The moral essay is one in which the author attempts to prescribe the attitudes and forms of behavior that will lead to a virtuous life and a just society. Narrowly defined, the moral essay speaks directly of issues of character—courage, compassion, loyalty, truthfulness, and so on. When Francis Bacon commends sagacity or Samuel Johnson derides indolence, we know we are in the presence of the moral essay. However, the moral essay may exhibit a less didactic tone, particularly in its more modern manifestations. Joan Didion insists, in her essay “Why I Write” (1976), that any act of writing always results in “an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.” Thus, the moral essay can suggest appropriate attitudes and behavior by indirect means—including personal narrative—as well as through overt moralizing.
Precedents of the moral essay can be seen clearly in the prose of Plutarch and Seneca, particularly in the latter’s Epistles to Lucilius. The rediscovery of classical sources in the Renaissance led to a resurgent interest in moral deliberation that was not limited to theological study. Michel de Montaigne often draws on classical sources in writing his Essais (1580, 1588); however, he deviates from the pattern of the medieval leçon morale by subordinating the authority of the classical views to his own observations and experiences. Although Montaigne’s opinions are sometimes strikingly unorthodox, the themes of many of his essays—cruelty, vanity, honesty, couragecertainly belong in the tradition of the moral essay.
The 17th century engendered more narrowly religious essays. Sir William Cornwallis the Younger (Essayes, 1600–01), Owen Felltham (Resolves, 1620), and Sir Thomas Browne (Religio Medici, 1642) all found the essay an ideal vehicle for moral and spiritual reflection. After the Restoration, the moral essay, as practiced by Abraham Cowley and Sir William Temple, returned to general reflections on life in the style of Montaigne. Another powerful influence on the tradition of the moral essay was the revival of the Theophrastan character sketch (modeled on his Characters). such as Joseph Hall’s Characters of Vertues and Vices (1608). In France Jean de La Bruyère turned his Caractères (1688) into biting satire, attacking not so much the morals as the manners of the day.
The moral essay soon found a place in the popular gazettes that prospered during the 18th century. Richard Steele and Joseph Addison wrote serious essays on topics such as death, education, and loyalty for the Tatler and the Spectator. However, their principal contribution to the moral essay was in the tradition of La Bruyère’s Caractères. Their use of wit and satire to expose the foibles of the vain, the indolent, and the incompetent had a lasting impact on popular essayists. In America, satiric essays modeled on those of Addison and Steele were popularized in James Franklin’s New-England Courant and by his brother Benjamin Franklin in the Pennsylvania Gazette.
The latter half of the 18th century was perhaps the pinnacle for the moral essay. The desire of the rising middle class for social improvement resulted in a ready market for pamphlets, sermons, and moral treatises of every kind. The preeminent practitioner of this art was Samuel Johnson, who found in his Rambler and Idler essays an ideal form for his moral and philosophical inquiry. Although Johnson is not humorless in his essays, he evinces a formality of style and a high moral purpose in most of his work. His writing on diligence, prudence, piety, and simplicity retains the manner, if not the dogma, of earlier pietist writers.
The moral essay was taken up in the 19th century by the reformers in England, such as Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold, and T.H.Huxley. Although diverse in their opinions, all of these writers challenged the established order in some way: Carlyle was an outspoken critic of the philistinism of the commercial class; Mill was a leading voice for liberalism in both intellectual and political causes; Arnold championed the role of culture as the principal impetus toward moral action in society; and Huxley was the leading advocate of abandoning the classical model of education for one founded on science. Even those essayists whose social agenda was rather traditional, such as John Henry Newman, were writing in reaction to the tides of change around them.
In America, the moralist tradition of the Puritans—of William Bradford, Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards—was passed on to the transcendentalists. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays draw heavily on Christian notions of charity and service, but are infused with a reverence for nature and a belief in personal revelation (e.g. “The Oversoul,” 1848). In one of the most influential moral essays of all time, Emerson’s disciple Henry David Thoreau argues for the supremacy of individual conscience over legal authority in his essay on “Civil Disobedience” (1849).
The moralist tradition has been preserved in British letters in the 20th century by essayists such as G.K.Chesterton and C.S.Lewis, both of whom laid claim to specifically Christian morals. More broadly, essayists such as E.M.Forster and George Orwell appeal to a sense of good manners and fair play. It is difficult to name any major American essayist of the 20th century who could be considered a Johnsonian moralist.
However, a moral vision clearly underpins most of the essayists working for social change, whether appealing for civil rights (James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Alice Walker) or preservation of the environment (Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Edward Hoagland).
Some critics have seen the essay as a literary form in decline because of its close connection to Enlightenment ideals, which have increasingly come under question. How can the essay appeal to universal values when those shared values have seemingly disintegrated into cultural pluralism? The counterresponse is that the recognition of a pluralistic society has created an even greater need for an exploratory form of the essay that can lead to mutual understanding and cooperative social action. Thus, the contemporary moral essay is less likely to make dogmatic pronouncements based on unchanging doctrines, and more likely to attempt to construct a moral consensus through ongoing dialogue.
Bush, Douglas, English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century, 1600–1660, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962 (original edition, 1945)
Didion, Joan, “Why I Write,” New York Times Book Review, 6 December 1976
Fort, Keith, “Form, Authority, and the Critical Essay,” College English 32 (1971): 629– 39
Lukács, Georg, “On the Nature and Form of the Essay,” in his Soul and Fortn, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1974 (original German edition, 1911)
O’Neill, John, “The Essay as a Moral Exercise: Montaigne,” Renaissance and
Reformation 9 (1985): 209–18
Quinby, Rowena Lee, The Moral-Aesthetic Essay in America (dissertation), West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University, 1984
Rucker, Mary, “The Literary Essay and the Modern Temper,” Papers on Language and Literature 11 (1975): 317–35
Spellmeyer, Kurt, “Common Ground: The Essay in the Academy,” College English 51 (1989): 262–76
Trimbur, John, “Essayist Literacy and the Rhetoric of Deproduction,” Rhetoric Review 9 (1990): 72–86
Voitle, Robert, Samuel Johnson, the Moralist, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1961
Zeiger, William, “The Exploratory Essay: Enfranchising the Spirit of Inquiry in College Composition,” College English 47 (1985): 454–66
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