Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Stylistic Virtue

"The virtues of speech are five."
Diogenes Laertius

I have decided to start organizing my posts with labels. Today's post will be filed under "usage", which I will use to identify all my writing on style and grammar, i.e., the actual construction of texts. Monday's post will be filed under "process", which is how I will label all my thoughts about how to organize the task of writing. My scattered thoughts on more topical subjects will perhaps get other labels. I hope to go back through the archive and label my posts retroactively as well.

One of my workshop participants suspects that I have some sort of ideal text in mind when we edit our samples together, that I am guided by a set of identifiable stylistic ideals. I am normally coy about that sort of thing, but today I feel like professing my faith in Stoicism.

The Stoics were not known for their eloquence. Despite this, perhaps because of it, they developed a perfectly good theory of style, however. In fact, it wasn't very different from most other theories of style, they just happened to emphasize some things over others. The five virtues of style, as defined by the Stoics, were Hellenism, clarity, brevity, propriety, and ornamentation (Diogenes 7.59). My account here follows George A. Kennedy's A New History of Classical Rhetoric (pp. 90-1).

The first virtue of style, Hellenism (good Greek), returns as Latinism (good Latin) in Roman rhetorical theories (like Cicero's). My Stoicism would, of course, invoke Anglecism (good English) as a virtue. In any case, the Stoics insisted on good grammar, and as I have emphasized before, good grammar was defined by the literary canon.

None of the virtues of style indicate absolute ideals. Propriety, for example, means using style that is "suitable to the subject", for example, and brevity means only saying as much as "strictly necessary". Virtues are best thought of as heuristics for thinking and talking about choices, not as absolute standards against which to judge results (in this case, written texts).

My own two favourite virtues (which is what my workshop participant has asked about) are clarity and brevity. Write as much, and no more, than necessary to "expound the thought intelligibly". Beyond grammar, which the Stoics were very interested in, a commitment to these virtues is probably at the root of their reputation for terseness. The virtue of "ornamentation" lay mainly in its absence. "They preferred a simply, straightforward, style and their definition of ornamentation is a narrow one," Kennedy tells us (91).

As a house editor for an eclectic department, I can be as much of a Stoic as a like, but I have to respect the needs of some of my authors to produce somewhat more ornate writing. That's where propriety comes in: suitability to the subject. Some fields cultivate a somewhat more obscure rhetoric (as least seen from the outside) and obscurity has its own virtue. It is called the Sublime. And I will write a post about that next week.

No comments: