The essay genre as pioneered by Michel de Montaigne, Erasmus, Francis Bacon, and their Renaissance contemporaries rose out of the attempt by the first modern theorists of language to negotiate a settlement with the inheritance of classical rhetorical theories.
Writers in the 16th and 17th centuries explored the possibilities of exploiting the achievements of classical rhetoric to provide a foundation for the new vernacular humanist culture. As Morris Croll argues in Style, Rhetoric, and Rhythm (1966), his definitive study of 17th-century Attic prose, the conflict between “the oratorical style and the essay style” characterized the debate over the inheritance of classical rhetoric in the Renaissance. The first style, the Gorgian and Isocratean genus grande, was meant to signify the powerful voice of the virtuous public advocate and statesman. This style originated as the rhetorical basis of sophistic education, survived in the dominant Roman tradition of Ciceronianism, and continued to exert a powerful influence on medieval Latin culture. It is characterized by symmetrical phrasing, ornate sentences, and flamboyant periods, and is first and foremost the rhetoric of oral presentation. The style that grew in opposition to the “sophistic” rhetoric of this first school came to be called the genus humile. Finding its ultimate authority in Socratic dialectic, the flexible, formless, “humble” species of discourse is well suited to conversation and philosophical speculation. While we should recognize in this latter tradition the practice of writing that ultimately became the early modern essay, we must also remember that the essay as a literary genre developed out of the various attempts to reconcile and interweave these conflicting traditions.
The most frequently cited classical precursors to the modern essay form are Horace (65–8 BCE), Seneca (c. 4 BCE–65 CE), Tacitus (c. 56–116 CE), Plato (c. 429/27–347 BCE), and Demosthenes (c. 384–322 BCE), among many others. The “curt” and “loose” styles of what became known as the modern essay sought to imitate the pointed language of the mature, self-reflective, and humble mode of the great letter writers and dialecticians of the classical era. Montaigne, inventor of the modern essai, admired the self-critical and autobiographical spirit of skeptical inquiry that he found in this tradition, and sought a vernacular prose form for exploring its possibilities. In the moral treatises of Plutarch (c. 46–0. 120/25 CE) and Seneca, Montaigne found inspiration for his own varied speculations. The titles of Montaigne’s essays, such as “Toutes Choses ont leur saison” (“All Things Have Their Season”) and “Que philosopher c’est apprendre a
mourir” (“To Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die”), reflect the influences of classical moralism. A reader of Montaigne’s essays overhears the author’s musings and wanderings across a variety of topics, a “realistic” method that, according to Montaigne’s own admission, harkens back to the Roman satires of Horace and Lucilius (c. 180–c. 102 BCE). “Sur des vers de Virgile” (“On Some Verses of Virgil”) provides an occasion for Montaigne to reflect on his mind’s capacity to produce capricious and fleeting impressions: “But I am displeased with my mind for ordinarily producing its most profound and maddest fancies, and those I like the best, unexpectedly and when I am least looking for them; which suddenly vanish, having nothing to attach themselves to on the spot… So of these chance thoughts that drop into my mind there remains in my memory only a vain notion, only as much as I need to make me rack my brains and fret in quest of them to no particular purpose. Now then, leaving books aside and speaking more materially and simply…” The gesture implied by the final sentence is the signature of the new genus humile characteristic of the essay, which transports the reader out of the monastery and into the worldly experiences and pragmatic wisdom of the new cosmopolitan genre.
When Erasmus published his textbook on producing copious Latin prose, De duplici copia verborum ac rerum (1512,; On Copia [the abundance] of Words and Ideas), arguably the first modern book on the subject, the opening gambit had been made in the move from the study of rhetoric as technical achievement to the modern study of the
experience of writing itself. His Encomium moriae (1511; The Praise of Folly) had already shifted the ground of traditional imitation theory by adding the self-conscious sense of a rapidly developing modern subjectivity to the pursuit of truth through a fallen, linguistic medium; and the Adagia (1500; Adages), generically speaking, laid the foundation for the construction of the first properly named Essais (1580, 1588) by Montaigne. The chief intertext for On Copia, as it was for much of the Renaissance, was the tenth book of Quintilian’s (c. 35–c. 100 CE) Institutionis oratoriae (Institutes of Oratory). In that section, Quintilian writes, “We must return to what we have read and reconsider it with care, while, just as we do not swallow our food till we have chewed it and reduced it almost to a state of liquefaction to assist the process of digestion, so what we read must not be committed to the memory for subsequent imitation while it is still in a crude state, but must be softened and, if I may use the phrase, reduced to a pulp through frequent perusal.” This passage summarizes a central problem of modern interpretation theory: how should the sensus germanus of an Ur-text be rendered adequately by later
generations? If texts were to be digested and synthesized, what exegetical principles would ensure that a remnant of the original text would remain? In The Cornucopian Text: Problems of Writing in the French Renaissance (1979), Terrence Cave demonstrates the movement from classical mimesis as technique to exploratory writing as the modern obsession par excellence, arguing that “the Erasmian text, by its very movement from verba towards res, uncovers the essential duplicity of copia.”
Another major break with the Ciceronianism of classical rhetorical education came in the last quarter of the 16th century. If the confident rhetoric of Ciceronian education had flourished in a time of relative political and social stability, further cracks began to appear in the classical façade when Marc-Antoine Muret delivered his lectures of 1582, appended to the Episotalae ad Atticum. Muret argues that the training offered by the old genus grande failed adequately to prepare young gentlemen for modern statecraft, a vocation that required the cultivation of conversation, wit, and dialectic. Public oratory rapidly began to be suspected as providing undue might to a mob scarcely ready to assume the mantle of power. As Montaigne suggests in his essay “De la vanité des paroles” (“The Vanity of Words”), public oratory became suspect as the material sign of a dangerously unstable republic. Modern societies needed the “good institution and sound counsel” fostered by the cultivation of dialectic, best instituted by a flexible essayistic rhetoric of self-criticism. This line of thought would be adopted by Milton, Hartlib, Bacon, and English educational reform.
Another force contributing to the decline of the grand style in the late Renaissance is the rapid displacement of classical authority by empirical methodology. The new plain prose style developed by Erasmus, Muret, Justus Lipsius, Francis Bacon, Blaise Pascal, Sir Thomas Browne, Robert Burton, Montaigne, and John Milton in the 16th and 17th centuries sought an appropriate forum for representing “man thinking,” a process necessitated by the new experimental priorities in political and scientific culture.
Rhetorical style—whether oral or written—illustrated the complex interrelationship of political, moral, and ethical positions available to Renaissance culture. Well aware of this connection, political and religious reformers in Britain, taking their cue from continental intellectuals such as Erasmus and Comenius, argued that in order for England to thrive as a rapidly expanding commercial nation, it must produce a confident, outward-looking national leadership, educated in the practical arts of navigation, cartography, and commerce. Not least among these reformers, John Milton added his voice to a national movement that sought radically to shift the foundation of education, a reformation that looked primarily to language and rhetorical training—deeply informed by classical theories—as the key to nation building. From the perspective of the language reformers and new essay writers, the standard academic curriculum in classical scholarship
encouraged the development of a psychologically and socially stunted individual. In De augmentis scientiarum (1623), Bacon includes a supplementary comment not included in the English version (The Advancement of Learning) of 1605, which compares the new, plain style favorably to the old expansive rhetoric. He writes “…somewhat sounder is another form of style… [which] consists wholly in this: that the words be sharp and pointed; sentences concise; a style in short that may be called ‘turned’ rather than fused.
Whence it happens that everything dealt with by this kind of art seems rather ingenious than lofty. Such a style is found in Seneca very freely used, in Tacitus and the younger Pliny more moderately; and is beginning to suit the ears of our age as never before.”
