Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
The Falsehood of Commonplaces
By Lord Chesterfield (16941773)
From Letters to his Son
LONDON,May 10th, 1748.
DEAR BOYI reckon that this letter will find you just returned from Dresden, where you have made your first Court Caravanne. What inclination for courts this taste of them may have given you, I cannot tell; but this I think myself sure of, from your good sense, that, in leaving Dresden, you have left dissipation too; and have resumed at Leipzig that application, which, if you like courts, can alone enable you to make a good figure at them. A mere courtier, without parts or knowledge, is the most frivolous and contemptible of beings; as, on the other hand, a man of parts and knowledge, who acquires the easy and noble manners of a court, is the most perfect. It is a trite, commonplace observation that courts are seats of falsehood and dissimulation. That, like many, I might say most, commonplace observations, is false. Falsehood and dissimulation are certainly to be found at courts; but where are they not to be found? Cottages have them, as well as courts; only with worse manners. A couple of neighbouring farmers, in a village, will contrive and practice as many tricks to overreach each other at the next market, or to supplant each other in the favour of the squire, as any two courtiers can do to supplant each other in the favour of their prince. Whatever poets may write, or fools believe, of rural innocence and truth, and of the perfidy of courts, this is most undoubtedly true, that shepherds and ministers are both men; their nature and passions the same, the modes of them only different.
Having mentioned commonplace observations, I will particularly caution you against either using, believing, or approving them. They are the common topics of witlings and coxcombs; those who really have wit, have the utmost contempt for them, and scorn even to laugh at the pert things that those would-be wits say upon such subjects.
Religion is one of their favourite topics; it is all priestcraft; and an invention carried on by priests of all religions, for their own power and profit; from this absurd and false principle flow the commonplace insipid jokes and insults upon the clergy. With these people every priest of every religion is either a public or a concealed unbeliever, drunkard, and whoremaster; whereas I conceive that priests are extremely like other men, and neither the better nor the worse for wearing a gown or a surplice; but, if they are different from other people, probably it is rather on the side of religion and morality, or at least decency, from their education and manner of life.
Another common topic for false wit, and cold raillery is matrimony. Every man and his wife hate each other cordially, whatever they may pretend, in public, to the contrary. The husband certainly wishes his wife at the devil, and the wife certainly cuckolds her husband. Whereas I presume that men and their wives neither love nor hate each other the more upon account of the form of matrimony, which has been said over them. The cohabitation indeed, which is the consequence of matrimony, makes them either love or hate more, accordingly as they respectively deserve it; but that would be exactly the same between any man and woman who lived together without being married.
These and many other commonplace reflections upon nations, or professions, in general (which are at least as often false as true) are the poor refuge of people who have neither wit nor invention of their own, but endeavour to shine in company by secondhand finery. I always put these pert jackanapes out of countenance, by looking extremely grave, when they expect that I should laugh at their pleasantries; and by saying well, and so; as if they had not done, and that the sting had still to come. This disconcerts them, as they have no resources in themselves, and have but one set of jokes to live upon. Men of parts are not reduced to these shifts, and have the utmost contempt for them: they find proper subjects enough for either useful or lively conversations; they can be witty without satire or commonplace and serious without being dull.