“Lord Chesterfield’s Letters, Sentences and Maxims, Consisting of Selections From His Works”, by Alfred Howard, Tenth American Edition; Philadelphia : Porter & Coates, pp. 9-30.
“Manners Make the Man”
AFFECTATION IN THE MALE SEX.
Monsieur de la Rochefoucault very justly observes, that people are never ridiculous from their real, but from their affected characters: they cannot help being what they are, but they can help attempting to appear what they are not. A hump-back is by no means ridiculous, unless it be under a fine coat; nor a weak understanding, unless it assumes the lustre and ornaments of a bright one. Good nature conceals and pities the inevitable defects of body or mind; but is not obliged to treat acquired ones with the least indulgence. Those who would pass upon the world talents which they have not, are as guilty, in the common course of society, as those who, in the way of trade, would put off false money, knowing it to 10 be such; and it is as much the business of ridicule to expose the former, as of the law to punish the latter.
I do not mean here to consider the affectation of moral virtues, which comes more properly under the definition of hypocrisy, and justly excites our indignation and abhorrence, as a criminal deceit; but I shall confine myself now to the affectation of those lesser talents and accomplishments, without any of which a man may be a very worthy, valuable man, and only becomes a very ridiculous one by pretending to them. These people are the proper, and, it may be, the only proper objects of ridicule; for they are above fools, who are below it, and below wise men, who are above it. They are the coxcombs Lord Rochester describes as self-created, and of whom he says, that God never made one worth a groat. Besides, as they are rebels amd traitors to common sense, whose natural born subjects they are, I am justified in treating them with the utmost rigour.
I cannot be of the general opinion, that these coxcombs have first imposed upon themselves, and really think themselves what they would have others think them. On the contrary, I am persuaded that every man knows himself best, and is his own severest censor; nay, I am convinced that many a man has lived and died with faults and weaknesses, which nobody but himself ever discovered. It is true, they keep 11 their own secret inviolate, which makes people believe they have not found it out. Why do we discern the failings of our friends sooner and better than we do other people’s, but because we interest ourselves more in them? By the same rule, we feel our own still sooner. And possibly, in this case alone, we are kinder to our friends, than to ourselves; since I very much question if a man would love his friend so well if he were faultless, and he would certainly like himself the better for being so. If this supposition be true, as I think it is, my coxcombs are both the more guilty, and the more ridiculous, as they live in a constant course of practical lying, and in the absurd and sanguine hopes of passing undetected.
Fatuus, the most consummate coxcomb of this or any other age or country, has parts enough to have excelled in almost any one thing he would have applied himself to. But he must excel in all. He must be at once a wit, a lover, a scholar, and a statesman; yet, conscious of the impracticability of the undertaking, he parcels out his accomplishments, and compounds to have the several branches of his merits admired in separate districts.
Hence, he talks politics to his women, wit to ministers of state, displays his learning to beaux, and brags of his success in gallantry to his country neighbours. His caution is a proof of his guilt, and shows that he does not deceive himself, but only hopes to impose on others. 12 Fatuus’s parts have undone him, and brought him to a bankruptcy of common sense and judgment; as many have been ruined by great estates, which led them into expenses they were not able to support.
There are few so universal coxcombs as Fatuus, to whom I therefore gave the post of honour; but infinite are the number of minor coxcombs, who are coxcombs quoad hoc, and who have singled out certain accomplishments, which they are resolved to possess in spite of reluctant nature. Their most general attempts are at wit and women, as the two most shining and glittering talents in the beau monde.
Thus Protervus, who has a good serious understanding, continues to pass almost for a fool, because he will be a wit. He must shine; he admires and pursues the lustre of wit, which, like an ignis fatuus, leads him out of his way into all sorts of absurdities. He is awkwardly pert, he puns, twists words, inverts sentences, and retails in one company the scraps he has picked up in another; but still, conscious of his own insufficiency, he cautiously seeks to shine where he hopes he may dazzle, and prudently declines the encounter of the strongest eyes. How often have I seen his unnatural alacrity suddenly confounded, and shrinking into silence, at the appearance of somebody of avowed and unquestioned wit!
