Since I care so much about writing, and since one of the greatest pleasures in life is a well-tempered sentence, I have been reflecting quite a bit lately on what makes for good style. I’ve been asking how to improve my own style as well as reviewing some writers whom I particularly love reading, among whom I’ll mention Wendell Berry, C.S. Lewis, and Evelyn Waugh. We remember CS Lewis as a saint of apologetics; perhaps the greatest apologist since St. Augustine according to some. One reason he was so great as an apologist was because he could express his thoughts with such astonishing clarity. I used to imagine I could write like him if I just imitated his form. Maybe so, if I’m going to write about the rules of a baseball game. But Lewis could write so clearly because he understood so clearly; because his mind was so orderly. He had a place for every idea that entered his mind, and those places highlighted relationships among the ideas rather than obscuring and concealing them. As a result, he could write with precision when precision was called for, analogy when analogy was called for, and beauty – well, always, it seems, with beauty. Let me illustrate with a more or less randomly chosen passage from Lewis’s Medieval and Renaissance Literature:
“The infinite, according to Aristotle, is not actual. No infinite object exists; no infinite process occurs. Hence we cannot explain the movement of one body by the movement of another and so on forever. No such infinite series could, he thought, exist. All the movements of the universe must therefore, in the last resort, result from a compulsive force exercised by something immovable. He thought that such an Unmoved Mover could move other things only by being their end or object or (if you like) target–what he calls their ‘Final Cause’–not as one billiard ball moves another, but as food moves the hungry man, as the mistress moves her lover, as truth moves the philosophical inquirer. He calls this Unmoved Mover either ‘God’ or ‘Mind’.”
The more I read that passage the more it amazes me – the balanced phrases, the logical clarity, the sensitivity to the reader, the hesitation at just the right moment (or… or… (if you like)…), the perfectly suited analogies. Perhaps if we would read him more we would learn to think more clearly. Perhaps if we would learn to think more clearly we would be able to write better. That is my aspiration.