I’ve never understood why people consider youth a time of freedom and joy. It’s probably because they have forgotten their own.—Margaret Atwood, 1976
Though I employ so much of my time in writing to you, I confess I have often my doubts whether it is to any purpose. I know how unwelcome advice generally is; I know that those who want it most like it and follow it least; and I know, too, that the advice of parents, more particularly, is ascribed to the moroseness, the imperiousness, or the garrulity of old age. But then, on the other hand, I flatter myself, that as your own reason (though too young as yet to suggest much to you of itself) is, however, strong enough to enable you both to judge of and receive plain truths. I flatter myself, I say, that your own reason, young as it is, must tell you that I can have no interest but yours in the advice I give you, and that, consequently, you will at least weigh and consider it well—in which case some of it will, I hope, have its effect. Do not think that I mean to dictate as a parent; I only mean to advise as a friend, and an indulgent one too; and do not apprehend that I mean to check your pleasures, of which, on the contrary, I only desire to be the guide, not the censor. Let my experience supply your want of it and clear your way in the progress of your youth of those thorns and briers which scratched and disfigured me in the course of mine. I do not, therefore, so much as hint to you how absolutely dependent you are upon me, that you neither have nor can have a shilling in the world but from me—and that, as I have no womanish weakness for your person, your merit must and will be the only measure of my kindness. I say, I do not hint these things to you, because I am convinced that you will act right upon more noble and generous principles—for the sake of doing right, and out of affection and gratitude to me.
Boy, by Ron Mueck, 1999. Mixed media, Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Denmark. Installation view, Forty-ninth Venice Biennale, “Plateau of Humankind,” Venice, Italy, 1999. © Ron Mueck, courtesy Anthony d’Offay, Hauser & Wirth.
I have so often recommended to you attention and application to whatever you learn that I do not mention them now as duties, but I point them out to you as conducive, nay, absolutely necessary, to your pleasures; for can there be a greater pleasure than to be universally allowed to excel those of one’s own age and manner of life? And, consequently, can there be anything more mortifying than to be excelled by them? In this latter case, your shame and regret must be greater than anybody’s, because everybody knows the uncommon care which has been taken of your education, and the opportunities you have had of knowing more than others of your age. I do not confine the application which I recommend singly to the view and emulation of excelling others (though that is a very sensible pleasure and a very warrantable pride), but I mean likewise to excel in the thing itself—for, in my mind, one may as well not know a thing at all as know it but imperfectly. 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 Castilian spring.” And what is called a smattering of everything infallibly constitutes a coxcomb. I have often of late reflected what an unhappy man I must now have been, if I had not acquired in my youth some fund and taste of learning. What could I have done with myself at this age without them? I must, as many ignorant people do, have destroyed my health and faculties by sotting away the evenings; or, by wasting them frivolously in the tattle of women’s company, must have exposed myself to the ridicule and contempt of those very women; or, lastly, I must have hanged myself, as a man once did, for weariness of putting on and pulling off his shoes and stockings every day. My books, and only my books, are now left me.
I do not mean by this to exclude conversation out of the pleasures of an advanced age; on the contrary, it is a very great and a very rational pleasure, at all ages, but the conversation of the ignorant is no conversation, and gives even them no pleasure; they tire of their own sterility and have not matter enough to furnish them with words to keep up a conversation.
Let me, therefore, most earnestly recommend to you to hoard up, while you can, a great stock of knowledge, for though during the dissipation of your youth you may not have occasion to spend much of it, yet you may depend upon it that a time will come when you will want it to maintain you. Public granaries are filled in plentiful years; not that it is known that the next or the second or third year will prove a scarce one, but because it is known that sooner or later such a year will come.
I will say no more to you upon this subject; you have Mr. Harte with you to enforce it; you have reason to assent to the truth of it—so that, in short, “You have Moses and the prophets; if you will not believe them, neither will you believe, though one rose from the dead.” Do not imagine that the knowledge which I so much recommend to you is confined to books, pleasing, useful, and necessary as that knowledge is, but I comprehend in it the great knowledge of the world, still more necessary than that of books. In truth, they assist one another reciprocally; and no man will have either perfectly, who has not both. The knowledge of the world is only to be acquired in the world, and not in a closet. Books alone will never teach it you, but they will suggest many things to your observation, which might otherwise escape you; and your own observations upon mankind, when compared with those which you will find in books, will help you to fix the true point.
To know mankind well requires full as much attention and application as to know books, and, it may be, more sagacity and discernment. I am, at this time, acquainted with many elderly people who have all passed their whole lives in the great world, but with such levity and inattention that they know no more of it now than they did at fifteen. Do not flatter yourself, therefore, with the thoughts that you can acquire this knowledge in the frivolous chitchat of idle companies; no, you must go much deeper than that. You must look into people, as well as at them. Almost all people are born with all the passions, to a certain degree, but almost every man has a prevailing one, to which the others are subordinate. Search everyone for that ruling passion; pry into the recesses of his heart and observe the different workings of the same passion in different people. And when you have found out the prevailing passion of any man, remember never to trust him where that passion is concerned. Work upon him by it, if you please, but be upon your guard against it, whatever professions he may make you.
I would desire you to read this letter twice over, but that I much doubt whether you will read once to the end of it. I will trouble you no longer now, but we will have more upon this subject hereafter. Adieu.
I have this moment received your letter from Schaffhausen: in the date of it you forgot the month.
From a letter to his son. Stanhope entered Parliament in 1715, became ambassador to Holland in 1728, and sired his illegitimate son in 1732. Starting when the boy was five years old and ending within four weeks of his son’s death at the age of thirty-six, Stanhope wrote 448 letters to him, generally on the topic of “the necessary arts of the world.” After the father’s death, Samuel Johnson complained that the letters, published posthumously, taught “the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master.”