Item of the Day: Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son (1774)

Full Title: Letters Written by the Late Right Honourable Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, to his Son, Philip Stanhope, Esq; Late Envoy Extraordinary at the Court of Dresden. Together with Several Other Pieces on Various Subjects. Published by Mrs. Eugenia Stanhope, from the Originals now in her Possession. Vol. I. Dubline: Printed by G. Faulkner, 1774.

LETTER CXLIV.

London, February the 7th, O.S. 1749

DEAR BOY,

Your are now come to an age capable of reflection, and I hope you will do, what, however, few people at your age do; exert it, for your own sake, in the search of truth and sound knowledge. I will confess (for I am not unwilling to discover my secrets to you) that it is not many years since I have presumed to reflect for myself. Till sixteen or seventeen, I had no reflection; and, for many years after that, I made no use of what I had. I adopted the notions of the books I read, or the company I kept, without examining whether they were just or not; and I rather chose to run the risk of easy error, than to take the time and trouble of investigating truth. Thus, partly from laziness, partly from dissipation, and partly from the mauvaise bonte of rejecting fashionable notions, I was (as I since found) hurried away by prejudices, instead of being guided by reason; and quietly cherished error, instead of seeking of rejecting fashionable notions, I was (as I since found) hurried away by prejudices, instead of being guided by reason; and quietly cherished error, instead of seeking for truth. But, since I have taken the trouble of reasoning for myself, and have had the courage to own that I do so, you cannot imagine how much my notions of things are altered, and in how different a light I now see them, from that in which I formerly viewed them, through the deceitful medium of prejudice or authority. Nay, I may possibly still retain many errors, which, from long habit, have perhaps grown into real opinions; for it is very difficult to distinguish habits, early acquired and long entertained, from the result of our reason and reflection.

My first prejudice (for I do not mention the prejudices of boys and women, such as hobgoblins, ghosts, dreams, spilling salt, &c.) was my classical enthusiasm, which I received from the books I read, and the masters who explained them to me. I was convinced there had been no common sense nor common honesty in the world for these last fifteen hundred yeas; but that they were totally extinguished with the ancient Greek and Roman governments. Homer and Virgil could have no faults, because they were ancient; Milton and Tasso could have no merit, because they were modern. And I could almost have said, with regard to the ancients, what Cicero, very absurdly and unbecomingly for a Philosopher, says with regard to Plato, Cum quo errare malim quam cum aliis recte sentire. Whereas now, without any extraordinary effort of genius, I have discovered, that nature was the same three thousand years ago, as it is at present; that men were but men than as well as now; that modes and customs vary often, but that human nature is always the same. And I can no more suppose, that men were better, braver, or wiser, fifteen hundred or three thousand years ago, than I can suppose that the animals or vegetables were better then, than they are now. I dare assert too, in defiance of the favourers of the ancients, that Homer’s Hero, Achilles, was both a brute and a scoundrel, and consequently an improper character for the Hero of an Epic Poem; he had so little regard for his country, that he would not act in defence of it, because he had quarreled with Agamemnon about a w—e ; and then afterwards, animated by private resentment only, he went about killing people basely, I will call it, because he knew himself invulnerable; and yet, in invulnerable as he was, he wore the strongest armour in the world; which I humbly ap0prehend to be a blunder; for a horse-shoe, clapped to his vulnerable heel, would have been sufficient. On the other hand, with submission to the favourers of the moderns, I assert, with Mr. Dryden, that the Devil is in truth, the Hero of Milton’s poem; His plan, which he lays, pursues, and at last executes, being the subject of the Poem. From all which considerations, I impartially conclude, that the ancients had their excellencies and their defects, their virtues and their vices, just like the moderns; pedantry and affectation of learning, decide clearly in favour of the former; vanity and ignorance, as peremptorily, in favour of the latter. Religious prejudices kept pace with my classical ones; and there was a time when I thought I impossible for the honestest man in the world to be saved, out of the pale of the church of England: not considering the matters of opinion do not depend upon the will; and that it is as natural, and as allowable, that another man should differ in opinion from me, as that I should differ from him; and that, if we are both sincere, we are both blameless: and should consequently have mutual indulgence for each other.

The next prejudices that I adopted, were those of the beau monde; in which, as I was determined to shine, I took what are commonly called the genteel vices, to be necessary. I had heard them reckoned so, and, without farther inquiry, I believed it; or, at least, should have been ashamed to have denied it, for fear of exposing myself to the ridicule of those whom I considered as the models of fine gentlemen. But I now neither ashamed nor afraid to assert, that those genteel vices, as they are falsely called, are only to many blemishes in the character of even a man of the world, and what is called a fine gentleman, and degrade him in the opinions of those very people, to whom he hopes to recommend himself by them. Nay, this prejudice often extends so far, that I have known people pretend to vices they had not, instead of carefully concealing those they had. . . .

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Filed under 1630's, 1770's, Philosophy, Posted by Caroline Fuchs

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