“A Man of Fashion Never Has Recourse to Proverbs”: Lord Chesterfield’s Tilting at Proverbial Windmills

“A Man of Fashion Never Has Recourse to Proverbs”: Lord Chesterfield’s Tilting at Proverbial Windmills – Critical Essay

Wolfgang Mieder


Many scholars have claimed that proverbs largely dropped from polite speech during the eighteenth century in England. Often quoted in this context is Lord Chesterfield’s advice to his son that proverbs are merely the “rhetoric of the vulgar man” and “a man of fashion never has recourse to proverbs and vulgar aphorisms.” This article challenges the former assumption and shows that Chesterfield himself regularly used proverbs in his letters, and used them to great effect.

Unfounded generalisations and unproven claims are common in intellectual pursuits. The field of folklore in general, and that of paremiology in particular, are no exceptions. Even Archer Taylor, the grand master of proverb studies, fell into this trap in a chapter on “Proverbs in Literature” in his celebrated classic, The Proverb (1931). Commenting on the fact that “different attitudes [exist] toward proverbs in different ages,” he observed correctly that the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries exhibited a widespread interest in folk wisdom, but “during the eighteenth century a reaction set in: the rationalistic temper found little to admire in proverbs” (Taylor 1985, 173). Morris Palmer Tilley, the compiler of the acclaimed Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, similarly concluded that:

as the seventeenth century drew to a close, there set in a reaction to the

enthusiastic use of proverbs in literature, with the result that in the

eighteenth century proverbs were first frowned upon and then banished from

polite literature, and, finally, from polite conversation (Tilley 1950,


F. P. Wilson, editor of The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, also asserted that:

polite writers in the eighteenth century despised these “vulgar sayings”

and Swift pilloried them. The tide had turned against them, though in plays

and novels they abound, particularly when low life is depicted (Wilson

1970, ix).

Lastly, James Obelkevich, in his otherwise valuable essay on “Proverbs and Social History” (1987), concluded that:

In the second half of the [seventeenth] century, however, the educated

classes’ enthusiasm for proverbs began to wane. They largely disappear from

the literature of the period, and by the early decades of the eighteenth

century opinion was turning sharply against them. Though evidently still

widely used in conversation, there too they came under attack; Swift

pillories them, along with trite witticisms and banal small talk of the

day; other critics found them ostentatious, competitive, insincere–to use

them was a “sign of a coxcomb.” Having dropped out of polite literature

(and the manuals of rhetoric), they were then banished from polite

conversation; by the 1740s, when Lord Chesterfield advised his son that “a

man of fashion never has recourse to proverbs or vulgar aphorisms,” the

process was complete (Obelkevich 1987, 57).

This is well argued, and to a degree convincing, but it simply does not hold water. There was no “general collapse of proverbiality” and no “nearly complete blackout” of proverbs, and, as will be shown in this present study, not even Lord Chesterfield himself could escape the spell of proverbs. Of course he used them ambiguously, contradictorily and dialectically, but use them he did.

Proverbs in the Eighteenth Century

Paremiologist Richard Jente reminded scholars in 1945 in an appropriately titled article on “The Untilled Field of Proverbs” that while the literature of that time, “with its enlightenment and sophistication made less use of the proverb than the preceding centuries … we do find here and there examples to the contrary … but no comprehensive studies have yet been made” (Jente 1945, 116). Some thirty years later, Lutz Rohrich and I (Rohrich and Mieder 1977) also observed that there are definite exceptions to the eighteenth century’s apparent disregard and disrespect for proverbs, but that detailed literary studies were needed to prove this fact. Neither should it be forgotten that proverbs clearly lived on in oral traditions. True to the proverb “The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” there is now a considerable number of studies that dispel the notion that there was an unnatural hiatus in the use of proverbs in the eighteenth century. Well-known European authors like William Blake, Louis Carmontelle, Denis Diderot, Henry Fielding, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Johann Gottfried Herder, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Johann Friedrich Schiller, Tobias George Smollett, Laurence Sterne, Jonathan Swift, Francois-Marie Voltaire, and Christian Felix Weisse have been investigated regarding their use of proverbial language (see Mieder and Bryan 1996). In the USA, one glance at the writings of Benjamin Franklin will clearly show what ethical significance proverbs had in this young democracy (see esp. Gallacher 1949, 229-51; see also Mieder and Bryan 1996, 109-10). In addition, it must not be forgotten that enlightened scholars with an interest in folklore put together major proverb collections at this time (see Bonser 1930; Moll 1958), which indicates that there was a persuasive interest in registering and preserving proverbs and proverbial expressions.

Slowly but surely a different picture is emerging: proverbs did not die out in the Age of Reason. Though there were forces who argued vigorously against them, they were held in high esteem by some of the greatest minds of the time. Granted, there was a certain ambivalence towards them, somewhat reminiscent of the view of proverbs during the second half of the twentieth century (Mieder 1993), but no one, however zealous, could possibly have succeeded in getting rid of this formulaic treasure of wisdom.

Yet there was one individual who tried his best to do exactly that. This was Philip Dormer Stanhope, fourth Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773), who in two famous letters to his illegitimate son Philip Stanhope (1732-68), argued vehemently against the use of proverbs. In a letter of 25 July 1741, Lord Chesterfield instructed his son as follows:

There is, likewise, an awkwardness of expression and words, most carefully

to be avoided; such as false English, bad pronunciation, old sayings, and

common proverbs; which are so many proofs of having kept bad or low

company. For example, if, instead of saying that tastes are different, and

that every mart has his own peculiar one, you should let off a proverb, and

say, That what is one man’s meat is another man’s poison; or else, Everyone

as they like, as the good man said when he kissed his cow, [1] everybody

would be persuaded that you had never kept company with anybody above

footmen and housemaids (Stanhope 1901, 2:401).

