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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Of the many senses of “style” two are particularly
relevant here: (a) the use of language in a work of
literature; (b) the sum of formal characteristics com-
mon to a period, school, or genre (the latter applies
to all the arts, including literature). The word “style”
derives from Latin stilus, an instrument for writing on
wax tablets, hence, by metonymy, a way of writing
(already classical in this sense, found in Cicero). How-
ever, other words (such as ratio, elocutio) were more
often used, and the concept of style naturally goes back
to the earliest Greek writings on rhetoric.

Most of the major problems which have since arisen
in the theory of style are already present in antiquity,
at least by implication: until the end of the eighteenth
century, and sometimes even later, the framework of
reference is nearly always that established by ancient
rhetoric and there is constant harking back to the old
ideas. Though important modifications occur, this
makes a strict chronological sequence difficult to trace.
Thus in the Phaedrus, Plato (or Socrates) presents an
almost romantic view of style. Rhetorical devices, or-
naments, image-making, are subordinate to general
truth, goodness of character, and psychological insight,
in some ways an anticipation of Buffon's famous eigh-
teenth-century dictum: “Style is the man himself” (Le
style est l'homme même,
), found in Discours sur le style
(ed. Nollet [1905], p. 22). Content and form cannot
really be separated. It follows too that only the
rudiments of style can be taught, its essence not at all
(one of the favorite ideas of the nineteenth and twenti-
eth centuries). Aristotle, on the other hand, in the
Poetics and Rhetoric, tends towards the view of style
as ornament, and engages in a precise investigation of
figures of speech and other devices of style, and of their
aesthetic and psychological effect. Among these figures,
metaphor is the hallmark of genius, a view later echoed
by Longinus and by Proust. Almost from the beginning,
then, though the difference between Plato and Aristotle
must not be overstressed, we find clearly stated the
two opposing views of style as an inevitable product
of content, and as a technique which can be acquired.

Later Greek writers develop these ideas. The De
of Dionysius of Halicarnassus (ca. 20 B.C.)
is concerned with word order and rhythm but this turns
into a highly interesting study of style in general. He
insists on beauty and the magical effect of word order,
which can be ruined by transposition. The De
of Demetrius (first century A.D.) continues
and extends the Aristotelian tradition of analysis of
figures and tropes but again, in an unmechanical way,
conveying the spirit as well as the technique. He shows
himself keenly aware of the deeper differences between
prose and poetry, going beyond meter. Roughly con-
temporary is On the Sublime (not by Longinus but the
name is too familiar to be dropped), which from the
end of the seventeenth century (Boileau's translation,
1674) exercised immense influence on the development
of European preromanticism. Loftiness of language is
the keynote; a little stream is less admirable than the
ocean; and in the Platonic way expression is subordi-
nate to thought and passion (though there is also an
Aristotelian mastery in the analysis of figures).

Generally speaking the Greeks are marked by fresh-
ness and strong aesthetic sense (this applies to the
Aristotelian as well as to the Platonic tradition). The
Romans (Cicero, Horace, and Quintilian outstanding)


are much more practical. Quintilian's Institutio oratoria
(ca. A.D. 95), in particular, is perhaps still the best
repertory of the expressive resources of a language,
though with few general ideas.

Of the principles which emerge from classical
theorists, the most important for later developments
are the definition of the qualities of style and the theory
of levels. According to Quintilian style (oratio) has
three kinds of excellence: correctness, clarity, and
adornment. Elsewhere he adds propriety (fitness to
context). But for him, as for Aristotle, clarity seems
the most important. Although Oriental developments
lie beyond the scope of this article, it is interesting
to see a similar emphasis on clarity in the Sanskrit
treatise Nātyaçāstra (ca. first century A.D.). The three
levels of style are, with variations, the simple, the
intermediate, and the grand (a distinction usually
ascribed to the lost Of Style of Theophrastus, continued
by most later writers including Dionysius, Cicero, and
Quintilian). Demetrius adds a fourth level, the forcible.

Medieval stylistic theory (Matthieu de Vendôme,
Geoffroi de Vinsauf, John Garland) is closely imitated
from Latin models (Cicero and Horace especially), but
with an even stronger practical bent than that of the
Romans. The doctrine of the three styles is extended
from style to subject and leads to Vergil's Wheel, in
which the three divisions are adapted to epic, didactic,
and pastoral (Aeneid, Georgics, and Eclogues). The
word stilus itself is much more frequently used. But
one great original mind naturally towers above the rest.
Dante is perhaps the first to use the term in a vernacu-
lar language exactly in its modern sense:

tu se' solo colui da cu' io tolsi
lo bello stilo che m'ha fatto onore.
(“It is you alone from whom I took the beautiful style
which has brought me honor”;

Inferno, i, 86-87).

In De vulgari eloquentia he offers a new interpretation
of levels of style, extending the notion beyond genres
to constructions and vocabulary.

