Morals 20 min read

Remember the Graces: Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son

Lessons from the 18th century handbook for worldly success.
Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield by William Hoare (detail).

In 1737, Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, began the education of his son by means of regular letters, which, in the following 30 years, amounted to over 400 in number. After Chesterfield’s death, the son’s impoverished widow decided to publish these letters, collecting them under the title Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman. The book turned out to be a major success, so much so that, despite having written many other works, in the sphere of literature Chesterfield is now remembered almost solely for these letters.

Samuel Johnson, who had a somewhat sour relationship with Chesterfield, said that Chesterfield’s letters taught “the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing-master.” This is certainly unfair. While the ideas clearly lean towards the practical, e.g. how to present yourself and succeed at court, their moral content isn’t exactly Machiavellian. There are plenty of forceful passages instructing his son never to lie, never to take bribes, never to show contempt, never to initiate violence against his worst enemies, and so on. Chesterfield also stresses the importance of working hard to acquire knowledge, pointing out that style will never make up for a deficiency in learning.

But morality isn’t the point of Chesterfield’s letters. What he is interested in is worldly success, and he outlines the principles his son should follow if he wants to achieve it. There are several themes reverberating through the text: the importance of paying attention to your own work and to other people; the importance of maintaining reserve without showing it; the importance of never showing contempt; the importance of keeping good company. Perhaps most important is what Chesterfield refers to as The Graces: i.e. the way you present yourself, from the way you speak to the way you dress and move. Chesterfield continues to stress the point that good style, while not a replacement for content, will elevate your words and deeds and make people pay attention, that “the effects of the same things, said or done, when accompanied or abandoned by them, is almost inconceivable.” Without good presentation, even the greatest of ideas may be ignored simply because the audience won’t notice or care about them.

Below is a selection of my favorite passages from Chesterfield’s letters (from the ones included in the Oxford World Classics edition), which I’ve arranged loosely by their related theme.

Attention

Chesterfield stresses the importance of attention, of which there are two types: paying attention to your work or the subject of your studies, and paying attention to the people you spend time with. If anything is worth doing, it is worth doing well, and if we are to do it well we must be able to focus on it. This idea suggests the opposite: if you are not going to do something well, perhaps it is not worth doing it at all. Attention in company is just as important, for being inattentive is the most offensive thing you can do.

Whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well; and nothing can be well done without attention.

[W]ant of attention, which is really want of thought, is either folly or madness.

A fool never has thought; a madman has lost it; and an absent man is, for the time, without it.

I know no one thing more offensive to a company [than] inattention and distraction. It is showing them the utmost contempt; and people never forgive contempt. … I would rather be in company with a dead man, than with an absent one; for if the dead man gives me no pleasure, at least he shows me no contempt; whereas the absent man, silently indeed, but very plainly, tells me that he does not think me worth his attention.

When dealing with people, paying attention to little things means more than big things: i.e. people are impressed if you remember the small things they like, such as a dish:

Such attention to such trifles flatters self-love much more than greater things, as it makes people think themselves almost the only objects of your thoughts and care.

Knowledge

All you learn, and all you can read, will be of little use, if you do not think and reason upon it yourself. One reads to know other people’s thoughts; but if we take them upon trust, without examining and comparing them with our own, it is really living upon other people’s scraps, or retailing other people’s goods.

[O]ne may as well not know a thing at all, as know it but imperfectly. To know a little of anything, gives neither satisfaction nor credit; but often brings disgrace or ridicule.

The ignorant only either despise it, or think that they have enough: those who have the most, are always the most desirous to have more, and know that the most they can have is, alas! but too little.

Never flaunt your learning:

Wear your learning, like your watch, in a private pocket: and do not merely pull it out and strike it; merely to show that you have one. If you are asked what o’clock it is, tell it; but do not proclaim it hourly and unasked, like the watchman.