In a lengthy letter of 27 September 1749, he goes much further. Always interested in instructing his son in the proper use of language, Lord Chesterfield gets quite carried away as he outlines the dangers of the “low” company and “vulgarisms” he sees as synonymous with “proverbs”:

Dear Boy: A vulgar, ordinary way of thinking, acting, or speaking, implies

a low education, and a habit of low company. Young people contract it at

school, or among servants, with whom they are too often used to converse;

but after they frequent good company, they must want attention and

observation very much, if they do not lay it quite aside; and, indeed, if

they do not, good company will be very apt to lay them aside. The various

types of vulgarisms are infinite; I cannot pretend to point them out to

you; but I will give some examples, by which you may guess the rest …

A vulgar man’s conversation always savours strongly of the lowness of

his education and company. It turns chiefly upon his domestic affairs,

his servants, the excellent order he keeps in his own family, and the

little anecdotes of the neighbourhood; all which he relates with emphasis,

as interesting matters. He is a man of gossip.

Vulgarism in language is the next and distinguishing characteristic of

bad company and a bad education. A man of fashion avoids nothing with

more care than that. Proverbial expressions and trite sayings are the

flowers of the rhetoric of a vulgar man. Would he say that men differ in

their tastes; he both supports and adorns that opinion by the good old

saying, as he respectfully calls it, that what is one man’s meat, is

another man’s poison. If anybody attempts being smart, as he calls it, upon

him, he gives them tit for tat, aye, that he does. He has always some

favourite word for the time being; which, for the sake of using often, he

commonly abuses. Such as vastly angry, vastly kind, vastly handsome, and

vastly ugly. Even his pronunciation of proper words carries the mark of the

beast along with it. He calls the earth yearth; he is obleiged, not obliged

to you. He goes to wards, and not towards, such a place. He sometimes

affects hard words, by way of ornament, which he always mangles like a

learned woman. A man of fashion never has recourse to proverbs and vulgar

aphorisms; uses neither favourite words nor hard words; but takes great

care to speak very correctly and grammatically, and to pronounce properly;

that is, according to the usage of the best companies (Stanhope 1901,


Lord Chesterfield’s message rings out loud and clear: “Proverbial expressions and trite sayings are the flowers of the rhetoric of a vulgar man”; “a man of fashion never has recourse to proverbs and vulgar aphorisms.”

These battle cries have been noted by a number of Chesterfield scholars in passing (see, for example, Heltzel 1925, 356; Bailey 1965, 78). Even Virginia Woolf, in an enlightening essay on “Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son,” comments, “when at length the young man is pronounced capable of speech he must avoid all proverbs and vulgar expressions” (Woolf 1932, 78). In fact, even among proverb scholars, Chesterfield’s formulation, “A man of fashion never has recourse to proverbs,” has almost become proverbial itself! (see D’Israeli 1823, 1:415-16; Hill 1868, 147; Trench 1853, 11-12; Obelkevich 1987, 57). Yet, as another paremiologist, F. Edward Hulme, said in his unfairly ignored book on Proverb Lore (1902):

Lord Chesterfield declared that “a man of fashion never had recourse to

proverbs,” but after all his opinion is not final. The utterance is often

quoted, but proverbs still survive his anathema, and the ban under which he

would place them has had no binding force. It is, moreover, a matter quite

immaterial what the man of fashion thinks of them at all. They yet remain

interesting objects of study for the philosopher, and are for the man of

the busy world a storehouse of practical wisdom (Hulme 1968, 21).

This judgement was seconded less directly by Dwight Edward Marvin in the opening paragraphs of his Curiosities in Proverbs: “Lord Chesterfield, who was fastidious about dress and deportment, declared that a man of fashion never had recourse to proverbs and vulgar aphorisms; yet many wise and useful people have, like Solomon, `pondered and sought out and set in order’ many of them” (Marvin 1980, 1:7; also see Smith 1935, xviii).

Bartlett Jere Whiting, the greatest paremiographer of Anglo-American proverbs, cites Chesterfield’s 1741 condemnation of proverbs and speculates on what might have caused the noble Lord to take such a dim view of traditional wisdom:

A few years before Chesterfield’s letter, Jonathan Swift had ridiculed the

use, or at least the improper use, of proverbs in his Complete Collection

of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation (1738), which achieves its purpose by

example rather than precept. This diverting performance could have set off

Chesterfield, if only because he may have suspected that he was one of the

“persons of quality” for whom Swift’s Simon Wagstaff intended his

instructive work (Whiting 1977).

Lord Chesterfield

Who, then, was this Lord Chesterfield, about whom all of this proverbial fuss has been made? He was born on 22 September 1694 as Philip Dormer Stanhope, and educated at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. In 1715, at the early age of twenty-one, he was appointed Gentleman of the Bedchamber to the Prince of Wales, and in this year he also entered the House of Commons as Member of Parliament for St Germains. In 1723, he was appointed Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard. In 1726, when he succeeded to the earldom of Chesterfield on the death of his father, he became a Member of the House of Lords. From 1728 to 1732 he was Ambassador at The Hague, where his illegitimate son Philip Stanhope was born on 2 May 1732. Although Chesterfield was willing to bring the mother, Elizabeth du Bouchet, and their son to England, he did not marry her; instead he married Melusina de Schulenberg in 1733. His splendid career continued; he was appointed successively Viceroy of Ireland, Ambassador at The Hague, and Secretary of State. In 1755 he retired from public life owing to worsening deafness.

He started to correspond with his son in 1739, and he continued to do so until his son died of dropsy on 16 November 1768, at the young age of thirty-six. By now a recluse, Lord Chesterfield died on 24 March 1773, having spent the years since 1761 engaged in another significant correspondence with his godson and successor Philip Stanhope (1755-1815). Together, this correspondence consists of about 430 letters to his son, and 235 to his godson (for details of Chesterfield’s life and writings, see Connely 1939; Nelick 1959; Cappon 1965; Price 1966; Gulick 1979; McKenzie 1991). The letters to his son were posthumously published in 1774 by Eugenia Peters, the son’s widow (see Shellabarger 1935, 353-4).

