Item of the Day: Chesterfield 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. In Two Volumes. Vol. II. Dublin: Printed by G. Faulkner, in Parliament-street, M.DCC.LXXIV.

TO HIS SON.

LETTER LI.

London, February the 14th, O.S. 1752

My Dear Friend,

In a month’s time, I believe, I shall have the pleasure of sending you, and you will have the pleasure of reading, a work of Lord Bolingbroke, in two volumes octavo, upon the use of History; in several letters to Lord Hyde, then Lord Cornbury. It is now put into the press. It is hard to determine, whether this work will instruct or please most: the most material historical facts, from the great aera of the treaty of Munster, are touched upon, accompanied by the most solid reflections, and adorned by all that elegancy of style, which was peculiar to himself, and in which, if Cicero equals, he certainly does not exceed him; but every other writer falls short of him. I would advise you almost to get this book by heart. I think you have a turn to history; you love it, and have a memory to retain it; this book will teach you the proper use of it. Some people load their memories, indiscriminately, with historical facts, as others do their stomachs with food; and bring out the one, and bring up the other, entirely crude and undigested. You will find, in Lord Bolingbroke’s book, an infallible specific against that epidemical complaint*.

I remember a gentleman, who had read history in this thoughtless and undistinguishing manner, and who, having travelled, had gone through the Valteline. He told me that it was a miserable poor country, and therefore it was, surely, a great error in Cardinal Richelieu, to make such a rout, and put France to so much expence about it. Had my friend read history as he ought to have done, he would have known, that the great object of that Minister was to reduce the power of the house of Austria; and, in order to do that, to cut off, as much as he could, the communication between several parts of their then extensive dominions; which reflections would have justified the Cardinal to him, in the affairs of the Valteline. But it was easier to him to remember the facts, than to combine and reflect.

On observation, I hope, you will make in reading history; for it is an obvious and a true one. It is, that more people have made great fortunes in courts, by their exterior accomplishments, than by their interior qualifications. Their engaging address, the politeness of their manners, their air, their turn, hath almost always paved the way for their superior abilities, if they have such, to exert themselves. They have been Favourites, before they have been Ministers. In courts, an universal gentleness and douceur dans les maniéres is most absolutely necessary: an offended fool, or slighted valet de chambre, may, very possibly, do you more hurt at court, then ten men of merit can do you good. Fools, and low people, are always jealous of their dignity; and never forget nor forgive when they reckon a slight. On the other hand, they take civility, and a little attention, as a favor; remember, and acknowledge it: this, in my mind, is buying them cheap; and therefore they are worth buying. The Prince himself, who is rarely the shining genius of his court, esteems you only by hearsay, but likes you by his senses; that is from your air, your politeness, and your manner of addressing him; of which alone he is a judge. There is a court garment, as well as a wedding garment, without which you will not be received. That garment is the volto sciolto; an imposing air, an elegant politeness, easy and engaging manners, universal attention, an insinuating gentleness, and all those je ne sçais quoi that compose the Graces.

I am this moment disagreeably interrupted by a letter; not from you, as I expected, but from a friend of yours at Paris, who informs me, that you have a fever, which confines you at home. Since you have a fever, I am glad you have prudence enough, with it, to stay at home, and take care of yourself; a little more prudence might probably have prevented it. Your blood is young, and consequently hot; and you naturally make a great deal, by your good stomach, and good digestion; you should therefore, necessarily, attenuate and cool it, from time to time, by gentle purges, or by a very low diet, for two or three days together, if you would avoid fevers. Lord Bacon, who was a very great physician, in both senses of the word, hath this aphorism in his Essay upon Health, Nihil magis as sanitatem tribuit quam crebrae et domesticae purgationes. By domesticae, he means those simple uncompounding purgatives, which everybody can administer to themselves; such as senna-tea, stewed prunes and senna, chewing a little rhubarb, or dissolving an ounce and a half of manna in fair water, with the juice of half a lemon to make it palatable. Such gentle and unconfining evacuations would certainly prevent those feverish attacks, to which every body at your age is subject.

By the way, I do desire, and insist, that whenever, from any indisposition, you are not able to write to me upon the fixed days, that Christian shall; and give me a true account how you are. I do not expect from him the Ciceronian epistolary style; but I will content myself with the Swiss simplicity and truth.

I hope you extend your acquaintance at Paris, and frequent variety of companies; the only way of knowing the world: every set of company differs in some particulars from another, and a man of business must, in the course of his life, have to do with all sorts. It is a very great advantage to know the languages of the several countries one travels in; and different companies may, in some degree, be considered as different countries: each hath its distinctive language, customs, and manners: know them all, and you will wonder at none. Adieu, child. Take care of your health; there are no pleasures without it.

*We cannot but observe with pleasure, that at this time Lord Bolingbroke’s Philosophical works had not appeared; which accounts for Lord Chesterfield’s recommending to his son, in this as well as in some foregoing passages, the study of Lord Bolingbroke’s writings.

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Filed under 1770's, Family, History, Letters, Manners, Medicine, Posted by Matthew Williams

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