Upheaval and the Essay

There are not enough essays in the world today. Diverse and popular, conversational yet driven by ideas, the essay was once a teeming and glorious genre. For over three hundred years, it held pride of place in bestselling magazines like The Spectator, The Adventurer and The Lounger. Chalmers’ 1808 collection, British Essayists, came in forty-five volumes.[i] Today, the essay is largely neglected in contemporary publishing, and books for students on how to write an essay are wooden and formulaic. Few really celebrate the form.

Perhaps essaying lost its appeal as part of our more general slide towards technocracy, to only valuing knowledge that is objective, practical and forward thinking. If so, the essay is altogether too subjective a form, for it articulates barely one perspective. So, Montaigne’s founding essays, written in the late Sixteenth Century, aspire not merely to fact and argument; they do not examine what is known about, but are instead, explorations of his own understanding. Montaigne saw value in the contours of his own ignorance; he took himself as a sample of his times, as a ‘carrier of the entire form of human condition,’ and so wrote what he called ‘attempts’, playful, tentative and personal.[ii] They aspire not to objectivity, but to a kind of gentle, yet inescapable, representativeness. They are not just piles of information, with a central argument, opening plan and stalwart conclusion. Nor are they, in any direct sense, rhetorical. Instead, they seem to coax meaning in the reader.

Montaigne used the essay to record the meanderings of his mind. They are tangential, eddying in slow circles, their narrative structures carefully concealed. He wrote them partly for others, and partly to remind himself, at some later date, of what he was, at the time of writing, able to see. We all write notes to our future selves. These range from fixing a letter to the fridge door, all the way to detailed personal travel diaries. As we write, we can imagine ourselves in the future, reading this again, being reminded. Montaigne wanted to read and think back to what he, the writer, had once been like. In his hands, the essay has an intriguing temporal circularity. It does not claim objectivity, but its expression of what has gone before does reveal. It gives words to what we do not know.

The demise of the essay may also be part of a more general failure to communicate both with others, and with our future selves. All around us, words are stretched and distorted. In advertising, in the utterances of politicians and in our damaged public sphere, we can barely think. The words ‘authentic’, ‘sincere’ and ‘true’ are regularly appropriated by liars, and we are told we are ‘loving it’ when we clearly are not. How can we debate how we should stop destroying the planet if we have no words? How can we find new ways to organise if meaning blurs and spills and our cruelty goes on and we cannot stop? Words should ‘pounce on their meaning, neat as a cat.’ Yet for all our science, the blunt everyday passage of time remains inexplicable and surprising. How does a child grow, change the lives of others, become old and die? Lumps of days and years can be checked off in the mind, but the heart barely notices. It does not speak in words. Nor does the teeming horror of our world, which assaults us with the avoidable suffering of others, make any sense at all. Are we the first, or have others before us also lost their comprehension?

They have. Two and a half millennia ago, Thucydides noted that, as the ancient Greek world became corrupt, so did ‘words lose their meanings.’[iii] The resulting incomprehension made cooperation impossible; unable to work together, problems went unsolved. In the Bible, the Tower of Babel was abandoned for just this reason. As a young man and a classicist, Thomas Hobbes published his translation of Thucydides into Latin. A favourite section, entitled, Civil War in Corcyra, described a city under siege by the Athenians. Inside, the pro-Athenian faction was empowered to attack the dominant pro-Spartan regime. By the time the Athenians broke in, the polished marble of the temples was slick with blood, and dismembered bodies were bricked into walls. Writing during the Revolution of 1642, Hobbes reports people screaming and running in the street outside his home. When quiet returned, his heart pounding, he used Thucydides to help imagine a state of unremitting freedom, a total disorder; characterised by violence, gangsterism and war. So situated, he argued, we would be out of our minds not to accept a tyrant instead.[iv] His work describes what humans do when the carpet of authority is whisked suddenly from beneath them. This then provides his justification of supreme authority. Yet much of the Leviathan is actually a lexicon. Whole sections are merely a long list of words, each carefully defined.[v] In this way, he hopes to address the slippage that befalls the meaning of words in times of political upheaval and rapid social change.

In 1762, in an award-winning essay on the Origins of Inequality, Rousseau agreed with Hobbes that, if all authority were removed, there would indeed be a war of all against all. But he disagreed with what this meant. Such horrors were not the product of insufficient authority, as Hobbes had claimed, but were, instead, caused by excess authority.[vi] Surrounded by the unnecessary hierarchies of civilisation, we are, now, ‘everywhere in chains.’[vii] Such dependence weakens us, so that if the carpet of authority is pulled away, we act as we have been schooled – as rapacious animals. Gangsterism is the product, not of human nature, but of our existing institutions.

Rousseau to Hobbes; Hobbes to Thucydides. ‘Spanning time,’ these are notes to future selves. It used to be that knowledge was attained by immersion in classical texts. Montaigne liked his Horace, from whom he quoted liberally. Rousseau preferred Plutarch – read during a glorious summer spent lounging on the sofa in the library of a rich friend.[viii] Gibbon’s favourite was Seneca.[ix] Even the extraordinary Machiavelli, exiled from his republic and aching with the loneliness of one who had tasted public expression, consoled himself by ’communing with the ancients…[who] in their infinite wisdom, speak to me directly.’[x] Livy’s History of Early Rome was a regular selection.[xi] On a quiet summer evening, at the end of a failed life, he tells a friend that reading their ancient words momentarily ‘assuages all fear of death and poverty.’ The retrospective quality of knowledge, and its exquisite essaying, are things of the past.

Suddenly I’m older, and surrounded by young people. Some essay beautifully, worrying and crafting as they walk down the street. More generally, few see what they do well. The young only notice their abilities when someone else finds it hard to do what they do easily. The more varied their skills, the more complex and awake, the longer it will take them to bring it all into play. We remain ‘in chains.’ Most are invisible. If the task of writing is to reveal, then the essay is an artifice for communication, snap perfect in form, discursive in structure and mercifully brief. It can, in times of upheaval carry meaning; if sloppily, like water in the hand.

[i] The Oxford Book of Essays, Gross, (ed.), Oxford: OUP, 2002.
Montaigne, ‘Of Repentance,” in Selected EssaysNew York: Dover, 1996, p. 65.
Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War; Klosko & Rice, “Thucydides and Hobbes’s State of Nature,” History of political Thought, 1985, 6/3; Brown, “Thucydides, Hobbes and the Derivation of Anarchy,” HPT1987, 8/1.
Hobbes, The Leviathan, Chapter 13.
[v] Leviathan, Chapters 5-12.
[vi] Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality Among Men.
[vii] Rousseau, The Social Contract.
[viii] Rousseau, The Confessions
[ix] Gibbon, The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.
[x] Machiavelli,  The Private Letters, Bondanella and Muse (eds.) The Portable Machiavelli, Penguin, 1979, pp. 53-76.
[xi] Livy, The History of Early Rome