Much has been written about these letters; they comprise a virtual etiquette book that influenced British society well into the nineteenth century. James Lill, who entitled his essay on this father-son relationship “Poor Philip’s Odyssey,” assessed the effect of this correspondence as follows:

[W]hile Chesterfield’s letters are usually read from the point of view of

the moralist and apologist for Chesterfield himself, to read them from

Philip’s point of view is to experience an appalling, insistent, and

deadening barrage of picayune and meddling redundancies that would stifle

the spirit of the most recalcitrant of youths, let alone one of Philip’s

apparent quiet pliability (Lill 1975, 79).

Once published, the letters took on a life of their own. Five editions appeared within a year, and many others followed, both complete and reduced into small etiquette books (see Gulick 1936; for criticism, see: Coxon 1923; Nelson 1938; Pullen 1967; Leech 1983; Lamoine 1994).

What, then, were the goals of Lord Chesterfield’s fatherly advice? Above all, he valued the social graces–good manners, moderation, civility, self-control, politeness, and proper behaviour in all settings (Lucas 1958, 131-76). Another element that plays a major role in his educational philosophy is “plain common sense” (Coxon 1923, 16-18). “Good-breeding is the natural result of common sense and common observation,” he observed (Stanhope 1901, 1:2); “A man of good common sense … reasons justly and expresses himself elegantly on that subject which he speaks” (Stanhope 1901, 1:256-7); “In the common manners of social life, every man of common sense hath the rudiments, the ABC of civility; he means not to offend, and even wishes to please: and, if he hath any real merit, will be received and tolerated in good company” (Stanhope 1901, 2:75). However, in a letter of 26 September 1752, he warns that “speaking mere common sense will by no means do; and I must speak not only correctly but elegantly; and not only elegantly but eloquently. In order to do this, I will first take pains to get an habitual, but unaffected, purity, correctness and elegance of style in my common conversation” (Stanhope 1901, 2:124). “Words,” he says, “are the dress of thoughts; which should no more be presented in rags, tatters, and dirt, than your person should” (Stanhope 1901, 1:288). Above all, a gentleman’s language must not reflect the speech patterns of the lower classes:

not to speak ill, is not sufficient; we must speak well; and the best

method of attaining to that is, to read the best authors with attention;

and to observe how people of fashion speak, and those who express

themselves best; for shopkeepers, common people, footmen, and maidservants

all speak ill. They make use of low vulgar expressions which people of rank

never use (Stanhope 1901, 2:375).

When, in 1749, he wrote, “A man of fashion never has recourse to proverbs and vulgar aphorisms,” he was doubtlessly thinking of these “vulgar expressions.” However, quite often he forgot his crusade, and proverbs entered his letters naturally. Proverbs creep in, sometimes unintentionally, at other times very consciously as stylistic features. As Oliver H. G. Leigh remarks in his introduction to his edition of the letters, his “sparkling wit and charming humour” sometimes show themselves in “the seeming lapses from his rigid rule requiring absolute elegance of expression at all times, when an unexpected coarseness, in some provincial colloquialism, crops out with picturesque force. The beau ideal of superfineness occasionally enjoys the bliss of harking back to mother English” (Stanhope 1901, 1:xii).

Yes, indeed, there are natural lapses back into “mother English” with its expressive proverbs and proverbial expressions. In the remainder of this essay I shall demonstrate that even Chesterfield, the arch-enemy of proverbial speech, employed it throughout the letters which make him famous today.

The Use of Proverbs in Lord Chesterfield’s Letters

“Vulgar Expressions”

It is time to take a look at where and how Chesterfield employs these “vulgar expressions.” And what a surprise one finds already with the first example. Even though he wants to claim that proverbs are negative verbal signs that Should be avoided, he has to admit that there is wisdom in some of them too good to be ignored. After giving his son numerous common-sense lessons on life in his letter of 20 July 1748, he summarises them thus:

All those things, in the common course of life, depend entirely upon the

manner; and, in that respect, the vulgar saying is true, That one man can

better steal a horse, than another look over the hedge (Stanhope 1901,


Chesterfield’s excuses for using “vulgar” proverbs seem absurd today, especially since proverbs are clearly effective rhetorical devices for him. In the examples that follow he always refers to the proverbs he uses as “vulgar,” yet that never stops him from using them to make a good point:

In time your turn will come; and if you do but show an inclination, a

desire to please, though you should be embarrassed or even err in the

means, which must necessarily happen to you at first, yet the will (to use

a vulgar expression) will be taken for the deed; and people, instead of

laughing at you, will be glad to instruct you (Stanhope 1901, 1:280).

Courts are to be the theatres of your wars, where you should be always as

completely armed, and even with the addition of a heel-piece [allusion to

Achilles]. The least inattention, the least distraction, may prove fatal

… The vulgar have a coarse saying, of spoiling a ship for a half-penny

worth of tar; prevent the application by providing the tar: it is very

easily to be had in comparison with what you have already got (Stanhope

1901, 2:152).

I have fixed, in my own mind, a time for my return to London; not invited

there by either politics or pleasures, to both of which I am equally a

stranger, but merely to be at home; which, after all, according to the

vulgar saying, is home, be it ever so homely (Stanhope 1901, 2:200).

Vanity is the more odious and shocking to everybody, because everybody

without exception has vanity; and two vanities can never love one another,

any more than according to the vulgar saying, two of a trade can (Stanhope

1968, 6:2706).

Chesterfield is even capable of declaring one of these despicable vulgarisms to be absolutely true in order to drive home a point: “It is a vulgar, ordinary saying, but it is a very true one, that one should always put the best foot foremost” (Stanhope 1901, 1:140). However, he routinely distances himself from something he considers to be a lower class expression.

