Letters to His Son


LONDON,August 20,O.S.1749.

DEAR BOY:Let us resume our reflections upon men,their characters,their manners,in a word,our reflections upon the world.They may help you to form yourself,and to know others;a knowledge very useful at all ages,very rare at yours.It seems as if it were nobody's business to communicate it to young men.Their masters teach them,singly,the languages or the sciences of their several departments;and are indeed generally incapable of teaching them the world:their parents are often so too,or at least neglect doing it,either from avocations,indifference,or from an opinion that throwing them into the world (as they call it)is the best way of teaching it them.This last notion is in a great degree true;that is,the world can doubtless never be well known by theory:practice is absolutely necessary;but surely it is of great use to a young man,before he sets out for that country full of mazes,windings,and turnings,to have at least a general map of it,made by some experienced traveler.

There is a certain dignity of manners absolutely necessary,to make even the most valuable character either respected or respectable.--[Meaning worthy of respect.]

Horse-play,romping,frequent and loud fits of laughter,jokes,waggery,and indiscriminate familiarity,will sink both merit and knowledge into a degree of contempt.They compose at most a merry fellow;and a merry fellow was never yet a respectable man.Indiscriminate familiarity either offends your superiors,or else dubbs you their dependent and led captain.It gives your inferiors just,but troublesome and improper claims of equality.A joker is near akin to a buffoon;and neither of them is the least related to wit.Whoever is admitted or sought for,in company,upon any other account than that of his merit and manners,is never respected there,but only made use of.We will have such-a-one,for he sings prettily;we will invite such-a-one to a ball,for he dances well;we will have such-a-one at supper,for he is always joking and laughing;we will ask another,because he plays deep at all games,or because he can drink a great deal.These are all vilifying distinctions,mortifying preferences,and exclude all ideas of esteem and regard.

Whoever is HAD (as it is called)in company for the sake of any one thing singly,is singly that thing and will never be considered in any other light;consequently never respected,let his merits be what they will.

This dignity of manners,which I recommend so much to you,is not only as different from pride,as true courage is from blustering,or true wit from joking;but is absolutely inconsistent with it;for nothing vilifies and degrades more than pride.The pretensions of the proud man are oftener treated with sneer and contempt,than with indignation;as we offer ridiculously too little to a tradesman,who asks ridiculously too much for his goods;but we do not haggle with one who only asks a just and reasonable price.

Abject flattery and indiscriminate assentation degrade as much as indiscriminate contradiction and noisy debate disgust.But a modest assertion of one's own opinion,and a complaisant acquiescence to other people's,preserve dignity.

Vulgar,low expressions,awkward motions and address,vilify,as they imply either a very low turn of mind,or low education and low company.

Frivolous curiosity about trifles,and a laborious attention to little objects which neither require nor deserve a moment's thought,lower a man;who from thence is thought (and not unjustly)incapable of greater matters.Cardinal de Retz,very sagaciously,marked out Cardinal Chigi for a little mind,from the moment that he told him he had wrote three years with the same pen,and that it was an excellent good one still.

A certain degree of exterior seriousness in looks and motions gives dignity,without excluding wit and decent cheerfulness,which are always serious themselves.A constant smirk upon the face,and a whifing activity of the body,are strong indications of futility.Whoever is in a hurry,shows that the thing he is about is too big for him.Haste and hurry are very different things.

I have only mentioned some of those things which may,and do,in the opinion of the world,lower and sink characters,in other respects valuable enough,--but I have taken no notice of those that affect and sink the moral characters.They are sufficiently obvious.A man who has patiently been kicked may as well pretend to courage,as a man blasted by vices and crimes may to dignity of any kind.But an exterior decency and dignity of manners will even keep such a man longer from sinking,than otherwise he would be:of such consequence is the [****],even though affected and put on!Pray read frequently,and with the utmost attention,nay,get by heart,if you can,that incomparable chapter in Cicero's "Offices,"upon the [****],or the Decorum.It contains whatever is necessary for the dignity of manners.

In my next I will send you a general map of courts;a region yet unexplored by you,but which you are one day to inhabit.The ways are generally crooked and full of turnings,sometimes strewed with flowers,sometimes choked up with briars;rotten ground and deep pits frequently lie concealed under a smooth and pleasing surface;all the paths are slippery,and every slip is dangerous.Sense and discretion must accompany you at your first setting out;but,notwithstanding those,till experience is your guide,you will every now and then step out of your way,or stumble.

Lady Chesterfield has just now received your German letter,for which she thanks you;she says the language is very correct;and I can plainly see that the character is well formed,not to say better than your English character.Continue to write German frequently,that it may become quite familiar to you.Adieu.

Dormer StanhopePhilip