Advice from an 18th century Lord.
Earl of Chesterfield Philip Dormer Stanhope’s letter to his seventeen-year-old son, 1750.
My Dear Friend,
Very few people are good economists of their fortune, and still fewer of their time; and yet of the two, the latter is the most precious. I heartily wish you to be a good economist of both: and you are now of an age to begin to think seriously of those two important articles. Young people are apt to think that they have so much time before them, that they may squander what they please of it, and yet have enough left; as very great fortunes have frequently seduced people to a ruinous profusion. Fatal mistakes, always repented of, but always too late! Old Mr. Lowndes, the famous Secretary of the Treasury in the reigns of King William, Queen Anne, and King George the First, used to say,“Take Care of the pence, and the pounds will take care of themselves.” To this maxim, which he not only preached but practiced, his two grandsons at this time owe the very considerable fortunes that he left them.
This holds equally true as to time; and I most earnestly recommend to you the care of those minutes and quarters of hours, in the course of the day, which people think too short to deserve their attention; and yet, if summed up at the end of the year, would amount to a very considerable portion of time. For example: you are to be at such a place at twelve, by appointment; you go out at eleven, to make two or three visits first; those persons are not at home, instead of sauntering away that intermediate time at a coffeehouse, and possibly alone, return home, write a letter, beforehand, for the ensuing post, or take up a good book, I do not mean Descartes, Malebranche, Locke, or Newton, by way of dipping; but some book of rational amusement and detached pieces, as Horace, Boileau, Waller, La Bruyere, etc.
This will be so much time saved, and by no means ill employed. Many people lose a great deal of time by reading: for they read frivolous and idle books, such as the absurd romances of the two last centuries; where characters, that never existed, are insipidly displayed, and sentiments that were never felt, pompously described: the Oriental ravings and extravagances of the “Arabian Nights,” and Mogul tales; or, the new flimsy brochures that now swarm in France, of fairy tales, ‘Reflections sur le coeur et l’esprit, metaphysique de l’amour, analyse des beaux sentimens’, and such sort of idle frivolous stuff, that nourishes and improves the mind just as much as whipped cream would the body. Stick to the best established books in every language; the celebrated poets, historians, orators, or philosophers. By these means (to use a city metaphor) you will make fifty per cent of that time, of which others do not make above three or four, or probably nothing at all.
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. At your age, you have no right nor claim to laziness; I have, if I please, being emeritus. 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 to-day.
Dispatch is the soul of business; and nothing contributes more to dispatch than method. Lay down a method for everything, and stick to it inviolably, as far as unexpected incidents may allow.
- Fix one certain hour and day in the week for your accounts, and keep them together in their proper order; by which means they will require very little time, and you can never be much cheated.
- Whatever letters and papers you keep, docket and tie them up in their respective classes, so that you may instantly have recourse to any one.
- Lay down a method also for your reading, for which you allot a certain share of your mornings; let it be in a consistent and consecutive course, and not in that desultory and unmethodical manner, in which many people read scraps of different authors, upon different subjects.
- Keep a useful and short commonplace book of what you read, to help your memory only, and not for pedantic quotations.
- Never read history without having maps and a chronological book, or tables, lying by you, and constantly recurred to; without which history is only a confused heap of facts.
- One method more I recommend to you, by which I have found great benefit, even in the most dissipated part of my life; that is, to rise early, and at the same hour every morning, how late soever you may have sat up the night before. This secures you an hour or two, at least, of reading or reflection before the common interruptions of the morning begin; and it will save your constitution, by forcing you to go to bed early, at least one night in three.
You will say, it may be, as many young people would, that all this order and method is very troublesome, only fit for dull people, and a disagreeable restraint upon the noble spirit and fire of youth. I deny it; and assert, on the contrary, that it will procure you both more time and more taste for your pleasures; and, so far from being troublesome to you, that after you have pursued it a month, it would be troublesome to you to lay it aside. Business whets the appetite, and gives a taste to pleasure, as exercise does to food; and business can never be done without method; it raises the spirits for pleasures; and a SPECTACLE, a ball, an assembly, will much more sensibly affect a man who has employed, than a man who has lost, the preceding part of the day; nay, I will venture to say, that a fine lady will seem to have more charms to a man of study or business, than to a saunterer. The same listlessness runs through his whole conduct, and he is as insipid in his pleasures, as inefficient in everything else.
I hope you earn your pleasures, and consequently taste them; for, by the way, I know a great many men, who call themselves men of pleasure, but who, in truth, have none. They adopt other people’s indiscriminately, but without any taste of their own. I have known them often inflict excesses upon themselves because they thought them genteel; though they sat as awkwardly upon them as other people’s clothes would have done. Have no pleasures but your own, and then you will shine in them. What are yours? Give me a short history of them… You may safely trust me; for though I am a severe censor of vice and folly, I am a friend and advocate for pleasures, and will contribute all in my power to yours.
There is a certain dignity to be kept up in pleasures, as well as in business. In love, a man may lose his heart with dignity; but if he loses his nose, he loses his character into the bargain. At table, a man may with decency have a distinguishing palate; but indiscriminate voraciousness degrades him to a glutton. A man may play with decency; but if he games, he is disgraced. Vivacity and wit make a man shine in company; but trite jokes and loud laughter reduce him to a buffoon. Every virtue, they say, has its kindred vice; every pleasure, I am sure, has its neighboring disgrace. Mark carefully, therefore, the line that separates them, and rather stop a yard short, than step an inch beyond it.
I wish to God that you had as much pleasure in following my advice, as I have in giving it you! and you may the more easily have it, as I give you none that is inconsistent with your pleasure. In all that I say to you, it is your interest alone that I consider: trust to my experience; you know you may to my affection. Adieu.
February 5, 1750
Guest Contributor Lord Philip Dormer Stanhope (22 September 1694 – 24 March 1773) was a British statesman, and man of letters, and wit.