Gary L. Tandy's The Rhetoric of Certitude
C. S. Lewis's Nonfiction Prose
While Gary Tandy’s The Rhetoric of Certitude succeeds in analyzing rhetorical figures in the non-fiction work of C. S. Lewis, it certainly fails in its understanding of Lewis’s rhetorical situation. According to Tandy, “The aim of this study is to examine the rhetoric of Lewis’s nonfiction prose. Rhetoric is defined broadly to include all the linguistic and literary choices a writer makes in order to communicate with his audience” (xi–xii). To be fair to rhetoric, however, this is a very narrow definition of the field. I say narrow, but to be more accurate, I suppose I should say historically narrow. Rhetoric, so defined, limits its relevance merely to authorial intent, rather than exposing the historical values that such rhetorical responses reveal.
Although Tandy writes, “Lewis’s dislike of chronological snobbery stemmed from his realization that his own age was also a ‘period’” (9), Tandy rarely allows such knowledge to illuminate his own study. For example, Tandy writes, “Lewis’s basic distrust of modernity and preference for older patterns of thought are the threads that run through and unite his large body of prose work. These central attitudes may be seen as a rhetorical stance that Lewis adopted in his nonfiction prose in order to communicate effectively his religious and literary ideas in the modern world” (3). If this is true, then the most important question seems to be which “older patterns of thought” Lewis preferred. By Tandy’s own admission, “Lewis would have been in substantial agreement with two principles regarding language stated by the nineteenth century thinker Herbert Spencer in his ‘Philosophy of Style’” (31). In this light, Lewis seems aligned with Hugh Blair on issues of taste or even more specifically, the sermonizing of Richard Whately. Yet rather than utilizing the rhetorical theory of Blair or Whately, Tandy turns to classical rhetoric to analyze Lewis’s thought, “Turning to Lewis’s essays and longer prose works, we find a variety of structural patterns, many of which fit well into the classical format” (66). Why Tandy chooses classical rhetoric, rather than these nineteenth century rhetoricians to illuminate Lewis’s work is puzzling.
Another example of Tandy not allowing his own rhetorical research to inform his rhetorical analysis is his treatment of Lewis’s audience. Tandy writes, “Lewis’s father was a lawyer, and the first thing that strikes one on opening any of Lewis’s books is that he is always persuading, always arguing a case. All was forensic; the jury were to be won over and that was all” (31). Yet two pages later, Tandy writes, “Lewis was also aware of the effect a writer’s audience can have in determining style. He notes, for example, that Thomas More wrote ‘for an audience whose education had for the most part a legal twist, and law is the worst influence on his style’” (33). If Lewis admittedly critiqued the influence of the legal field on one’s style, then describing Lewis’s style as juridical seems significant in deconstructing Lewis’s meaning. In other words, rhetoric is not merely “the choices Lewis made to communicate with his audience,” but operates as a field of influence in spite of his authorial intent.
In fact, it seems that Tandy even contorts Lewis’s rhetoric into the argument that “Lewis did not set out to write at a particular stylistic level or texture; rather, he maintained that an author’s style must be molded and modified to meet the needs of his particular audience” (83). Just a few pages earlier, Tandy had written, “Given Lewis’s audience and the rhetorical purpose in his religious writings, such informal diction is not surprising. What not so many critics seem to have noticed, however, is the extent to which informality remains a quality of Lewis’s prose when he turns to works of scholarship” (74). Just because Lewis may not have “molded and modified” his message to “meet the needs of his audience” as much as Tandy suggests does not make Lewis any less rhetorical than if he had.
What it does illuminate is the particular historical conception of rhetoric that Lewis utilized. Again, Lewis’s conception of audience seems more similar to the nineteenth century rhetorical theory of Blair and Whately rather than a classical conception. Whately himself was a Christian apologist, and in his Elements of Rhetoric (1828), he writes, “It is indeed highly expedient to bring forward evidences to establish the divine origin of Christianity: but it ought to be more carefully kept in mind than is done by most writers, til some hypothesis should be framed to account for the origin of Christianity by human means.” One of the problems here may be Tandy’s source on classical rhetoric. Throughout the book, Tandy cites the undergraduate textbook, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student for definitions and analysis, rather than any primary texts. Once again, Tandy fails to utilize his own argument on the importance of historical period by choosing definitions that have expressly been modified for a contemporary audience.
Not only does Tandy seem bent on making Lewis’s prose fit his argument but also seems to avoid terms that may, in his mind, diminish Lewis’s influence. In Tandy’s attempt to place Lewis’s style among the three classical styles—plain, middle, and grand—Tandy writes, “Although the term, plain style, is an elusive one, critics have often used it to describe a style characterized by simple diction and sentence structure, one that avoids for the most part rhetorical figures and highly emotive or elevated language” (78). However, the most significant part of Tandy’s own study is his application of rhetorical figures to Lewis’s writing: alliteration (96), anadiplosis (79,94, 100–101), anaphora (94, 99–100, 108), antanaclasis (97), antimetabole (94, 101–102, 115, 117), antithesis (79, 94, 99, 106–108, 109,114, 115), aphorism (79, 102–103, 110–112, 114, 117, 123), and that is just the beginning of his admirable and thorough treatment of rhetorical figures. His treatment, therefore, of the excessive use of rhetorical figures in Lewis’s writing seems less characteristic of the “plain” style and much more characteristic of the “middle” classical category, with its excessive use of figures and its emphasis on charming its readers into understanding. Rather than this seemingly easy identification, however, Tandy writes, “Finally, while choosing generally to write in the plain style, Lewis refused to be enslaved to it and therefore varied his stylistic level and texture from extreme simplicity to complex and elevated syntactical structures” (82). Just because Lewis wrote in the “middle” style, does not make his writing less accessible to mass audiences, as the “plain” style implies. Tandy’s work, therefore, demonstrates the need for a rhetorical study of Lewis that contextualizes him with the nineteenth century rhetoric that created him, rather than classical or a contemporary rhetoric that cannot.
James P. Beasley is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Florida.