The practical advantages of this new style for constructing a national identity were explored most extensively by John Milton. As Milton writes in the seventh of the Prolusiones oratoriae, his series of Latin addresses to Oxford—quite plausibly conceived as self-reflexive and playful essays in the Erasmian and Montaignean style—“I confess that the man who shuts himself up and is almost entirely immured in study, is readier to talk with the gods than with men, either because he is habitually at home among celestial affairs…or because a mind which has been enlarged by the steady pursuit of divine interests is irked by physical constraints and disqualified from the more formal social amenities.” The social amenities that would be required in modern political culture would be best cultivated through a plain style of speaking and writing that in turn would be best nourished by the self-reflexive practice of writing.
The new continental essayism of Erasmus had as its goal, as Milton suggests, the production of a fully socialized individual, unburdened of the worst aspects of classical rhetoric that Erasmus and later Bacon and the continental reformers were busily revising.
The old rhetorical and logical training—specifically, Milton argues, the oversubtle scholasticism comprising the traditional university curriculum in classical humanism— taught young men to be querulous self-doubters, unfit for public life, for which, presumably, the study of classical Greek and Roman rhetoric ought to prepare them.
Citing Erasmus’ reformation of classical style as a precursor, Milton writes of the old, unreformed rhetoricians: “…like an evil spirit, they have filled men’s breasts with thorns and briars and have brought endless discord into the schools”—and thus into the nation at large. In his Latin orations, Milton describes this scholarly disputation over the fine points in classical rhetoric, against which Erasmus and other reforming humanists would rail, as an “impudent battle of words [which] does nothing for the good of society or for the honor or profit of our fatherland, the first priority, by common consent, in the sciences.”
For the new rhetorical reformers the Aristotelian notion that empirical learning produces useful and instructive mental pleasure, contrary to Platonic interdictions against mere mimesis and sensory knowledge, provides another classical authority to replace the now discredited mechanical dryness of classical education. The intellectual pleasure
taken in reinventing the correspondent universe that had been celebrated in the essays of Montaigne, Bacon, and Erasmus would be recuperable by a generation of reformers searching for solid rhetorical principles to insure the responsible administration of the nation. As Milton writes in Prolusion VII, “how great an additional pleasure of mind it is to take our flight over all the history and regions of the world, to view the conditions and changes of kingdoms, nations, cities, and people… This is the way to live in all the epochs of history…and to become a contemporary of time itself. And while we are looking forward to the future glory of our name, this will also be the way to extend life backward from the womb and to extort from unwilling Fate a kind of immortality in the past.” Figures of spatial and temporal mastery, strongly linking the success of education to the pleasurable experience of acquiring and mastering knowledge, abound in Milton’s work. Recalling Adam’s panoramic survey of the future from atop a hill in Books XI and XII of Paradise Lost (1667), this new, pleasurable mastery must be achieved by a properly aerial perspective that encompasses the known world. Thus, references to maps, globes, charts, and compasses proliferate in the early modern essay.
A clear precursor to the Enlightenment rationalists, then, Milton’s essays, tracts, and pamphlets turn back to Aristotle (384–322 BCE), advocating a detailed knowledge of the sensory experience of every living creature. This reliance on the cultivation of the senses in the early modern essay anticipated the 18th-century medicalization of the body in terms of a fully “disciplined” national individual, a vision which Milton articulates in Prolusion VI: “But if by living a modest and temperate life we…keep the heavenly powers of the mind clean and unstained from all filth and pollution…we would look back after a few years, to see how much distance we had covered, and what a mighty sea of learning we had quietly navigated.” But the modest and temperate life advocated here must be enriched by the cultivation of wit and speculation. The connection between the pleasure of learning and the early French essays is clear from Milton’s subtitle, “That sportive exercises are occasionally not adverse to philosophic studies,” and he later cites Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly as an exemplary bridge between duty and necessity provided by the early modern essay.
In Milton’s Of Education (1644), even the study of grammar and rhetoric are concretely figured as images of exploration and commerce: “So that they having but newly left those grammatic flats and shallows where they stuck unreasonably to learn a few words of lamentable construction and now on the sudden transported under another climate to be tossed and turmoiled with their unballasted wits in fathomless and unquiet deeps of controversy, do for the most part grow into hatred and contempt of learning.”