That is, of course, where his error lies. Proverbs express traditional wisdom shared by all people of a culture. The aristocratic Chesterfield obviously knows them well himself, and is clearly incapable of avoiding them completely. [2] He also assumes that others of his class will know them too. In a letter of 13 June 1758, he cites merely the first half of an English and a French proverb, obviously convinced of their general currency. Speaking of marriages, he quips, “The lady has wanted a man so long, that she now compounds for half a one. Half a loaf–“(Stanhope 1901, 2:237). He closes his letter with a more personal reflection concerning his health: “I have been worse since my last letter; but am now, I think, recovering; tant va la cruche a l’eau;–and I have been there very often” (Stanhope 1901, 2:238). Presumably he was sure that his son and his contemporaries knew the sixteenth-century proverb “Half a loaf is better than no bread,” and that the sexual implication in tent va la cruche a l’eau would also have been understood as well. [3]

His underlying fondness for, and familiarity with, popular speech is also shown in his use of proverbial expressions which are often even more colloquial than proverbs:

I have so little to do, that I am surprised how I can find time to write to

you so often. Do not stare at the seeming paradox; for it is an undoubted

truth, that the less one has to do, the less time one finds to do it in.

One yawns, one procrastinates, one can do it when one will, and therefore

one seldom does it at all; whereas those who have a great deal of business,

must (to use a vulgar expression) buckle to it; and then they always find

time enough to do it in. I hope that your own experience has by this time

convinced you of this truth (Stanhope 1901, 2:206-7).

Be you then attentive to even the most trifling thing that passes where you

are, have (as the vulgar phrase is) your eyes and your ears always about

you (Stanhope 1968, 6:2680).

One last example of proverbial use must be cited, since it shows the ageing Chesterfield coming to terms with file fact that his son has died leaving a widow and two grandchildren he previously knew nothing about. His letter of 5 November 1769 to Eugenia Peters shows him starting to warm to his son’s widow while reserving his position about widows in general:

Madam: I remember very well the paragraph which you quote from a letter of

mine to Mrs du Bouchet, and see no reason yet to retract that opinion, in

general, which at least nineteen widows of twenty had authorized. I had not

then the pleasure of your acquaintance: I had seen you but twice or thrice;

and I had no reason to think that you would deviate, as you have done, from

other widows, so much as to put perpetual shackles upon yourself, for the

sake of your children. But (if I may use a vulgarism) one swallow makes no

summer: five righteous were formerly necessary to save a city, and they

could not be found; so, till I find four more such righteous widows as

yourself, I shall entertain my former notions of widowhood in general

(Stanhope 1901, 2:336).

In this letter the traditional proverb is a perfect fit, as the stylist Chesterfield is very well aware. Nevertheless, he has to call it a “vulgarism” though all the while enjoying his play with the proverb.

On some occasions, Chesterfield plays with the oppositions proverbs provide, either between popular wisdom and experience or between one proverb and another:

Some pedants may have told you that sound sense and learning stand in need

of no ornaments; and, to support that assertion, elegantly quote the vulgar

proverb, that GOOD WINE NEEDS NO BUSH; but surely the little experience you

have already had of the world must have convinced you that the contrary of

that assertion is true (Stanhope 1901, 2:38-9).

There is a vulgar saying, that wits have short memories, which is false;

but the contrary is very true, that fools have no memories at all (Stanhope

1968, 6:2728).

All people remember whatever they attend to. They say that “great wits have

short memories”; but I say that only fools have short ones; because they

are incapable of attention, at least to anything that deserves it, and then

they complain of want of memory (Stanhope 1901, 2:427).

I knew once a very covetous, sordid fellow, who used frequently to say,

“Take care of the pence; for the pounds will take care of themselves.” This

was a just and sensible reflection of a miser. I recommend to you to take

care of the minutes; for hours will take care of themselves (Stanhope 1901,


Those who aim at perfection will come infinitely nearer it than those

desponding or indolent spirits, who foolishly say to themselves: Nobody is

perfect; perfection is unattainable; to attempt it is chimerical; I shall

do as well as others; why then should I give myself trouble to be what I

never can, and what, according to the common course of things, I need not

be, PERFECT? (Stanhope 1901, 2:64-5).

If proverbial expressions can express matters so effectively, or provide such verbal fun, why label them as “vulgar”?

Sure enough, more often than not Chesterfield forgets to include this superfluous and incorrect label, clearly indicating that proverbial language is part of his written style and quite certainly of his oral speech. Thus, very basic colloquial expressions creep into his letters, and they always do so when he intends to add some emotion to his controlled epistles. A few examples must suffice to show this effective tendency:

The rest of Europe will be the quieter, and have time to recover. England,

I am sure, wants rest, for it wants men and money; the Republic of the

United Provinces cannot well dance, when neither France, nor the maritime

powers, can, as they used to do, pay the piper. The first squabble in

Europe, that I foresee, will be about the Crown of Poland, should the

present King die (Stanhope 1901, 2:169).

I thank you for your wild boar; who, now he is dead, I assure him, se

laissera bien manger malgre qu’il en ait; though I am not so sure that I

should have had that personal valour which so successfully distinguished

you in single combat with him, which made him bite the dust like Homer’s

heroes, and, to conclude my period sublimely, put him into that pickle,

from which I propose eating him (Stanhope 1901, 2:170). In America, I

think, we are sure of success, and great success; but how we shall be able

to strike a balance, as they call it, between good success there, and ill

success upon the continent, so as to come at a peace, is more than I can

discover (Stanhope 1901, 2:257).

I am very sorry to tell you that Harte’s Gustavus Adolphus does not take at

all [4] and consequently sells very little: it is certainly informing, and

full of good matter; but it is as certain too, that the style is execrable:

where the devil he picked it up, I cannot conceive, for it is a bad style,

of a new and singular kind; it is full of Latinisms, Gallicisms,

Germanisms, and all isms but Anglicisms; in some places pompous, in others

vulgar and low (Stanhope 1901, 2:261-2).

You are, I find, over head and ears engaged in ceremony and etiquette. You

must not yield in anything essential, where your public character may

suffer; but I advise you, at the same time, to distinguish carefully what

may, and what may not affect it (Stanhope 1901, 2:274-5).

You well know the resolution I had made several years ago, and which I have

scrupulously observed ever since, not to concern myself, directly or

indirectly, in any party political contest whatsoever. Let parties go to

loggerheads as much and as long as they please; I will neither endeavour to

part them, nor take the part of either; for I know them all too well

(Stanhope 1901, 2:283).

