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Literature / Letters to His Son

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The Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman were written by the British nobleman, MP (Whig), ambassador, secretary of state (1746-48, see letter 27) and author Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1775).

The 320 letters were written during the time from 1746-71, when his (illegitimate) son first made the "grand tour" through Europe and its courts and later had a career as a British diplomat and MP. Also, they're quite troperiffic.

The letters were published - against the wish of the lord himself - when they were found among the inheritance of the son. Samuel Johnson famously didn't like these at all, which may have to do with the fact that once he and the Earl clashed over the English Dictionary.



  • An Aesop: Several. Don't waste a moment of your time. Do everything with graces. People are the same everywhere, everytime, save for fashion and customs. Study the world. Keep your teeth clean. Write more letters to your father.
  • Alternative Calendar: The Earl was behind the introduction of the Gregorian calendar to Britain and tells a bit about the story behind it, in letter 135.
  • Amoral Attorney: "But the public lawyers, now, seem to me rather to warp the law, in order to authorize, than to check, those unlawful proceedings of princes and states" (letter 52)
  • Armchair Military: "as that pedant talked, who was so kind as to instruct Hannibal in the art of war." (letter 93)
  • Artifact Title: Starting with letter 311, they go to the widow of his son instead.
  • Attention Whore: Discussed. "They are always the heroes of their own fables; and think that they gain consideration, or at least present attention, by it. Whereas, in truth, all that they get is ridicule and contempt, not without a good degree of distrust; for one must naturally conclude, that he who will tell any lie from idle vanity, will not scruple telling a greater for interest."
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  • Brilliant, but Lazy: What the son seems to have been. "He has a great fund of knowledge, and an uncommonly good memory, although he does not make any parade of either the one or the other." was written about him (not by his father, mind you), but he didn't make it as far in life as his father had wished him to.
  • Broken Pedestal: The British MPs, after the Earl had joined their ranks.
  • Buried Alive: Discussed. "All I desire for my own burial is not to be buried alive; but how or where, I think must be entirely indifferent to every rational creature." (letter 311)
  • The Caligula:
    • The original one is mentioned. "A silly tyrant said, 'oderint modo timeant'" (letter 164)
    • "A tyrant with legions at his command may say, Oderint modo timeant [let them hate me, so long as they fear me]; though he is a fool if he says it, and a greater fool if he thinks it."
  • Caligula's Horse: Discussed. "He [the Cardinal de Retz] is persuaded that when Caligula made his horse a Consul, the people of Rome, at that time, were not greatly surprised at it, having necessarily been in some degree prepared for it, by an insensible gradation of extravagances from the same quarter." (letter 50)
  • The Casanova: You have to read between the lines, but it's there. "I repeat it again and again to you, Let the great book of the world be your principal study. 'Nocturna versate manu, versate diurna'; which may be rendered thus in English: Turn Over MEN BY DAY, AND WOMEN BY NIGHT. I mean only the best editions." (letter 137)
  • The Cavalier Years: When the Earl and his son lived. (During the later part.)
  • The Chessmaster: "A man who hath studied the world knows when to time, and where to place them; he hath analyzed the characters he applies to, and adapted his address and his arguments to them" (letter 163)
  • Cloudcuckoolander: What he didn't recommend to be in high society. "Sir Isaac Newton, Mr. Locke, and (it may be) five or six more, since the creation of the world, may have had a right to absence, from that intense thought which the things they were investigating required." (letter 1)
  • Constantly Curious: The Earl encourages his son to be this when abroad - at least regarding important topics.
  • Cuckold Horns: "A prudent cuckold (and there are many such at Paris) pockets his horns when he cannot gore with them; and will not add to the triumph of his maker by only butting with them ineffectually." (letter 186)
  • Cultural Cringe: "The French manner of hunting is gentlemanlike; ours is only for bumpkins and boobies."
  • Cunning Linguist: What he wanted his son to become. Not as a mean to itself, though.
