiture' in perfect good repair; examine, improve, and strengthen it every day: it is in the power, and ought to be the care, of every man to do it; he that neglects it, deserves to feel, and certainly will feel, the fatal effects of that negligence.
'A propos' of negligence: I must say something to you upon that subject. You know I have often told you, that my affection for you was not a weak, womanish one; and, far from blinding me, it makes me but more quick- sighted as to your faults; those it is not only my right, but my duty to tell you of; and it is your duty and your interest to correct them. In the strict scrutiny which I have made into you, I have (thank God) hitherto not discovered any vice of the heart, or any peculiar weakness of the head: but I have discovered laziness, inattention, and indifference; faults which are only pardonable in old men, who, in the decline of life, when health and spirits fail, have a kind of claim to that sort of tranquillity. But a young man should be ambitious to shine, and excel; alert, active, and indefatigable in the means of doing it; and, like Caesar, 'Nil actum reputans, si quid superesset agendum.' You seem to want that 'vivida vis animi,' which spurs and excites most young men to please, to shine, to excel. Without the desire and the pains necessary to be considerable, depend upon it, you never can be so; as, without the desire and attention necessary to please, you never can please. 'Nullum numen abest, si sit prudentia,' is unquestionably true, with regard to everything except poetry; and I am very sure that any man of common understanding may, by proper culture, care, attention, and labor, make himself whatever he pleases, except a good poet. Your destination is the great and busy world; your immediate object is the affairs, the interests, and the history, the constitutions, the customs, and the manners of the several parts of Europe. In this, any man of common sense may, by common application, be sure to excel. Ancient and modern history are, by attention, easily attainable. Geography and chronology the same, none of them requiring any uncommon share of genius or invention. Speaking and Writing, clearly, correctly, and with ease and grace, are certainly to be acquired, by reading the best authors with care, and by attention to the best living models. These are the qualifications more particularly necessary for you, in your department, which you may be possessed of, if you please; and which, I tell you fairly, I shall be very angry at you, if you are not; because, as you have the means in your hands, it will be your own fault only.
If care and application are necessary to the acquiring of those qualifications, without which you can never be considerable, nor make a figure in the world, they are not less necessary with regard to the lesser accomplishments, which are requisite to make you agreeable and pleasing in society. In truth, whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well; and nothing can be done well without attention: I therefore carry the necessity of attention down to the lowest things, even to dancing and dress. Custom has made dancing sometimes necessary for a young man; therefore mind it while you learn it that you may learn to do it well, and not be ridiculous, though in a ridiculous act. Dress is of the same nature; you must dress; therefore attend to it; not in order to rival or to excel a fop in it, but in order to avoid singularity, and consequently ridicule. Take great care always to be dressed like the reasonable people of your own age, in the place where you are; whose dress is never spoken of one way or another, as either too negligent or too much studied.
What is commonly called an absent man, is commonly either a very weak, or a very affected man; but be he which he will, he is, I am sure, a very disagreeable man in company. He fails in all the common offices of civility; he seems not to know those people to-day, whom yesterday he appeared to live in intimacy with. He takes no part in the general conversation; but, on the contrary, breaks into it from time to time, with some start of his own, as if he waked from a dream. This (as I said before) is a sure indication, either of a mind so weak that it is not able to bear above one object at a time; or so affected, that it would be supposed to be wholly engrossed by, and directed to, some very great and important objects. Sir Isaac Newton, Mr. Locke, and (it may be) five or six more, since the creation of the world, may have had a right to absence, from that intense thought which the things they were investigating required. But if a young man, and a man of the world, who has no such avocations to plead, will claim and exercise that right of absence in company, his pretended right should, in my mind, be turned into an involuntary absence, by his perpetual exclusion out of company. However frivolous a company may be, still, while you are among them, do not show them, by your inattention, that you think them so; but rather take their tone, and conform in some degree to their weakness, instead of manifesting your contempt for them. There is nothing that people bear more impatiently, or forgive less, than contempt; and an injury is much sooner forgotten than an insult. If, therefore, you would rather please than offend, rather be well than ill spoken of, rather be loved than hated; remember to have that constant attention about you which flatters every man's little vanity; and the want of which, by mortifying his pride, never fails to excite his resentment, or at least his ill will. For instance, most people (I might say all people) have their weaknesses; they have their aversions and their likings, to such or such things; so that, if you were to laugh at a man for his aversion to a cat, or cheese (which are common antipathies), or, by inattention and negligence, to let them come in his way, where you could prevent it, he would, in the first case, think himself insulted, and, in the second, slighted, and would remember both. Whereas your care to procure for him what he likes, and to remove from him what he hates, shows him that he is at least an object of your attention; flatters his vanity, and makes him possibly more your friend, than a more important service would have done. With regard to women, attentions still below these are necessary, and, by the custom of the world, in some measure due, according to the laws of good-breeding.
My long and frequent letters, which I send you, in great doubt of their success, put me in mind of certain papers, which you have very lately, and I formerly, sent up to kites, along the string, which we called messengers; some of them the wind used to blow away, others were torn by the string, and but few of them got up and stuck to the kite. But I will content myself now, as I did then, if some of my present messengers do but stick to you. Adieu!