Conventionally scientific, historical, or philosophical in theme, the treatise (from the Latin tractatus) is a text of variable length (sometimes of book length), which treats some particular topic by way of a formal, methodical exposition. As a description, account, or report of some topic under investigation, its literary effect today is secondary to its seriousness of purpose; but an earlier tradition also held the treatise to be a story, tale, or narrative, as in the stories of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Once the major literary medium of scholasticism, the treatise is a nonfictional literary text that shares a border with the formal essay, and may thus be best understood by way of a comparison with the general essay form. The latter is an expository text organized into relatively short prose, readable in one sitting, and articulating the author’s perception through an associative and open-ended synthesis of rigorous method and imaginative literature. The treatise, on the other hand, is a literary text in which the author typically
retreats behind the methodological principles of logic and rationalism, of the syllogism and systematic objectivity. Continuous control and verification of results and conclusions are the goal in the discourse of a treatise. Critical approach, rigorous methodology, and a high degree of specialization, expertise, and seriousness—as evident in the avoidance of chance, subjectivity, and imaginative play—all characterize the treatise and distinguish it from the essay.
The innovation in a treatise’s subject is generally not marked by its style, which restricts itself to reporting, describing, and deducing. In contrast, the originality of an essay, particularly the informal, occasional, or familiar essay, often proceeds from its form, structure, style, and tone, even though the essay may contain no new factual truths.
Not only does the treatise proceed logically from steadfast premises, but the conventional treatise presents its truths as accomplished facts, as logical conclusions. It aims for completeness, remains with the matter at hand, and follows singlemindedly its explicit purpose, often to the point of pedantry.
The treatise reports or treats results obtained empirically or deductively. Neither aesthetic nor rhetorical principles of style contribute to its value; in fact, they may detract from it. Often, elaboration of form has been viewed with a good deal of suspicion as artistry attained at the expense of objectivity, rigor, precision, and scientific truth. Indeed, it could be said that when sophisticated and varied form and style occupy a prominent position in matters of structure, the text has changed from being a treatise to being an
essay. Moreover, the closed, systematically ordered communication between writer and reader is monologic in a treatise, and does not involve the reader as a partner or respondent in its discourse. And the truths a treatise implies must exist beyond all doubt for both the writer and the reader: doubtful observations must be excluded from the treatise’s realm.
Clearly, the methodological and rhetorical disparities between treatise and essay are a reflection of differences in the readership of these two literary forms. While the treatise instructs the specialized reader in scientific “truth,” the essay persuades and entertains, by way of congenial conversation, the general reader of general interests.
Burnett, Mark Thornton, “Masters and Servants in Moral and Religious Treatises, c. 1580–c. 1642.,” in The Arts, Literature, and Society, edited by Arthur Marwick, London and New York: Routledge, 1990
Dubrow, Heather, Genre, London: Methuen, 1982
Feyerabend, Paul, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge, London and New York: Verso, 3rd edition, 1993 (original edition, 1975)
Kruse, Joseph, “Traktat,” in Reallexikon der deutschen Literaturgeschichte, vol. 4, edited by Klaus Kanzog and Achim Masser, Berlin: de Gruyter, 1981
Lewalski, Barbara Kiefer, editor, Renaissance Genres: Essays on Theory, History and Interpretation, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1986
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