|Texts and Contexts|
Patricia Meyer Spacks
I think it safe to say that, even for most eighteenth-century scholars, Philip Dormer Stanhope, Fourth Earl of Chesterfield, does not loom large on the intellectual map. I take myself as test case: for me Lord Chesterfield has figured, dimly, as the very type of the Bad Dead White Male. He told his son that women were only children of a larger growth, and Dr. Johnson said of him that his letters taught the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master. He preached and practiced superficiality.
I recently read through Chesterfield's letters, though, for the first time since graduate school, and found much that I did not expect. I'm going to tell you about what I found, and then, in true eighteenth-century fashion, I will adduce two morals that I hope have twenty-first-century relevance.
It's true that Chesterfield's articulated attitudes toward women are appalling and that he preaches, in a sense, superficiality. One can derive-indeed, the eighteenth century did derive-a handbook of social conduct from reading his letters to his illegitimate son. But the letters also tell a poignant personal story, and they stimulate reflection on possible relations between psychological and ideological pressures.
Lacking a legitimate heir, Lord Chesterfield focused his attention on an illegitimate son, also named Philip Stanhope, product of a liaison with one Mlle. Du Bouchet. A long series of letters details his instructions to the young man, who lived on the Continent. The letters begin when young Philip was fifteen, awkward and unformed; they propose to convert him into a man of the world. The father's fundamental message is “grace,” which his letters embody. Grace is primarily a quality of manner, understood as reflective of human essence: as Buffon would put it, “Style is the man himself.” Lord Chesterfield's letters can be understood to embody the high value his period placed on social performance as an index of moral quality. Behavior in society might exemplify an individual's sense of responsibility to others and to the self. Chesterfield's letters constitute social performance. Although intended for a single person (and despite their high polish, there is no indication that the writer imagined his letters as publishable material), these verbal constructions demonstrate to their recipient the force of an integrated set of values articulated as interpersonal behavior. Lord Chesterfield practices what he preaches: carefully controlled self presentation, always calculated in relation to its witnesses. The fact that his intensive efforts to shape his son in his own model ultimately failed perhaps suggests the system's limitation: no amount of calculation can finally control another person.
For readers long after the letters were written, Lord Chesterfield's performance manifests charm and wisdom, as well as a sometimes chilling sense of expediency. The father believes in a life of dedication to personal ends. He preaches hard work and constant attentiveness:
I hope you employ your whole time, which few people do; and that you put every moment to profit of some kind or other. I call company, walking, riding, etc., employing one's time, and, upon proper occasions, very usefully; but what I cannot forgive in anybody is sauntering, and doing nothing at all, with a thing so precious as time, and so irrecoverable when lost. (9 Dec. O.S. 1746)Thus even recreation becomes useful occupation in Lord Chesterfield's understanding of the social universe. His tacit vision of progress depends, in the case of his son, on the possibility of transmitting effectively the lessons of his own life. So he criticizes his past self unsparingly: for wasting time, for engaging in dissipation, for pursuing false notions of what will make him admired as a social being. If only his son can start life at the point of wisdom his father has now painfully attained, the young man will be marked for success. Lord Chesterfield's fantasies of his son's achievement recur: Stanhope will succeed him in Parliament, or as Secretary of State; his son may even excel him. In the role of Pygmalion, he wishes to shape the being of a single man, to mold his male Galatea into that glimmering ideal, the man of the world.
The implications of that hackneyed phrase are for Chesterfield far-reaching. Contemplation of his correspondence reveals a set of hopeful cultural assumptions powerful in the eighteenth century. The theme of using time effectively, which reverberates through many of the letters, implies the peculiar optimism that marked much eighteenth-century thought-frequently in combination with equally conspicuous pessimism. Chesterfield appears to believe in the possibility of almost infinite perfectibility. He acknowledges that no man is perfect, but acknowledges that fact in conjunction with explicit statement of his desire that his son should be exactly that. If only the boy will fill every rift with ore, use every minute for self-improvement, he can attain almost unimaginable heights. The father tells a story of a man who buys a “common edition” of Horace and every day tears out three or four pages to take with him to the “necessary house.” While he performs his acts of excretion, he simultaneously refreshes his knowledge of the Latin poet. Finally he uses the sheets he has read as toilet paper. Lord Chesterfield recommends the same course of intellectual and physical economy to his son, with no apparent sense of comedy. It partakes of the ideal, the vision of no moment unused, of the mind continually enriching itself.
