Prose: Lord Chesterfield - Of Good Manners, Dress and the World

Posted by Ricardo Marcenaro | Posted in | Posted on 23:52


There is a bienséance with regard to people of the lowest degree; a gentleman observes it with his footman, even with the beggar in the street. He considers them as objects of compassion, not of insult; he speaks to neither d'un ton brusque, but corrects the one coolly, and refuses the other with humanity. There is no one occasion in the world, in which le ton brusque is becoming a gentleman. In short, les bienséances are another word for manners, and extend to every part of life. They are propriety; the Graces should attend in order to complete them: the Graces enable us to do genteelly and pleasingly what les bienséances require to be done at all. The latter are an obligation upon every [67]man; the former are an infinite advantage and ornament to any man.

People unused to the world have babbling countenances, and are unskilful enough to show what they have sense enough not to tell. In the course of the world, a man must very often put on an easy, frank countenance, upon very disagreeable occasions; he must seem pleased, when he is very much otherwise; he must be able to accost and receive with smiles those whom he would much rather meet with swords. In courts he must not turn himself inside out. All this may, nay, must be done, without falsehood and treachery: for it must go no further than politeness and manners, and must stop short of assurances and professions of simulated friendship. Good manners to those one does not love are no more a breach of truth than "your humble servant," at the bottom of a challenge, is; they are universally agreed upon and understood to be things of course. They are necessary guards of the decency and peace of society: they must only act defensively; and then not with arms poisoned with perfidy. Truth, but not the whole truth, must be the invariable principle of every man who hath either religion, honor, or prudence.

I can not help forming some opinion of a man's sense and character from his dress; and I believe most people do as well as myself. Any affectation whatsoever in dress implies in my mind a flaw in the understanding.... A man of sense carefully avoids any particular character in his dress; he is accurately clean for his own sake; but all the rest is for other[68] people's. He dresses as well, and in the same manner, as the people of sense and fashion of the place where he is. If he dresses better, as he thinks—that is, more than they—he is a fop; if he dresses worse, he is unpardonably negligent: but of the two, I would rather have a young fellow too much than too little drest, the excess on that side will wear off with a little age and reflection; but if he is negligent at twenty, he will be a sloven at forty and stink at fifty years old. Dress yourself fine where others are fine, and plain where others are plain; but take care always that your clothes are well made and fit you, for otherwise they will give you a very awkward air. When you are once well drest for the day, think no more of it afterward; and without any stiffness or fear of discomposing that dress, let all your motions be as easy and natural as if you had no clothes on at all.

A friend of yours and mine has justly defined good breeding to be "the result of much good sense, some good nature, and a little self-denial for the sake of others, and with a view to obtain the same indulgence from them." Taking this for granted (as I think it can not be disputed), it is astonishing to me that anybody who has good sense and good nature (and I believe you have both) can essentially fail in good breeding. As to the modes of it, indeed, they vary according to persons, places, and circumstances, and are only to be acquired by observation and experience; but the substance of it is everywhere and eternally the same. Good manners are to particular societies what good morals are to society in general—their cement and their se[69]curity. And as laws are enacted to enforce good morals, or at least to prevent the ill effects of bad ones, so there are certain rules of civility, universally implied and received, to enforce good manners and punish bad ones. And indeed there seems to me to be less difference, both between the crimes and punishments, than at first one would imagine.... Mutual complaisances, attentions, and sacrifices of little conveniences are as natural an implied compact between civilized people as protection and obedience are between kings and subjects: whoever in either case violates that compact, justly forfeits all advantages arising from it. For my own part, I really think that next to the consciousness of doing a good action, that of doing a civil one is the most pleasing: and the epithet which I should covet the most, next to that of Aristides, would be that of "well-bred."

Men who converse only with women are frivolous, effeminate puppies, and those who never converse with them are bears.

The desire of being pleased is universal. The desire of pleasing should be so too. Misers are not so much blamed for being misers as envied for being rich.

Dissimulation, to a certain degree, is as necessary in business as clothes are in the common intercourse of life; and a man would be as imprudent who should exhibit his inside naked, as he would be indecent if he produced his outside so.

A woman will be implicitly governed by the man whom she is in love with, but will not be directed by the man whom she esteems the most.[70] The former is the result of passion, which is her character; the latter must be the effect of reasoning, which is by no means of the feminine gender.

The best moral virtues are those of which the vulgar are, perhaps, the best judges.

Let us, then, not only scatter benefits, but even strew flowers, for our fellow travelers in the rugged ways of this wretched world.

Your duty to man is very short and clear; it is only to do to him whatever you would be willing that he should do to you. And remember in all the business of your life to ask your conscience this question, Should I be willing that this should be done to me? If your conscience, which will always tell you truth, answers no, do not do that thing. Observe these rules, and you will be happy in this world and still happier in the next.

Carefully avoid all affectation either of mind or body. It is a very true and a very trite observation that no man is ridiculous for being what he really is, but for affecting to be what he is not. No man is awkward by nature, but by affecting to be genteel, and I have known many a man of common sense pass generally for a fool because he affected a degree of wit that God had denied him. A plowman is by no means awkward in the exercise of his trade, but would be exceedingly ridiculous if he attempted the airs and grace of a man of fashion.

What is commonly called in the world a man or a woman of spirit are the two most detestable and most dangerous animals that inhabit it. They are strong-headed, captious, jealous, offended without reason, and offending with as little. The man of spirit has immediate recourse[71] to his sword, and the woman of spirit to her tongue, and it is hard to say which of the two is the most mischievous weapon.

Speak to the King with full as little concern (tho with more respect) as you would to your equals. This is the distinguishing characteristic of a gentleman and a man of the world.

That silly article of dress is no trifle. Never be the first nor the last in the fashion. Wear as fine clothes as those of your rank commonly do, and rather better than worse, and when you are well drest once a day do not seem to know that you have any clothes on at all, but let your carriage and motion be as easy as they would be in your nightgowns.

Let your address when you first come into any company be modest, but without the least bashfulness or sheepishness, steady without impudence, and as unembarrassed as if you were in your own room. This is a difficult point to hit, and therefore deserves great attention; nothing but a long usage of the world and in the best company can possibly give it.


[16] From the "Letters to His Son," passim. Chesterfield, the man of affairs—and he had real distinction in the public life of his time—is quite forgotten, but his letters, which he wrote for private purposes and never dreamed would be published, have made him one of the English literary immortals.


Born in 1694, died in 1773; educated at Cambridge; became a member of Parliament; filled several places in the diplomatic service; became Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1734; his "Letters to His Son," published in 1774 after his death.

Felipe Stanhope de Chesterfield - Wikipedia, la enciclopedia libre
Lord Chesterfield. Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4º Conde de Chesterfield (22 de septiembre de 1694 – 24 de marzo de 1773) fue un estadista británico y hombre de ...

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