« PreviousContinue »
ordinary estimate of Smollett's work and fame Lord Carnarvon will probably stand as much alone at the end of the thirtieth century as he stands at the end of the nineteenth. It is surprising that he did not remember the very different opinion formed of Smollett's merits by judges so competent as Sir Walter Scott, Thackeray, and Dickens, or remembering, should have thought himself justified in setting it so unceremoniously aside. But on matters of this kind dispute is useless, and it was not with the objecting of discussing Lord Carnarvon's paradoxical verdict that we have drawn attention to the passage. What perplexes us is the allusion to a fact which is altogether
When did Lord Chesterfield offend Smollett ? and what authority is there for ranking Smollett with Horace Walpole, Lord Hervey, and Dr. Johnson, among Chesterfield's enemies? They were certainly on good terms in 1747, for in • Reproof,' Smollett addresses Chesterfield in terms of exaggerated flattery :
• Nor would th' enamour'd Muse neglect to pay
new to us.
Again, later on in 1758, Smollett in his . History of England' twice takes occasion to pay Chesterfield the highest compliments, once in allusion to his ambassadorship at the Hague (vol. x. p. 336), and once (vol. xi. p. 9) in allusion to his speech on the Play House Bill. But what seems to make the correctness of Lord Carnarvon's statement the more improbable is the absence of any satirical portrait of the Earl among the portraits sketched in the Adventures of an Atom. Many of Chesterfield's friends and former colleagues are there, but the most conspicuous figure in the fashionable life of these days is correspondingly conspicuous by his absence in Smollett's malicious panorama. Had Smollett borne Chesterfield the smallest illwill, he would—of that we may be sure—have availed himself of this opportunity of indulging his spleen. It is possible that Lord Carnarvon may have had authority for his statement, we wish he had adduced it. We are half inclined to think that he had for the moment confounded Chesterfield with Newcastle or Lyttelton.
But these things are trifles. We concur with Lord Carnarvon in thinking that these letters give us on the whole a more favourable impression of Chesterfield as a man than the letters addressed to his son. Of the world, worldly, as all he writes is, a higher note is occasionally struck. The standard of aim and action is not, as in the former correspondence, fixed immovably on the dead-level of purely mundane utility. The old cynicism and the old misogyny are still apparent, but they are tempered with a gentle and kindly humour, which deprives them of all harshness, and even invests them with charm. There is the same solicitude about what a more exalted philosophy than he professed would regard with indifference, but there is not the same solicitude about what such a philosophy would directly condemn. Of the levity of tone and profligacy of sentiment in relation to certain subjects, which jar on us so much in the former correspondence, there are few or no traces. He so abhorred everything which savours of cant, and especially of theological cant, that he seldom touches on religious subjects. But he does so sometimes, and that with an earnestness which will surprise every one who know him only as people in general know him. There are two passages in his Letters to the Bishop of Waterford; one dated about a year and a half before the date of the first letter in this series ; the other dated a month later which gives us, as it were, the key to all that distinguishes the Chesterfield of the earlier correspondence from the Chesterfield of the later.
"I consider life as one who is wholly unconcerned in it, and even when I reflect back upon what I have seen, what I have heard, and what I have done myself, I can hardly persuade myself that all that frivolous hurry and bustle and pleasures of the world had any reality, but they seem to have been the dreams of restless nights. This philosophy, however, I thank God, neither makes me sour nor melancholic; I see the folly and absurdity of mankind without indignation or peevishness; I pity the weak and the wicked without envying the wise and the good, but endeavouring to the utmost of my ability to be of that minority.
"I know I am tottering upon the brink of this world, and my thoughts are employed about the other. HIowever, while I crawl upon this planet I think myself obliged to do what good I can in my narrow domestic sphere to my fellow-creatures, and to wish them all the good I cannot do.'—(Stanhope, Works,' vol. iv. pp. 329, 330.)
It is the reflection of all this, of this mingled sadness and cheerfulness, good-sense and good-temper, mild wisdom and wise mildness, which is perhaps the chief attraction of these letters. The voice which is speaking is, we feel, the voice of one without faith and with little hope, but at peace with himself and at peace with the world, grateful to Nature for having called him into life, and to Philosophy for having taught him
how to live. Much experience and reflection had enabled him to estimate at its true value what it is in the power of man to attain and enjoy. He had reckoned with existence and struck the balance. The delusions of the brute and the fool had never misguided or perplexed him: to the visions of the transcendentalist he was constitutionally blind, but he had found the secret, which had escaped equally the ascetic and the sensualist, the art of living, the true use of fortune. He knew how little of what constitutes human happiness and contentment depends on man's mere capacities and externals; he knew of how much which constitutes both they may be made the means. To his refined good sense the extinction of existence was preferable to its abuse, was preferable even to its misuse. Like Lady Wortley Montagu, to whom in constitution and temper he bore in some respects a singular resemblance, he was a philosopher even in his affections.* My only wish is,' he wrote to his son, 'to have you fit to live, which if you are not, I do not desire that you
should live at all.' •May you live,' he writes in another letter full of fatherly tenderness, ' as long as you are fit to live, but no longer, or, may you rather die before you cease to be fit to live, than after.'
