It has been a long time since I foisted upon my hapless readers my opinions, screeds, condescending remarks, &c. I have an excuse, but it is a very boring one (it begins with “diss” and rhymes, in both sound and sense, with “consternation”). And so I will make up an excuse which, although it doesn’t have the benefit of truth, at least makes me seem educated and virtuous. My excuse is not my dissertation, no, not at all; it is, in fact, a certain reluctance to speak which characterizes most virtuous, noble, courageous authors throughout the ages.
This reluctance to speak: it’s a theme I’ve been thinking about recently a lot. I have always skimmed past these sorts of intros in ancient authors, thinking it’s a silly formality and stock phrasing. You know the ones. They start their treatises or letters or accounts or histories or plays with: “I shouldn’t be writing this at all, o [insert name of dedicatee, reader, patron, regent], but you urged me on so/the gods sent me a dream/the muse compelled me; and, although my prose is, most days, a catastrophe of such disastrous proportion that Wikipedia ranks it just before ‘Chernobyl’ and just after ‘Stephanie Meyer,’ I suppose I should swallow my modesty and write these 10 volumes.”
It seems like false modesty, fishing for a compliment, a Greco-Roman rhetorical flourish one fast-forwards through in order to get to the good stuff. But, as you can probably predict, I’m about to defend it and say that this old-fashioned practice, despite not making sense to my modern sensibility, is in fact very good. (You can predict that because that’s the format of every single damn article I ever write.)
Maybe the best place to start is an author who doesn’t feel the need to do this. “Call me Ishmael.” These words begin like a conversation that is already underway but still in its early stages. Whoever’s talking to you hasn’t felt the need to ask your permission to tell you all this, nor has he apologized for going on at length. Why should he? Such a phrase, “Call me Ishmael,” is what you say as you sit down with your beer across the table from someone at a bar and you’re just becoming acquainted. In fact, that’s the whole tone of the novel: a compulsive talker who makes up for his social pathology by being wildly interesting. Melville needs no apologetic proemium, since his prose bewitches us before we can think to ask him for a justification. “Call me Ishmael” provokes so many questions (such as “Why, isn’t that your real name?”) that whether or not Melville ought to have written the novel is a question banished from our heads.
But no so for Cicero. (Or whoever wrote Ad Herennium.) “My private affairs keep me so busy,” goes the famous line, “that I can hardly find enough leisure to devote to study, and the little that is vouchsafed to me I have usually preferred to spend on philosophy. Yet your desire, Gaius Herennius, has spurred me to compose a work on the Theory of Public Speaking, lest you should suppose that…I either lacked the will or shirked the labour. And I have undertaken this project the more gladly because I knew that you had good grounds in wishing to learn rhetoric….” (I.I.1).
Goodness! What a teacher’s pet he must have been. That’s nearly identical to Quintilian’s opening, also a treatise on rhetoric: “You have been pressing me every day [o Trypho], with great insistence, to start publishing the books on ‘the orator’s education’ which I had written…. My own view was that they [the books] had not yet matured enough. As you know, I spent little more than two years on composing them, at a time when I was anyway distracted by much business. …But if they are called for as urgently as you allege, let us spread our sails before the wind and pray for a good voyage as we cast off.”
In a different world, but eerily similar: Jerome in his letter to Innocent. “You have frequently asked me, dearest Innocent, not to pass over in silence the marvellous event which has happened in our own day. I have declined the task from modesty…believing myself to be incapable of it…because inactivity, acting like rust upon the intellect, has dried up any little power of expression that I have ever had. You in reply urge that in the things of God we must look not at the work which we are able to accomplish, but at the spirit in which it is undertaken…The task is beyond me, and yet I dare not decline it. I am a mere unskilled passenger, and I find myself placed in charge of a freighted ship.”
Jerome and Quintilian were both, you might say, “at sea.”
