Quote: The pleasure is momentary, the position ridiculous, and the expense damnable

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Tue Jan 17 17:36:05 UTC 2012

One of the most famous skeptical comments about sexuality is
attributed to the Philip Dormer Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield
who reportedly advised his son that:

The pleasure is momentary, the position ridiculous, and the expense damnable.

There is no known direct evidence that Lord Chesterfield made this
remark. He was born in 1694 and died in 1773, but the earliest known
attribution to him appeared in a novel by the notable author W.
Somerset Maugham many years later in 1939. The Yale Book of Quotations
contains this important citation.

Since the discussion of erotic life has historically been restricted
by taboos I have gathered indirect as well as direct evidence for this
type of remark. Here are selected citations in chronological order.

The theme of the transience of sensual and other forms of
gratification was contained in a letter sent to the 2nd Earl of
Chesterfield in 1658 by the sister of his wife. The 2nd Earl
apparently had been carousing on the continent, and the letter accused
him of "exceeding wildness" [C2LE]:

[C2LE] 1829, "Letters of Philip, Second Earl of Chesterfield, to
Several Celebrated Individuals", [Letter from Lady Essex, Sister of
Chesterfield's first wife, dated 1658], Start Page 97, Quote Page
97-98, E. Lloyd and Son, London. [The word "freinds" appears in the
original text instead of "friends".] (Google Books full view)

[Begin excerpt]
… you treate all the mad drinking lords, you sweare, you game, and
commit all the extravagances that are insident to untamed youths … I
heare there is a hansom young lady (to both your shames) with child by
you. My Lord, these courses must needs undoe your person, fortune, and
reputation; … you will loose your most considerable freinds, and at
last make your life miserable, and, which is the saddest of all, ruin
your own soule; for be confident that those momentary pleasures will
have an end, and a sad one to, If you doe not speedily consider your
condition, and hartily repent of it.
[End excerpt]

Although the behavior described is two generations removed from the
4th Earl it may still have influenced his attitudes. A pregnancy
outside of marriage for a member of the nobility could be problematic.
If the saying is misattributed to Chesterfield then it is possible
that this background information made the misattribution more
plausible to some.

In 1910 Hilaire Belloc wrote a letter that discussed his unhappiness
as a member of Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom. The phrases
Belloc used in his description overlapped with the phrases in the
joke. This similarity might be a coincidence. Alternatively, Belloc
may have been playfully alluding to the quip to heighten the humor of
his commentary.

Cite: 1958, Letters from Hilaire Belloc, Selected and edited by Robert
Speaight, [Letter from Hilaire Belloc to J. S. Phillimore dated June
12, 1910], Page 27, Hollis & Carter, London. (Verified on paper)

[Begin excerpt]
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
[End excerpt]

In 1922 a column in Theatre Magazine printed the remarks of a "chorus
girl". Her words overlapped those of the joke. This parallelism might
also be coincidental. Alternatively, the overlap might have been a
deliberate attempt to entertain the subset of readers who were already
familiar with the comical portrayal of sex in the quotation under
investigation. Indeed, the humor in the following passage seems rather
weak without the tacit background knowledge that supplies context for
the comments of the "chorus girl".

Cite: 1922 July, Theatre Magazine, Heard on Broadway, Page 24, Column
1, Theatre Magazine Company, New York. (Internet Archive at
archive.org full view)

[Begin excerpt]
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."
[End excerpt]

In 1928 George Bernard Shaw sent a letter to St. John Ervine who had
written a review of Shaw's work "Back to Methuselah" in The Observer.
Shaw unmistakably invokes the joke, but he does not attribute it to
Chesterfield. He credits "the Aberdonian", i.e., an individual from
Aberdeen in Scotland.

