Los Angeles Review of Books: Ward Farnsworth’s guidebooks to English virtuosity and ancient philosophy
Fifteen years ago, The New York Times Book Review put out a call for readers’ favorite literary sentences of the past quarter-century, intending to print a pageful of the best examples. This was meant to correct the “blind spot” of the then-new edition of the Yale Book of Quotations (2006), with its seemingly inexplicable dearth of contributions from writers born after 1950. A month later, the Review’s editor Dwight Garner conceded defeat: “[M]ore than 400 people e-mailed us or posted lines on our Web site,” but “[m]any of the quotes weren’t from writers at all, or were from quite old (or quite dead) ones.” The few that qualified amounted to thin gruel indeed: from Jonathan Safran Foer: “Try to live so that you can always tell the truth”; from Irvine Welsh: “If things go a bit dodgy, ah jist cannae be bothered.”
This did not surprise Ward Farnsworth. “Current customs about rhetoric don’t encourage the creation of great and memorable sentences that lend themselves to the kind of display the Times proposed,” he writes in Farnsworth’s Classical English Style (2020). “Usually the apex of modern achievement is a sentence that sets new standards for informality.” That book was the third and latest in a series beginning with Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric (2010) and Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor (2006). In parallel, Farnsworth has also written two books on ancient philosophy, The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual (2018) and The Socratic Method: A Practitioner’s Handbook (2021). All were published over the past decade, the same length of time he’s held his formidable day job as dean of the University of Texas School of Law.
These titles may collectively suggest a rather old-fashioned authorial intelligence at work. In our time, we seldom look for guidance to the likes of Socrates or (despite a recent Silicon Valley–inflected revival, duly subject to bien-pensant sneering) the Stoics. Still less do we set great store by virtuosity in the English language, especially in the countries that speak it natively. Elsewhere, educational industries trade lucratively on the promise of competence in what their advertisements claim to be the unchallenged medium of global communication. But in the speech to be heard and writing to be read in, say, the United States of America, competence is the highest state to which many aspire. As Farnsworth writes in Classical English Style, “A large share of books about prose style are about how to avoid mistakes. They explain why bad writing sounds that way. This book is about stylistic virtue.”