Style and Sittler

by Matt Frost

Of all the regular topics Joe addressed, style seems to be one of the most persistent and popular.  There were a whole mess of quotes for it; from “Style is the man himself” (George-Louis Leclerc de Buffon) to “it is style which is the deference that action pays to uncertainty” (J. Robert Oppenheimer).  That last deserves a bit more expansion:

The problem of doing justice to the implicit, the imponderable, and the unknown is of course not unique in politics. It is always with us in science, it is with us in most trivial of personal affairs, and it is one of the great problems of writing and of all forms of art. The means by which it is solved is sometimes called style. It is style which complements affirmation with limitation and with humility; it is style which makes it possible to act effectively, but not absolutely; it is style which, in the domain of foreign policy, enables us to find harmony between the pursuit of ends essential to us, and the regard for the views, the sensibilities, the aspirations of those to whom the problem may appear in another light; it is style which is the deference that action pays to uncertainty; it is above all style though which power defers to reason.

This served a major role in the formation of ethical style; in the 1977 Summer Seminar at Valparaiso, Joe leaned heavily on it.  I don’t have the quote handy, but something about the need for absolute action in the midst of absolute indeterminacy.  Simply put, even inaction is a choice with consequences, and if one is not to lean into a codification of what is right ethical action (that way lies casuistry, and the assurance that the codified action will be the wrong one at some critical juncture), style is the only thing that we have to rely on for consistent choices.

As I listen to another recording, from 1982, there is a Whitehead quote used to describe Joe’s approach.  Joe cites it in the opening of Essays on Nature and Grace, and it is this: “Style is the morality of the mind.”  As the opening speaker on the recording puts it, “Style is not something added to the thought processes and the human experiences in life, but is the means by which we come to the reflections as we bring together our sense perceptions of the world and our attempts and our desires to pull it together.”  And yet I have a further Whitehead quote on the topic that brings me around to the point I want:

The most austere of all mental qualities; I mean the sense for style. It is an aesthetic sense, based on admiration for the direct attainment of a foreseen end, simply and without waste. Style in art, style in literature, style in science, style in logic, style in practical execution have fundamentally the same aesthetic qualities, namely, attainment and restraint. The love of a subject in itself and for itself, where it is not the sleepy pleasure of pacing a mental quarter-deck, is the love of style as manifested in that study. … Style, in its finest sense, is the last acquirement of the educated mind; it is also the most useful. It pervades the whole being. The administrator with a sense for style hates waste; the engineer with a sense for style economises his material; the artisan with a sense for style prefers good work. Style is the ultimate morality of mind. … Style is the fashioning of power, the restraining of power … with style the end is attained without side issues, without raising undesirable inflammations. With style you attain your end and nothing but your end. With style the effect of your activity is calculable, and foresight is the last gift of gods to men. With style your power is increased, for your mind is not distracted with irrelevancies, and you are more likely to attain your object. Now style is the exclusive privilege of the expert. Whoever heard of the style of an amateur painter, of the style of an amateur poet? Style is always the product of specialist study, the peculiar contribution of specialism to culture.”

In 1982, Joe is quite blind.  Having been a perfectionist in crafting his presentations, he is forced now to “think more on less.”  And it is in this that his style changes.  I might disagree therefore with this last bit from Whitehead, except that Joe admires those for whom polish and elegance in systematic presentation of material remains their metier.  But Joe has become what they call him: the prober, “Old Brooder.”  His is a meditative and reflective style, an organic one as it reproduces the manner in which the matter in question — whatever it may be — appears to him.  And here is where I need not disagree with Whitehead, for it was indeed the last acquired!  But the end is never attained without side issues; indeed, side issues are the point!  Whitehead desires an efficiency, an economy of style which fits his world as a man of math and physics.  But the theologian may perhaps never have such a clear path to her object, and indeed must never assume a clear path as long as the sights are set on God.  And indeed Sittler is bold to talk about style as the provenance of any agent, not just the professional; style as the necessity, not the donum superadditum, of even commencing to work.  This great generalist, a constructive thinker rather than a precisely focused systematic theologian, was willing to be an amateur learning anything that might be done in the world.

Did he lack style?  No, and this is where I would place the Oppenheimer quote over against Whitehead.  Rather than the straightforwardness of efficient and directed action, Joe’s style was filled with the deference of singular concern exercised in a plural world.  Peripatetic, circumambulatory, growing in one direction by learning in every other, with a strong sense of the necessity of play (without ever having to refer to Heidegger for any of this, though Ricoeur may have something to do with it…).  The man himself became style, in the end.  He was, as he said once of Conrad Bergendoff, a man who “looked like what he was, who was what he said, who did what he promised, whose inwardness was permeable to any gaze without the perception of any gap.”  And perhaps this is the key, however one may polish one’s style over time: integrity.  Authenticity.  “Style is the man himself.”


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