Whatever places or preferments are disposed of, come evidently from Lord–,

who affects to be invisible; and who, like a woodcock, thinks that if his

head is but hid, he is not seen at all (Stanhope 1901, 2:324).

Furthermore, he frequently employs proverbs in a very straightforward traditional fashion as valuable pieces of advice. In those cases, proverbs are not labelled as inappropriate for the elegant upper class. In fact, they become major instruments for the proper education of his son, serving an absolutely legitimate purpose:

A man of sense knows how to make the most of his time, and put out his

whole sum either to interest or to pleasure; he is never idle, but

constantly employed either in amusements or in study. It is a saying, that

idleness is the mother of all vice. At least, it is certain that laziness

is the inheritance of fools; and nothing is so despicable as a sluggard

(Stanhope 1901, 2:348). [5]

For though people should not do well for the sake of rewards, yet those who

do well ought in justice to be rewarded. One should do well for the sake of

doing well, and virtue is its own reward; that is, the consciousness of

having done right makes one happy enough even without any other reward

(Stanhope 1901, 2:378-9).

To know a little of anything gives neither satisfaction nor credit; but

often brings disgrace or ridicule. Mr Pope says, very truly,

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing;

Drink deep or taste not the Castalian spring” (Stanhope 1901, 2:434).


Every virtue, they say, has its kindred vice; every pleasure, I am sure,

has its neighbouring disgrace. Mark carefully, therefore, the line that

separates them, and rather stop a yard short, than step an inch beyond it

(Stanhope 1901, 1:292).

We must take most things as they are, we cannot make them what we would,

nor often what they should be; and where moral duties are not concerned, it

is more prudent to follow than to attempt to lead (Stanhope 1901, 2:156).

A gentleman’s air in walking, sitting and standing, is one of those little

things which must be carefully attended to, for little things only please

little minds, and the majority of little minds is very great (Stanhope

1968, 6:2746-7).

All these short statements give solid moral or behavioural advice, and the proverbs serve to underscore the intended lesson.

Five Favourite Proverbs

How much Chesterfield actually liked and believed in traditional folk wisdom becomes evident in his use of favourite proverbs.

“Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today”

Being the expounder of a solid work ethic, Chesterfield has a predilection for the proverb “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today,” employing it three times in his letters between 1747 and 1754:

Being asked how he [the Pensionary de Witt] could possibly find time to go

through so much business, and yet amuse himself in the evenings as he did,

he answered, there was nothing so easy; for that it was only doing one

thing at a time, and never putting off anything till to-morrow that could

be done to-day (Stanhope 1901, 1:15).

Many people lose a great deal of their time by laziness; they loll and yawn

in a great chair, tell themselves that they have not time to begin anything

then, and that it will do as well another time. This is a most unfortunate

disposition, and the greatest obstruction to both knowledge and business

[…] You are but just listed in the world, and must be active, diligent,

indefatigable. If ever you propose commanding with dignity, you must serve

up to it with diligence. Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today

(Stanhope 1901, 1:290).

Use yourself, therefore, in time to be alert and diligent in your little

concerns; never procrastinate, never put off till to-morrow what you can do

to-day; and never do two things at a time; pursue your object, be it what

it will, steadily and indefatigably; and let any difficulties (if

surmountable) rather animate than slacken your endeavours. Perseverance has

surprising effects (Stanhope 1901, 2:185).

“Whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well”

Another example of Chesterfield’s obsession with diligence can be seen in his repeated use of the proverb “Whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well.” As already stated, one of his early letters to his son, from 9 October 1746, states directly and simply, “In truth, whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well; and nothing can be done well without attention” (Stanhope 1901, 1:2). [7] A year later, he reminds his son in a similar fashion, “Remember the hoc age [be attentive], do what you are about, be what it will; it is either worth doing well, or not at all” (Stanhope 1901, 1:31-2). And years later, in 1762, he bombards his godson with the same proverbial work ethic: “You know the meaning of these two Latin words, Hoc age, that is do the thing, that you are doing, well (Stanhope 1968, 6:2428); and “Remember your Father’s rule which he has so often repeated to you of Hoc age. You understand those two Latin words; they mean do whatever you are doing with attention. When you are upon your hobby-horse, do not think of your learning; but then when you are learning do not think of your hobby-horse” (Stanhope 1968, 6:2435). It must be remembered that these letters are addressed to a seven year-old boy.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”

There is yet another proverb that served Chesterfield as a leitmotif for teaching his son and godson the most basic principles of behaviour, namely the Biblical golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12). [8] On 27 September 1748, he summarised the entire purpose of his moral teaching thus:

Pray let not quibbles of lawyers, no refinements of casuists, break into

the plain notions of right and wrong, which every man’s right reason and

plain common sense suggest to him. To do as you would be done by, is the

plain, sure, and undisputed rule of morality and justice. Stick to that

(Stanhope 1901, 1:117).

Fourteen years later, on 2 August 1762, Chesterfield’s young godson gets the same medicine to swallow:

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 [the] 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 (Stanhope 1968, 6:2406-7).

Barely a week later, the godson hears yet again: “I dare say you love to be pleased; then should you not endeavour to please others; this is but doing as you would be done by” (Stanhope 1968, 6:2409). About two years passed, but then on 13 July 1764, Chesterfield returns to this favourite proverb:

I am sure you know that it is your most important moral duty, to do to

others what you would have them do to you, and would you have them be civil

to you and endeavour to please you? To be sure you would; consequently it

is your duty as well as your interest to be civil to, and to endeavour to

please them (Stanhope 1968, 6:2601) (and see Pullen 1967, 374-5; Rawson

1967, 138).