Ponderosus has a slow, laborious understanding, a good memory, and, with application, 13 might succeed in business; but truly he must be a fine man, and succeed with women. He exposes his clumsy figure by adorning it, makes declaration of love with all the form and solemnity of a proclamation, and ridiculously consumes in revels the time he might usefully employ at the desk. He cannot be ignorant of his ill success; he feels it, but endeavours to impose upon the world, by hinting, in one set of company, his successes in another; and by whispering, in public places, with an air of familiarity, such indifferent trifles, as would not justify the woman in refusing to hear them. But how I have seen him skulk at the approach of the real favourite, and betray his consciousness of his affected character! Be it known to Ponderosus, and all those of his turn, that this vanity, besides the absurdity of it, leads them into a most immoral attempt; and that this practical defamation of a woman more justly deserves an action at law, than a coarse word rashly uttered.
Garrulus hopes to pass for an orator, without either words or matter; it is plain he knows his own poverty, by his laborious robbery of authors. He passes the night in book-breaking, and puts off in the day-time the stolen goods as his own; but so awkwardly and unskilfully, that they are always brought back to their true owners.
Bavius, ballasted with all the lead of a German, will rise into poetry, without either ear 14 or invention: he recites what he calls his verses, to his female relations, and his city acquaintance, but never mentions them to Pope.
Perplexus insists upon being a man of business, and though formed, at best, for a letter carrier, will be a letter writer; but, conscious that he can neither be necessary nor useful, endeavours to be tolerated by an implicit conformity to men and times.
In short, there are as many species of coxcombs, as there are desirable qualifications and accomplishments in life; and it would be endless to give instances of every particular vanity and affectation, by which men either make themselves ridiculous, or, at least, depreciate the other qualities they really possess. Every one’s observations will furnish him with examples enough of this kind. But I will now endeavour to point out the means of avoiding these errors; though, indeed, they are so obvious in themselves, that one should think it unnecessary, if one did not daily experience the contrary.
It is very certain, that no man is fit for every thing; but it is almost as certain too, that there is scarce any one man, who is not fit for something; which something nature plainly points out to him, by giving him a tendency and propensity to it. I look upon common sense to be to the mind what conscience is to the heart, the faithful and constant monitor of what is right or wrong. And I am convinced that no man commits either a crime or a folly, but 15 against the manifest and sensible representations of the one or the other. Every man finds in himself, either from nature or education, — for they are hard to distinguish, — a peculiar bent and disposition to some particular character; and his struggling against it is the fruitless and endless labour of Sisyphus. Let him follow and cultivate that vocation, he will succeed in it, and be considerable in one way at least: whereas, if he departs from it, he will at best be inconsiderable, probably ridiculous. Mankind, in general, have not the indulgence and good nature to save a whole city for the sake of five righteous, but, are more inclined to condemn many righteous for the sake of a few guilty. And a man my easily sink many virtues by the weight of one folly, but will hardly be able to protect many follies by the force of one virtue. They players, who get their parts by heart, and are to simulate for three hours, have a regard, in choosing these parts, to the natural bent of their genius. Pinkethman never acted Cato, nor Booth Scrub, their invincible unfitness for these characters would inevitably have broken out in the short time of their representation. How then shall a man hope to act with success, all his life long, a borrowed and ill-suited character? In my mind, Pinkey got more credit by acting Scrub well, than he would have got by acting Cato ill; and I would much rather be an excellent shoemaker, than a ridiculous and inept 16 minister of state. I greatly admire our industrious neighbours, the Germans, for many things, but for nothing more than their steady adherence to the voice of Nature: they indefatigably pursue the way she has chalked out to them, and never deviate into any irregularities of character. Thus many of the first rank, if happily turned to mechanics, have employed their whole lives in the incatenation of fleas, or the curious sculpture of cherry stones;1 while others, whose thirst of knowledge leads them to investigate the secrets of nature, spend years in their elaboratory, in pursuit of the philosopher’s stone: but none, that I have heard of, ever deviated into an attempt at wit. Nay, even due care is taken in the education of their princes, that they may be fit for something; for they are always instructed in some other trade besides that of government; so that, if their genius does not lead them to be able princes, it is ten to one but they are excellent turners.
