This is the most amazing post you will ever read about hyperbole. Well, until you write one yourself and use even more exaggerated adjectives.
Hyperbole is a curious rhetorical device, a frequent element of satire. Unfortunately, hyperbole is too often employed in a sloppy way (e.g. “he was the worst politician ever”). Yet, in skillful hands it can be quite effective. For example, in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, when Lewis discusses poet Michael Drayton,* he writes:
When he speaks simply as any lover he can sometimes outsoar all the sonneteers except Shakespeare. . . . Yet again, and in quite a different vein, that of towering hyperbole, Drayton (this time with no rival at all, neither Shakespeare nor any other) sets up the seamark beyond which poetry in that kind has never gone nor could go:
And Queens hereafter shall be glad to live
Upon the almes of thy superfluous prayse.
If he had never written another verse, these two would secure him that praise which is due to men who have done some one thing to perfection.
I was thinking about hyperbole after coming across a wonderful quote by Erasmus of Rotterdam⁑ about his contemporary, the reformer Martin Luther. Though they shared many concerns, they parted company on how best to reform the Roman Catholic Church. Erasmus objected to Luther’s tendency to take every disagreement to extremes, and he named the Wittenberg professor “Doctor Hyperbolicus.”
It reminded me of one of our sons. As a youngster, he suffered from that common childhood disease, excessive summa hyperbolism. Everything was either the best thing ever, or the worst thing he’d ever encountered. Sometimes I referred to him as the “King of Hyperbole,” which was hyperbole on my own part. He was more like a Duke of Hyperbole.
John Colet⁂ was another English scholar discussed in Lewis’ longest work. Colet was a theologian, and a strong advocate of biblically-grounded morality. As we frequently find, Lewis’ assessment is informative, and entertaining.
Colet is, in fact, a declamatory moralist. By calling him declamatory I do not at all mean that he is insincere, but that his methods are those of the declamation; repetition, hyperbole, and a liberal use of emotional adjectives. The morality he wishes to enforce is harsh and ascetic. . . .
The truth is that Colet is a Platonist at heart and has really little interest in the temporal and mutable world below the moon. . . . A cloistered perfectionist, who happens to be also a rhetorician, often says, not exactly more than he means, but more than he understands. He leaves out the reservations: he has really no idea of the crudely literal applications which will be made. (English Literature in the Sixteenth Century)
Hyperbole in Lewis’ Personal Life
The First World War began in 1914. It was a conflict which would cost ten million military lives. C.S. Lewis himself would be counted among a greater number, who suffered terrible wounds during combat. At the beginning of the conflict, Lewis gently chided his father for embracing a growing British fear.
My dear Papy, You have surpassed yourself. The popular press . . . remarks on the possibility of an invasion: the idea, after being turned over in your mind, appears in your next letter, clothed as “it is absolutely certain that he is going to invade England” Surely . . . this is rather hyperbole?
The one thing that Britain can depend upon is her fleet: and in any case Germany has her hands full enough. You will perhaps say that I am living in a fool’s paradise. “Maybe thon.” But, providing it only be a paradise is that not preferable to a wise and calculating inferno? Let us have wisdom by all means, so long as it makes us happy: but as soon as it runs against our peace of mind, let us throw it away and “carpe diem.” I often wonder how you came to have such a profound and genuine philosopher for your son, don’t you?
In a 1949 letter he explains to a correspondent that the Gospel claims to Christ’s divinity were not hyperbolic appellations.
The Jews may have had their own use of hyperbole but the last direction in wh. they would have used it was to deify a man. The absolute chasm which they put between Jahveh and His creatures was just the thing that cut them off from Pagans.
No other race could have told the stories they told about Moses & Elijah and yet left these persons absolutely, sheerly human. What was Jesus condemned for by the Sanhedrin? Surely His declaration “I am etc.” must have been recorded right?
And, finally, a quotation C.S. Lewis selected for inclusion in his anthology of George MacDonald’s writings.
“But how,” says a man, who is willing to recognize the universal neighborhood, but finds himself unable to fulfill the bare law toward the woman even whom he loves best—“How am I then to rise into that higher region, that empyrean of love?” And, beginning straightaway to try to love his neighbor, he finds that the empyrean of which he spoke is no more to be reached in itself than the law was to be reached in itself. . . .
The man who will love his neighbor can do so by no immediately operative exercise of the will. It is the man fulfilled of God from whom he came and by whom he is, who alone can as himself love his neighbor who came from God too and is by God too. The mystery of individuality and consequent relation is deep as the beginnings of humanity, and the questions thence arising can be solved only by him who has, practically at least, solved the holy necessities resulting from his origin. In God alone can man meet man. . . .
It is possible to love our neighbor as ourselves. Our Lord never spoke hyperbolically. (Unspoken Sermons, First Series, “Love Thy Neighbor”)
I am absolutely convinced C.S. Lewis is one of the most outstanding Christian writers in history. That’s not hyperbole. If anything, it is a vast understatement.
* A selection of the poetry of Michael Drayton (1563-1631) is available at Internet Archive. The introduction to the collection begins, “no poet is more thoroughly English than Michael Drayton.”
⁑ Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (1466-1536) was a Dutch humanist who shared many concerns about the state of the Roman Catholic Church with Luther. However, he disliked Luther’s roughshod response and chose to attempt to accomplish some amount of reform from within. His early epistles are available in this free volume.
⁂ For more about John Colet (1467-1519), you might download this biography.