Contempt

One of Chesterfield’s key observations that appears throughout his letters is that out of all the injuries you can do to others, contempt is the worst, because it is never forgotten. There is a Persian saying which says that a wound inflicted by a missile can still be treated, but a wound inflicted by a tongue will never heal. Chesterfield’s idea is more specific, because contempt can be shown not only through words, but through inattention. By robbing someone of attention you show them that they are not worthy of it, and this sort of contempt will never be forgotten.

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.

Be convinced, that there are no persons so insignificant and inconsiderable, but may, some time or other, have it in their power to be of use to you; which they certainly will not, if you have once shown them contempt. Wrongs are often forgiven, but contempt never is.

Abhor a knave, and pity a fool in your heart; but let neither of them unnecessarily see that you do so. Some complaisance and attention to fools is prudent, and not mean: as a silent abhorrence of individual knaves if often necessary, and not criminal.

Let this be one invariable rule of your conduct—Never to show the least symptom of resentment, which you cannot, to a certain degree, gratify; but always to smile, where you cannot strike.

Good company

You are the average of the five people you spend most time with, or so goes the popular adage. To rise, Chesterfield suggests, we must spend time with those who are greater than us. This also means the reverse, for if we spend time in disreputable company, its vices will reflect onto us.

Endeavour, as much as you can, to keep company with people above you: there you rise, as much as you sink with people below you; for (as I have mentioned before) you are whatever the company you keep is.

Awkwardness can proceed but from two causes; either from not having kept good company, or from not having attended to it.

People will, in a great degree, and not without reason, form their opinion of you, upon that which they have of your friends; and there is a Spanish proverb, which says very justly, Tell me whom you live with, and I will tell you who you are.

And how can one find good company? Gain enough knowledge to be worth listening to, and learn how to present yourself well:

Merit and good-breeding will make their way everywhere. Knowledge will introduce him, and good-breeding will endear him to the best companies …

The people we spend time with need not be physically with us, and they need not even be alive. By reading books, especially histories and biographies, we can, in the words of Emerson, be part of a “company of the wisest and the most deserving people from all the civilized countries of the world.”

The utility of History consists principally in the examples it gives us of the virtues and vices of those who have gone before us; upon which we ought to make the proper observations. History animates and excites the love and he practice of virtue; by showing us the regard and veneration that was always paid to great and virtuous men in the times which they lived, and the praise and glory with which their names are perpetuated and transmitted down to our times.

Reserve

Chesterfield differentiates between external and internal reserve. When dealing with people, we must minimize our reserve on the outside, while maximizing it on the inside—that is, always appear open and friendly, but reserve your trust for a select few.

Have a real reserve with almost everybody; and have a seeming reserve with almost nobody; for it is very disagreeable to seem reserved, and very dangerous not to be so. Few people find the true medium; many are ridiculously mysterious and reserved upon trifles; and many imprudently communicative of all they know.

Take care never to seem dark and mysterious; which is not only a very unamiable character, but a very suspicious one too; if you seem mysterious with others, they will be really so with you, and you will know nothing. The height of abilities is, to have volto sciolto and pensieri stretti; that is, a frank, open, and ingenuous exterior, with a prudent and reserved interior; to be upon your own guard, and yet, by a seeming natural openness, to put people off theirs.

[O]bserve, therefore, such a degree of reserve with your friends, as not to put yourself in their power, if they should become your enemies; and such a degree of moderation with your enemies, as not to make it impossible for them to become your friends.

But this I would advise you to, which is, never to attack whole bodies of any kind; for, besides that all general rules have their exceptions, you unnecessarily make yourself a great number of enemies, by attacking a corps collectively.

Everyone is part of the chain of influence:

A man of parts and efficiency need not flatter everybody at court; but he must take great care to offend nobody personally; it being in the power of very many to hurt him, who cannot serve him. Homer supposes a chain let down from Jupiter to the earth, to connect him with mortals. There is, at all courts, a chain which connects the prince or the minister with the page of the back-stars or the chambermaid. The kind’s wife, or mistress, has an influence over him; a lover has an influence over her; the chambermaid, or the valet de chambre has an influence over both; and so ad infinitum. You must, therefore, not break a link of that chain, by which you hope to climb up to the Prince.