I will conclude my remonstrance to the coxcombs of Great Britain with this admonition and engagement, that “they disband their affectations, and common sense* shall be their friend.” Otherwise, I shall proceed to further extremities, and single out, from time to time, the most daring offenders.17
I must observe, that the word coxcomb is of the common gender, both masculine and feminine, and that the male coxcombs are equalled in number by the female ones, who shall be the subject of my next paper.
* Several of Lord Chesterfield’s Essay were originally published in the paper which was denominated “Common Sense.”
1 Elf.Ed. this bit about the incatenation or yoking fleas together, and the sculpture of cherry-stones, was a popular one. Joseph Addison (1632-1708) used it first, (see Anecdotes, Memoirs, Allegories, Essays, and Poetical Fragments, Tending to Amuse the Fancy and Inculcate Morality, 1797). Chesterfield (1694-1773), borrowed it to use in this essay, which was first published in a magazine called Common Sense, in 1737 ( see see Littel’s Living Age, Volume VII, 1845, p. 447). Then Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774), also liked the bit on nonsense enough to use it in Citizen of the World, 1760-1761). Which of the two previous authors was his wellspring, I don't know. But Both Chesterfield and Goldsmith, those famous wits, have done their own share of "book-breaking" here, without crediting the original source.
Having, in my former paper, censured, with freedom, the affectations and follies of my own sex, I flatter myself, that I shall met with the indulgence of the ladies, while I consider, with the same impartiality, those weaknesses and vanities, to which their sex is as liable as ours, and, if I dare say so, rather more, as their sphere of action is more bounded and circumscribed. Man’s province is universal, and comprehends every thing, from the culture of the earth to the government of it; men only become coxcombs, by assuming particular characters, for which they are particularly unfit, though others may shine in those very characters. But the case of the fair sex is quite different; for there are many characters, which are not of the feminine gender, and, consequently, there may be two kinds of woman coxcombs; those who affect what does not fall within their department, and those who go out of their own natural characters, though they keep within the female province.
I should be very sorry to offend, where I only mean to advise and reform: I therefore 18 hope that the fair sex will pardon me, when I give ours this preference. Let them reflect, that each sex has its distinguishing characteristic: and if they can with justice, as certainly they may, brand a man with the name of a cot-quean, if he invades a certain female detail, which is unquestionably their prerogative, may not we with equal justice, retort upon them, when, laying aside their natural characters, they assume those which are appropriated to us? The delicacy of their texture, and the strength of ours, the beauty of their form, and the coarseness of ours, sufficiently indicate the respective vocations. Was Hercules ridiculous and contemptible with his distaff Omphale would not have been less so at a review or a council board. Women are nor formed for great cares themselves, but to soothe and soften ours; their tenderness is the proper reward for the toils we undergo for their preservation; and the ease and cheerfulness of their conversation, our desirable retreat from the labours of study and business. They are confined within the narrow limits of domestic offices; and when they stray beyond them, they move eccentrically, and consequently without grace.
Agrippina, born with an understanding and dispositions which could, at best, have qualified her for the sordid help-mate of a pawnbroker or usurer, pretends to all the accomplishments that ever adorned man or woman, without the possession, or even the true knowledge, of any 19 one of them. She would appear learned, and has just enough of all things, without comprehending any one, to make her talk absurdly upon every thing. She looks upon the art of pleasing as her master-piece, but mistakes the means so much, that her flattery is too gross for self-love to swallow, and her lies too palpable to deceived for a moment; so that she shocks those she would gain. Mean tricks, shallow cunning, and breach of faith, constitute her mistaken system of politics. She endeavours to appear generous at the expense of trifles, while an indiscreet and unguarded rapaciousness discovers her natural and insatiable avidity. Thus mistaking the perfections she would seem to possess, and the means of acquiring even them, she becomes the most ridiculous, instead of the most complete, of her sex.
Eudosia, the most frivolous woman in the world, condemns her own sex for being too trifling. She despises the agreeable levity and cheerfulness of a mixed company; she will be serious, that she will, and emphatically intimates, that she thinks reason and good sense very valuable things. She never mixes in the general conversation, but singles out some one man, whom she thins worthy of her good sense, and in a half voice, or sotto voce, discusses her solid trifles in his ear, dwells particularly upon the most trifling circumstances of the main trifle, which she enforces with the proper inclinations of head and body, and with the most 20 expressive gesticulations of the fan, modestly confessing, every now and then, by way of parenthesis, that possibly it may be thought presumption on a woman to talk at all upon these matters. In the mean time, her unhappy hearer stifles a thousand gapes, assents universally to whatever she says, in the hope of shortening the conversation, and carefully watches the first favourable opportunity , which any motion in the company gives him, of making his escape from this excellent solid understanding. Thus deserted, but not discouraged, she takes the whole company in their turns, and has, for every one, a whisper of equal importance. If Eudosia would content herself with her natural talents, play at cards, make tea and visits, talk to her dog often, and to her company but sometimes, she would not be ridiculous, but bear a very tolerable part in the polite world.
Sydaria had beauty enough to have excused, while young, her want of common sense. But she scorned the fortuitous and precarious triumphs of beauty. She would conquer only by the charms of her mind. A union of hearts, a delicacy of sentiments, a mental adoration, a sort of tender quietism, were what she long sought for, and never found. Thus nature struggled with sentiment till she was five-and-forty, but then got the better of it in such a degree, that she made very advantageous proposals to an Irish ensign of one-and-twenty; equally ridiculous in her age and in her youth.21
Canidia, withered by age, and shattered by infirmities, totter under the load of her misplaced ornaments, and her dress varies according to the freshest advices from Paris, instead of conforming itself, as it ought, to the directions of her undertaker. Her mind, as weak has her body, is absurdly adorned: she talks politics and metaphysics, mangles the terms of each, and, if there be sense in either, most infallibly puzzles it; adding intricacy to politics, and darkness to mysteries; equally ridiculous in this world and the next.
I shall not now enter into an examination of the lesser affectations (most of them are pardonable, and many of them are pretty, if their owners are so); but confine my present animadversions to the affectations of ill-suited characters, for I would by no means deprive my fair countrywomen of their genteel little terrors, antipathies, and affections. The alternate panics of thieves, spiders, ghosts, and thunder, are allowable to youth and beauty, provided they do not survive them. Bt what I mean is, to prevail with them to act their own natural parts, and not other people’s; and to convince them, that even their own imperfections will become them better than the borrowed perfections of others.
Should some lady of spirit, unjustly offended at these restrictions, ask what province I leave to their sex, I answer, that I leave them whatever had not been peculiarly assigned by nature 22 to ours. I leave them a mighty empire — Love. There they reign absolute, and by unquestioned right, while beauty supports their throne. They have all the talents requisite for that soft empire, and the ablest of our sex cannot contend with them in the profound knowledge and conduct of those arcana. But, then, those who are deposed by years or accidents, or those who by nature were never qualified to reign, should content themselves with the private care and economy of their families, and the diligent discharge of domestic duties.
I take the fabulous birth of Minerva, the goddess of arms, wisdom, arts, and sciences, to have been an allegory of the ancients, calculated to show, that women of natural and usual births must not aim at those accomplishments. She sprang armed out of Jupiter’s head, without the co-operation of his consort Juno; and, as such only, had those great provinces assigned her.
I confess one has read of ladies, such as Semiramis, Thalestris, and others, who have made very considerable figures in the most heroic and manly parts of life; but, considering the great antiquity of these histories, and how much they are mixed up with fables, one is at liberty to question either the facts, or the sex. Besides that, the most ingenious and erudite Conrad Wolfgang Laboriosus Nugatorius, of Hall in Saxony, has proved to a demonstration, in the fourteenth volume, page 2981, of his 23 learned treatise De Hermaphroditis, that all the reputed female heroines of antiquity were of this Epicene species, though, out of regard to the fair and modest port of my readers, I dare not quote the several facts and reasonings with which he supports this assertion; and as for the heroines of modern date, we have more than suspicious of their being at least of the Epicene gender. The greatest monarch that ever filled the British throne, till very lately, was queen Elizabeth, of whose sex we have abundant reason to doubt, history furnishing us with many instances of the manhood of that princess, without leaving us one single symptom or indication of the woman; and thus must is certain, that she thought it improper for her to marry a man. The great Cristina, queen of Sweden, was allowed by every body to be above her sex, and the masculine was so predominant in her composition, that she even conformed, at lat, to its dress, and ended her days in Italy. I therefore quire that those women, who insist upon going beyond the bounds allotted to their sex, should previously declare themselves in form hermaphrodites, and be registered as such in their several parishes; till when I shall not suffer them to confound politics, perplex metaphysics, and darken mysteries.