Milton’s sailing metaphor—so common in the early modern essay—recalls Quintilian’s image of the proper domain of Roman rhetoric in Institutes of Oratory: “Greek keels, even the little ones, know well their ports; let ours usually travel under fuller sails, with a stronger breeze swelling our canvas… They have the art of threading their way through the shallows; I would seek somewhat deeper waters, where my bark may be in no danger of foundering.” If the 17th-century rhetorical reforms had begun by deploring the unfortunate “psychological” consequences of hasty learning, perhaps a grounded flotilla represents the most frightening image of collective failure for the republican imagination in the habit of linking the metaphorical explorations of knowledge with the literal explorations of global expansion. The young student trained in the habit of rote memorization encouraged by the uncritical imitation of the old rhetoricians, hastily entered a public career for which the old rhetoric ill prepared him, and “ground[ed] [his] purposes not on the prudent and heavenly contemplation of justice and equity which was never taught them, but on the promising and pleasing thoughts of litigious terms, fat contentions, and flowing fees…” The metaphor of rhetorical education as grounding, getting solid footing on the moral soil of a Christian commonwealth, seems almost irrelevant here, in light of the massive emphasis placed throughout the reformist essays of the 17th century on secular travel and practical mastery.
The 17th-century essays of Bacon and Milton, in boldly advocating education’s socializing function—as strongly influenced by classical republicanism as by modern Realpolitik—laid the foundation for notions of sentimental education and Bildung that would begin to circulate throughout Europe by the end of the 18th century. It was this new scholarly and public-political rhetoric that would eventually yield the empiricist tradition of Hobbes and Locke, and further the dissemination of Enlightenment ideas in the 18th-century essay. A century after the prose revolution inspired by Milton, Bacon, and their French precursors, however, for many intellectuals, the practical rhetorical education—the plain style—that Erasmus’ generation had identified with republican reform, began to look like a force for repression. Friedrich von Schiller’s Briefe über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen (1795; Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man) is an example of the Romantic tenor of this critique: “But today Necessity is master, and bends a degraded humanity beneath its tyrannous yoke. Utility is the great idol of the age, to which all powers must do service and all talents swear allegiance.” For a whole generation of Romantic essayists, the sublime wonders of the work of art would prepare the skeptical individual for the often unpleasant tasks mandated by the public duties and responsibilities at the moral core of the classical Roman essay and its early modern inheritors.
Cave, Terrence, The Cornucopian Text: Problems of Writing in the French Renaissance, Oxford: Clarendon Press, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1979
Croll, Morris W., Style, Rhetoric, and Rhythm, edited by J.Max Patrick and others, Woodbridge, Connecticut: Ox Bow Press, 1989 (original edition, 1966)
Curtius, Ernst Robert, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990 (original German edition, 1948)
Fallon, Stephen M., Milton Among the Philosophers: Poetry and Materialism in Seventeenth Century England, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1991
Greengrass, Mark, Michael Leslie, and Timothy Raylor, editors, Samuel Hartlib and Universal Reformation: Studies in Intellectual Communication, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994
Highet, Gilbert, The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1985 (original edition, 1949)
Hill, Christopher, Milton and the English Revolution, London: Faber, and New York: Viking Press, 1977
Lopate, Phillip, Introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Lopate, New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1994
Patrides, C.A., and Raymond B.Waddington, editors, The Age of Milton: Backgrounds to Seventeenth Century Literature, Manchester: Manchester University Press, and Totowa, New Jersey: Barnes and Noble, 1980
Raab, Felix, The English Face of Machiavelli: A Changing Interpretation, 1500–1700, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964
Schoeck, R.J., Erasmus Grandescens: The Growth of a Humanist’s Mind and Spirituality, Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1988
Schoeck, R.J., Erasmus of Europe: The Making of a Humanist, 1467–1500, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, and Savage, Maryland: Barnes and Noble, 1990
Smith, Henry Goodwin, “The Triumph of Erasmus in Modern Protestantism,” Hibbert Journal 3 (1905):64–82
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