Context: In this letter Chesterfield begins by counselling his illegitimate son to try every day to improve his intelligence, as it is the coach in which men ride through the world. He also says that his son is given to laziness, inattention, and indifference, and begs him to cure these faults. If a man wants to succeed in practically anything, he can, with the exception of poetry, which calls for innate ability. In addition to the accomplishments of the mind there are lesser accomplishments necessary for the man who would succeed. He must do such things as dance gracefully and dress well. Above all, he should not be given to fits of absentmindedness when in the company of others. The only minds that can be excused for not paying attention in company are those that are very weak or those which are thinking great thoughts, like Newton's; there are very few of this latter kind of mind. A young man displaying absence of mind in company, especially in a company given to frivolity, is actually insulting those around him by displaying a form of contempt, and there is nothing that offends people more than insults; injuries are much more readily tolerated than contempt; therefore the wise man will flatter his associates by giving ready attention to their little vanities.
. . . 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. If, therefore, you would rather please than offend, rather be well than ill spoken of, rather be loved than hated; remember to have that constant attention about you which flatters every man's little vanity; and the want of which, by mortifying his pride, never fails to excite his resentment, or at least his ill will. . . .