Some of the boldest and most entertaining writers are also some of the most dangerously careless, misleading, or even wicked: Bacon, Machiavelli, and Nietzsche, for example. Perhaps this is why St. Paul resolves to forgo the use of “lofty words” or rhetorical tricks and flourishes, depending on God alone to persuade.
Yet this very saint is eloquent when he is explaining the emptiness of loveless eloquence, as in that famous passage which begins, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”
Though of course we should write with all the grace and energy we can muster, careful reasoning and the making of necessary distinctions do not in themselves help in writing strong, lovely prose, and there is an art to presenting a complex argument clearly, beautifully, and without boring the reader or listener.
I suspect that the insipidity and even brutality of prose in our day is due in large part to the meagerness of our awe for the beauty of truth itself. The awe of our forebears was more ample. Thomas Aquinas implores God to instruct his tongue and pour upon his lips the grace of His benediction. Dante calls upon the Muses. St. Paul urges the Philippians, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
When I suggest to my students that some things really are more beautiful than others, some always hold out for the view that beauty is in the eye of the beholder -- a view that reduces St. Paul’s counsel to “whatever you want to think about, think about.” In that way of thinking, loveliness hasn’t a chance.
Perhaps, then, before trying to write with beauty, we should simply learn to admire it.