  • Decadent Court: "In my next I will send you a general map of courts; a region yet unexplored by you, but which you are one day to inhabit. The ways are generally crooked and full of turnings, sometimes strewed with flowers, sometimes choked up with briars; rotten ground and deep pits frequently lie concealed under a smooth and pleasing surface; all the paths are slippery, and every slip is dangerous." - "Those who now smile upon and embrace, would affront and stab each other, if manners did not interpose; but ambition and avarice, the two prevailing passions at courts, found dissimulation more effectual than violence; and dissimulation introduced that habit of politeness, which distinguishes the courtier from the country gentleman." (letter 78/79)
  • Department of Redundancy Department: Lord Chesterfield repeats many of his aesops in his letters; justified because a) as he wrote himself, many letters got lost on their way from Britain to wherever his son was; and b) the 330 letters span over twenty years.
  • Education Mama: He expected his son to learn not only Latin and Greek, but to speak the important languages of the continent - that is, French, German, Spanish and Italian - as well as his native language. Not like the average speaker, but at the level of a courtier - with spirit and perfect manners. Also, he should have a foundation in geography and history. And know the basics of various arts and sciences, like architecture, geometry, astronomy, logic... And know about the important parts of economy of the various countries, their political/judicial systems and military. Or rather, gather these informations by himself while in other countries. After all, he expected his son to become a minister one day. Note: His son was fourteen when he left Britain. Also note that the Earl did not expect his son to learn to play a musical instrument, deeming this as below a gentleman's dignity. Take That!, Amy Chua!
  • Elopement: "Here is a report, but I believe a very groundless one, that your old acquaintance, the fair Madame C———e, is run away from her husband, with a jeweler, that 'etrennes' her, and is come over here; but I dare say it is some mistake, or perhaps a lie." (letter 238)
  • Embarrassing Nickname: The Lord warned his son to do anything which mimics (as in, people who mimic you) would use to give him one. That's why perfect manners, style etc. are so important.
  • Epistolary Novel: This is one made up of real letters, other than most of the rest of the examples. Of course, the Earl had not exactly planned to publish one.
  • Everything Sounds Sexier in French: Scarier in German. "'das, der donner [sic] dich erschlage'note , must no doubt, make a tremendously fine piece of 'recitativo', when uttered by an angry hero, to the rumble of a whole orchestra, including drums, trumpets, and French horns." (letter 207)
  • Evil Jesuit: " I do not know a crime in the world, which is not by the casuists among the Jesuits (especially the twenty-four collected, I think, by Escobar) allowed, in some, or many cases, not to be criminal." (letter 52)
  • The Fashionista: The French. "Fashion is more tyrannical at Paris than in any other place in the world; it governs even more absolutely than their king, which is saying a great deal."
  • Flat Character: "A man requires very little knowledge and experience of the world, to understand glaring, high-colored, and decided characters" (letter 163)
  • Foreign Culture Fetish: "I was not without thoughts of wearing the 'toga virilis' of the Romans, instead of the vulgar and illiberal dress of the moderns" (letter 149)
  • Foreign Cuss Word: "Merde". He must have considered this the equivalent of a Precision F-Strike today.
  • French Jerk: Downplayed, but a seed of the trope is there. The Lord writes that the French should adopt the manners of other places they go to instead of using their own, even if they think they have the best manners in the world and are right.
  • Full-Boar Action: Letter 193 mentions that the son was attacked by a boar, as it seems.
  • The Gambling Addict: A kind of people he warns his son from.
  • Gem-Encrusted: The Earl sent his son a pair of diamond buckles. (letter 74)
  • Go-Karting with Bowser: "When I was last at The Hague, we were at war with both France and Spain; so that I could neither visit, nor be visited by, the Ministers of those two Crowns; but we met every day, or dined at third places, where we embraced as personal friends, and trifled, at the same time, upon our being political enemies; and by this sort of badinage I discovered some things which I wanted to know." (letter 215)
  • Gold Digger: Other than today, mostly male. "The men marry for money, and I believe you guess what the women marry for." (letter 295)
  • Good Is Not Nice: Discussed in letter 98, contrasting Cato the younger (who had this reputation) with Affably Evil Julius Caesar.
