It is among the greatest speeches ever made on how to write well for a scientific or technical audience. One of history’s great scientists will lay down a gauntlet: writing well can be as important, if not more important, than doing great science. Do you agree?
Today we listen to Georges-Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon, better known simply as “Buffon”. Buffon was a famous French scientist from the late 1700’s. Although he made important discoveries in many scientific fields, primarily biology and mathematics, he won almost as much acclaim for his impeccable writing style. Frankly, that suited him just fine.
When he was invited to the French Academy (of language, not the science one), he gave a famous speech called Discours sur le style (the "Discourse on Style"). Perhaps you can read the original in French, but the English-speaking world barely knows the tag-line: “the style is the man.” Nevertheless, it is one of the most famous talks ever on how to write well.
I have finally found a translation in English. The following comes from The Story of Civilization Volume 10 - The Age of Voltaire, by Will and Ariel Durant. We jump into the middle of their biography on Buffon. The Durants have some commentary before and after the speech, which I’ve left in place. Bolds and links are mine. Enjoy!
...[Buffon] was quite conscious of his literary flair. He delighted to read to his visitors melodious passages from his volumes; and when he was elected to the French Academy he took as his theme, on the day of his reception (August 25, 1753), not some marvel of science, but an analysis of style. That illustrious Discours, as Cuvier said, "gave at once the precept and the example,"… for it was itself a gem of style. From all but the French it is hidden in the mountain of his works, and little of it has come to us but its famous, pithy, cryptic judgment that "the style is the man." Therefore let us spread it out here, and look at it leisurely. Its brilliance is dulled in translation, but even so, and though cruelly syncopated for our ignoble haste, it can adorn any page.
After some introductory compliments to an audience that included many masters of style. Buffon proceeded:
It is only in enlightened ages that men have written and spoken well. True eloquence ... is quite different from that natural facility of speech which is . . . given to all whose passions are strong, . . . and whose imagination is quick. . . . But in those few men whose head is steady, whose taste is delicate, and whose sense is exquisite— and who, like you, messieurs, count for little the tone, the gestures, and the empty sound of words— there must be substance, thought, and reason; there must be the art of presenting these, of defining and ordering them; it is not enough to strike the ears and catch the eyes; one must act upon the soul and touch the heart while speaking to the mind. . . . The more substance and force we give to our thought by meditation, the easier it will be to realize them in expression.
All this is not yet style, but is its base; it sustains style, directs it, regulates its movement, and submits it to laws. Without this the best writer loses himself, his pen wanders without a guide, and throws out at hazard formless sketches and discordant figures. However brilliant the colors that he uses, whatever beauties he scatters in the details, he will be choked by the mass of his ideas; he will not make us feel; his work will have no structure. ... It is for this reason that those who write as they speak, however well they speak, write badly; and those who abandon themselves to the first fire of their imagination take a tone which they cannot sustain. . . .
Why are the works of Nature so perfect? It is because each work is a whole, because Nature works on an eternal plan which she never forgets. She prepares in silence the germs of her production, she sketches by a single stroke the primitive form of every living thing; she develops it, she perfects it by a continuous movement and in a pre- scribed time. . . . The mind of man can create nothing, produce nothing, except after having been enriched by experience and meditation; its experiences are the seeds of its productions. But if he imitates Nature in his procedure and his labor, if he raises himself by contemplation to the most sublime truths, if he reunites them, links them on a chain, forms of them a whole, a thought-out system, then he will establish, upon unshakable foundations, immortal monuments.
It is for lack of plan, for not having sufficiently reflected on his purpose, that even a man of thought finds himself confused, and knows not where to begin to write; he perceives at the same time a great number of ideas; and since he has neither compared nor arranged them in order, nothing determines him to prefer some to others; he remains perplexed. But when he has made a plan, when once he has assembled and placed in order all the essential thoughts on his subject, he will perceive at once and with ease at what point he should take up his pen; he will feel his ideas ripening in his mind; he will hurry to bring them to light, he will find pleasure in writing, his ideas will follow one another readily, his style will be natural and easy; a certain warmth will arise from this pleasure, will spread over his work, and give life to his expression; animation will mount, the tone will be elevated, objects will take color, and feeling, joined to light, will increase and spread, will pass from that which we say to that which we are about to say; the style will become interesting and luminous. . . .
Only those works that are well written will pass down to posterity. The quantity of knowledge, the singularity of the facts, even the novelty of discoveries, will not be sure guarantees of immortality; if the works that contain them are concerned with petty objects, or if they are written without taste or nobility, . . . they will perish; for the knowledge, the facts, the discoveries are easily removed and carried off, and even gain by being placed in more able hands. Those things are outside the man, but the style is the man himself [Le style c'est l'homme même]; the style cannot be stolen, transported, or altered; if it is elevated, noble, and sublime, the author will be admired equally in all times, for only truth is durable and everlasting.
~~~~~[The book ends its quotation of the speech and returns to the discussion on Buffon]
"This discourse," said Villemain, "so admired at the time, seems to surpass all that had yet been thought on the subject; and we cite it even today as a universal rule."
Perhaps some deductions must be made. Buffon's description holds better for prose than for poetry. It does more justice to the "classic" than to the "romantic" style; it is in the tradition of Boileau, and rightly elevates reason; but it leaves too little room for the Rousseaus, the Chateaubriands, and the Hugos of French prose, or for the enticing confusion of Rabelais and Montaigne, or for the moving, artless simplicity of the New Testament. It could with difficulty explain why Rousseau's Confessions, so poor in reason, so rich in feeling, remains one of the greatest books of the eighteenth century. Truth can be a fact of feeling as well as a structure of reason or a perfection of form.
Buffon's style was the man, a robe of dignity for an aristocratic soul. Only in the absorption of his studies did Buffon forget that he was a seigneur as well as a scientist and scribe. He took in his stride the multiplying honors that crowned his old age. Louis XV made him Comte de Buffon in 177 1, and invited him to Fontainebleau. The learned academies of Europe and America offered him honorary membership. He contemplated without qualm the statue that his son raised to him in the Jardin du Roi. His tower at Montbard became in his lifetime a goal of pilgrimage rivaling Voltaire's Ferney; there Rousseau came, knelt at the threshold, and kissed the floor. Prince Henry of Prussia called; and though Catherine the Great could not manage this, she sent him word that she counted him second only to Newton.
What do you think? Is writing style an important advantage we can “own” in this day and age? Or does this just prove that people have always been about style over substance?
Bonuses: Check out this gallery on other Buffon works (link plays music). Or read the Google translation from the original French text here: