Clio’s collaborator: the essay in history

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2009), News, Volume 17

The modes by which history-writing has been conducted through the ages have been manifold — from the barest chronicle, through the grand narrative down to the electronic database. But for many centuries one expressive form has assumed a place of surprising importance: the essay. Whether it has made its appearance in singular occasional form or as collections gathered around a single theme, the essay has been a vital organ through which historians have conveyed their thoughts to others. And it has for long been an essential pedagogical tool as well, as a means by which aspiring historians in schools and universities have been taught—and have taught themselves—to develop and refine the ways in which they think about historical events and problems.
The importance of the essay in current history-writing is, perhaps, curious since it displays tendencies contrary to history’s aspirations towards the impersonal, authoritative and objective assessment of persons, places and subjects. Re-emerging in the sixteenth century as a distinctive genre, the essay, as deployed by its earliest master, Michel de Montaigne, celebrated the subjective and asserted the individual ‘I’ as the fundamental—and imperfect—locus of knowledge of the world and from which that deficient knowledge is transmitted to others. From this understanding of Montaigne’s ‘Que sais-je?’ a whole tradition of thought and expression that regarded the essay as merely an attempt (connoted by the verb essayer) at understanding, which was necessarily limited in its perspectives and its authority, developed and inexorably drifted towards the lighter forms of literature—the ‘Birrelling’ of much late nineteenth-century journeyman work and the more entertaining but equally ephemeral style of the New Yorker.
What has a serious engagement with history to do with this? More than is immediately apparent. For Montaigne’s essayer also connoted a more active, critical approach, which entailed the requirement ‘to assay’, that is, to weigh, to assign value and to discount. This is the approach most commonly associated with the densely packed, closely argued writings of one of the other early masters of the genre, Francis Bacon. But it is also present, albeit in a more subtly disguised manner, in Montaigne. Humanists both, they were aware of the extraordinary importance of the individual human intellect in constructing and re-presenting a coherent view of the world, but also of the insurmountable limitations of that view. And each in their own way strove to explore the outermost regions of that capacity and those limitations. In using the essay form in this way, they anticipated what a later exponent of the genre, Aldous Huxley, identified as its defining characteristics. The essayist, Huxley argued, should aspire to operate within three coordinates: the personal and subjective; the objective and analytical; and, transcending the tensions generated between these two, a form of knowledge of the world that was validated at once by the principles of correspondence and coherence but also by the tests of individual self-reflection.
This is the ideal, and only a few of the craft’s exponents have regularly attained it. But it is the aspiration that underpins the perennial practice of the form, and the time-honoured advice—so often rehearsed in handbooks about writing—on how an essay should be composed. These stages will be familiar: that the process should begin with the identification of a problem from amidst the flux of evidence; that a preliminary argument based on evidence pertinent to the enquiry should be put into shape; that this argument should be tested through an examination of its most serious objections and challenges; and that a revised argument should now be constructed for presentation to a critically responsive audience.
On the assumption that ‘argument’ here denotes neither an assertion nor an opinion but a cogently connected series of testable statements, there is nothing in this list that will surprise practitioners of essay-writing and their critics (academic and lay). But subscription to these precepts is not simply a matter of crossing the hurdles of assessed work and examination questions in schools and universities. It is an avowal of the possibility that necessarily limited minds can engage with the inevitably inadequate materials available for making sense of the world, and still come up with something valuable to say to others about the business of being alive.

Ciarán Brady is Associate Professor of History at Trinity College Dublin.

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