During the Renaissance, understandably, depend-
ence on classical models is still greater, especially in
the series of commentaries on Aristotle by Italians,
beginning with Robortello (1548). In general, Italian
and French preoccupation with the problems of a
national literary language tended to distract attention
from style in itself. On the other hand, there is more
stress on poetics and less on rhetoric than in the work
of the ancients, and this helps to detach the concept
of style from a narrowly practical purpose. And in the
discussion of the qualities of style, though clarity still
appears, beauty and splendor of language come to
overshadow it, e.g., in Trissino's La poetica (1529) or
Ronsard's Abrégé de l'art poétique (1565); elocution,
Ronsard says, is a splendor of words which makes
verses glitter like precious stones on the fingers of a
great lord—but here we are perhaps moving towards
mannerism. At the same time, Scaliger (Poetices libri
1561) multiplies the qualities of style till he
has about twenty, among which beauty (venustas)
occupies an important place. The three levels of style
of course continue to appear (Scaliger and Ronsard
again). Ronsard above all returns to the Platonic view
that details of style are subject to the Muses and the
divine fury of the poet. On the whole, Renaissance
theory shows a powerful resurgence of the aesthetic
emphasis we have found in the Greeks.

When we come to the end of the sixteenth century,
to late mannerism or early baroque, we encounter the
difficulty that the common run of critics follows
classical precepts and reflects only tangentially the
sometimes startling innovations in style itself. How-
ever, both Montaigne and Ben Jonson (Timber, 1640;
posthumous) praise the concise and abrupt style of
Sallust and Seneca, the “Senecan amble.” And both
regard style as the expression of the man himself,
Montaigne by implication, Jonson (following Juan Luis
Vives) fairly explicitly (“No glasse renders a mans
forme, or likenesse, so true as his speech”). They are
joined by Robert Burton (Anatomy of Melancholy,
1621): “stylus virum arguit, our style bewrays us,”
almost Buffon. A more fully baroque conception ap-
pears in Martin Optiz (Buch von der deutschen Poeterei,
1624), with his exaltation of decoration as a principal
quality of style and his admiration for magnificent
periphrases. However, for the extreme presentation of
baroque theory we must turn to Tesauro's Il can-
nocchiale Aristotelico
(1654), an amazing compendium
of rhetorical figures, conceits, and verbal tricks (and
their equivalents in painting and sculpture), with a
remarkable classification of sources of metaphors by
place, time, dress, and so on, which anticipates many
modern studies of imagery. Everything becomes a
conceit and creates astonishment. That this extrava-
ganza claims to be (and to some extent is) based on
Aristotle is a good example of the way classical models
are completely transformed and distorted by baroque
writers or artists.

Comparison with Tesauro demonstrates the prudent
moderation of the French classical school. Boileau
returns to the notion of clarity as the supreme quality,
the three styles receive much attention (Boileau and
Rapin both warn against the dangers of the grand
style), La Bruyère insists on propriety (in Quintilian's
sense of the mot juste). However, we must not overlook
Boileau's part in popularizing the bold ideas of
Longinus, and Bernard Lamy (La rhétorique, ou l'art
de parler,
1675) moves a step further towards Buffon.


Every man has his own way of gesticulating or walking,
and so it is with writing (cf. Jonson): there are as many
styles as there are persons writing. But Lamy goes
further: personal differences of style are the direct
product of physical differences in the brain and nervous
system. This materialist and scientific approach, not
far removed from Locke, anticipates not only the
eighteenth century but also the nineteenth (Gourmont)
and the twentieth (I. A. Richards). Lamy also examines
the influence of climate on national styles and distin-
guishes genre styles and period styles (he is perhaps
one of the first to view style historically).

The eighteenth century is still dominated by classical
rhetoric, but as we should expect there is a serious
attempt to put it on a rational philosophical founda-
tion. Thus when Lord Kames (Elements of Criticism,
1762) discusses beauty of language at great length, he
in fact talks mainly about the logic of syntax. Swift
and Buffon maintain that passion in style should never
prevail over reason, Laharpe that style is the just and
proportionate expression of feelings; Buffon and
Johnson agree that things should only be named in
general terms. Clarity is still put first among qualities
by Kames (who goes so far as to say that it “ought
not to be sacrificed to any other beauty whatever”)
and by Crevier (Rhétorique françoise, 1765). The three
levels of style continue to flourish (Rollin, Voltaire,
Marmontel); Crevier makes them the basis of a system-
atic classification of noble and low words, the latter
of course to be excluded. A favorite idea of the period,
which goes back at least to Quintilian, is that style
is the dress of thought (Kames, Johnson, Crevier).

The works of the professional rhetoricians, like du
Marsais (Des tropes, 1730) and Crevier, can be regarded
as the ultimate point of the classical system. Their
methodical treatment of figures, sensible and intelli-
gent, is a monument of eighteenth-century rationalism.
However, the most famous and influential study,
Buffon's Discours sur le style (1753), is not the work
of a rhetorician but of a scientist. As we should expect,
we find the rational emphasis of the period, with traces
of a more markedly scientific attitude: thoughts and
ideas are what style expresses (les idées seules forment
le fond du style
); movement is given importance, ap-
propriately to the age of Newtonian physics (Le style
n'est que l'ordre et le mouvement qu'on met dans ses
); the qualities of good style are luminosity,
precision, simplicity, clarity. On the other hand, Buffon
anticipates the future with his insistence on color and
energy, and on the organic unity of style, its resem-
blance to works of nature. And of course there is Le
style est l'homme même,
foreshadowed, we have seen,
by earlier writers but never so clearly stated. In spite of
the scientific context in which it appears, it may be
considered the foundation of romantic views of style.

