Lord Chesterfield? Hilaire Belloc? D. H. Lawrence? George Bernard Shaw? Alexander Duffield? Somerset Maugham? Elliot Paul? Samuel Hopkins Adams? Benjamin Franklin? P. D. James? Apocryphal? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Lord Chesterfield reportedly crafted an outrageously humorous description of intimate relations. I’ve seen different versions that each comment on pleasure, position, and expense. Yet, I have never seen a proper citation. Would you please help?
Quote Investigator: Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, is typically referred to as Lord Chesterfield. Researchers have been unable to find the statement about eros in his writings, and the words were ascribed to him many years after his death in 1773.
The earliest close match located by QI appeared in a letter sent to the editors of “The Western Daily Press” in Bristol, England in 1902. The subject was the standardization of equipment for golf, and the word “amusement” was employed to avoid terms such as “intercourse” or “sex”. “Attitude” is a synonym for “posture”. In addition, the taboos of the era dictated the replacement of “damnable” by dashes. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
If there is to be no limit to the fancy or ingenuity of club and ball makers, I am afraid the dictum of a certain American, speaking of another amusement, will be applicable to golf, viz., “that the pleasure is momentary, the attitudes ridiculous, and the expense —–“
So, the expression was circulating by 1902, but the printed evidence is limited. Interestingly, it was credited to an American instead of an Englishman.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1732 the Irish philosopher George Berkeley published a book of dialogues titled “Alciphron, Or the Minute Philosopher”. The discussion below provided a partial thematic match because it asserted that sensual gratification was transitory and unsatisfactory: 2
EUPH. I, for my part, have often thought those pleasures which are highest in the esteem of sensualists, so far from being the chiefest good, that it seemed doubtful, upon the whole, whether they were any good at all, any more than the meer removal of pain. Are not our wants and appetites uneasy?
LYS. They are.
EUPH. Doth not sensual pleasure consist in satisfying them?
LYS. It doth.
EUPH. But the cravings are tedious, the satisfaction momentary. Is it not so?
LYS. It is, but what then?
EUPH. Why then it shou’d seem that sensual pleasure is but a short deliverance from long pain. A long avenue of uneasiness leads to a point of pleasure, which ends in disgust or remorse.
In 1894 a book about sports discussed a different activity that required a ridiculous position: 3
Be that as it may, personally I do hate the sight of a cycle, whether it be a “bi” or a “tri.” I think a man looks more to disadvantage riding one, no matter how artistic he may be with the pedals, than he could do at any other work he might engage in, bar, perhaps, running after his hat. The position is ridiculous and the motion is truly absurd.
In 1902 a newspaper in Bristol, England printed the first strong match for the expression as mentioned previously:
. . . the dictum of a certain American, speaking of another amusement, will be applicable to golf, viz., “that the pleasure is momentary, the attitudes ridiculous, and the expense —–“
In 1910 the prominent writer Hilaire Belloc was unhappily serving in the U.K Parliament. In a private letter he bemoaned his situation using a statement that partially matched the comical line although it was unclear to QI whether the allusion was deliberate: 4
Every day that passes makes me more determined to chuck Westminster; it is too low for words. The position is ridiculous and the expense is damnable. More than that, it cuts into my life, interferes with my earnings, and separates me from my home—all three irritating.
In 1922 a column in “Theatre Magazine” printed the remarks of a chorus girl. Her words overlapped those of the quip. QI conjectures that this allusion was intentional: 5
Even a show girl appears to have illusions which can be shattered. A former New York chorus girl, recently married to a foreigner with a title, was questioned by one of her friends as to how she liked being a duchess, or whatever it was. “Well,” she confessed with a sigh, “I’m not crazy about it. The pleasure is only momentary, and the position is ridiculous.”
In 1928 “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” by D. H. Lawrence stated that lovemaking entailed a ridiculous posture: 6
It was quite true, as some poets said, that the God who created man must have had a sinister sense of humour, creating him a reasonable being, yet forcing him to take this ridiculous posture and driving him with blind craving for this humiliating performance. Even a Maupassant found it a humiliating anti-climax. Men despised the intercourse act, and yet did it.
Also in 1928 George Bernard Shaw used an instance of the quip in a private letter: 7
My suggestion is that the passion of the body will finally become a passion of the mind. Already there is a pleasure in thought—creative thought—that is entirely detached from ridiculous and disgusting acts and postures. Shakespear could not have written of the ecstasies of St Thomas in his sonnet [No. 129] about “the expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” The Aberdonian cannot say of the achievements of Einstein that “the position is ridiculous, the pleasure but momentary, and the expense damnable.”
In 1935 the novel “Any Smaller Person” by Alexander Duffield included the following partial instance: 8
He pondered about sex. It was a silly thing, he thought. Some one ought to put the sin back in it. That would make it more fun. “The pleasure is not lasting, and the posture is ridiculous.” Five men from five different colleges had told him that, and each of the five professed to be quoting a venerable professor from his own institution.
In 1939 the saying was attributed to Chesterfield by a character in the book “Christmas Holiday” by the well-known author W. Somerset Maugham. This was the earliest linkage to Chesterfield known to QI: 9
Chesterfield said the last word about sexual congress: the pleasure is momentary, the position is ridiculous, and the expense is damnable.
