A Short Treatise on the Writing Virtues

When the New York Times tells us “consistency is a virtue,” we wonder, but they probably have a point, for “…stubbornness isn’t”; nevertheless, the Times is “willing to consider revisions [to its style manual] when a good case can be made.” But at the risk of being stubborn, is consistency a virtue? Is it virtuous of one to consistently make the same error? And has our modern habit of valuing consistency as a characteristic of good writing infected our reading with an obsessive tendency to look for errors, and when we look for errors, are we not inclined, indeed, duty-bound, to find them? As usual, we are late to the party, but we still read with interest that the Times “recently [Feb. 2009] revised two longstanding rules in The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, the newsroom’s style guide. They were very minor changes, involving simple matters of capitalization and spelling.”

In Andrew Comte-Sponville’s A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, consistency doesn’t make the cut. Still, the Times offers solid backing for considering consistency in writing a virtue: “We continue to favor clarity and consistency over a hodgepodge of idiosyncratic preferences. We prefer established usage over change for change’s sake. And we put the needs of the general reader over the desires of any particular group.” In other words, the values of the Times editorial voice are uniformity, tradition, and democratic taste. These are the values created by the printing press, but it’s a stretch to call them virtues. Comte-Sponville does include fidelity as a virtue, and perhaps consistency is a kind of fidelity, but fidelity to what?

For Comte-Sponville, thinking of virtues should give us “to understand what we should do, what we should be, and how we should live, and thereby gauge, at least intellectually, the distance that separates us from these ideals.” Yet the second half of this stated purpose begins to sound like the formulation of a rubric. But Comte-Sponville goes on to say that he does not “believe any more than Spinoza did in the utility of denouncing vice, evil, and sin. Why always accuse, why always condemn? That’s a sad ethics indeed, for sad people.”

We know from the study of Old English manuscripts that consistency of punctuation and capitalization was not considered a virtue. What causes virtues to change over time? What are the writing virtues that make good habit?

Comte-Sponville picks up Aquinas’s question of the relative value of the virtues – can one virtue be considered better than another? Here are the chapter titles of Comte-Sponville’s book, their order a matter of “intuition,” he tells us, rather than prescription; still, one wonders where consistency might be placed:

  1. Politeness
  2. Fidelity
  3. Prudence
  4. Temperance
  5. Courage
  6. Justice
  7. Generosity
  8. Compassion
  9. Mercy
  10. Gratitude
  11. Humility
  12. Simplicity
  13. Tolerance
  14. Purity
  15. Gentleness
  16. Good Faith
  17. Humor
  18. Love

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