In some ways the study of style becomes less impor-
tant during the romantic period and after, for several
reasons: the literary reaction against classical rhetoric
(Guerre à la rhétorique..., Hugo); the growth of
historical linguistics, with consequent rejection of the
static and synchronic approach of rhetoric; above all,
the biographical conception of criticism which con-
centrates on the personality, not the text. Still, although
it is in some ways a return to Plato and Longinus,
romanticism is perhaps the first great revolution in the
theory of style, founded on the development of two
central and closely related ideas: the style is the man;
content and style are inseparable. The first is vividly
put by Newman: “we might as well say that one man's
shadow is another's as that the style of a really gifted
mind can belong to any but himself.... Literature
is the personal use or exercise of language” (The Idea
of a University
). On the second, De Quincey records
a remark of Wordsworth's: “It is in the highest degree
unphilosophic to call language or diction 'the dress of
thoughts'... he would call it 'the incarnation of
thoughts.'” This demolishes not only a favorite image
of the old rhetoric but also the view of style as super-
imposed ornament on which that rhetoric was based.
Similar views are expressed in the nineteenth century
by, for example, Wackernagel, Schopenhauer, G. H.
Lewes, Flaubert, and Henry James. It is clear that style
in this sense, since it is the inevitable expression of
mind and personality, cannot be taught (again the
annihilation of the old rhetoric), a view put by
Chateaubriand, Brunetière, and Walter Raleigh (Style,
1897), but carried to extreme lengths by Remy de
Gourmont (Le Problème du style, 1902) in his attack
on the manuals of Antoine Albalat. Wackernagel
(Poetik Rhetorik und Stilistik, 1836-37) significantly
transforms the classical three levels into the style of
intellect, the style of imagination, and the style of

To this mainstream of romantic thought (even today
far from exhausted) we must add the scientific and
perhaps the aesthetic movements of the nineteenth
century. Aestheticism is an offshoot of romanticism,
but its preoccupation with form tends towards a new
separation of style and content, as when Walter Pater
compares the writer's language to the sculptor's marble
or Robert Louis Stevenson attempts to analyze verbal
music. The application of science is seen incidentally
in Lewes's comparison of style to an efficient machine,
and systematically in Herbert Spencer's naïvely inge-
nious reduction of style to the law of minimum effort.
More significantly, Gourmont (an interesting amalgam
of scientific and aesthetic approaches) makes style a
product of physiology, an idea we have already noticed
in Lamy but here developed under the influence of
Taine and the French Naturalist school.


The last fifty years have seen a great revival of
interest, theoretical and technical, in the phenomena
of style. This movement has been both literary (the
reaction against biographical criticism and the realiza-
tion of the supreme importance of the work itself) and
linguistic (the reaction against historical linguistics;
Saussure's distinction between langue and parole; the
growth of structuralism). There has been a return to
some of the objects of classical rhetoric, though with
methods based on advances in linguistics and an
attempt to go beyond mere classification. The results
are too varied and too controversial to permit easy
summarizing: the most striking features are perhaps,
on the literary side, the new importance attached to
figures, especially imagery, and, on the linguistic side,
the notion of style as an individual system within a
general code. The use of computers has been valuable
not so much in solving particular problems of attribu-
tion as in drawing attention to style as a set of detecta-
ble patterns.


There is surprisingly little on the historical development
of theories of style, and the subject is best studied in general
histories of criticism: J. W. H. Atkins, Literary Criticism in
(Cambridge, 1934); E. Faral, Les arts poétiques
du XIIe et du XIIIe siècles
(Paris, 1924), includes the key
texts in full; G. Saintsbury, A History of Criticism (Edin-
burgh and London, 1900-04); B. Weinberg, A History of
Literary Criticism in the Italian Renaissance
1961); R. Wellek, A History of Literary Criticism 1750-1950
(New Haven, 1955-). A most useful work, though elementary
in intention, is L. Cooper's Theories of Style (New York,
1907), which includes representative essays from Plato to
the end of the nineteenth century, in English or translated
into English. For post-1900, see, for example, J. Cohen,
Structure du langage poétique (Paris, 1966); R. Fowler, ed.,
Essays on Style and Language (London, 1966); H. A.
Hatzfeld, A Critical Bibliography of the New Stylistics
(Chapel Hill, 1953); J. Leed, ed., The Computer and Literary
(Kent, Ohio, 1966).


[See also Ambiguity; Beauty; Criticism; Form; Metaphor;
Poetry and Poetics; Rationality; Rhetoric; Romanticism;