“Lord Chesterfield’s Letters, Sentences and Maxims, Consisting of Selections From His Works”, by Alfred Howard, Tenth American Edition; Philadelphia : Porter & Coates, pp. 5-7.
“Manners Make the Man”
ABSENCE OF MIND.
WHAT is commonly called an absent, man, is commonly either a very weak, or a very affected man : but, be he which he will, he is, I am sure, a very disagreeable man in company. He fails in all the common offices of civility; he seems not to know those people to-day, which whom yesterday he appeared to live in intimacy. He takes no part in the general conversation; but, on the contrary, breaks into it, from time to time, with some start of his own, as if he waked from a dream. This (as I said before) is a sure indication either of a mind so weak that it is not able to bear above one object at a time; or so affected, that it would be supposed to be wholly engrossed by, and directed to some very great and important objects. 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. But if a young man, and a man of the world, who has no such avocations to plead, will claim and exercise that 6 right of absence in company, his pretended right should, in my mind, be turned into an involuntary absence, by his perpetual exclusion out of company. However frivolous a company may be, still, while you are among them, do not show them by your inattention, that you think them so; but rather take their tone, and conform in some degree to their weakness, instead of manifesting your contempt for them. There is nothing that people bear more impatiently, or forgive less, than contempt : and an injury is much sooner forgotten than an insult. If therefore you would rather please than offend, rather be well than ill spoken of, rather be loved than hated, remember to have that constant attention about you, which flatters every man᾿s little vanity; and the want of which, by mortifying his pride, never fails to excite his resentment, or at least his ill-will.
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I know no one thing more offensive to a company than inattention and distraction. It is showing them the utmost contempt; and people never forgive contempt. No man is distrait with the man he fears, or the woman he loves; which is a proof that every man can get the better of that distraction, when he thinks it worth his while to do so; and, take my word for it, it is always worth his while. For my own part, I would rather be in company with a dead man, than with an absent one; for, if the dead man gives me no pleasure, at least he 7 shows me no contempt; whereas, the absent man, silently indeed, but very plainly, tells me that he does not think me worth his attention. Besides, can an absent man make any observations upon the characters, customs, and manners of the company? No. He may be in the best companies all his lifetime (if they will admit him, which, if I were they, I would not), and never be one jot the wiser. I never will converse with an absent man; one may as well talk to a deaf one. It is, in truth, a practical blunder, to address ourselves to a man who, we see plainly, neither hears, minds, nor understands us. Moreover, I aver, that no man is, in any degree, fit for either business or conversation, who cannot, and does not, direct and command his attention to the present object, be that what it will.
AN ABSENT MAN.
You have often seen, and I have as often made you observe, L**’s distinguished inattention and awkwardness. Wrapped up, like a Laputan, in intense thought, and, possibly, sometimes in no thought at all (which, I believe, is very often the case with absent people), he does not know his most intimate acquaintance by sight, or answers them as if he were at cross purposes. He leaves his hat in one room, his sword in another, and would leave his shoes in a third, if his buckles, though awry, did not 8 save them : his legs and arms, by his awkward management of them, seem to have undergone the Question extraordinaire; and his head, always hanging upon one or other of his shoulders, seems to have received the first stroke upon a block. I sincerely value and esteem him for his parts, learning, and virtue; but, for the soul of me, I cannot love him in company.7
Elf.NoteRead a short biographical notice and a few jests by and about Lord Chesterfield, on this site.