Mistakes Educated People Make – Lord Chesterfield’s Timeless Advice to His Son.
DEAR BOY, Bath, February the 22nd, O. S. 1748.
EVERY excellency, and every virtue, has its kindred vice or weakness; and if carried beyond certain bounds, sinks into the one or the other. Generosity often runs into Profusion, Economy into Avarice, Courage into Rashness, Caution into Timidity, and so on : insomuch that, I believe, there is more judgment required for the proper conduct of our virtues, than for avoiding their opposite vices. Vice, in its true light, is so deformed, that it shocks us at first sight; and would hardly ever seduce us, if it did not at first wear the mask of some Virtue. But Virtue is in itself so beautiful, that it charms us at first; engages us more and more, upon further acquaintance; and, as with other Beauties, we think excess impossible: it is is that judgment is necessary to moderate and direct the effects of excellent cause.
I shall apply this reasoning, at present, not to any particular virtue, but to an excellency, which for want of judgment is often the cause of ridiculous and blamable effects; I mean, great Learning, which, if not accompanied with sound judgment, frequently carries us into Error, Pride, and Pedantry. As I hope you will possess that excellency in its utmost extent, and yet without its too common failings, the hints which my experience can suggest may probably not be useless to you.
Some learned men, proud of their knowledge, only 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 : and (by the by) that modesty is the surest way of gratifying your vanity. Even where you are sure, seem rather doubtful : represent, but do not pronounce ; and if you would convince others, seem open to conviction yourself.
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. I would by no means have you disown your acquaintance with the Ancients ; but still less would I have you brag of an exclusive intimacy with them. Speak of the Moderns without contempt, and of the Ancients without idolatry; judge them all by their merits and not by their ages. And if you happen to have an Elzevir classic in your pocket, neither show it nor mention it.
Some great Scholars most absurdly draw all their maxims, both for public and private life, from what they call Parallel Cases in the ancient authors; without considering, that, in the first place, there never were, since the creation of the world, two cases exactly parallel : and, in the next place, that there never was a case stated, or even known, by any Historian, with every one of its circumstances; which, however, ought to be known, in order to be reasoned from. Reason upon the case and the several circumstances that attend it, and act accorodingly but not from the authority of ancient Poets or Historians. Take into your consideration, if you please, cases seemingly analogous ; but take them as helps only, not as guides. We are really so prejudiced by our educations, that, as the Ancients deified their Heroes, we deify their Madmen : of which, with all due regard to antiquity, I take Leonidas and Curtius to have been two distinguished ones. And yet a stolid Pedant would, in a speech in Parliament, relative to a tax of twopence in the pound, upon some commodity or other, quote those two heroes, as examples of what we ought to do and suffer for our country. I have known these absurdities carried so far, by people of injudicious learning, that I should not be surprised, if some of them were to propose, while we are at war with the Gauls, that a number of geese should be kept in the Tower, upon account of the infinite advantage which Rome received, in a parallel case, from a certain number of geese in the Capitol. This way of reasoning, and this way of speaking, will always form a poor politician, and a puerile declaimer.
There is another species of learned men, who, though less dogmatic and supercilious, are not less impertinent.
These are the communicative and shining Pedants, who adorn their conversation, even with women, by happy quotations of Greek and Latin, and who have contracted such a familiarity with the Greek and Roman authors, that they call them by certain names or epithets denoting intimacy. As old Homer; that sly rogue Horace; Maro, instead of Virgil; and Naso, instead of Ovid. These are often imitated by coxcombs who have no learning at all, but who have got some names and some scraps of ancient authors by heart, which they improperly and impertinently retail in all companies, in hopes of passing for scholars.
If, therefore, you would avoid the accusation of pedantry, on one hand, or the suspicion of ignorance, on the other, abstain from learned ostentation. Speak the the language of the company that you are in, speak it purely , and unlarded with any other. Never seem wiser, nor more learned than the people you are with. Wear your knowledge, like your watch, in a private pocket and do not pull it out, and strike it, merely to show that you have one. If you are asked what o’clock it is, tell it; but do not proclaim it hourly and unasked, like the watchman.
Upon the whole, remember that learning (I mean Greek and Roman learning) is a most useful and necessary ornament which it is shameful not to be master of; but at the same time most carefully avoid those errors and abuses which I have mentioned, and which too often attend it. Remember, too, that great modern knowledge is still more necessary than ancient; and that you had better know perfectly the present than the old state of Europe; though I would have you well acquainted with both.