April 29, 2022
As a Writing Coach, I am often asked why we write essays the way we do. Though some students may uncritically listen to my suggestions, others look at me with aggrieved faces when I tell them they wrote their essays in the wrong format, almost as if I had chosen to tell them so at my whim. Why does it matter to write an introduction this way, the conclusions that way, and the body paragraphs another way? Why write essays at all?
When we are told to write essays for our classes, some of us whine, like Anakin Skywalker in Attack of the Clones: I don’t like essays; they’re long and stressful and difficult and they go nowhere. It is a tedious task that will even tempt some to the Dark Side (i.e. plagiarism). Why this system?
I learned that the most straightforward answer is that it allows for uniformity. In China during the Ming and Qing dynasties, for example, those who wanted to work for the civil service had to follow the same format: the eight-legged essay. This literary form served as a “simple” and “impartial” way to rank quality.¹ Though some may have said this structure was unnecessarily tedious, as a teaching assistant, I can see its value. I had to mark plenty of papers this year. A teacher may have to mark over a hundred essays. If every essay was unique, it would be very difficult to mark them all fairly. What is fair when everybody’s writing is so different?
The second answer is the organization of thought. Before the essay, students recorded what they learned in “commonplace books.” Victoria Burke defines the term as “a collection of humanist-inspired extracts from classical writers arranged under topic headings,” though she also adds they may be understood as unstructured compilations of prose and verse.² They may be seen as well-curated notebooks for school subjects; or information management systems, if you are techy. Zachary S. Schiffman writes that by the early sixteenth century commonplace books became a system of classification of knowledge, namely, the “traditional wisdom of society.”³
And so it was that 500 years ago, in a continent far, far away, the French humanist Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) created the essay, a genre of literature heretofore unknown in Europe. During this time, the commonplace book appears to take more of a deliberate turn towards an organized presentation of knowledge. In French as in Spanish, essay can mean “attempt,”⁴ and in the latter, “rehearsal.”⁵ A rehearsal towards what, you may ask? “For Montaigne,” writes Schiffman, “an essay was basically an argument in utramque partem [i.e. in which one can take either side] undertaken for its own sake, not to establish rules of conduct but to portray the workings of a unique mind.”⁶ Thus, one may see the essay as an attempt to present an argument in a systematic fashion as well as a method by which to gauge a student’s thinking.
1. Benjamin A. Elman, “Eight-Legged Essay,” in vol. 2 of Berkshire Encyclopedia of China: Modern and Historic Views of the World’s Newest and Oldest Global Power, edited by Linsun Cheng (Great Barrington: Berkshire Publishing Group, 2009), 697. 10.1093/acref/9780190622671.001.0001
2. Victoria Burke, “Recent Studies in Commonplace Books,” English Literary Renaissance 43, no. 1 (2013): 153. doi:10.1111/1475-6757.12005
3. Zachary S. Schiffman, Montaigne and the Rise of Skepticism in Early Modern Europe: A Reappraisal. Journal of the History of Ideas vol. 45, no. 4 (1984): 500.
4. Collins English-French Dictionary, s.v. “Essay.” https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english-french/essay
5. Hablo español.
6. Schiffman, Montaigne and the Rise of Skepticism in Early Modern Europe, 513.
Burke, Victoria. “Recent Studies in Commonplace Books.” English Literary Renaissance 43, no. 1 (2013): 153–177. doi:10.1111/1475-6757.12005
Elman, Benjamin A. “Eight-Legged Essay.” In Vol. 2 of Berkshire Encyclopedia of China: Modern and Historic Views of the World’s Newest and Oldest Global Power, edited by Linsun Cheng, 695–698. Great Barrington: Berkshire Publishing Group, 2009. 10.1093/acref/9780190622671.001.0001
Schiffman, Zachary S. Montaigne and the Rise of Skepticism in Early Modern Europe: A Reappraisal. Journal of the History of Ideas vol. 45, no. 4 (1984): 499–516.