Letters to His Son "Consider Him As A Respectable Hottentot"

Philip DormerStanhope, Lord Chesterfield

"Consider Him As A Respectable Hottentot"

Context: Chesterfield was a proud man and a brilliant one. That he makes a fetish of social graces can be explained in terms of the age in which he lived. Success–that is, statesmanship and a high place in the social and political hierarchy–was dependent upon mastery of all the niceties of etiquette and social behavior. Chesterfield had perfected himself in these matters and had achieved the success he desired. Some critics have accused him, because of his calculating approach to his world, of lacking a heart. This charge is not quite fair to him; he loved his family and had numerous friends he loved and admired. But it is true that he considered the impression one created to be of primary importance. On the other hand, he despised those who possessed the graces and had nothing with which to back them up. His life's ambition, never fully realized, was to make his illegitimate son the finished figure of a polished English gentleman; and his voluminous correspondence with Philip was largely directed toward this end. Although Chesterfield had little use for anyone who had merely acquired the veneer of culture without any solid foundation, he would have probably considered such a person preferable to one who had the good basic qualities and no refinement whatever. To Chesterfield the latter was a mere savage. He might respect and even admire the man, but could not love him: he would lack the sophistication and urbanity Chesterfield considered essential. Chesterfield would never be comfortable in his company. In a letter to Philip written February 28, 1751, Chesterfield makes clear the extent to which he is irked by crudity:

How often have I, in the course of my life, found myself in this situation, with regard to many of my acquaintance, whom I have honored and respected, without being able to love. I did not know why, because, when one is young, one does not take the trouble, nor allow one's self the time, to analyze one's sentiments and trace them up to their source. But subsequent observation and reflection have taught me why. There is a man, whose moral character, deep learning, and superior parts, I acknowledge, admire, and respect; but whom it is so impossible for me to love, that I am almost in a fever whenever I am in his company. His figure (without being deformed) seems made to disgrace or ridicule the common structure of the human body. His legs and arms are never in the position which, according to the situation of his body, they ought to be in, but constantly employed in committing acts of hostility upon the Graces. He throws anywhere, but down his throat, whatever he means to drink, and only mangles what he means to carve. Inattentive to all the regards of social life, he mistimes or misplaces everything. He disputes with heat, and indiscriminately, mindless of the rank, character and situation of those with whom he disputes; absolutely ignorant of the several gradations of familiarity or respect, he is exactly the same to his superiors, his equals, and his inferiors; and therefore, by a necessary consequence, absurd to two of the three. [The person to whom Chesterfield refers is Dr. Samuel Johnson.] Is it possible to love such a man? No. The utmost I can do for him, is to consider him as a respectable Hottentot.