The mind is much at issue here. The ordinary connotations of “man of the world” emphasize the practice of social ritual rather than the development of personal virtue. For Chesterfield, though, ritual and virtue go hand in hand. He emphasizes in the letters the importance of “pleasing,” of finding the ways to ingratiate oneself with others so that those others might be willing to do a favor at some crucial time. But his definition of pleasing suggests the high seriousness of the matter: “Do as you would be done by, is the surest method that I know of pleasing” (16 Oct. O.S. 1747). That Lord Chesterfield recommends the Golden Rule may come as a surprise to readers who expect of him the morals of a whore. To be sure, he recommends the Golden Rule as a matter of expediency. To read the letters as a whole, however, raises the possibility that expediency is a mask. At any rate, one must feel the tension between the nobleman's professed concern with surfaces and his almost obsessive insistence on the importance of getting to the bottom of things. “Whatever you do, do it to the purpose; do it thoroughly, not superficially. Approfondissez: go to the bottom of things. Any thing half done or half known, is, in my mind, neither done nor known at all” (18 Feb. O.S. 1748). He wants his son to seek out good company. But “good company” means not only aristocrats (although Chesterfield shows lively appreciation of the usefulness of keeping company with those of rank and power), but also men of intellectual substance: he himself, he claims, values his association with Mr. Pope and Mr. Addison more than his connections with the aristocracy. The perfect man he imagines possesses the social grace that will attract people of moral and intellectual weight. His ability to function effectively in society will declare the high development of his mind and soul.
The alleged tension between concern with surfaces and with depths is perhaps a twenty-first century imposition. Certainly Lord Chesterfield himself, far from acknowledging any potential conflict between the two, deliberately brings them into conjunction over and over again, precisely in order to insist that no conflict exists. The tactic calls attention to the momentousness of the writer's concern with social conduct. He can take this matter so seriously because he assumes that relations among human beings entail their highest earthly obligations, their responsibilities to community and ultimately to society. Hence the Golden Rule as principle of pleasing. Manners reflect morals: an assumption still current as late as Jane Austen, and crucial to the period's self-understanding.
Chesterfield's explicit reference to moral implication decreases, however, as the letters go on. Like other collections of letters, Chesterfield's imply a narrative: in this case a narrative of his hopes for his son. At the beginning, when Stanhope is fifteen years old, his father's hopes and expectations appear boundless. The early letters vibrate with intellectual as well as social aspiration. But Lord Chesterfield appears to have a network of spies throughout Europe; he receives frequent reports about his son-reports that emphasize, with striking consistency, the young man's social awkwardness. Despite his father's ceaseless injunctions (“the Graces, the Graces, the Graces”), the youth seems clumsy in company. He may, observers hint, be overweight. He enunciates badly and talks too fast. His father offers detailed prescriptions to remedy all these problems, but the negative reports continue. Stanhope turns sixteen, seventeen, eighteen; still his father's spies note-with what degree of tact we can only surmise-his social ineptitude. Presumably as a result, Lord Chesterfield begins to write that he feels complete confidence in his son's intellectual and moral development and to stress ever more frantically the importance of allegedly superficial kinds of excellence. Those too, in his perception, matter enormously: the impression a man makes on others will establish his opportunities in life. Style has determinative force. “If you write epistles as well as Cicero, but in a very bad hand, and very ill-spelled, whoever receives will laugh at them; and if you had the figure of Adonis, with an awkward air and motions, it will disgust instead of pleasing. Study manner, therefore, in everything, if you would be anything” (19 Nov. O.S. 1750). Lord Chesterfield never acknowledges a fear that his son will, after all, not “be anything,” but the increasing desperation of his recommendations about “manner” and his reiterated warnings that he has observers everywhere suggest the dawning realization that all his care may come to nothing.