  • Gorn: Discussed in letter 161. "Distress, without death, was not sufficient to affect a true British audience, so long accustomed to daggers, racks, and bowls of poison: contrary to Horace's rule, they desire to see Medea murder her children upon the stage."
  • Greed: Cardinal Mazarin's vice.
  • Have a Gay Old Time:
    • Many examples. "queer fellow"; "make love to the most impertinent beauty of condition that you meet with"; "gay conversations", "intimate connections" (as in "Though the young Frenchmen of fashion may not be worth forming intimate connections with..."), "be gay with the gay", "You must be gay within all the bounds of decency and respect", "he is one of the prettiest fellows I have seen", "the fag end of a life", "among the gay, I was the gayest" etc.
    • "I am sorry that your two sons-in-law [?? D.W.], the Princes B——, are such boobies"
  • Humans Are Bastards: "In the mass of mankind, I fear, there is too great a majority of fools and, knaves; who, singly from their number, must to a certain degree be respected, though they are by no means respectable. And a man who will show every knave or fool that he thinks him such, will engage in a most ruinous war, against numbers much superior to those that he and his allies can bring into the field. Abhor a knave, and pity a fool in your heart; but let neither of them, unnecessarily, see that you do so." (letter 60)
  • In Medias Res: The first letter is written to the son when he is traveling from Heidelberg to Schaffhausen, Switzerland.
  • Insistent Terminology: The Earl refers to Maria Theresa generally as "the Queen of Hungary".
  • Insufferable Genius: Also something he warns his son not to become. "Wear your learning, like your watch, in a private pocket: and do not pull it out and strike it; merely to show that you have one. If you are asked what o'clock it is, tell it; but do not proclaim it hourly and unasked, like the watchman." (letter 30)
  • I Reject Your Reality: "Doctor Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, a very worthy, ingenious, and learned man, has written a book, to prove that there is no such thing as matter, and that nothing exists but in idea: that you and I only fancy ourselves eating, drinking, and sleeping; you at Leipsig, and I at London: that we think we have flesh and blood, legs, arms, etc., but that we are only spirit. His arguments are, strictly speaking, unanswerable; but yet I am so far from being convinced by them, that I am determined to go on to eat and drink, and walk and ride, in order to keep that MATTER, which I so mistakenly imagine my body at present to consist of, in as good plight as possible." (letter 52)
  • It's All About Me: "People of an ordinary, low education, when they happen to fail into good company, imagine themselves the only object of its attention; if the company whispers, it is, to be sure, concerning them; if they laugh, it is at them; and if anything ambiguous, that by the most forced interpretation can be applied to them, happens to be said, they are convinced that it was meant at them; upon which they grow out of countenance first, and then angry." (letter 186)
  • I Want Grandkids: Averted. "As fathers commonly go, it is seldom a misfortune to be fatherless; and, considering the general run of sons, as seldom a misfortune to be childless." (letter 152)
  • Kicked Upstairs: "This necessary consequence of his view defeated it; and the Duke of Newcastle and the Chancellor chose to kick him upstairs into the Secretaryship of State, rather than trust him with either the election or the management of the new parliament." (Letter 199)
  • The Klutz: "He is at a loss what to do with his hat, when it is not upon his head; his cane (if unfortunately he wears one) is at perpetual war with every cup of tea or coffee he drinks; destroys them first, and then accompanies them in their fall. His sword is formidable only to his own legs, which would possibly carry him fast enough out of the way of any sword but his own. His clothes fit him so ill, and constrain him so much, that he seems rather, their prisoner than their proprietor." (letter 83)
  • Knight Errant: The Earl describes Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, as this.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: "coxcombs, who have no learning at all; but who have got some names and some scraps of ancient authors by heart, which they improperly and impertinently retail in all companies, in hopes of passing for scholars." (letter 30)
  • Language Drift: "want" in the old sense of "lacking something"; "graces" = "good manners, pleasantness, eloquence", "parts" = "intellectual abilities" / "learning", "Imperialists" = soldiers of the Holy Roman Empire etc.