How amiable may a woman be, what a comfort and delight to her acquaintance, her friends, her relations, her lover, or her husband, 24 in keeping strictly within her character! She adorns all female virtues with native female softness. Women, while untainted by affectation, have a natural cheerfulness of mind, tenderness and benignity of heart, which justly endear them to us, either to animate our joys, or soothe our sorrows; but how are they changed, and how shocking do they become, when the rage of ambition, or the pride of learning agitates and swells those breasts, where only love, friendship, and tender care, should dwell! Let Flavia be their model, who, though she could support any character, assumes none, never misled by fancy or vanity, but guided singly by reason; whatever she says or does is the manifest result of a happy nature, and a good understanding; though she knows whatever women ought, and, it may be, more than they are required to know, she conceals the superiority she has, with as much care as others take to display the superiority they have not; she conforms herself to the turn of the company she is in, but in a way of rather avoiding to be distanced, than desiring to take the lead. Are they merry? she is cheerful. Are they grave? she is serious. Are they absurd? she is silent. Though she thinks and speaks as a man would do, she effeminates, if I may use the expression, whatever she says, and gives all the graces of her own sex to the strength of ours; she is well bred without the troublesome ceremonies and frivolous forms of 25 those who only affect to be so. As her good breeding proceeds jointly from good nature and good sense, the former inclines her to oblige, and the latter shows her the easiest and best way of doing it. Woman’s beauty, lie man’s wit, is generally fatal to the owners, unless directed by a judgment which seldom accompanies a great degree of either: her beauty seems but the proper and decent lodging for such a mind; she knows the true value of it, and, far from thinking that it authorizes impertinence and coquetry, it redoubles her care to avoid those errors, that are its usual attendants. Thus she not only unites in herself all the advantages of body and mind, but even reconciles contradictions in others; for she is loved and esteemed, though envied by all.
Most people complain of Fortune, few of Nature; and the kinder they think the latter has been to them, the more they murmur at what they call the injustice of the former.
Why have not I the riches, the rank, the power, of such and such? is the common expostulation with Fortune: but why have not I the merit, the talents, the wit, or the beauty, of such and such others? is a reproach rarely or never made to Nature.
The truth is, that Nature, seldom profuse, and seldom niggardly, has distributed her gifts 26 more equally than she is generally supposed to have done. Education and situation make the great difference. Culture improves, and occasions elicit, natural talents. I make no doubt but there are potentially, if I may use that pedantic word, many Bacons, Lockes, Newtons, Cæsars, Cromwells, and Marlboroughs, at the plough tail, behind counters, and, perhaps, even among the nobility; but the soil must be cultivated, and the seasons favourable, for the fruit to have all its spirit and flavour.
If sometimes our common parent has been a little partial, and not kept the scales quite even; if one preponderates too much, we throw into the lighter a due counterpoise of vanity, which never fails to set all right. Hence it happens, that hardly any one man would, without reserve, and in every particular, change with any other.
Though all are thus satisfied with the dispensations of Nature, how few listen to her voice! how few follow her as a guide! In vain she points out to us the plain and direct way to truth; vanity, fancy, affectation, and fashion, assume her shape, and winds us through fairy ground to folly and error.
These deviations from nature are often attended by serious consequences, and always by ridiculous ones; for there is nothing truer than the trite observation, “that people are never ridiculous for being what they really are, but for affecting what they really are not.” 27 Affectation is the only source, and at the same time the only justifiable object, of ridicule. No man whatsoever, be his pretensions what they will, has a natural right to be ridiculous: it is an acquired right, and not to be acquired without some industry; which, perhaps, is the reason why so many people are so jealous and tenacious of it. Even some people’s vices are not their own, but affected and adopted, though at the same time unenjoyed, in hopes of shining in those fashionable societies, where the reputation of certain vices gives lustre. In these cases, the execution is commonly as awkward as the design is absurd; and the ridicule equals the guilt.
