Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Skeptic's Decalogue

There is much to be said about the late Hugh Trevor-Roper, Lord Dacre.  Before the Second World War, he was in the upper ranks of historians; his work during and after the war gave him a level of celebrity that few mere academics ever achieve; his "authentication" of some fake Hitler diaries cost him much of his credibility.

American high school students, few of whom have ever heard his name, are almost universally familiar with one of his theses.  It was Trevor-Roper, after all, who first attempted to explain the European witch hunts of the 1700s by analogy to the Red-baiting of the 1950s -- without him, there could be no Crucible, and students would still be stuck reading Longfellow for their bad literary interpretation of New England history.

Still, say what you like about Trevor-Roper, one thing is hard to deny:  the man's prose style.

We are perpetually stuck in the middle of his biography of Archbishop Laud, which is a comically spiteful splenetic expulsion.  Trevor-Roper makes it clear from the very outset that he dislikes his subject, not merely as a politician but as a human being.  He further makes it clear that he finds Laud's religious views -- or nearly any religious views at all -- contemptible.  This might be the basis for an entertaining biographical sketch, but it is a shaky foundation upon which to build a long and detail-heavy treatment.  The book turns sour well before the archbishop reaches his comeuppance.

But by gosh, the prose is good.

So we were delighted to discover Trever-Roper's "Ten Commandments of Good Writing," from a 1988 letter reprinted at Standpoint.  Here they are; we have taken the liberty of marking our favorite bits in red:

1. Thou shalt know thine own argument and cleave fast to it, and shall not digress nor deviate from it without the knowledge and consent of the reader, whom at all times thou shalt lead at a pace which he can follow and by a route which is made clear to him as he goeth.  
2. Thou shalt respect the autonomy of the paragraph, as commended by the authority and example of the prophet Edward Gibbon; for it is the essential unit in the chain of argument. Therefore thou shall keep it pure and self-contained, each paragraph having within it a single central point to which all other observations in it shall be exactly subordinated by the proper use of the particles and inflexions given to us for this purpose. 
3. Thou shalt aim always at clarity of exposition, to which all other literary aims shall be subordinated, remembering the words of the prophet commandant Black, "clart√© prime, longueur secondaire." To this end thou shalt strive that no sentence be syntactically capable of any unintended meaning, and that no reader be obliged to read any sentence twice to be sure of its true meaning. To this end also thou shalt not fear to repeat thyself, if clarity require it, nor to state facts which thou thinkest as well known to others as to thyself; for it is better to remind the learned than to leave the unlearned in perplexity. 
4. Thou shalt keep the structure of thy sentences clear, preferring short sentences to long and simple structures to complex, lest the reader lose his way in a labyrinth of subordinate clauses; and, in particular, thou shalt not enclose one relative clause in another, for this both betrays crudity of expression and is a fertile source of ambiguity. 
5. Thou shalt preserve the unities of time and place, as commended by the High Priest Nicolas Boileau, placing thyself, in imagination, in one time and one place, and distinguishing all others to which thou mayest refer by a proper use of tenses and other forms of speech devised for this purpose; for unless we exploit the distinction between past and pluperfect tenses, and between imperfect and future conditional, we cannot attain perfect limpidity of style and argument. 

6. Thou shalt not despise the subjunctive mood, a useful, subtle and graceful mood, blessed by Erasmus and venerated by George Moore, though cursed and anathematized by the Holy Inquisition, Pravda, and the late Lord Beaverbrook. 
7. Thou shalt always proceed in an orderly fashion, according to the rules of right reason: as, from the general to the particular when a generality is to be illustrated, but from the particular to the general when a generality is to be proved. 
8. Thou shalt see what thou writest; and therefore thou shalt not mix thy metaphors. For a mixed metaphor is proof that the image therein contained has not been seen with the inner eye, and therefore such a metaphor is not a true metaphor, created by the active eye of imagination, but stale jargon idly drawn up from the stagnant sump of commonplace. 
9. Thou shalt also hear what thy writest, with thine inner ear, so that no outer ear may be offended by jarring syllables or unmelodious rhythm; remembering herein with piety, though not striving to imitate, the rotundities of Sir Thomas Browne and the clausulae of Cicero. 
10. Thou shalt carefully expunge from thy writing all consciously written purple passages, lest they rise up to shame ye in thine old age. 

While we prefer God's commandments both for brevity and for sanctity, these are good, too.

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