  • Lies to Children: "The good Protestant conviction, that the Pope is both Antichrist and the Whore of Babylon, is a more effectual preservative in this country against popery, than all the solid and unanswerable arguments of Chillingworth. [...] And that silly, sanguine notion, which is firmly entertained here, that one Englishman can beat three Frenchmen, encourages, and has sometimes enabled, one Englishman in reality to beat two." (letter 64)
  • Like an Old Married Couple: "the Duke of Newcastle and Mr. Pitt jog on like man and wife; that is, seldom agreeing, often quarreling; but by mutual interest, upon the whole, not parting." (letter 221)
  • Long Title
  • Machiavelli Was Wrong: "a private man who can hurt but few, though he can please many, must endeavor to be loved, for he cannot be feared in general." - "But this truth from long experience I assert, that he who has the most friends and the fewest enemies, is the strongest; will rise the highest with the least envy; and fall, if he does fall, the gentlest, and the most pitied." (letter 181 and 184)
  • Man of Wealth and Taste: Disputed. "I have often known a fashionable man have some one vice; but I never in my life knew a vicious man a fashionable man." (letter 77)
  • May–December Romance: "If my brother had had some of those self-conversations, which I recommend, he would not, I believe, at past sixty, with a crazy, battered constitution, and deaf into the bargain, have married a young girl, just turned of twenty, full of health, and consequently of desires." (letter 260)
  • Mentors: Mr. Raphael Harte, the son's tutor. Later, the Frenchman Marcel. An unnamed lady (letter 101) for the Earl himself, when he was young.
  • Miles Gloriosus: "I say suspect them, for they are commonly impostors; but do not be sure that they are always so; for I have sometimes known [...] blusterers really brave"
  • Nice to the Waiter: "I am more upon my guard as to my behaviour to my servants, and others who are called my inferiors, than I am toward my equals: for fear of being suspected of that mean and ungenerous sentiment of desiring to make others feel that difference which fortune has, and perhaps too undeservedly, made between us."
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: To fish for facts. Letter 186.
  • Opinion Flip-Flop: "On the other hand, the cunning, crafty man thinks to gain all his ends by the 'suaviter in modo' only; HE BECOMES ALL THINGS TO ALL MEN; he seems to have no opinion of his own, and servilely adopts the present opinion of the present person; he insinuates himself only into the esteem of fools, but is soon detected, and surely despised by everybody else." (letter 133)
  • Rich in Dollars, Poor in Sense: "He cannot withstand the charms of a toyshop; snuff-boxes, watches, heads of canes, etc., are his destruction. His servants and tradesmen conspire with his own indolence to cheat him; and, in a very little time, he is astonished, in the midst of all the ridiculous superfluities, to find himself in want of all the real comforts and necessaries of life." (letter 62)
  • Sarcasm Mode: "A whoremaster, in a flux, or without a nose, is a very genteel person, indeed, and well worthy of imitation. A drunkard, vomiting up at night the wine of the day, and stupefied by the headache all the next, is, doubtless, a fine model to copy from. And a gamester, tearing his hair, and blaspheming, for having lost more than he had in the world, is surely a most amiable character." (letter 53)
  • Self-Deprecation: "reason is at best our wife, very often heard indeed, but seldom minded" (letter 163)
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Imagine you read a story like this: A British lord and former minister has a bastard son whom he wants to learn everything necessary to become a man of the world and make a great career one day. Also, the son will visit many 18th century courts in Europe, which has potential for many interesting stories. This creates various conflicts, since the son isn't as ambitious as his father. Not to mention his situation as a bastard son in a society which looked down on these men. Besides, the son (in the later part) has a wife and children in Paris his father doesn't even know about. - And then, at the age of 36, the son suddenly dies, before his father.
  • Shout-Out: "for, To BE, or NOT To BE, is a question of much less importance, in my mind, than to be or not to be well." (letter 235)
  • Silly Reason for War: "Such closet politicians never fail to assign the deepest motives for the most trifling actions; instead of often ascribing the greatest actions to the most trifling causes, in which they would be much seldomer mistaken." (letter 93)
  • Small Reference Pools: Discussed in letter 148, "Frivolous, futile people, who make at least three parts in four of mankind, only desire to see and hear what their frivolous and futile precursors have seen and heard: as St. Peter's, the Pope, and High Mass, at Rome; Notre Dame, Versailles, the French King, and the French Comedy, in France."
