Departments

On Essays

The essay cannot usefully be defined, because it is always subject to redefinition. Essays are the most individual form of writing, and the most governed by tradition. An essayist must be themselves, but they must also know the whole history of the essay. The essay is a language we learn, and only having mastered, employ fluently.

We call many compositions essays only for their length: for some purposes the essay is a unit of composition arranged from paragraphs, just as paragraphs are arranged from sentences. Or else it is the sump of literature, where everything ends up that has nowhere else to go. These definitions are true, but meaningless; two-legged without feathers.

The essay is a via negativa. The essay is not a treatise; it is not a tract; it is not a sermon. It does not begin from first principles, it deduces nothing. Like conversation, the essay can take interest, background, and good will for granted. It is not a tract; it does not line up points and facts to support them. The essayist does not expect to persuade. And it is not a sermon: the essay has no reproach, only sympathy and commiseration, for our failings.

The essay is the fruit of experience – but writing (and reading) essays is a particularly fruitful form of experience. Being untried, we think ourselves sound; being pure, we think ourselves incorruptible; being strong, we think ourselves able; having hope, we think ourselves destined. Until we learn better nothing we write, however clever, can be an essay. But essai really means trialtrial, not attempt – and essays are one way we can try ourselves.

An essay may be fine, patient work, or swift swashbuckling, but the tool is the same: to be honest; to omit nothing and exaggerate nothing. Secondhand opinions, clichés and party lines, annul the essay in the beginning, or derail it in the end. You bring to an essay only what is your own: not the text of your philosophy, but its marginalia; your exceptions, not your rules.