The Graces

The Three Graces of ancient Greek myth symbolize charm, beauty and creativity. Chesterfield uses the idea to describe the skill of presenting yourself—from your words, to how you say them, to how you dress and even how you move. While style won’t make you more intelligent or substitute for your actions, it can elevate your words and deeds considerably in the eyes of your audience to help you make the most of what you have.

[S]acrifice to the Graces. The different effects of the same things, said or done, when accompanied or abandoned by them, is almost inconceivable.

The scholar, without good-breeding is a pedant; the philosopher, a cynic; the soldier, a brute; and every man disagreeable.

I have known many a man, from his awkwardness, give people such a dislike of him at first, that all his merit could not get the better of it afterwards: whereas a genteel manner prepossesses people in your favour, bends them towards you, and makes them wish to be like you.

An agreeable and distinct manner of speaking adds greatly to the matter; and I have known many a very good speech unregarded, upon account of the disagreeable manner in which it has been delivered, and many an indifferent one applauded, for the contrary reason.

Material superabat opus, [the work excelled the material] is often said of works of sculpture: where, though the materials were valuable, as silver, gold, etc., the workmanship was still more so. This holds true, applied to manners; which adorn whatever knowledge or parts people may have; and even make a greater impression upon nine in ten of mankind, than the intrinsic value of the materials.

Whoever does not entirely possess a language will never appear to advantage, or even equal to himself, either in speaking or writing it. His ideas are fettered, and seem imperfect or confused, if he is not master of all the words and phrases necessary to express them.

[T]here is something in the exterior, even of a packet, that may please or displease; and consequently worth some attention.

In the course of the world, a man must very often put on an easy, frank countenance, upon very disagreeable occasions; he must seem pleased when he is very much otherwise; he must be able to accost and receive with smiles those whom he would much rather meet with swords. In Courts he must not turn himself inside out. All this may, nay must be done, without falsehood and treachery; for it must go no farther than politeness and manners, and must stop short of assurances and professions of simulated friendship. Good manners, to those one does not love, are no more a breach of truth, than “your humble servant” at the bottom of a challenge is; they are universally agreed upon and understood, to be things of course. They are necessary guards of the decency and peace of society; they must only act defensively; and then not with arms poisoned with perfidy. Truth, but not the whole truth, must be the invariable principle of every man who hath either religion, honour, or prudence. Those who violate it must be cunning, but they are not able. Lies and perfidy are the refuge of fools and cowards.

Do not pretend to be something you are not:

[N]o Man is ridiculous for being what he really is, but for affecting to be what he is not. … Never affect nor assume a particular character, for it will never fit you but will probably give you a ridicule, but leave it to your conduct, your virtues, your mortals and your manners, to give you one.

Give to receive:

Pleasing in company is the only way of being pleased in it yourself.

You must never usurp to yourself those conveniences and agrémens which are of common right; such as the best places, the best dishes, etc.; but on the contrary, always decline them yourself, and offer them to others; who, in their turns, will offer them to you; so that upon the whole, you will in your turn enjoy your share of the common right.

Appeal to emotion:

Reason ought to direct the whole, but seldom does. And he who addresses himself singly to another man’s reason, without endeavouring to engage his heart in his interest also, is no more likely to succeed, than a man who should apply only to a King’s nominal minister, and neglect his favourite.

Do not talk about yourself:

Never imagine that anything you can say yourself will varnish your defects, or add lustre to your perfections! but, on the contrary, it may, and nine times in ten will, make the former more glaring, and the latter obscure. If you are silent upon your own subject, neither envy, indignation, nor ridicule, will obstruct or allay the applause which you may really deserve; but if you publish your own panegyric upon any occasion, or in any shape whatsoever, and however artfully dressed or disguised, they will all conspire against you, and you will be disappointed of the very end you aim at.