  • Spell My Name with a Blank: To protect the involved persons. Probably done by the editors.
  • Spoiled Brat: About a different young nobleman. "They have ruined their own son by what they called and thought loving him. They have made him believe that the world was made for him, not he for the world; and unless he stays abroad a great while, and falls into very good company, he will expect, what he will never find, the attentions and complaisance from others, which he has hitherto been used to from Papa and Mamma." (letter 164)
  • STD Immunity: Averted, the Earl mentions "a whoremaster with half a nose"note . Maybe to Scare 'Em Straight.
  • The Stoic: "It is very often necessary, not to manifest all one feels." - "I am sure that since I have had the full use of my reason, nobody has ever heard me laugh." - "A man who does not possess himself enough to hear disagreeable things without visible marks of anger and change of countenance, or agreeable ones, without sudden bursts of joy and expansion of countenance, is at the mercy of every artful knave or pert coxcomb; the former will provoke or please you by design, to catch unguarded words or looks by which he will easily decipher the secrets of your heart, of which you should keep the key yourself, and trust it with no man living. The latter will, by his absurdity, and without intending it, produce the same discoveries of which other people will avail themselves."
  • Stylistic Suck: In letter 91, the Lord deliberately gives an example of how not to write English.
  • Take That!:
    • The Earl describes the Arabian Nights as "Oriental ravings and extravagances".
    • He also includes one against Samuel Johnson in letter 132.
    • "I love 'la belle nature'; Rembrandt van Rijn paints caricatures" (letter 142)
    • "There [at the theological society of the Sorbonne] unintelligible points are debated with passion, though they can never be determined by reason."
    • "I discovered, that, of the five hundred and sixty [in the House of Commons], not above thirty could understand reason" (letter 196)
  • Unreliable Narrator: "A man who has been concerned in a transaction will not write it fairly; and a man who has not, cannot." (letter 37)
  • The Un-Smile: "both men and women upon whom unkind nature has inflicted a surliness and ferocity of countenance, do at least all they can, though often without success, to soften and mitigate it; they affect 'douceur', and aim at smiles, though often in the attempt, like the Devil in Milton, they GRIN HORRIBLY A GHASTLY SMILE." (letter 189)
  • Water Source Tampering: "I cannot omit, upon this occasion, telling you that the Eastern emperors at Constantinople (who, as Christians, were obliged at least to seem to favor these expeditions), seeing the immense numbers of the 'Croisez' [crusaders], and fearing that the Western Empire might have some mind to the Eastern Empire too, if it succeeded against the Infidels, as 'l'appetit vient en mangeant'; these Eastern emperors, very honestly, poisoned the waters where the 'Croisez' were to pass, and so destroyed infinite numbers of them." (letter 51)
  • Wicked Stepmother: Conversed. "For my part, I never saw a froward child mended by whipping; and I would not have the mother country become a stepmother." (letter 283)
  • Willing Suspension of Disbelief: "Whenever I go to an opera, I leave my sense and reason at the door with my half guinea, and deliver myself up to my eyes and my ears." (letter 157)
  • Will Not Tell a Lie: What the Earl recommends. "I really know nothing more criminal, more mean, and more ridiculous than lying" (letter XIV). Also, he often points out how a honest friend who doesn't hesitate telling you about your flaws is better than a flatterer.
  • Wine Is Classy: The Earl told his son the one or other time to sent him some bottles of hundred-year-old wine, and paid with gold for them.
  • Worthy Opponent: The Earl regarded the Jesuits as the "most able and best governed society in the world." (letter 85)
  • Writers Suck:
    • "I do not find that God has made you a poet; and I am very glad that he has not."
    • In a certain way, this: "What can be more adorned than Cicero's Philosophical Works? What more than Plato's? It is their eloquence only that has preserved and transmitted them down to us through so many centuries; for the philosophy of them is wretched, and the reasoning part miserable." (letter 200)