There are, no doubt, zillions (even “frillions”) of scholars who have written on these sorts of openers, which are closely related to the ars dictaminis, the “art of letter-writting,” which was, during the Middle Ages, practically synonymous with rhetoric itself. (I can recommend James J. Murphy, Rhetoric in the Middle Ages, but I’m sure there are many others.) But I am always interested in these “stock” behaviors, protocols which can be conceptualized paradigmatically:
|Author||Excuse||“Yet”||So I’ll do it anyway|
|Cicero||“My private affairs keep me so busy”||“Your desire, Gaius Herenius, has spurred me”||“I have undertaken this project the more gladly”|
|Quintilian||“Not yet matured enough…I was anyway distracted by much business”||“You have been pressing me every day”||“Let us spread our sails before the wind”|
|Jerome||literally claims to be “rusty”/”believing myself to be incapable of it”||“Urge that…we must look…at the spirit in which it is undertaken”||“What must I do? …I am an unskilled passenger”|
Of course this practice continues down quite far. I’m sure one could proliferate many such examples, but my favorite is certainly Shakespeare’s chorus introducing Henry V, which apologizes for the “unworthy scaffold to bring forth so great an object” but concludes:
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.
And another favorite also has to be the opening of the Republic, which is almost like a combination of the obsequiousness of Jerome and the presumption of Melville: as if to justify Socrates at his most prolix, Plato opens the dialogue with Socrates being kidnapped by people who are just that eager to hear him talk all night about justice. Socrates only shares all these thoughts with us under the (friendly) threat of force, which is ever so humble of him (but we’ve forgotten all about Plato himself at that point).
As with most such behaviors, I can’t help but wonder if there is some virtue which is encoded in the etiquette. Although it strikes us as false modesty, it might well be that it struck them as an important safeguard against logorrhea.
Put it this way: would I write as many blog posts or tweet as many tweets if I had to formulate (even if formulaically) the reasons why opening my mouth was a better idea than keeping it shut? These formulae strike me as an etiquette which, at least in a Christian context, embodies the wish to avoid Scripture’s condemnations of too many words. “In the multitude of words, sin is not absent.” “Do not many of you be teachers.” “Of the making of books there is no end.” Under such a torrent of judgment, any author needs an umbrella, and these stock openings are the umbrella.
These sorts of openings are like good manners. It’s entirely possible to have good manners and be a bad person underneath, but, on the other hand, it is much harder to be a good person without any manners governing social interaction at all. Similarly, it’s possible to be proud and to speak far too much even if you do use an apologetic exordium, but, without them, there isn’t as much constraint on sinful loquacity. There is little etiquette anymore telling us, “Don’t say as much as you think you should.” In fact, the bias is quite the reverse.
This is why we should be champions of tough English classes, high editorial standards, stern publishing houses, zero-tolerance plagiarism policies, and, most of all, strict citation practices. These are cultural triumphs, huge technological and social bulwarks, and should be defended at all costs. A pious Christianity should, in general, err on the side of making it difficult to write, to publish, to platform. This may sound to some very undemocratic and potentially even dangerous of me (not to mention hypocritical; nobody is editing this post before I publish it). The objection could easily be made that this would hand power over to “elites” or allow the few to “hegemonize meaning.” (Funnily, I could picture these objections coming from either the left or the right.) But that’s crazy; no one from any other era would, if traveling to the present, say, “Oh, the problem is that not enough people are making their opinions known.” Actually, the truly democratic mechanism is if we insist on the traditional hallmarks of honest, Christian communication: cite, attribute, edit, revise, and so forth. The best recourse to “in a multitude of words sin is not absent” is “iron sharpens iron” and “in the multitude of counselors.” All writing should be done in the company, with the permission, of others.
And part of an editor’s job (any publishing venue’s job) is to make our apologetic opening paragraph implicit. A magazine or a publishing house is, in essence, an implied statement: “We recognize you have a lot to read; but we considered this so important that it’s worthy of our high editorial standards; we can vouch for its quality and will reward your trust with something worthwhile.” Still, it might not be bad if we return to that defensive posture more explicitly in our writing.