Chesterfield Rhetorical Analysis

AP Language & Composition Form A Question #1: Rhetorical Analysis To be a parent is, at least in part, to live through one’s children. A parent wants the best for his or her child, and so, it is understandable that he or she may claim the child’s success (or failure) for his or her own. As such, parents often attempt to coach their children, to shape their behavior and expectations, to steer them in a particular direction. Oftentimes these interventions are shaped by the parent’s own life experiences and moral code.

In the excerpt from his letter to his young son, Lord Chesterfield employs various rhetorical strategies to present his moral code and to convince the boy of the efficacy of following the code himself. Chesterfield begins his letter by acknowleding that most advice is neither desired nor followed. This is especially true, he notes, of parental advice. As he writes, “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 . . is ascribed to .

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. . old age. ” In this quote Chesterfield uses parallelism to lament the fact that individuals, especially the young, prefer to ignore the advice of those who know better. He seems almost to be shaking his head, worrying repeatedly about what he “know[s]. ” His words betray a certain bitterness as well, especially when he points out the irony of those who most need advice and yet “like it and follow it least.

” Chesterfield hopes that his own son can avoid this pitiful category.

To do so, according to Chesterfield, the boy must use his “reason”—in other words, his ability to think logically—to realize the importance and usefulness of what his father has to say. As Chesterfield states, “I flatter myself, that . . .

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. ” Though he claims to flatter himself, in fact, Chesterfield is primarily flattering his son, setting up a situation in which his son can prove the strength of his reason by taking heed of and acting upon his father’s advice.

In this way Chesterfield offers his son something meaningful and tangible—a father’s respect—in exchange for obedience. Chesterfield, however, is not content to request his son’s obedience. He demands it as well. He reminds his son of “how absolutely dependent you are upon me; that you neither have, nor can have a shilling in the world but from me.

” The threat here is implied but clear: the boy is “absolutely dependent” on his father’s good will. Without that good will, he has nothing, at least in terms of wealth.

And lest the boy suspect his father of bluffing, Chesterfield notes that he has “no womanish weakness for your person, your merit must, and will, be the only measure of my kindness. ” In this case Chesterfield associates women with sentimentality, with a “weakness” for emotion, especially love, that might trump the cold and clear-eyed assessment of one’s merit. In Chesterfield’s eyes, however, the son’s worth will be measured by his ability to heed his father’s advice and live by his moral code. To judge this ability, Chesterfield must present the defining features of his moral code.

To do so, he first associates education with the pursuit of pleasure, establishing a cause and effect relationship between the hard work of learning and the development of pleasure. As he writes, “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. ” Though one might label one’s education a duty, something that has to be done because it is required, Chesterfield rejects such a definition.

For him, learning is “conducive, nay, absolutely necessary to . . .

pleasures. ” The amplification in this phrase communicates Chesterfield’s enthusiasm for the educational process and for his deep-seated belief in the intimate relationship between education, the pursuit of happiness, and the satisfaction one takes from one’s own life. Chesterfield explores the nature of this intimate relationship, how each component affects the other, for the remainder of the passage. Ultimately, according to him, one’s pleasure in life derives from feelings of mastery, of excellence.

In other words, one enjoys being good at something. As he asks rhetorically, “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? ” The answers to these questions are, of course, in both cases, no.

For Chesterfield, life is a competition. One wins by proving one’s superior skill, and that demonstration of skill lays the groundwork for happiness and satisfaction. But Chesterfield is careful to qualify his comparison. Life is not solely a competition.

Though “excelling others” is a “very sensible pleasure and a very warrantable pride,” the act of mastery itself brings pleasure, regardless of how it might compare to others. As he writes, “I do not confine the application which I recommend, singly to the view and emulation of excelling others .

. . but I mean likewise to excel in the thing itself. In my mind, one may as well not know a thing at all, as know it but imperfectly. ” In this quote Chesterfield defines the purpose of education by detailing its opposite.

To know something “imperfectly” is to “not know a thing at all. By extension, to know something one must understand it perfectly. And as the repetition makes clear, Chesterfield considers this point, what it means to truly possess knowledge, the most important piece of advice he can pass on to his son. According to Chesterfield, he offers this advice not “as a parent” but “as a friend” and a “guide” to pleasure. Nonetheless, Chesterfield’s language betrays him. Though he labors to convince his son of his emotional detachment and selfless interest, his use of various rhetorical strategies exposes the anxious, lecturing parent beneath the cool, professorial facade.