Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 12.djvu/354

This page has been validated.


A RECENT historian of Rome, toward the close of his famous attempt to undeceive the world at large with respect to the genius of Cicero, sums up his argument in the following words: "Ciceronianism is a problem which, in fact, cannot be properly solved, but can only be resolved into that greater mystery of human nature—language, and the effect of language on the mind."

These words are suggestive—suggestive, too, of a wider question than at first sight appears. That men are influenced by language at least as much as by ideas; that power of expression is intimately associated with mental grasp generally; even that a fascination is exercised by style to which nothing equivalent is found in the accompanying thought—these are acknowledged truths, readily granted. But it is a most singular thing that they are so readily granted; it is singular that the question is not oftener asked, "Why is this so?"

How is it that language, which is but the vehicle of thought, comes to have a force which is not the mere weight of that which it carries? Even where this is not the case, where there is an equivalence of value in both style and ideas, great conceptions being nobly expressed, how is it that the matter and the form seem to have independent claims upon the attention? In a word, what is that in language which is not mere expressiveness of the obvious intentions of the writer, but is yet a merit?

At first sight there appears to be a simple answer to the question. Any of the numerous treatises on style or rhetoric abound with rules for the embellishment of discourse: the reader learns the importance of a choice of fitting words, of the judicious use of figures of speech, of the effect of melodious sentences and suitable cadences; he is instructed in the manipulation of complex constructions, and discovers the force of the gradation, the antithesis and the climax; in short, he is easily led to the conclusion that, besides expressiveness, language may have the merit of beauty.

That this distinction is a superficial one has been shown with great ability in an article by Mr. Herbert Spencer, on the "Philosophy of Style."[1] He there traces all excellence of composition to two principles—Economy of the Attention, and Economy of the Sensibility of the recipient. Assuming that a reader can have at his command only a definite amount of power of attention, it is clear that whatever part of this is employed on the form of a composition must be subtracted, and leave so much the less to be occupied in the matter. In its popular aspect this is a truth familiar to all. If any author is said

  1. Published in separate form, with flexible covers, by D. Appleton & Co.