Lord Chesterfield

Lord Chesterfield

Lord Chesterfield

Lord Chesterfield

Excerpt

The supreme distinction of Philip Dormer Stanhope, fourth Earl of Chesterfield, is that he wrote a series of letters which has become one of the world's permanent books. It became so, independent of his desire and will; indeed, had he been alive at the moment of its publication he would unquestionably have done everything in his power to prevent it. Yet none of his other titles to memory -- his rank, political career, social eminence, talent as an essayist -- none of these will be considered nowadays as comparable in importance to the authorship of the Letters to his Son; indeed, were it not for the Letters none of them would be remembered at all except by those interested in the general subject of eighteenth-century history and manners. His significance to most of us will almost exclusively consist in this accidental, unwilling achievement.

For the Letters to his Son, though composed in eighteenthcentury England and aromatic of their age, belong primarily neither to England nor to the eighteenth century. Translated into all the considerable languages of the world, familiar to Japan as to France, they possess obviously a timeless, placeless quality adaptable to civilized mankind as a whole, and not greatly affected by change of fashion or environment. They are an exquisite flower of civilization, and depend more upon the persistence of culture than upon the element of time. We may safely predict (unless civilization itself, as we know it, perishes) that three centuries hence the Letters will be still read with the same degree of praise or censure which has been accorded them during the last hundred and fifty years.

Apart from the charm of grace, vigour, suppleness, and pungency, the distinction of style that characterizes them and gives classic finish to their content, the reason for this perennial value is that they describe, with singular assurance and felicity, one of the arts of life which will always interest the major portion of mankind. It is the art of worldly success, of getting on, of achieving power and place among one's fellow men; the art of gauging and manipulating human nature, the cardinal factor of success, to one's own profit. It will be a long time before so useful a thesis fails to attract . . .

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