This calls to my mind a thing that really happened not many years ago. A young fellow of some rank and fortune, just let loose from the university, resolved, in order to make a figure in the world, to assume the shining character of, what he called, a rake. By way of learning the rudiments of his intended profession, he frequented the theatres, where he aw often drunk, and always noisy. Being on night at the representation of that most absurd play, the Libertine destroyed, eh was so charmed with the profligacy of the hero of the piece, that, to the edification of the audience, he swore many oaths that he would be the libertine destroyed. A discreet friend of his, who sat by him, kindly represented to him, that to be the libertine was a laudable design, 28 which he greatly approved of; but that to be the libertine destroyed, seemed to him an unnecessary part of his plan, and rather rash. He persisted, however, in his first resolution, and insisted upon being the libertine, and destroyed. Probably he was so; at least the presumption is in his favour. There are, I am persuaded, so many cases of this nature, that, for my own part, I would desire no greater step towards the reformation of manners for the next twenty years than that our people should have no vices but their own.
The blockhead, who affects wisdom, because nature has given him dulness, becomes ridiculous only by his adopted character; whereas he might have stagnated unobserved in his native mud, or perhaps have engrossed deeds, collected shells, and studied heraldry, or logic, with some success.
The shining coxcomb aims at all, and decides finally upon every thing, because nature has given him pertness. The degree of parts and animal spirits, necessary to constitute that character, if properly applied, might have made him useful in many parts of life; but his affectation and presumption make him useless in most, and ridiculous in all.
The seputagenary fine gentleman might probably, from his long experience and knowledge of the world, be esteemed and respected in teh several relations of domestic life, which at his age, nature points out to him: he will 29 most ridiculously spin out the rotten thread of his former gallantries. He dresses, languishes, ogles, as he did at five-and-twenty; and modestly intimates that he is not without a bonne fortune, which bonne fortune at last appears to be the prostitute he had long kept, not to himself, whom he marries and owns, because “the poor girl was so fond of him, and so desirous to be made an honest woman.”
The sexagenary widow remembers that she was handsome, but forgets that it was thirty years ago, and thinks herself so, or, at least very likeable, still. The pardonable affectations of her youth and beauty unpardonably continued, increase even with her years, and are doubly exerted in hopes of concealing the number. All the gaudy, glittering parts of dress, which rather degraded than adorned her beauty in its bloom, now expose to the highest and justest ridicule her shrivelled or her overgrown carcass. She totters or sweats under the load of her jewels, embroideries, and brocades, which, like so many Egyptian hieroglyphics, serve only to authenticate the venerable antiquity of her august mummy. Her eyes dimly twinkle tenderness, or leer desires; their language, however inelegant, is intelligible, and the half-pay captain understands it. He addresses his vows to her vanity, which assures her they are sincere. She pities him, and prefers him to credit, decency, and every social 30 duty. He tenderly prefers her, though not without some hesitation, to a jail.
Self-love, kept within due bounds, is a natural and useful sentiment. It is, in truth, social love too, as Mr. Pope has very justly observed: it is the spring of many good actions, and of no ridiculous ones. But self-flattery is only the ape or caricature of self-love, and resembles it no more than to heighten the ridicule. Like other flattery, it is the most profusely bestowed and greedily swallowed, where it is the best deserved. I will conclude this subject with the substance of a fable of the ingenious Monsieur De La Motte, which seems not inapplicable to it.
Jupiter made a lottery in heaven, in which mortals, as well as gods, were allowed to have tickets. The price was wisdom; and Minerva got it. The mortals murmured, and accused the gods of foul play. Jupiter, to wipe off his aspersion, declared another lottery for mortals, singly and exclusively of the gods. The prize was folly. They got it, and shared it among themselves. All were satisfied. The loss of wisdom was neither regretted nor remembered; folly supplied its place, and those who had the largest share of it thought themselves the wisest.
Read another anecdote told about Lord Chesterfield, Jest CLXII, in the popular Jest Book by Mark Lemon, on this site.