And finally, on 31 October 1765, Lord Chesterfield tells his ten year-old godson one more time the ultimate truth of the Biblical proverb: “Your moral duties are fully contained in these very few words, Do as you would wish to be done by” (Stanhope 1968, 6:2673). [9]

“John Trot”

There is one expression which Chesterfield uses which is no longer current. The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs lists this merely as “John Trot [= an uncultured person, bumpkin]” and gives the earliest reference as 1753 (see Wilson 1970, 413; Mieder 1984, 204). But Chesterfield already employed the term in two letters of 30 April and 22 September 1752:

You have had more opportunities than ever any man had, at your age, of

acquiring ce monde. You have been in the best companies of most countries,

at an age when others have hardly been in any company at all. You are a

master of all those languages, which John Trott [Chesterfield uses the

double “t” spelling] seldom speaks at all, and never well; consequently you

need be a stranger nowhere. This is the way, and the only way, of having du

monde, but if you have it not, and have still any coarse rusticity about

you, may not one apply to you the rusticus expectat of Horace? (Stanhope

1901, 2:83).

There is a certain distinguishing diction of a man of fashion; he will not

content himself with saying, like John Trott, to a new-married man, Sir, I

wish you much joy; or to a man who lost his son, Sir, I am sorry for your

loss; and both with a countenance equally unmoved; but he will say in

effect the same thing in a more elegant and less trivial manner, and with a

countenance adapted to the occasion (Stanhope 1901, 2:121).

From the context of these letters modern readers get an idea what is meant by the expression “To be a John Trott,” but there remains the nagging question of whence the phrase comes. It is Lord Chesterfield himself, in a letter of 18 August 1762, to his seven year-old godson, who presents an answer that would delight any historically minded paremiologist:

I am sure you would not be called John Trott, and both I and others will

call you so, if you are not more attentive and polite. I believe you do not

know who this same John Trott is. He is a Character in a play, of a brutal

bearish Englishman; for there are English two-legged bears, and but too

many of them. He is rude, inattentive, and rough, seldom bows to people,

and never looks them in the face. After this description of him, tell me

which you would choose to be called, John Trott, or a well-bred gentleman.

C’est-a-dire, voudriez-vous etre aimable, ou brutal? Il n’y a point de

milieu, il faut opter, et etre l’un ou l’autre. I know which you will

choose, I am sure you will desire and endeavour to be aimable (Stanhope

1968, 6:2410-11).

What choice did the little fellow have but to respond positively to such instruction? But to make sure that his godson really understood the matter, Chesterfield repeats his message, as he was prone to do. After all, already on 2 May 1751 he had written to his son: “Though I must necessarily fall into repetitions by treating the same subject so often, I cannot help recommending to you again the utmost attention to your air and address” (Stanhope 1901, 2:2). So here comes yet another “John Trott” letter for the godson:

You say you will not be John Trott, and you are in the right of it, for I

should be very sorry to call you John Trott, and should not love you half

so well as I do, if you deserved that name. The lowest and the poorest

people in the world, expect good breeding from a gentleman, and they have a

right to it; for they are by nature your equals, and are not otherwise your

inferiors than by their education and their fortune … I am sure that you

would rather be called a well-bred gentleman, than John Trott (Stanhope

1968, 6:2411-12).

Of course, this is a proverbial expression directed in a stereotypical fashion against the so-called lower class, but Chesterfield nevertheless stoops so low as to write a short explanatory treatise on it and to use it in his elegant letters. The references cited here can hardly be taken as an example of purging his own language and that of his age of “vulgar” proverbial utterances.

“Healthy Mind in Healthy Body”

This is one of Chesterfield’s real favourites. He considers it one of the basic laws of life, and quotes it four times in Latin:

Mens sana in corpore sano, is the truest description of human happiness; I

think you have them both at present; take care to keep them; :it is in your

power to do it (Stanhope 1901, 2:424).

Mens sana in corpore sano, is the first and greatest blessing. I would add

et pulchro [and beautiful], to complete it. May you have that and every

other! (Stanhope 1901, 1:224).

You have, too, mens sana in corpore sano, the greatest blessing of all

(Stanhope 1901, 2:25).

Mens sana in corpore sano est le comble du bonheur dans cette vie, et

contribue beaucoup au bonheur eternal dans l’autre. Pour le mens sana il

faut bien apprendre, savoir beaucoup, et bien dompter ses passions. Et pour

l’avoir in corpore sano, il suffit d’etre tres sobre, ne point boire du

vin, et par consequent ne guere prendre des medecines (Stanhope 1968,

6:2513). [10]

Proverbs in Other Languages


There is yet another group of proverbs that stand out in these fascinating letters, namely those from other languages–Latin, French, Italian and Spanish. As a man of the world, Lord Chesterfield had lived and travelled widely in Europe, and developed a keen interest in foreign languages. Again and again he advises his son and subsequently the sons of that son to study French, Italian or German. Not surprisingly, he makes use of the rich proverb repertoire of these languages and cultures. When his son was just seven years of age, in a letter dated 17 October 1739, Chesterfield hits him with the Latin original of a proverb and also the English translation to explain the importance of rhetoric for a well-educated person:

It is said that a man must be born a poet; but that he can make himself an

orator. Nascitur Poeta, fit Orator. This means, that to be a poet one must

be born with a certain degree of strength and vivacity of mind; but that

attention, reading, and labour are sufficient to form an orator (Stanhope

1901, 2:375). [11]

Other Latin proverbs include:

Non progredi est regredi [Not to advance means to go backwards] is a very

true maxim in most things, but is particularly true with regard to learning

(Stanhope 1901, 2:415). [12]

Examine and analyze those thoughts that strike you the most, either in

conversation or in books; and you will find that they owe at least half of

their merit to the turn and expression of them. There is nothing truer than

the old saying, Nihil dictum quod non prins [prius!] dictum [Nothing is

said which has not been said before]. It is only the manner of saying or

writing it that makes it appear new. Convince yourself that manner is

almost everything, in everything; and study it accordingly (Stanhope 1901,


It has been long said, Qui nescit dissimulare nescit regnare [Who knows not

how to dissimulate, does not know how to rule]: I go still further, and

say, that without some dissimilation no business can be carried on at all

(Stanhope 1901, 1:180-1).

