Friday, 6 May 2011

Lord Chesterfield and Samuel Johnson

A little while ago I was chastised by implication on the designer-makers’ forum by a reference by a colleague to Lord Chesterfield’s (eighteenth-century aristocrat, politician and wit) letter to his son 1748, Letter XXX, February 22, later published as ‘Letters to his Son: on the Fine Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman’:

‘Some learned men, proud of their knowledge, only speak to decide, and give judgment without appeal; the consequence of which is, that mankind, provoked by the insult, and injured by the oppression, revolt; and, in order to shake off the tyranny, even call the lawful authority in question. The more you know, the modester you should be…’

'Others, to show their learning, or often from the prejudices of a school education, where they hear of nothing else, are always talking of the ancients, as something more than men, and of the moderns, as something less. They are never without a classic or two in their pockets; they stick to the old good sense; they read none of the modern trash; and will show you, plainly, that no improvement has been made, in any one art or science, these last seventeen hundred years.’

and more well observed reflections besides. No doubt amply justified as a reproach to my general character, but a bit harsh, I thought, as a comment on my particular postings.

Still, I should have kept my dusty 45 year-old Everyman copy of the Letters better thumbed. In fact I couldn’t find it on the bookshelves and had to bring project Gutenberg to my rescue.

That was rather the point. Chesterfield was writing in an age when, at least in ‘polite society’, there was heavy deference to the authority of rank and learning, and even more to the idea of politeness. We’re hardly in the same state now, when everyone has, if not a classic or two in their pockets, an equal subscription to the wisdom of Wikipedia, and the threats to thought come from an altogether different direction. Though perhaps we still suffer, in the midst of our rudeness, from a deference to some idea of politeness, or, as we like to call it, appropriateness.

I always rather sided with Samuel Johnson’s opinion. Letter XXX is a rather two-edged sword; was ever a man more careful to frame his arguments with such impressive oppression, and leave a few well-crafted insults, for later readers (although, in fairness, he did not anticipate his letters’ publication) to pick up, along the way?

Johnson’s opinion of Chesterfield was coloured by his experiences over his dictionary. Both men, as writers, strove for and achieved wit, in the eighteenth-century sense, and neither was without vanity or self-regard, but Johnson’s wit has a passion and humanity within it that makes Chesterfield look brittle and shallowly ‘polite’:

‘Seven years, my lord, have now past since I waited in your outward rooms or was repulsed from your door, during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it at last to the verge of publication without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a patron before ... Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind: but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary and cannot impart it; till I am known and do not want it.’

Was there ever a rebuke, justified or not, to which effective response was less possible?

Chesterfield evidently thought not, because he kept the letter displayed on his table for his friends and visitors to admire, and the two were, finally, reconciled. Yet, as Johnson said of Chesterfield, ‘This man I thought had been a Lord among wits; but I find he is only a wit among Lords!’