Cite: 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 96-97, Viking, New York.
(Verified on paper)

[Begin excerpt]
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. ...The Aberdonian cannot say of the achievements of
Einstein that "the position is ridiculous, the pleasure but momentary,
and the expense damnable."
[End excerpt]

The recipient of the Shaw's letter, St. John Ervine, published a
biography of the man in 1956, and included the part of letter
containing the joke. But the mention of "the Aberdonian" confused
Ervine, and he added a footnote in which he stated his opinion that
Chesterfield was responsible for the jest. Note that the letter was
sent in 1928, but the footnote was published in 1956. So it is not
clear when Ervine decided that Chesterfield should be credited. Only
the upper limit of 1956 is certain.

Cite: 1956, Bernard Shaw: His Life, Work and Friends by St. John
Ervine, [Excerpt of letter from George Bernard Shaw to St. John Ervine
with unspecified date], Quote Page 384, William Morrow & Company, New
York. (Verified on paper)

[Begin excerpt]
Footnote 1: I do not know what he means by 'the Aberdonian'. It was
Lord Chesterfield who made the remark.
[End excerpt]

Here is a not yet verified cite that was probably published in 1938.

Cite: Circa January-May 1938, T'ien Hsia Monthly, Volume 6, [Probably
a book review of works by D. H. Lawrence], GB Page 163, [Published
under the auspices of the Sun Yat-sen Institute for Advancement of
Culture and Education, Nanking, China], Kelly and Walsh, Ltd.,
Shanghai, China. (Google Books snippet; Not verified on paper yet)

[Begin excerpt]
Had he forgotten his sacred mission for only a small moment, now and
then; had he admitted for example, that fornication, as they say among
the Philistines, is grossly overrated because the position is
ridiculous, the sensation momentary and the expense frightful - why,
had Lawrence thus let down his hair he might have lost a few of those
champions of his.
[End excerpt]

Here is the 1939 YBQ cite that attributes a version of the remark to

Cite: 1939, Christmas Holiday by W. Somerset Maugham, Page 50,
Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., New York. (HathiTrust full view)

[Begin excerpt]
Chesterfield said the last word about sexual congress: the pleasure is
momentary, the position is ridiculous, and the expense is damnable.
[End excerpt]

Here is a not yet verified cite that was probably published in 1941.

Cite: Circa 1941, The Hermit Place: A Novel by Mark Schorer, GB Page
235, Random House, New York. (Google Books and HathiTrust match; Text
not visible in snippet; Not verified on paper; Data may be incorrect)

[Begin excerpt]
"Everyone has had one of those old professors who get a perennial
laugh by saying of another common human pursuit, 'Gentlemen, the
posture is ridiculous.'
[End excerpt]

Here is a variant of the adage that appeared in a 1945 novel and was
credited to a Dean at Harvard.

Cite: 1945, I'll Hate Myself in the Morning and Summer in December by
Elliot Paul, [Two works are combined. The quote is contained in "I'll
Hate Myself in the Morning"], Page 69, Random House, New York.
(HathiTrust full view)

[Begin excerpt]
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.'
[End excerpt]

In a medical journal in 1946 a version was credited to a "Scotsman".

Cite: 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 on

[Begin excerpt]
And nothing seems to give greater satisfaction than a recounting of
sexual irregularities. 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
[End excerpt]

Additional relevant cites would be welcome. If someone has old
editions of the "Quote … Unquote" newsletter containing evidence about
this saying I would be interested in reading it.

A query about the saying at the "Quote … Unquote" website says that a
1910 citation exists. I do not know the nature of this citation unless
it is the one given above. There is another confusing citation that is
connected to the date 1901. But I think this might be a misdating of
an instance from the 1960s. Here is a link and excerpt about this
cite. This information is from a PRWEB release dated November 9, 2011:


[Begin excerpt]
“The pleasure is momentary, the position is ridiculous, and the
expense is damnable.”
The earliest citation so far is in - of all places - a report on the
Labour Party Annual Conference at Blackpool in 1901: a speaker
referred to someone’s "description of the act of human love-making in
which he said that the satisfaction was fleeting, the position
ridiculous and the expense damnable". The query was initially
published in the first edition of the newsletter in 1992.
[End excerpt]


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