How you do small things is how you do great ones:

Do not mistake, and think that these graces, which I so often and so earnestly recommend to you should only accompany important transactions, and be worn only les jours de gala; no, they should, if possible, accompany every the least thing that you do or say; for if you neglect them in little things, they will leave you in great once.

Chesterfield also makes a comment on dress. Much as his other advice, it is about finding the golden mean: dress well, but never too well, smart but not showy. He follows this up with an interesting piece of advice, which is that once you finish dressing in the morning, you should completely forget about it and go about your day, moving so freely as if you were wearing nothing at all:

A man of sense carefully avoids any particular character in his dress; he is accurately clean for his own sake; but all the rest is for other people’s. He dresses as well, and in the same manner, as the people of sense and fashion of the place where he is. If he dresses better, as he thinks, that is, more than they, he is a fop; if he dresses worse, he is unpardonably negligent … Dress yourselves fine, where others are fine; and plain where others are plain … When you are once well dressed for the day think no more of it afterwards; and without any stiffness for fear of discomposing that dress, let all your motions be as easy and natural as if you had no clothes on at all.

Proportion

Just as important as attention is a sense of proportion, which you need to develop if you are to pay attention to the right things.

[B]ut remember, in economy, as well as in every other part of life, to have the proper attention to proper objects, and the proper contempt for little ones. A strong mind sees things in their true proportion; a weak one views them through a magnifying medium; which, like the microscope, makes an elephant of a flea; magnifies all little objects, but cannot receive great ones.

These boundaries are marked out by a very fine line, which only good sense and attention can discover; it is much too fine for vulgar eyes. In manners, this line is good-breeding; beyond it, is troublesome ceremony; short of it, is unbecoming negligence and inattention. In morals, it divides ostentatious puritanism from criminal relaxation; in religion, superstition from impiety: and in short, every virtue from its kindred vice or weakness.

Some things are not worth our attention:

Frivolous curiosity about trifles, and a laborious attention to little objects, which neither require nor deserve a moment’s thought, lower a man; who from thence is thought (and not unjustly) incapable of greater matters. Cardinal de Retz, very sagaciously, marked out Cardinal Chigi for a little mind, from the moment he told him he had wrote three years with the same pen, and that it was an excellent good one still.

It may not be obvious how important something is. Small details can have a great impact, i.e. the way something is presented affects how it is received, and in presentation a small detail can mean a lot:

It is the character of an able man to despise little things in great business: but then he knows what things are little, and what not. He does not suppose things little because they are commonly called so: but by the consequences that may or may not attend them.

Haste vs hurry:

A constant smirk upon the face, and a whiffling activity of the body, are strong indications of futility. Whoever is in a hurry, shows that the thing he is about is too big for him. Haste and hurry are very different things.

Lying

Never lie:

Nothing is more criminal, mean, or ridiculous than lying. It is the production either of malice or cowardice, or vanity; but it generally misses of its aim in every one of these views; for lies are always detected sooner or later. If we advance a malicious lie, in order to affect any man’s fortune or character, we may, indeed, injure him for some time, but we shall certainly be the greatest sufferers in the end; for as soon as we are detected, we are blasted for the infamous attempt: and whatever is said afterwards to the disadvantage of that person, however true, passes for calumny. To lie, or to equivocate, (which is the same thing) to excuse ourselves for what we have said or done, and to avoid the danger of the shame that we apprehend from it, we discover our fear as well as our falsehood; and only increase, instead of avoiding, the danger and the shame; we show ourselves to be the lowest and meanest of mankind, and are sure to be always treated as such. If we have the misfortune to be in the wrong, there is something noble in frankly owning it; it is the only way of atoning for it, and the only way to be forgiven. To remove a present danger, by equivocating, evading, or shuffling, is something so despicable, and betrays so much fear, that whoever practices them deserves to be chastised.

