Brain Pickings

Lord Chesterfield on the Art of Pleasing: Outlandish Advice to His Teenage Son, 1748

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“You may often be seen to smile, but never heard to laugh while you live.”

Philip Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, better-known simply as Lord Chesterfield, remains best-remembered for the hundreds of witty and wise letters he wrote to his son, spanning everything from history and literature to meditations on philosophy to advice on life and love — an intriguing addition to history’s greatest letters of fatherly guidance in some ways, and a compendium of terrible advice in others. Beginning in 1737 and ending with the young man’s sudden death in 1768 at the age of 36, which devastated Lord Chesterfield, the 400 or so surviving letters were collected by the son’s widow in 1774 and published in a hefty tome titled Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman (public library; public domain).

Among Lord Chesterfield’s wide-ranging counsel is a section dedicated to “the art of pleasing,” peppered with outlandish suggestions that at once bespeak the era’s biases and reveal the earl’s deep investment in his son’s success and happiness.

Writing from Bath on March 9, 1748, he advises the 16-year-old boy:

I must from time to time remind you of what I have often recommended to you, and of what you cannot attend to too much: sacrifice to the graces. Intrinsic merit alone will not do; it will gain you the general esteem of all, but not the particular affection, that is the heart, of any. To engage the affections of any particular person you must, over and above your general merit, have some particular merit to that person; by services done, or offered; by expressions of regard and esteem; by complaisance, attentions, etc., for him; and the graceful manner of doing all these things opens the way to the heart, and facilitates, or rather, insures, their effects.

A thousand little things, not separately to be described, conspire to form these graces, this je ne scais quoi, that always pleases. A pretty person, a proper degree of dress, an harmonious voice, something open and cheerful in the countenance, but without laughing; a distinct and properly varied manner of speaking; all these things and many others are necessary ingredients in the composition of the pleasing je ne scais quoi, which everybody feels, though nobody can describe. Observe carefully, then, what displeases or pleases you in others, and be persuaded that, in general, the same things will please or displease them in you.

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. Many people, at first, from awkwardness and mauvaise honte, have got a very disagreeable and silly trick of laughing whenever they speak.

This, and many other very disagreeable habits, are owing to mauvaise honte at their first setting out in the world. They are ashamed in company, and so disconcerted that they do not know what they do, and try a thousand tricks to keep themselves in countenance; which tricks afterwards grow habitual to them. Some put their fingers in their nose, others scratch their heads, others twirl their hats; in short, every awkward, ill-bred body has its tricks. But the frequency does not justify the thing, and all these vulgar habits and awkwardness are most carefully to be guarded against, as they are great bars in the way of the art of pleasing.

On September 5th the same year, Lord Chesterfield sends the boy a letter from London, offering further counsel on the acquisition of manners and the art of pleasing. Though at first glance his advice may appear to encourage superficiality by way of imitating the manners of others, perhaps the art of pleasing is no different from all art, which Virginia Woolf reminds us is invariably rooted in imitation. Lord Chesterfield writes:

Berlin will be entirely a new scene to you, and I look upon it, in a manner, as your first step into the great world; take care that step be not a false one, and that you do not stumble at the threshold. You will there be in more company than you have yet been; manners and attentions will, therefore, be more necessary.

You will best acquire these by frequenting the companies of people of fashion; but then you must resolve to acquire them, in those companies, by proper care and observation. When you go into good company — by good company is meant the people of the first fashion of the place — observe carefully their turn, their manners, their address; and conform your own to them. But this is not all either; go deeper still; observe their characters, and pry into both their hearts and their heads. Seek for their particular merit, their predominant passion, or their prevailing weakness; and you will then know what to bait your hook with to catch them.

The letter then takes a sexist turn for the so-appalling-it’s-almost-amusing as Lord Chesterfield shares with the boy a carefully guided secret about how to gain the favors of a creature useful in the honing of manners but otherwise witless, humorless, and generally useless:

As women are a considerable, or, at least, a pretty numerous part of company; and as their suffrages go a great way towards establishing a man’s character in the fashionable part of the world, which is of great importance to the fortune and figure he proposes to make in it, it is necessary to please them. I will, therefore, upon this subject, let you into certain arcana that will be very useful for you to know, but which you must, with the utmost care, conceal and never seem to know.

Women, then, are only children of a larger growth; they have an entertaining tattle, and sometimes wit; but for solid reasoning, good sense, I never knew in my life one that had it, or who reasoned or acted consequentially for four-and-twenty hours together. Some little passion or humour always breaks in upon their best resolutions. Their beauty neglected or controverted, their age increased or their supposed understandings depreciated, instantly kindles their little passions, and overturns any system of consequential conduct that in their most reasonable moments they have been capable of forming. A man of sense only trifles with them, plays with them, humours and flatters them, as he does with a sprightly, forward child; but he neither consults them about nor trusts them with, serious matters; though he often makes them believe that he does both, which is the thing in the world that they are proud of.

But these are secrets, which you must keep inviolably, if you would not, like Orpheus, be torn to pieces by the whole sex. On the contrary, a man who thinks of living in the great world must be gallant, polite, and attentive to please the women. They have, from the weakness of men, more or less influence in all courts; they absolutely stamp every man’s character in the beau monde, and make it either current, or cry it down, and stop it in payment.

It is, therefore, absolutely necessary to manage, please, and flatter them; and never to discover the least mark of contempt, which is what they never forgive; but in this they are not singular, for it is the same with men, who will much sooner forgive an injustice than an insult.

These are some of the hints which my long experience in the great world enables me to give you, and which, if you attend to them, may prove useful to you in your journey through it. I wish it may be a prosperous one; at least, I am sure that it must be your own fault if it is not.

Complement Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman with some decidedly more measured, thoughtful, and timeless fatherly advice from Sherwood Anderson, Charles Dickens and Ted Hughes.

Artwork by Wilber H. Schilling

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