Whether one reads this as a tragic tale may depend on one's interpretation of Lord Chesterfield's own “manner.” The letters make it apparent that he consciously strives to embody in his prose the values he recommends. The suavity, authority, and ease of the letters represent the aristocratic stance that he wishes his son to attain. One function of that stance is concealment: the gentleman, Chesterfield insists, protects his personal feelings and does not reveal them to anyone else-not even to his intimates. Suavity, authority, and ease conceal, one may surmise, disappointment and finally, perhaps, discouragement. The ideal of using one's time fully, of perceiving sharply and consciously and making full use of one's perceptions (most people, Lord Chesterfield points out, don't see what they see or hear what they hear), of approaching perfection by disciplined thought, feeling, and action-this impossibly ambitious ideal cannot be fulfilled. The father wants vicariously to relive his life through his son: he as much as says so. And he cannot do it. Still, the style, “the manner,” remains. Letters, Lord Chesterfield observes, should be like familiar conversations between friends. His letters express the severe limits of familiarity as he imagines it.
But the letters reveal as well as conceal a self and an action. Initially, they demonstrate a conflation of ideological and psychological pressures. An ideology of progress generates and validates the imperative that Chesterfield inflicts on his son: to strive always for perfection of manner and substance. One can glimpse also the more personal, and perhaps even more crucial, desire of an aging father to impose himself-his convictions, his assumptions, his techniques for survival and success-on his son and on the world beyond his own time. Then actuality undermines both ideological and personal goals. Limitations of Chesterfield's human raw material reveal themselves, making the aspiration to perfection manifestly futile. Indeed, it may be that the stubborn raw material simply refused to strive. The generational conflict of father and son plays itself out in resistance and frustration. In the denouement, the father falls back on that grace of manner he ceaselessly recommends, employing a reiterative and increasingly monotonous artifice of expression to conceal the pain of a failure he has no means to alleviate. As for the son-he would die at the age of 36, having accomplished little.
I've left myself time only to sketch my two morals. The first concerns that truism about the eighteenth-century conjunction of manners and morals, which I now think I have often invoked rather too cavalierly in relation to Austen. As Lord Chesterfield himself put the point, “Good manners are, to particular societies, what good morals are to society in general; their cement and their security” (3 Nov. O. S. 1749). In other words, morals, unlike manners, are universal, but both are crucial. What the letters reveal, though, is how arduous an effort supports the equation of manners with morals. Only relentless discipline enables Chesterfield to claim the ground of knowledge for the grace of his style. Serious thought supports the injunction to conduct ourselves to others as we would have others conduct themselves to us. The relation between how to behave in the immediate and specific world and how to fulfill obligations understood as universal is never transparent; to assert their congruence demands constant strenuous yoking, occurring at the level of interpretation and of action. Lord Chesterfield reveals an elegance of intense effort.
My second moral is more general-or perhaps more personal. It asserts the urgency of remembering that we are the contexts of our own understanding. I am at a late stage in my career-my first book was published more than 40 years ago. Over close to a half century, I have changed my mind, sometimes more than once, about just about everything. The reasons for these changes presumably derive from my personal experience, which, like yours, like everyone's, includes the experience of political, social, ideological, and critical/theoretical change. Now I have changed my mind about Lord Chesterfield-which is to say, now I see aspects of his writing that I could not see earlier. I am hardly unique in seeing different things at different times. The instability of our own insights, it strikes me as I contemplate these letters, should encourage due humility about our critical opinions: the chastening awareness that we, like Lord Chesterfield, operate within a historical moment and with always limited vision.
|TEI markup by Meredith Kinsey|