What should you do if you cannot tell the truth? Simply say that you are not prepared to talk about certain things. This not only maintains your honesty, but it wins the confidence of the person you are speaking with:

Whereas, concealing the truth, upon proper occasions, is as prudent, and as innocent, as telling a lie, upon any occasion, is infamous and foolish. I will state you a case in your own department. Suppose you are at a foreign court, and that the minister of that court is absurd or impertinent enough to ask you what your instructions are; Will you tell him a lie, which, as soon as found out (and found out it certainly will be) must destroy your credit, blast your character, and render you useless there? No. Will you tell him the truth then, and betray your trust? As certainly, No. But you will answer with firmness, That you are surprised at such a question; that you are persuaded he does not expect an answer to it; but that, at all events, he certainly will not have one. Such an answer will give him confidence in you; he will conceive an opinion of your veracity, of which opinion you may afterwards make very honest and fair advantages. But if, in negotiations, you are looked upon as a liar and a trickster, no confidence will be placed in you, nothing will be communicated to you, and you will be in the situation of a man who has been burnt in the cheek; and who, from that mark cannot afterwards get an honest livelihood if he would, but must continue a thief.

Miscellaneous

Everyone has a prevailing passion, which will overrule his or her reason:

Almost all people are born with all the passions, to a certain degree; but almost every man has a prevailing one, to which the others are subordinate. Search every one for that ruling passion; pry into the recesses of his heart, and observe the different workings of the same passion in different people; and when you have found out the prevailing passion of any man, remember never to trust him where that passion is concerned.

On flattery:

[People] are most and best flattered upon those points where they wish to excel, and yet are doubtful whether they do or not.

On advice:

I know how unwelcome advice generally is; I know that those who want it most, like it and follow it least …

Every virtue has its kindred vice:

Every excellency, and every virtue, has its kindred vice or weakness; and if carried beyond certain bounds, sinks into the one or the other. Generosity often runs into profusion, economy into avarice, courage into rashness, caution into timidity, and so on;—insomuch that, I believe, there is more judgement required, for the proper conduct of our virtues, than for avoiding their opposite vices.

You cannot reason with a mob, you can only appeal to its emotions. This is especially apt in the age of social media:

This will ever be the case; every numerous assembly is mob, let the individuals who compose it be what they will. Mere reason and good sense is never to be talked to a mob; their passions, their sentiments, their senses, and their seeming interests, are along to be applied to. Understanding they have collectively none, but they have ears, and eyes, which must be flattered and seduced; and this can only be done by eloquence, tuneful periods, graceful actions, and all the various parts of oratory.

People are greedy with money, but not with exercising their power:

[T]here are misers of money, but none of power; and the non-use of the one, and the abuse of the other, increase in proportion to their quantity.

Moral character:

There is nothing so delicate as your moral character, and nothing which it is your interest so much to preserve pure. Should you be suspected of injustice, malignity, perfidy, lying, etc. all the parts and knowledge in the world will never procure you esteem, friendship, or respect.

Defamation and calumny never attack, where there is no weak place; they magnify, but they do not create.

Love and hate:

I have often thought, and still think, that there are few things which people in general know less, than how to love and how to hate. They hurt those they love, by a mistaken indulgence, by a blindness, nay, often a partiality to their faults: where they hate, they hurt themselves, by ill-timed passion and rage.

Low people will always be envious or contemptuous:

Low people in good circumstances, fine clothes, and equipages, will insolently show contempt for all those who cannot afford as fine clothes, as good an equipage, and who have not (as their term is) as much money in their pockets: on the other hand, they are gnawed with envy, and cannot help discovering it, of those who surpass them in any of these articles, which are far from being sure criterions of merit.

Little weaknesses are more terrible to people than their vices because they reveal inferiority:

People in general will much better bear being told of their vices or crimes, than of their little failings and weaknesses. They, in some degree, justify or excuse (as they think) the former, by strong passions, seduction, and artifices of others; but to be told of, or to confess, their little failings and weaknesses, implies an inferiority of parts, too mortifying to that self-love and vanity, which are inseparable from our natures.

Vices and crimes excite hatred and reproach; failings, weaknesses, and awkwardness, excite ridicule…