Today in Literary History – September 22,1693 – Lord Chesterfield is born

Philip Dormer Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield and a noted statesman, writer and wit, was born on September 22, 1693. Lord Chesterfield was known in his various governmental positions for his tact and unfailingly courteous manners. He was also famous for his oratorical skills and verbal wit.

As a writer he is known for his influential posthumous book Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman. In it he tries to teach his son lessons in ethics, manners and the proper conduct of life, in a series of witty and elegant letters.

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He began composing the letters when his illegitimate son, also named Philip Stanhope, was six years old and continued to write them until his son’s sudden death in 1768 at the age of thirty-six. The letters were published by Chesterfield’s widow in 1774, the year after his own death.

The book is full of strong opinions and admonitions, such as:

“Having mentioned laughing, I must particularly warn you against it; and I would heartily wish that you may often be seen to smile, but never heard to laugh while you live. Frequent and loud laughter is the characteristic of folly and ill-manners; it is the manner in which the mob express their silly joy at silly things; and they call it being merry. In my mind there is nothing so illiberal, and so ill-bred, as audible laughter. I am neither of a melancholy nor a cynical disposition, and am as willing and as apt to be pleased as anybody; but I am sure that since I have had the full use of my reason nobody has ever heard me laugh.”

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The book became an influential guide for generations of young gentlemen although it did have its critics, who believed that the book’s advice was more on how to appear virtuous rather than to actually be so.

Samuel Johnson (who had financial disputes with Chesterfield in his lifetime) famously said of The Letters “they teach the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing-master.”

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