The 1945 novel “I’ll Hate Myself in the Morning” by Elliot Paul included the following variant: 10
“What are men? The process by which they are created is, at best, somewhat ludicrous. As dear old Dean Hathaway of Harvard said: ‘The pleasure is but momentary, the risk of infection considerable . . . but, worse than that, young gentlemen, the posture is ridiculous.'”
“Not necessarily,” Miriam objected.
In 1946 the medical journal “The Urologic and Cutaneous Review” printed an instance: 11
Of course the sexual function has always seemed to have something humorous about it, and though this humor may be often coarse and vulgar it yet occasions much amusement to both men and women. The Scotsman characteristically summed it up, that “the position is ridiculous, the pleasure is momentary, and the expense is damnable.”
In 1947 “Banner by the Wayside” by Samuel Hopkins Adams contained a footnote that comically attributed the saying to Benjamin Franklin: 12
Collateral evidence, however, suggests that the passage referred to is contained in a letter of Poor Richard’s, as follows: “The posture is ridiculous, the pleasure momentary, and the results lamentable.”
In 1958 the collection “Letters from Hilaire Belloc” was published, and a reviewer in “The Economist” highlighted the phrase mentioned previously in this article: 13
He had, of course, the appropriate literary gifts as well; vividness and a knack for the thumbnail sketch, a fine capacity for extravagance, a spontaneous wit, a fund of allusion. (“The position is ridiculous and the expense is damnable”—thus, in deadpan quotation, he sums up his reasons for not seeking re-election to Parliament.)
In 1977 a character in mystery writer P. D. James’s “Death of an Expert Witness” credited Chesterfield: 14
He said: “Look, mate, if you can’t make it in bed, if she isn’t finding you quite up to the mark, don’t take your frustration out on the rest of us. Remember Chesterfield’s advice. The expense is exorbitant, the position ridiculous, and the pleasure transitory.”
In conclusion, the attribution to Lord Chesterfield is unsupported. The earliest citation in 1902 credited an anonymous American. Many writers subsequently alluded to the saying, but its creator has remained anonymous.
Image Notes: Picture of Adam and Eve from Peter Paul Rubens circa 1597; accessed via WikiArt. Arms of the Earls of Chesterfield accessed via Wikimedia. Images have been cropped and resized.
(An inquiry about this quotation was one of the oldest featured by Nigel Rees in his “Quote…Unquote” Newsletter. Great thanks to Nigel Rees and Fred Shapiro for the pioneering research results they have shared in, e.g., “The Best Guide to Humorous Quotations” and “The Yale Book of Quotations” respectively. Thanks also to mailing list discussants Victor Steinbok and Jonathan Lighter.)
- 1902 November 20, The Western Daily Press, Correspondence To The Editors of The Western Daily Press, (Letter Title: Standardisation of the Golf Ball, Letter From: W.L.B. of Clifton; Letter Date: November 17, 1902), Quote Page 3, Column 7, Bristol, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1732, Alciphron, Or the Minute Philosopher, in Seven Dialogues by George Berkeley, Volume 1, The Second Dialogue, Start Page 66, Quote Page 110, Printed for J. Tonson in the Strand, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1894, Thoughts Upon Sport by Harry R. Sargent, Chapter 18: Manly Games and Exercise, Quote Page 299, Photo-Prismatic Publishing Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1958, Letters from Hilaire Belloc, Selected and edited by Robert Speaight, Letter from Hilaire Belloc to J. S. Phillimore; Letter dated June 12, 1910, Quote Page 27, Hollis & Carter, London. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1922 July, Theatre Magazine, Heard on Broadway, Page 24, Column 1, Theatre Magazine Company, New York. (Internet Archive at archive.org) link ↩
- 1994 (First Published 1928), Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence, Quote Page 172, Penguin Books, London and New York. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 1988, Bernard Shaw: Collected Letters: 1926-1950, Edited by Dan H. Laurence, (Letter from George Bernard Shaw to St. John Ervine dated March 12, 1928), Start Page 95, Quote Page 96 and 97, Viking, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1935 Copyright, Any Smaller Person by Alexander Duffield, Chapter 2, Quote Page 56, Loring & Mussey, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1939, Christmas Holiday by W. Somerset Maugham, Quote Page 50, Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1945, I’ll Hate Myself in the Morning and Summer in December by Elliot Paul, Section: I’ll Hate Myself in the Morning, Part Two: Primway’s Predicament, Chapter 9: Boston, of All Places, Quote Page 69, Random House, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1946 April, The Urologic and Cutaneous Review, Syphilis and the Wassermann Reaction by William G. Richards, Page 208, Number 4, Urologic and Cutaneous Press, West Palm Beach, Florida. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1947 Copyright, Banner by the Wayside by Samuel Hopkins Adams, (Footnote to a fictional letter ascribed to Adam Personius Andrews), Quote Page 58, Random House, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1958 May 24, The Economist, Books: The Private Belloc, Book review of Letters from Hilaire Belloc edited by Robert Speaight, Page 692, Column 3, The Economist Group, London. (Verified with microfilm) ↩
- 1987 Reissue (1977 Copyright), Death of an Expert Witness by P. D. James, Book One: Chapter 9, Quote Page 68, Warner Books, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