Letters to His Son by Philip Dormer Stanhope Chesterfield


Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman (1774) is a compilation of 13 letters from the Earl of Chesterfield in England to his son in Lausanne, Switzerland. The 4th Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773) of England never intended the letters to be published, but they were released a year after his death at the age of 79.

His son Philip (1732-1778) was 14-15 years old when the letters were written in 1746-1747 and studying in Switzerland and Germany. These are only a small fraction of the 400+ letters he wrote to his son over 30 years.

The first letter in October 1732 tells his son that he noted his ‘laziness, inattention, and indifference’ and that he should study diligently because ‘any man … may, by proper culture, care, attention, and labor, make himself whatever he pleases, except a good poet.’

In subsequent letters he advises his son to learn the language of the country and everything about Switzerland and Germany, and that he should follow nature and not fashion.

He advises him to be clean and well dressed, but not too well dressed, and to clean his teeth every morning and after every meal.

He even sends his son a draft letter (from son to mother) so that his son can post it to his mother who is waiting to hear from him.

There are wonderful lines, such as ‘Are you acquainted with any ladies at Lausanne? And do you behave yourself with politeness enough to make them desire your company?’

He advises his son to choose his friends well ‘now that you are coming into the world’ and gives him the Spanish proverb ‘Tell me who you live with and I will tell you who you are.’

On his travels, his son should be ‘curious, attentive, and inquisitive’ and ‘manners maketh the man.’

The letters are witty and funny as the father gives plenty of man-of-the-world philosophy, along with sound common sense, to his teenage son. It’s a brief and easy-to-read collection of letters. Although there are a few sentences in Latin, it does not detract from the flow and humour of the correspondence. Fortunately there are not too many current affairs references that need explaining, because a teenage son is not interested in politics and worldly news – the content is localized and based on paternal words of encouragement or reproach for not writing!



Photograph: Philip Dormer Stanhope Chesterfield by Allen Ramsay – npg.org.uk (top)

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