What is of importance in these last three examples is that Chesterfield introduces each Latin proverb with an introductory formula, directly and positively pointing to the proverbial and traditional character of the saying. He certainly is not sneering at them, and in the case of the last one he even expands on the basic text to indicate that the proverb does not go far enough in its characterisation of human nature and intercourse. It seems that he approves of these old proverbs and is far from pushing them away as vulgar expressions. It helps, of course, that he cites them in the learned language of Latin, a language that the “vulgar” would not know. But proverbs they are nevertheless.

Modern Languages

Nothing is more contrary to les bienseances than horse-play, or jeux de

main of any kind whatever, and has often very serious, sometimes very fatal

consequences. Romping, struggling, throwing things at one another’s head,

are the becoming pleasantries of the mob, but degrade a gentleman: giuoco

di mano, giuoco di villano [Rough play is low play], is a very true saying,

among the few true sayings of the Italians (Stanhope 1901, 2:24).

People will, in a great degree, and not without reason, form their opinion

of you, upon that which they have of your friends; and there is a Spanish

proverb, which says very justly, Tell me who [sic] you live with and I will

tell you who you are. One may fairly suppose, that the man who makes a

knave or a fool his friend, has something very bad to do or to conceal.

But, at the same time that you carefully decline the friendship of knaves

and fools, if it can be called friendship, there is no occasion to make

either of them your enemies, wantonly and unprovoked; for they are numerous

bodies: and I would rather choose a secure neutrality, than alliance, or

war with either of them (Stanhope 1901, 1:24).

There is good sense in the Spanish saying, “Tell me whom you live with, and

I will tell you who you are.” Make it therefore your business, wherever you

are, to get into that company which everybody in the place allows to be the

best company next to their own; which is the best definition that I can

give you of good company (Stanhope 1901, 1:123-4).

At your first appearance in Town, make as many acquaintances as you please,

and the more the better; but for some time contract no friendships. Stay a

little and inform yourself of the characters of those young fellows with

whom you must necessarily live more or less, but connect yourself

intimately with none but such whose moral characters are unblemished. For

it is a true saying, tell me who [sic] you live with and I will tell you

what you are; and it is equally true that when a man of sense makes a

friend of a knave or a fool, he must have something bad to do, or to

conceal. A good character will be soiled at least by frequent contact with

a bad one (Stanhope 1968, 6:2941).

In many ways, this last statement repeats the first passage cited, but why did Chesterfield drop its identification as a Spanish proverb? First of all, Chesterfield is correct in calling the text a Spanish proverb, since it does exist in that language as Dime con quien andas, direte quien eres (“Tell me what company you keep, and I will tell you who you are”) (Bohn 1968, 214). But when he used it for the third time as a fitting leitmotif to comment on the proper company that one should keep, he must finally have realised that this proverb had also been long established since the sixteenth century in the English language as “Tell me with whom you go, and I’ll tell you who you are” (Wilson 1970, 807; Mieder, Kingsbury and Horden 1992, 254). And how shocked might the noble Lord have been, if he had found out that this proverb is actually of medieval Latin origin. In fact, the Latin text “Noscitur ex socio, qui non cognoscitur ex se” (Walther and Schmidt 1963-86, 1:432) was subsequently translated into most European languages, making it a generally accepted truism about human behaviour. In any case, Lord Chesterfield approved of the content of the proverb, and there is no indication whatsoever that he considered it too “vulgar” for his educational epistles.

The situation is quite similar with a number of French proverbs cited in the letters. It must, however, be added that Chesterfield was absolutely fluent in French and that he delighted in writing letters in French. Thus, he cites the same French proverb in two letters from 1751 and 1766, both once again dealing with proper behaviour in company:

There is a social respect necessary: you may start your own subject of

conversation with modesty, taking great care, however, de ne jamais parler

de cordes dans la maison d’un pendu. Your words, gestures, and attitudes,

have a greater degree of latitude, though by no means an unbounded one

(Stanhope 1901, 2:22).

Have a watch over yourself never to say anything that either the whole

company, or any one person in it, can reasonably or probably take ill, and

remember the French saying, qu’il nefaut pas parler de corde, dans la

maison d’un pendu. Good nature usually charms, even all those who have

none, and it is impossible to be aimable without both the reality and the

appearances of it (Stanhope 1968, 6:2704).

But what was it, snobbery or ignorance, that kept Chesterfield from citing the English version of this proverb? After all, the saying was quite common in Europe and current in English since the late sixteenth century as “Never mention a rope in the house of a man who has been hanged” (Wilson 1970, 684; Mieder, Kingsbury and Harder 1992, 516).

Similar questions arise with two other French-language proverbs for which exact English equivalents were available to Chesterfield. In the first case it is “The game is not worth the candle” and in the second, “In the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed is king (see Wilson 1970, 428; see also Smith 1950, 441-7; Adler 1951, 214-16):

When you are invited to drink, say that you wish you could, but that so

little makes you both drunk and sick, que le jeu ne vaut pas la chandelle

(Stanhope 1901, 1:308).

This gives you a fine opportunity of distinguishing yourself among your

growing contemporaries, and should you even fall short of perfection, you

will still shine; for you know the French saying, que dans le royaume des

aveugles un borgne est roi (Stanhope 1968, 6:2814).

Then there is also his play with the well-known European mercenary proverb, “No money, no Swiss,” which he refuses to cite in his native language, although it had been well established there since the seventeenth century (Wilson 1970, 572):

Point d’argent, point de Russe, is [sic] now become a maxim (Stanhope 1901,


Point d’argent, point de Suisse, is not truer of the laudable Helvetic

body, than point d’argent, point de Russe, is of the savages of the Two

Russias, not even excepting the Autocratice of them both (Stanhope 1901,


Point d’argent, point d’Allemand, as was used to be said, and not without

more reason, of the Swiss (Stanhope 1901, 2:331).

