Dropping our only son off at college, I struggled for the perfect piece of essential advice, the ideal nudge that would somehow set his lone trajectory from this moment forward in exactly the right direction. I failed. "Live at least a winter with anyone you might marry" jostled around my mind with "remember to brush your teeth." "Be a true friend" ran up against "verify your references." "This above all..." I was turning into Polonius from Hamlet, so instantly recognizable as a comic character because so so many in Shakespeare's audience were students. Yes, that's me with the waggling chin-whiskers: dear, dumb old Dad.
Others have done a far better job than I could, even had the emotions of the moment not left me burbling nonsense. By common agreement, the best paternal advice is that of Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, who devoted his time off from government to writing letters of guidance to his illegitimate son. Clever, formal, cautious, distant, he unbuttoned himself in these notes; they seemed more a relief than a duty: "I wish to God that you had as much pleasure in following my advice, as I have in giving it to you."
What did he teach? The Great Bear of literature, Samuel Johnson said the letters convey "the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing-master," but this is unduly harsh. They mix three streams: the ancient Delphic philosophy of "nothing in excess;" the Stoic ideal of self-mastery; and political tips on judicious flattery and noncommittal trimming. He warned against faults like showing off or rudeness using the same three criteria: they were ugly; they were weak; and they could lose you favor. No wonder Johnson - that awkward, impulsive, un-ingratiating Johnson - found this repellent. It showed too clearly how the admirable virtues of the ancients might easily have sprung from the slippery dealings of their politics.
Chesterfield had never intended his letters to reach any eyes but those of his one, beloved child - but fate deals the same blows to good advice as to careful plans. Young Philip was neither knowledgeable, witty, nor a high-flyer, much though his father tried to put wind under his wings. His career in Parliament and in his country's diplomatic corps were blighted both by his bastardy and by an essentially forgettable character. Worse, he married, without Chesterfield's knowledge, a Miss Peters in Rome, "plain almost to ugliness," also illegitimate, and with whom he already had two sons. He died of dropsy aged only 36; his penniless wife then sold the letters to a publisher. So much for paternal guidance.
We say we form our children, but that is a comforting delusion. We may certainly cripple or pervert them, but no amount of squeezing, however skillful, can make another person fit an abstract ideal. The only useful advice we can give is something we adults so often fail to heed: "become your best self."
If you enjoy such tales of human fallibility, you will find a new one every day at my sister site, Bozo Sapiens. See you there.