To this object he had directed the correspondence with his son, to this object he directed the correspondence with his godson, -'to fit them to live.' That many of his particular precepts and particular aims would have found more favour with Atticus and Horace, than with St. Paul and Christian moralists, may be fully conceded. We cannot see, as Lord Carnarvon appears to do, any indication in this later correspondence, that Chesterfield's religious opinions had in the smallest respect changed, still less that old age
and its afflictions had “led him to a somewhat different estimate of right and wrong from that which he once professed.' There is nothing in the essential teaching of these letters which will not be found in the Letters to the Son.' On the subject of religion his language and sentiments are always the same. It is the basis on which life rests. Serious regard for it is the hypothesis on which moral instruction proceeds. Indifference to it, or the expression of indifference to it, is the certain mark
* It is remarkable that they both speak in precisely the same way about natural affection. “My anxiety and care can only be the effects of that tender affection which I have for you, and which you cannot represent to yourself greater than it really is. But do not mistake the nature of that affection. It is not natural affection, there being in reality no such thing.' ('Letters to Son,'CII. vol. i.)
You are no more obliged to me for bringing you into the world, writes Lady Mary to her daughter, than I am to you for coming into it, and I never made use of that commonplace, and like most commonplace, false, argument, as exacting any return of affection;'and then she goes on to say that what has formed the close bond of love between them has been the mutual interchange of what should unite reasonable beings. (“To the Countess of Bute:' Works, vol. iv. p. 61.)
of a fool. In whatever form it finds embodiment it is to be respected. Without religion virtue is without its strongest collateral security.* To the esprit-forts, Freethinkers and Moral Philosophers, as they called themselves, Bishop Butler himself was not more sensitively hostile. That Chesterfield did not accept Revelation seems certain. His religion probably differed in no essential respects from the religion of Cicero and Bolingbroke, of Socrates and Voltaire. Of the moral government of the universe ; of the wisdom, justice, and benevolence of the Deity; of the fact that in reason, or, as it is sometimes expressed, in conscience, God has furnished man with an unerring guide ; of the essential connexion of religion with morality he has no doubt. To the belief in a future state he leaned so strongly that he has not scrupled to assume it as truth. His attitude towards the popular creed was precisely that generally assumed by the wise and serious men of the last century. His heterodoxy, which we know was shared by almost every member of Pope's circle and by many members of Johnson's circle, was like theirs, purely esoteric. Pope's distress at the imputation of unorthodoxy is notorious. Swift was pained beyond expression by the construction placed on the Tale of a Tub. "The publication of Bolingbroke's philosophical works was an act of gross treachery. When it was objected to Middleton that his writings would have the effect of disseminating scepticism, he replied that he would recant everything in them which could be construed in a sense hostile to Christianity, Gibbon thought his indiscretion in giving his two chapters to the world sufficiently expiated by the advances made to him by the author of the Corruptions of Christianity.' I have sometimes thought,' he says in his Autobiography, 'of writing a Dialogue of the Dead,' in which Lucian, Erasmus, and Voltaire, should mutually acknowledge the danger of exposing a popular creed to the contempt of the blind and fanatic multitude.' Like Cotta in Cicero's Dialogue, they respected a religion which was the religion of the State. Like Aristotle's man of polite wit, they shrank from wounding unnecessarily the feelings of others. On higher grounds they revered it as the purest and most perfect of moral codes, and as the expression of essential truths appealing equally to the philosopher and to the multitude, but appealing to the philosopher through what was mystery
* See · Letters to his Son,' passim. In Letter clxxx. he explains his reason for not writing at length on the subject of religion. “I have seldom written to you upon the subject of religion and morality; your own reason, I am persuaded, has given you true notions of both ; they speak best for themselves, but if they wanted assistance you have Mr. Harte at hand' (young Stanhope's tutor and a clergyman), 'both for precept and example.' See, too, Letter CLXVIII.
to the multitude, and appealing to the multitude through what was fable to the philosopher
. Wherever Chesterfield alludes to Christianity it is with the greatest reverence. The education of both his son and his godson was conducted on principles strictly orthodox. Their tutors were clergymen of the established Church. One, recommended by Lyttelton, was a man of distinguished piety, the other, recommended by the Bishop of St. David's, was the most eloquent preacher in England.
In the earlier and later correspondence all Chesterfield's instruction proceeds on the assumption that these gentlemen are doing their duty. So anxious was he that the impressions his son received from their teaching should not be disturbed, that when Bolingbroke's philosophical works came out, he expressed a wish that he would not read them. Of Voltaire's profanity he speaks with the strongest disapprobation. So conservative was he, that we find him thus writing to Crebillon : "Je doute forte, s'il est permis à un homme d'écrire contre le culte et la croyance de son pays quand même il seroit de bonne foi persuadé qu'il y eût des erreurs. In writing to his godson he says, referring to the Bible, you will and ought to believe every word of it, as it was dictated by the Spirit of Truth,' a statement defining with singular precision Chesterfield's real position in relation to these questions. As a man and as a writer he was the reversed counterpart of Montaigne and Shaftesbury. Montaigne thought the composition of the "Apologie de Raimond Sebond,' and Shaftesbury the composition of the • Characteristics, perfectly compatible with the profession of orthodoxy. Chesterfield thought the inculcation of orthodoxy perfectly compatible with a belief in a philosophy not very different from the philosophy of the Apologie' and the Characteristics.'
Lord Carnarvon's remark that Chesterfield's estimate of right and wrong' differed, and differed for the better, from the estimate he had formed before he grew old, is, we venture to think, not quite just to him. For what the remark obviously implies is, that the morality in the earlier correspondence is either less sound or less elevated than that in the later. But this is surely not the case, and for the best of reasons. except the one great blot, of which we propose to speak at length presently, no moral teaching could be sounder or more excellent than we find in the ‘Letters to the Son.' Religious obligations are perhaps a little more emphasized, but nothing is said but what had been said before. Whether Chesterfield's
* Maty, 'Correspondence,' vol. ii. p.