Letter Writing

We are urged by the persistent requests of teachers to draw together in a brief space some certain points about the principles of letter writing. But we ask that the expert not laugh, that the spiteful tooth of the envious should not bite, and that the unskilled in the art should not back away — for after all, even if the fullness of the moon is wanting, this undertaking is not on that account useless in every part.

Therefore let honest men hear honestly what here is honestly set forth, and by hearing understand, and lock what they understand securely in the treasure box of the heart. And even let those who are advanced in this art add in some other points, just as grain is thrown on the threshing floor for the sake of separating it out.

Preface to The Principles of Letter Writing, Anonymous, ca. 1135.

I like the threshing floor analogy, applied to the activity of writing as a whole. I suppose that’s why a commenting system is important to me. If I’m wrong, I’d rather know, and it seems to me that jotting down a quick note would be easier than firing off another missive to explain why my “letter to the public” is misdirected. Approval and or disapproval can be expressed more easily, by adding a quick gloss to the sort of “letter” that a blog entry represents. Rather than flogging the “blogging as letter-writing” model, I merely cast this bit from an old treatise on the heap to highlight how the appearance of honesty, as a trope, permeates most communicative activities.

Treatises on how to write letters were popular in the Middle Ages. Largely modeled on Cicero’s books on rhetoric, they presented a sort of scaled-back, simplified version with lots of stock advice on composing correspondence. The emphasis on honesty continues throughout this particular version of “letter writing for dummies,” though it becomes easy to see that the aim of the practice is to appear honest, rather than to be honest. This can be achieved by flamboyant overstatement and the substitution of the correct key-phrase for the situation. I particularly liked the section on Salutations of Delinquent Sons to their Parents:

“To Peter and Mary his parents, N——, once their son but now deprived of filial affection.” “Once dear to them but now without cause become worthless, does whatever he can though he seems to be able to do nothing.”

Another example: “To N——, most beloved lord,” or “dearest father” or “relation” or “brother” or “comrade,” “N——, shackled by iron chains” or “subjected to the harshest confinement of prison” or “tied by heavy bonds,” “sends wishes for all manner of good fortune which he himself utterly lacks,” “sends wishes with his greetings for all the prosperity he does not have,” and the like.

And the like. That about sums it up. Just substitute a suitable groveling phrase, and you’ve composed the proper salutation. Genuine repentance has absolutely nothing to do with it. You’re just writing a letter, after all.

Through-out the middle phase of rhetoric as a discipline, the search was on for a sort of plug-and-play architecture that would function in any situation. This runs counter to views of writing as analogous to thinking, suggesting that stock phrases are interchangeable with invention. It’s no wonder that rhetoric was eventually reduced to questions of style. The question of “how” raised by Cicero, was reduced to catalogues of “what.”