Letters to His Son "Speak Of The Moderns Without Contempt, And Of The Ancients Without Idolatry"

Philip DormerStanhope, Lord Chesterfield

"Speak Of The Moderns Without Contempt, And Of The Ancients Without Idolatry"

Context: During thirty years the Earl of Chesterfield wrote letters to his illegitimate son, Philip, in hope of turning him into a polished, ambitious person like his father. They were personal letters, never meant for other eyes, but immediately upon the death of Lord Chesterfield, his wife hurried to find a publisher willing to pay 1,575 pounds for them, and they came out in two volumes in 1774, and in two more reprintings the same year in four volumes. Unfortunately, young Philip Stanhope had neither the talent nor the persistence to take advantage of the stream of counsel from the letters; so he died in 1768 at the age of 36 without having achieved the success for which his father had hoped. Lord Chesterfield's chief aim was to help his son cultivate "The Graces," and become a polished gentleman. Some critics accuse the earl of advocating questionable action. He did say that dissimulation such as demanded by politeness and good manners should be employed, for it means no more than "your humble servant" at the end of a letter. He recommended flattery, too, as a royal road to success, though not flattery of a person's vices and crimes. Because of a low regard for women, he suggested flattery of their beauty "upon which scarce any flattery is too gross for them to swallow." Chief criticism against him is his recommendation of irregular attachment, which used to be called "gallantry," with married women, as part of the education of a young gentleman. Actually such flagrant advice by a father to his son occurs in only a half dozen letters out of a total of 421, and those were written when his son was in Paris, where even Montesquieu agreed that "honor" permitted such behavior. Samuel Johnson, though no admirer of Lord Chesterfield, commented that after some excisions, this collection of letters "should be put into the hands of every young gentleman." Letter Number 30, dated at Bath (where Chesterfield had gone for his gout), February 22, 1748, is a good example. It deals with learning. The father tells his son that "learning (I mean Greek and Roman learning) is a most useful and necessary ornament," but there are cautions to be observed. Some learned men are so much at home with the classics that they refer naturally to "Old Homer," "that sly rogue Horace," and "Naso" instead of Ovid. This practice is good if you are really that familiar with them, but too many pedants only pretend to be. When you are making a speech, says this man who was one of the best orators of his time, do not drag in imaginary parallels with the ancients. Be modest about your knowledge; do not go around pulling a volume of some classic author out of your pocket. "Elzevir" refers to Louis Elzevir (1540–1617) who, with his descendants, published a series of sturdy, inexpensive editions of the classics, very popular with impoverished students who could not find them elsewhere. Then Lord Chesterfield sums up his position:

. . . I would by no means have you disown your acquaintance with the ancients; but still less would I have you brag of an exclusive intimacy with them. Speak of the moderns without contempt, and of the ancients without idolatry; judge them all by their merits, but not by their ages; and if you happen to have an Elzevir classic in your pocket, neither show it nor mention it.