The Substance of Style - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

The Substance of Style

Style is perspective. It is knowing where things go and putting them there. It is appropriateness or propriety.

Style is outward form. Substance is nothing without it. And, as Confucius said, outward form leads to inward grace. A person with style behaves a certain way, as befits things of which he or she has the proper measure. A person without style is either uncomfortable or makes others uncomfortable, or both, because he or she is out of balance with the surroundings – in other words, unaware of where he is and what the occasion calls for.

Style is not fashion. Fashion is conformity with opinion. Unlike fashion, style is never out of fashion, nor does it take itself too seriously. Style is not pretension; it requires humility. It is not about self. It is, rather, conforming one’s self to what is, a standard that exists independently, outside of (but also within) oneself. As the opposite of style, fashion is the attempt to bring things into conformity with oneself, with one’s desires. Style, however, is a product of an unchanging hierarchy that exists in being. Relieved of the burden of fashion, there is a lightness in its spirit and to its step. Style does not depress; it enlivens. It has an easiness of manner from the habit of getting things right.

I recently came across an excellent example of style. In the Alexiad, Anna Comnena (1083-1153), the daughter of Byzantine Emperor Alexius I, writes of her mother:

She knew exactly how to temper reserve and dignity; her own reserve never gave the impression of harshness or cruelty, nor did her tenderness seem too soft or unrestrained – and this, I fancy, is the true definition of propriety: a due proportion of warm humanity and strict moral principle.

No one is born with a sense of where everything belongs or with the propriety of which Anna Comnena speaks. In this sense, style is not natural, though it is in Nature. It is the product of education and culture. It is instituted; instantiated. It is acculturated. This is why children do not have style. Style is only practiced by those who accept the Nature of things – once they have apprehended them. This is why true style is resistant to change – because the Nature of things does not change. Fashion, on the other hand, presumes that they do change, which is why fashions always change and quickly become old-fashioned. Style is very, very old, but never old-fashioned.

Style captures the distinction between the private and the public, and observes it. With a person of style, one need not fear that something untoward will be disclosed about the personal. Style perfectly calibrates the measure of personal, private, and public in any situation. It could be the height of style to strike someone who violates style in such a way as to injure another. Even without the possibility of violence, style may make some people uncomfortable in its presence, because, if they are without style, style implicitly rebukes them. It is like being caught misusing something with the added embarrassment of not having known its proper use. Therefore, people with style, though they never intentionally embarrass others, are often resented – because they are not inclusive. Fashion is inclusive because it is in constant need of the new – racing to embrace the new before it becomes old-fashioned; style is exclusive because it is only concerned with what does not change, and adheres only to what is.

Manners are a form or an expression of style that comprehends both who one is and with whom one is. In other words, the style of an encounter expresses the nature of the relationship. If the element of style is missing, confusion reigns, because no one is certain of the other person. This is especially manifest in speech. Nothing so reveals the rigors of style and the laxity of fashion as proper grammar, or the lack of it. Unless words can be put in their right place and correct sequence, we will not know the proper order of the things they represent. Bad grammar is always a sign that one does not know the true relationship of things.

Faulty diction can be even worse. In the Analects, Confucius taught:

If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish.

The currently fashionable misuse of the word marriage to apply to two male “partners” is an illustration of this. It exhibits a total lack of comprehension as to who the other person is – in fact, a complete lack of self-understanding. This is the negation of style and the triumph of fashion.

Wit resides in style. People or things out of place are a source of amusement because discombobulation is naturally humorous – but only to those who know where things belong. If someone is incapable of embarrassment, he will not find anything funny because he has no sense of when something or someone is out of place. Rather than laughing at all-male marriage, he sanctifies it.

The permanent things are not easy, which is why they have style. Form is difficult. It impresses itself or is impressed inward by discipline, which is why its effect is profound. Fashion is easy because it goes outward, which is why its effect is superficial. There used to be a broad range of people with style (it has nothing to do with social class), but no longer. Many people have preferred to become fashionable because style is too demanding. As G. K. Chesterton might say, style has not been tried and found wanting, but tried and found too hard.


Robert Reilly has taught at the National Defense University and has written for The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Claremont Review of Books, and The Washington Post. He has served in the White House as Special Assistant to the President (1983-85) and was Senior Advisor for Information Strategy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (2002-06). He is a former Director of the Voice of America and is a member of the board of the Middle East Media Research Institute. Mr. Reilly is the author of Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music (2002). His most recent book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis, was published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in 2010.

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