A few weeks ago, I shared some of the advice Madame de Lambert, Marquise de Saint-Bris, a woman very interested in education, gave to her son in her book A Mother’s Advice To Her Son And Daughter. Today we’re gonna have a look at the advice aimed at her daughter. Undoubtedly a lot of it is outdated. The book was written in the eighteenth century and thus exhorts women to cultivate virtues appropriate to the domestic duties to which they were destined. But the author also regrets how women’s education has always been neglected and considers intellect and culture two virtues desirable in women. Here are some of her advice:
3. A young person on entering the world, has a high idea of the happiness which it is to yield – she seeks to enjoy it: this is the source of her inquietudes – she runs after her own idea – she hopes for perfect happiness: this it is which makes her fickle and inconstant. The pleasures of the world are deceivers: they promise more than they give. They give us uneasiness in their pursuits, fail to satisfy us in their possessions, and throw us into despair by their loss.
4. To give consistency to your desires, expect neither solid nor durable happiness. Honours and riches confer but a momentary pleasure – their possessions create new desires – habit renders pleasures worthless. Before tasting them, you can pass them without regret: instead of this, possession renders that necessary which was superfluous: you are less contented than you was before. In possessing, you have accustomed yourself to possession, and in losing, you feel a void and a want. That which is most severely felt, is the passage from one condition to another: it is the interval between ah unhappy, and a happy season. As soon as habit is established, the sentiment of pleasure vanishes. We should be gainers, if we could, at once, draw from our reason all that is necessary to our happiness. Experience turns us inward upon ourselves; spare yourself what it costs you, and speak of happiness in a firm and determinate tone. True felicity consists in peace of mind, in reason, and in the fulfilment of our duties. Never let us think ourselves happy, my child, save when we feel our pleasures spring from the bottom of our soul. – These reflections are too serious for a young person, and belong to riper years: I believe, however, that your capacity is already sufficient. We cannot engrave too deeply within us the maxims of wisdom: the impression which she leaves is always faint; but it must be allowed that, those who reflect, and who fill their hearts with principles, are nearer virtue than those who reject them. If we are unhappy enough to fail in our duty, at least we ought to love it: let us use these principles, my child, as a continual aid to virtue.
7. Shame is a sentiment, from which, with good management, great advantages may be drawn: I do not speak of that false shame which only troubles our repose, without turning to the advantage of our manners: I speak of that which preserves us from evil by the fear of dishonour. It must be confessed, that this shame is sometimes the most faithful guardian of the virtue of women: – very few are virtuous for virtue’s sake.
30. Accustom yourself to the exercise of your judgment, and to make more use of this than of your memory. We fill our heads with unconnected thoughts, and draw nothing from its proper funds. We fancy ourselves to have advanced greatly, when we have filled our memory with anecdotes and facts; but this fulness seldom contributes to the improvement of the mind. You must accustom yourself to thinking: the mind enlarges and expands by exercise. Few persons make use of what with us is an idle talent, the art of thinking. Neither historic facts, nor the opinions of philosophers, can defend you against pressing misfortune; yon will not find yourself the stronger. If affliction comes upon you will you, have recourse to Seneca or Epictetus? Is it by their reason you are to be consoled? ought not your own to undertake the charge. Sustain yourself with your own treasures – make provision in times of scarcity for times of trouble which await you: you will be much better supported by your own reason than by that of others.
34. When you ardently wish for any thing, begin by examining the thing desired; observe the good it promises you, and the evils which attend it. Remember that passage in Horace. “Pleasure marches foremost, and conceals her train.” You will cease to fear as soon as you cease to desire. Believe that the wise man does not run after felicity, but bestows it on himself; it must be your own work; it is on your hands. Remember that little is wanting for the necessities of life, but much for those of opinion; that it will be easier to set your desires on a level with your fortune, than your fortune on a level with your desires. If honours and riches could give satisfaction, it would be well to amass them; but the thirst increases with the acquisition: he that most desires is most poor.
36. Our self-love conceals us from ourselves, and lessens to us all our faults: we live among them as among the perfumes that we wear, and are equally insensible to each: they incommode others only: to see them in their true point of view, we must behold them in our neighbours. See your own imperfections with the same eyes with which you see your neighbours. Do not relax from this rule, it will accustom you to equity. Examine your character, and turn all your defects to advantage; there are none which are not connected with, and favourable to some virtues. The object of morality is, not to destroy, but to preserve Nature. Are you proud? – Let this sentiment serve to elevate you above the weaknesses of your sex, and to save you from the faults by which it is abased. To every error of the heart, there belongs a pain and a shame, which solicit you to abandon it. Are you timid? – Turn this weakness to prudence, that you may be prevented from injuring yourself. Are you dissipated? – Are you fond of giving? – It is easy out of prodigality to form generosity. Give with selection and propriety – do not neglect the indigent – take care of the poor – lend to those who want; but give to those who cannot return: by these means you will gratify your sentiment, and do good actions. There is no error, of which, if you will, virtue may not make some use.
42. The first duty of civil life is to remember others; those who live for themselves only, fall into contempt and neglect. When you ask too much of others, they refuse you every thing; friendship, sentiment, and service. Civil life is a commerce of mutual assistances; the most virtuous bring the greatest share: in seeking the good of others you insure your own. Nothing is more detestable than people who live only for themselves. Self-love, when incensed, commits great crimes; some degrees below this, it enters into vice; but in its most innocent state, it weakens the virtues and harmonies of society. It is impossible to connect ourselves with persons, in whom self love is prevalent and manifest: nevertheless we cannot free ourselves from this disposition. In the same degree that we hold to life, we hold to ourselves. We believe that we elevate ourselves by abasing our fellows; this it is that renders us slanderous and envious. Goodness does more service than malignity: do good when you can, speak good of every body, never judge with rigour; these acts of goodness and generosity, often repeated, will acquire for you, in the end, a great reputation. Every body becomes interested in praising you, in lessening your faults, in exalting your good qualities. You should found your reputation on your own virtues, and not on the demerits of others. Remember that their good qualities take nothing from you, and that you can attribute to no one but yourself the failing of your reputation.
43. One thing that renders us very unhappy, is that we reckon too much upon mankind: this also, is the source of your injustice; we quarrel with it, not for what it owes us nor for what it has promised, but for what we have hoped from it. We make a right of our hopes, and its turns to our discontent. Do not be precipitate in your judgment; never listen to calumnies, even resist first appearances, and never be in haste to condemn. Remember that there are things resembling truth, that are not true; as there are truths that do not look like truth. In private judgments, we should imitate the equity of public. Judges never decide without having examined every thing, heard every thing, and confronted the witnesses with the accused. But to us, who without commission, render ourselves arbiters of reputation, any proof suffices, any authority is good, when we have an opportunity for condemnation. Actuated by private malignity, we believe that we bestow on ourselves what we take from others; and hence arise hatreds and enmities. Let there be equity, then, in your sentences; the same justice which you give to others, will be rendered to you. Would you be thought and spoken of with respect? – Never then, speak ill of any one.
A mother’s advice to her son and daughter by Anne Thérèse de Marguenat de Courcelles Lambert (marquise de)