in: Advice, Character

The 38 Best Pieces of Advice Lord Chesterfield Gave His Son

Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, was a statesman, diplomat, and man of letters. In his own time, he was recognized for his sharpness in rhetoric and known as an accomplished essayist. Today, however, he is largely remembered for a collection of writings he never intended to be published: his correspondence with his illegitimate son, Philip.

Over three decades time, Lord Chesterfield wrote more than 400 letters to Philip, instructing him not only in the subjects of a classical education like literature and history, but the manners, comportment, and interpersonal instincts needed to rise in the world. As a royal courtier, politician, and ambassador, Lord Chesterfield had gained firsthand lessons in how to build rapport, win over others, and deal with the machinations of institutional intrigue, and he sought to pass this wisdom onto his son so that he too could become an influential and distinguished gentleman.

Chesterfield’s correspondence was published in 1774 as Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman, and the book’s perceptive observations have been a guide to many prominent men in the centuries since. While some of Chesterfield’s advice has become outdated, it still contains plenty of evergreen pearls. Below, we share the 38 best.

“The power of applying attention, steady and undissipated, to a single object, is the sure mark of a superior genius.”

“Look in the face of the person to whom you are speaking if you wish to know his real sentiments, for he can command his words more easily than his countenance.”

“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 you live with, and I will tell you what you are.”

“Frivolous curiosity about trifles, and laborious attention to little objects, which neither require nor deserve a moment's thought, lower a man, who from thence is thought, and not unjustly, incapable of greater matters.”

“Those whom you can make like themselves better, will, I promise you, like you very well.”

“Let blockheads read, what blockheads wrote.”

“Choose the company of your superiors whenever you can have it; that is the right and true pride.”

“Next to doing things that deserve to be written, nothing gets a man credit, or gives him more pleasure than to write things that deserve to be read.”

“When a man seeks your advice he generally wants your praise.”

“Awkwardness is a more real disadvantage than it is generally thought to be; it often occasions ridicule, it always lessens dignity.”

“Prepare yourself for the world, as the athletes used to do for their exercise; oil your mind and your manners, to give them the necessary suppleness and flexibility; strength alone will not do.”

“A man's fortune is frequently decided by his first address. If pleasing, others at once conclude he has merit; but if ungraceful, they decide against him.”

“Compliments of congratulation are always kindly taken, and cost nothing but pen, ink, and paper.”

“It is often more necessary to conceal contempt than resentment, the former being never forgiven, but the latter sometimes forgot. Wrongs are often forgiven; contempt never.”

“Aim at perfection in everything, though in most things it is unattainable; however, they who aim at it, and persevere, will come much nearer to it, than those whose laziness and despondency make them give it up as unattainable.”

“Next to clothes being fine, they should be well made, and worn easily: for a man is only the less genteel for a fine coat, if, in wearing it, he shows a regard for it, and is not as easy in it as if it were a plain one.”

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

“Fear manifested invites danger; concealed cowards insult known ones.”

“The manner of speaking is full as important as the matter, as more people have ears to be tickled than understandings to judge.”

“Whoever is in a hurry shows that the thing he is about is too big for him. Haste and hurry are very different things.”

“Firmness of purpose is one of the most necessary sinews of character, and one of the best instruments of success. Without it genius wastes its efforts in a maze of inconsistencies.”

“The heart never grows better by age; I fear rather worse; always harder. A young liar will be an old one; and a young knave will only be a greater knave as he grows older.”

“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 buckle to it; and then they always find time enough to do it in.”

“Wear your learning, like your watch, in a private pocket. Do not pull it out merely to show that you have one. If asked what o'clock it is, tell it; but do not proclaim it hourly and unasked, like the watchman.”

“Knowledge is a comfortable and necessary retreat and shelter for us in advanced age, and if we do not plant it while young, it will give us no shade when we grow old.”

“I find, by experience, that the mind and the body are more than married, for they are most intimately united; and when the one suffers, the other sympathizes.”

“A man of the best parts and greatest learning, if he does not know the world by his own experience and observation, will be very absurd, and consequently very unwelcome in company. He may say very good things; but they will be probably so ill-timed, misplaced, or improperly addressed, that he had much better hold his tongue.”

“In order to judge of the inside of others, study your own; for men in general are very much alike, and though one has one prevailing passion, and another has another, yet their operations are much the same; and whatever engages or disgusts, pleases, or offends you in others will engage, disgust, please or offend others in you.”

“A man's own good breeding is the best security against other people's ill manners.”

“A weak mind is like a microscope, which magnifies trifling things, but cannot receive great ones.”

“Real merit of any kind, cannot long be concealed; it will be discovered, and nothing can depreciate it but a man exhibiting it himself. It may not always be rewarded as it ought; but it will always be known.”

“True politeness is perfect ease and freedom. It simply consists in treating others just as you love to be treated yourself.”

“If a fool knows a secret, he tells it because he is a fool; if a knave knows one, he tells it whenever it is his interest to tell it. But women and young men are very apt to tell what secrets they know, from the vanity of having been trusted. Trust none of these whenever you can help it.”

“Great talents, such as honor, virtue, and learning are above the generality of the world, who neither possess them themselves, nor judge of them rightly in others; but all people are judges of the lesser talents, such as civility, affability, and an obliging, agreeable address and manner, because they feel the good effects of them.”

“Silence and reserve suggest latent power. What some men think has more effect than what others say.”

“Many new years you may see, but happy ones you cannot see without deserving them. These virtue, honor, and knowledge alone can merit, alone can produce.”

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