All of this could easily have been written in English, so why quote it in French? Does he find such “vulgar” proverbs more acceptable in a foreign tongue? But then why not avoid the statements that characterise the French statements as being proverbial? Maybe Lord Chesterfield wanted to show his linguistic prowess, or perhaps he felt that the French language would hide the “vulgar” tone of English proverbs?

When it comes to proverbial expressions, Chesterfield seems a bit more justified in using effective French phrases that do not have precise equivalents in English. In the following examples the English translations in parentheses provide only approximate equivalents of the colourful French expressions:

There would be no living in courts, nor indeed in the world if one could

not conceal, and even dissemble, the just causes of resentment, which one

meets with every day in active and busy life. Whoever cannot master his

humour enough, pour faire bonne mine a mauvais jeu [To grin and bear it],

should leave the world, and retire to some hermitage, in an unfrequented

desert (Stanhope 1901, 2:192).

All I can say of the affair between you, of the Corps Diplomatique, and the

Saxon Ministers, is, que voila bien de bruit pour une omelette au lard

[there is a lot of noise for a bacon omelette, i.e. much ado about

nothing]. It will most certainly be soon made up; and in that negotiation

show yourself as moderate and healing as your instructions from hence will

allow (Stanhope 1901, 2:292).

I cannot help thinking that the King of Poland, the Empress of Russia, and

the King of Prussia, s’entendent comme larrons en foire [are as thick as

thieves], though the former must not appear in it upon account of

stupidity, ignorance, and bigotry of the Poles (Stanhope 1901, 2:320).

Enfin, to use a very coarse and vulgar saying, il y a de la merde au bout

du baton, quelque part (Stanhope 1901, 2:294).

In the last case it makes some sense to use the French language in order to avoid the English word “shit” for “merde.” Interestingly enough, though, the English equivalent, “To have a blot on one’s escutcheon,” is much more innocuous than the French expression. So once again the question arises, why did Chesterfield use the French phrase in the first place? He must simply have enjoyed this somewhat risque expression, and thought that he could get away with it in the foreign tongue. But how could he possibly still claim that “a man of fashion never has recourse to proverbs or vulgar aphorisms”?


What has become clear throughout this analysis of Lord Chesterfield’s letters is that he could not escape folk speech and proverbs, and sometimes did not wish to.

One thing is certain; neither Lord Chesterfield’s letters nor the “Age of Enlightenment” are devoid of proverbs. There is no proverbial blackout during this time of reason and rationality. Chesterfield delighted in their repeated use, and on the few occasions he questioned their value, he was merely following normal disagreements with proverbs in particular contexts. Above all, his two letters of 1741 and 1749 to his son calling for the careful avoidance of proverbs by educated and fashionable people are nothing but words spoken to the wind. Generations of scholars have taken them at face value far too hastily. Proverbs were actually employed in both a traditional and an innovative way by Lord Chesterfield himself and by his contemporaries on many occasions. In trying to ban them, or in claiming that they disappeared from common use during the eighteenth century, Lord Chesterfield and scholars have tilted at proverbial windmills.

Neither Chesterfield nor his age could live without them.


[1] It is of interest to note that in his eagerness to make his point, Lord Chesterfield lowers himself to cite something as crude as a Wellerism, albeit in a somewhat “cleansed” variant. The more “vulgar” version would be “`Every man where he likes,’ quoth the goodman when he kissed his cow” (see Mieder and Kingsbury 1992, nos 74 and 1328-41). And how disheartened would he have been had he known that his sentence “Tastes are different” is also a proverbial utterance and goes back as far as the sixteenth century (Mieder and Kingsbury 1992, 583).

[2] There is a telling paragraph from a letter of 30 September 1757 that also shows Chesterfield’s interest in formulating his own “aphorisms, distilled from wise observation” (see Bennett 1927, 58-9; Price 1966, 100). His observation, “The less one has to do, the less time one finds to do it in,” is an aphoristic formulation, whose truth Chesterfield wants to have recognised. All that is needed is for his formulation to gain currency among the folk, and he might even have coined a proverb.

[3] “Tant va la cruche a l’eau, qu’a la fin elle sa brise” –in its fourteenth-century English translation, “The pitcher goes so often to the water that it is broken at last” (see Wilson 1970, 628; Mieder, Kingsbury and Harder 1992, 466; see also Vinken 1958).

[4] Walter Harte was Philip Stanhope’s tutor for many years; for their amicable relationship see Shellabarger 1935, 326-7.

[5] See also the similar proverbial passage, “Idleness is only the refuge of weak minds, and the holiday of fools. I do not call good company and liberal pleasures, idleness; far from it: I recommend to you a good share of both” (Stanhope 1901, 1:192).

[6] This proverb is repeated, rather more accurately, two years later on 29 November 1748: “Pope says, very truly, in his `Essay on Criticism’: A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring” (Stanhope 1901, 1:141-2).

[7] Regarding this proverb, see also: Shellabarger 1935, 121; Willey 1964, 270; Rawson 1967, 136.

[8] See Hertzler 1933-4, 418-36; Reiner 1948, 74-105; and Soliva 1964, 51-7.

[9] Other favourite Biblical proverbs include, “If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch” (Stanhope 1901, 1:34) and “Seek and you will find” (Stanhope 1901, 1:49). But Biblical proverbs are otherwise rather rare in the worldly educational plan which Chesterfield puts forth for his son.

[10] See also Bailey 1965, 199; Rogers 1984, 46.

[11] Ten years later, on 24 November 1749, Chesterfield repeats the same idea, using only the English version of the proverb: “It is a very true saying, that a man must be born a poet, but that he may make himself an orator; and the very first principle of an orator is to speak his own language, particularly, with the utmost purity and elegance” (Stanhope 1901, 1:246).

[12] The Latin proverb is also cited in two French-language letters to his godson (Stanhope 1968, 6:2583 and 2584).

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Biographical Note

Wolfgang Mieder is Professor of German and Folklore in the Department of German and Russian, University of Vermont. He is the author of numerous books and articles on proverbs including Wise Words: Essays on the Proverb (New York: Garland Publishing, 1994). He is also the founding Editor of Proverbium: Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship since 1984.

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