Item of the Day: Chesterfield to his Son on Vanity (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.

Letter LXXII.

Bath, November the 16th, 1752.

My Dear Friend,

Vanity, or to call it by a gentler name, the desire of admiration and applause, is, perhaps, the most universal principle of human actions; I do not say, that it is the best; and I will own, that it is sometimes the cause of both foolish and criminal effects.  But it is so much oftener the principle of right things, that, though they ought to have a better, yet, considering human nature, that principle is to be encouraged and cherished, in consideration of its effects.  Where that desire is wanting, we are apt to be indifferent, listless, indolent and inert; we do not exert our powers; and we appear to be as much below ourselves, as the vainest man living can desire to appear above what he really is.

As I have made you my confessor, and do not scruple to confess even my weaknesses to you, I will fairly own, that I had that vanity, that weakness, if it be one, to a prodigious degree; and, what is more, I confess it without repentence; nay I am glad I had it; since, if I have the good fortune to please in the world, it is to that powerful and active principle that I owe it.  I began the world, not with a bare desire, but with an insatiable thirst, a rage for popularity, applause, and admiration.  If this made me do some silly things, on one hand, it made me, on the other hand, do almost all the right things that I did:  it made me attentive and civil to the women I disliked, and to the men I despised, in hopes of the applause of both:  though I neither desired, nor would have accepted the favours of the one, nor the friendship of the other.  I always dressed, looked, and talked my best; and, I own, was overjoyed whenever I perceived that by all three, or by any one of them, the company was pleased with me.  To men, I talked whatever I thought would give them the best opinion of my parts and learning; and, to women, what I was sure would please them; flattery, gallantry, and love.  And moreover, I will own to you, under the secrecy of confession, that my vanity has very often made me take great pains to make many a woman in love with me, if I could, for whose person I would not give a pinch a snuff.  In company with men, I always endeavoured to out-shine, or, at least, if possible, to equal the most shining man in it.  This desire elicited whatever powers I had to gratify it; and where I could not perhaps shine in the first, enabled me, at least, to shine in the second or third sphere.  By these means I soon grew in fashion; and when a man is once in fashion, all he does is right.  It was infinite pleasure to me, to find my own fashion and popularity.  I was sent for to all parties of pleasure, both of men or women; where, in some measures, I gave the tone.  This gave me the reputation of having had some woman of condition; and that reputation, whether true or false, really got me others.  With the men I was a Proteus, and assumed every shape, in order to please them all: among the gay, I was the gayest, among the grave, the gravest; and I never omitted the least attentions of good breeding, or the least offices of friendship, that could either please, or attach them to me: and accordingly I was soon connected with all the men of any fashion or figure in town.

To this principle of vanity, which Philosophers call a mean one, and which I do not, I owe great part of the figure which I have made in life.  I wish you had as much, but I fear you have too little of it; and you seem to have a degree of laziness and lislestness about you, that makes you indifferent as to general applause…

 

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Filed under 1770's, Family, Letters, Philosophy, Posted by Matthew Williams

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