Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by Henry Craik
Lord Chesterfield (1694–1773)
 
[Philip Dormer Stanhope, fourth Earl of Chesterfield, was born in 1694. He entered the House of Commons in 1715, and after a youth which he describes as absorbed in pedantry until liberated by his initiation into fashionable society, he devoted much industry to acquire a facile oratorical style, and succeeded in gaining a high reputation both in the House of Commons, and, after his succession to the peerage in 1726, in the House of Lords. He spent a large part of his life on foreign embassies: was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1755, and Secretary of State in 1746. He died in 1773. His reputation in his lifetime was that of a shrewd man of the world and a cynical wit. His Miscellaneous Works, consisting partly of contributions to the periodicals of the day, were published in 1777. These have fallen into complete oblivion. Posterity has chosen instead to retain as a living classic those Letters to his Son, which were addressed to his natural son, Philip Stanhope, and which present a perfect picture of the most polite cynicism of his age—a cynicism always careful to conceal with some ostentation (if the expression is not too bold) such goodness of heart as it really contained. They were published in 1774.]  1
 
IN some respects Lord Chesterfield is one of the men most typical of his age. With high natural abilities, born to fortune and position, introduced before he had reached his majority into the House of Commons, with all the opportunities for observation offered by long service on foreign embassies, the friend or acquaintance of all the men of distinction of his time, he yet left no mark upon history, and seemed to contemn the aims of ambition or the possession of power under the influence of an overmastering cynicism. Conspicuous success, he appears to have thought, might interfere with the cynical calm at which he aimed, as much as conspicuous failure. He would identify himself closely with no party; avoided the restraints which power would have brought to him; and above all shunned any ardent belief, or the enthusiastic support of any cause. To some slight extent he affected the character of a literary Maecenas: but the most conspicuous episode of his life, in that character, is the collision with Johnson, which brought to him an unenviable notoriety, and to us a rich inheritance, in that famous letter preserved by Boswell, which marks the highest triumph of dignified sarcasm.  2
  Within the limits which he imposed upon himself, Chesterfield’s political and diplomatic career is not without importance. His literary essays were few, and were such as might be expected from a man who laboured under the impediment of self-consciousness, not seldom the accompaniment of overstrained cynicism. But, for us, he is interesting chiefly, if not solely, as the author of the Letters to his Son, which were published after his death. Other letters have been published by the late Lord Carnarvon; but although they show different moods, they do not materially alter the impression made by the unique letters to his son, where we have Chesterfield’s theory of life set forth with reiterated detail. These letters have run the whole gauntlet of every sort of criticism, from the demure expostulation of conventional propriety to the fierce outburst of Johnson’s half-personal indignation, “He teaches the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing-master.”  3
  In these letters Chesterfield gives us a complete picture of himself and his opinions. In politics he is a Whig, repeating the commonplaces of Whiggism because they appear to him to be most consistent with the moderation of common sense. To make a boast of atheism would be contrary to the rules of good breeding, and he therefore indulges his absolute contempt for religious principle in constantly sneering at the superstitions of Roman Catholicism. Flagrant immorality, and above all dishonourable conduct, would endanger the reputation of a gentleman, and on that account they are to be avoided. Industry, attention, competent knowledge—all these are useful because they train us to self-discipline, and strengthen us against others; but we must take care not to push our knowledge to the length of pedantry, nor to let it overburden us for playing our part in the comedy of life. A superficial familiarity with the arts is useful to a fine gentleman; but any technical acquaintance with their practice is a thing only to be despised. Solid acquirements need not be neglected, but the chief and ruling aim of life is first to gain that outer armour which knowledge of the world gives, and then to learn how to wear it. To this end all other objects—morality, literature, the sciences and the arts, are alike secondary or subservient. A man is sufficiently moral if he avoids those vices which disgrace a gentleman, or interfere with his dignity and independence; sufficiently learned if he knows how to avoid mistakes, or the display of ignorance; sufficiently furnished with literature, if he knows how to choose his words and to give grace to his style; sufficiently imbued with science and art if he knows how to give a superficial appreciation to their professional representatives.  4
  It is a work of supererogation to point out the defects of Chesterfield’s philosophy. It is, of course, profoundly immoral, profoundly selfish, profoundly cynical. In literary taste he is almost as open to criticism. Shakespeare had scarcely any existence for him; Milton, he avows, is no favourite; and in Dante he finds nothing but laborious and misty obscurity. These are failures of taste that lie on the very surface. The real defect, and that of which Chesterfield would most have resented the imputation, is the absolute weight of conventionality under which he is borne down. His chief aim was the attainment of a sort of cynical independence of life: as a fact he tied himself hand and foot in a very network of conventionality and routine.  5
  But on the other hand there is much that extorts our respect. It is to be observed that the inculcation of solid qualities bears a much larger part in the earlier letters, and that it is only as advancing years show how far his son fell short in the graces of life, that the letters dwell chiefly on the necessity for these. He detests cant, just as he detests casuistical quibbles. He never indulges, consciously, in any personal vanity. He allows no misapprehension to grow up with regard to his motives. He never forgets the duty of a stoical self-control. Throughout all these letters we see the indomitable bravery of a man who may be pursuing a false aim, but who lets no disappointment, no disillusion, no failure, daunt his spirits or ruffle the imperturbable front which he wears to the world. In his last years, and in some later letters, the cynicism failed him, disappointment broke him, ill-health conquered his spirit; but nothing of this is allowed to appear in these letters, written over a course of thirty years to a son who disappointed all his hopes, and failed utterly to pay that sacrifice to the Graces for which his father so passionately pleaded. But the closing melancholy only shows that Chesterfield was human. If we look to the famous letters alone—and it is these that have kept his name alive—there is no breach in the armour of cynical, but withal resolute, Stoicism.  6
  If his literary taste gave him no sympathy with what was highest in literary genius, it yet preserved him from all false or spurious fashions, and made him representative of a style which was dignified, correct, and chaste. It was a part of his whole system that the form was more important than the substance, and he carried it out rigidly in his literary style. Not what was to be said, but how to say it, was his chief thought; and no author, intent upon polishing his diction for an exacting public, could have spent more pains upon the work than Chesterfield did upon the turning of every line that went to accomplish this long penance of epistles destined to fall upon such ungenial soil. From all accounts the son was not an unworthy man; but he was absolutely unfitted to fulfil his Mentor’s aspirations in the achievement of the graces of a man of the world. The correspondence was broken off only by the son’s death at the age of thirty-five. The failure of the long efforts was tragic; but no word of complaint was drawn from the courageous cynic. Only in the weakness of old age, deafness, and decrepitude, did the dreariness of despair creep over him.  7
 
 
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