Accumulating Strength

We pay a high compliment to a writer’s style when we say that it has energy, that it carries us confidently through a number of ideas, and shows one idea arising from another. What is energetic is moving and what moves changes, and that dynamic, dramatic quality seems to be at the heart of a higher human perception.

I say higher perception because our more common way of looking at the world (and perhaps necessarily so) is not dynamic but static; we see things standing alone rather than acting together, and we believe something is and will always be what it obviously appears to be at the moment. This might just be why the endeavors of art are so difficult: the artist—the good writer—is trying to generate lift under the static elements of the craft. A word is just a symbol for an idea, and it’s not until one idea is put in relation to another by means of a phrase or clause that our common perception of a vigorless world can take flight.

I recently came across an excellent example of such a sentence. C.E.M. Joad was a British philosopher of some note and popularity in the early twentieth century, and between the two world wars, he published a work called Return to Philosophy: Being a Defense of Reason, an Affirmation of Values, and a Plea for Philosophy (Faber and Faber, 1937). In his first chapter he worries over how difficult it can be to distinguish between a real philosopher and someone who merely holds a set of personal opinions passionately. The true philosopher, he says, knows what past philosophers have thought, and he affirms that philosophers like Aristotle and Butler and Schopenhauer “are conspicuous examples of the power which the great philosophers have of extending and enriching our comprehension of life as a whole, enabling us to find in the world more challenge to our interest, more stimulus to our curiosity, more scope for our sympathy, our understanding, even for our passion, than we found before” (p. 27).

Much can be said about those fifty-four words, but if you simply read them aloud once or twice, you will hear one idea accumulating onto another, this growing mass of thought, like a grand summer cumulus cloud, powerfully rising to a conclusion. That impression could not reach us without a specific form, and since we are reading a sentence, that form has taken shape with the elements of word, phrase, and clause. These fifty-four words of Joad’s comprise the predicate of a sentence whose long subject phrase would only complicate matters for us. We can see, though, that we are in a predicate because the passage I’ve quoted begins with the verb are: Aristotle and Butler and Schopenhauer, Joad has said, are conspicuous examples, and that is the only independent clause the sentence contains. With that grammatical observation, we can find and keep our balance as we see how it is that the energy of the sentence escalates as we read to the period.

One way to first analyze rhetorical structure is to ask basic questions of what the writer has said. Joad here maintains that the three philosophers he has named are conspicuous examples, but we may ask, examples of what? They are examples, he says, of the power which the great philosophers have. What kind of power? The power of extending and enriching our comprehension of life as a whole. To what purpose? To the purpose of enabling us to find in the world more challenge to our interest. What else could we find? More stimulus to our curiosity. Anything else? More scope for our sympathy. Could we find more scope for anything else? For our understanding, even for our passion, than we found before.

That is a bird’s-eye view of the predicate. But at grammatical ground level we see this: the noun examples gives us the main thought: these three philosophers are examples. That predicate noun is then specified by the prepositional phrase of the power, and the prepositional object, power, is itself made specific by the relative clause which the great philosophers have. Next, that same power is made more specific again by naming two of its characteristics, of extending and enriching our comprehension of life as a whole, and with that, the momentum of the sentence really gets underway. To specify ideas is to compress them, and compression creates energy.

The writer now gives us a destination, a purpose, for these characteristics of power: enabling us to find in the world more challenge to our interest. The gerund enabling and its object the infinitive to find begin a fast-increasing acceleration, fast because of ever more concise grammatical structures: three phrases similarly constructed with the adjective more plus a noun (more challenge, more stimulus, more scope). Each of these phrases is modified by its own prepositional phrase, and when we come to the last, more scope for our sympathy, the writer triples the objects for the preposition for (sympathy, understanding, and passion) but eschews that controlling preposition in the middle term so as to retract his energy before the final vault to the end of the sentence.

That is quite something, and we hardly need all this analysis to feel the force of the ideas. But analysis can show us that the author’s linguistic strength was not chanced but disciplined, and as Joad says elsewhere, such “disciplined intelligence prepares the mind for those cognitive ‘jumps’, which are involved in the apprehension of all new truth….” And truth is what the good philosopher and writer both are most worried about.


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