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the great distinguishing feature of Montaigne as moralist, is wholly absent in Bacon.
The arbitrary and whimsical procedure of the Frenchman in unfolding, or rather in playing with his thoughts, was utterly unsympathetic to the scientific austerity of the Englishman's mind. From the point of view of structure and style, it is exceedingly difficult to find a denominator for them.
In Addison's time the essay vastly expanded the range of its material. While continuing its traditional function as popular arbiter of morals, it considered no. topic as foreign to its interest. It encroached on the representative art of the novelist and dramatist and created an animated picture of contemporary social life. It is noteworthy that Addison himself did not look upon his periodical performances as following strictly in a line from Montaigne. In Spectator 476 he calls the attention of his readers to a distinction between those of his daily papers which are written with “regularity and method” and others that'"rún out into the wildness of those compositions which go by the name of essays,” and it is clear that he favors the former sort. Some later students of the essay have felt so forcibly the departure made by the eighteenth century periodical writers as to date the origin of the English essay from them. In their anxiety to fit literature into a formula, they ignore everything from Bacon to Dryden. But were we to apply the Addisonian pattern with any consistency, we should be at a loss what to do with the most distinguished essaywriting of the following century. For with Lamb and Hazlitt and De Quincey the essay suddenly becomes deeply subjective, and poetic to the point of rhapsody. The work of these men gives rise to a conception of the essay as
a prose lyric. Most writers who have
speculated on the requirements of a familiar essay since Lamb's time have insisted strongly on its subjectivity in a sense which would never have been sanctioned by theorists of Bacon's or Addison's generation. The problem of defining the essay is even further complicated when we are asked to make room within its boundaries for writers like Shaftesbury and Hume in the eighteenth century or Jeffrey and Macaulay in the nineteenth.
The safest course for one who should attempt to write a history of this form would be to eschew definition altogether and to content himself with tracing the varying shapes in which writers who have used neither novel nor drama have clothed their reflections on human character and human behavior and given expression to their dreams and fancies. It would bring out the intimate relationship which the essay has with the dialogue, the literary epistle, and the Character. Such a history might find grounds for excluding a good deal that is commonly designated as essay, but it would have to include certain things that are usually left out of account. From the chronological point of view, it would notice that there were essayists before Montaigne as truly as there were heroes before Agamemnonessayists as authentic as any of later times. One has but to read Montaigne himself to realize how close are the bonds which unite him in purpose and in style to Horace and Plutarch.
The Greeks and the Romans knew how to clothe their analysis of human nature and their moral reflections with the grace of intimate sympathy. Their adherence to literary convention generally dictated the choice of a regular form like that of the dialogue or letter, but these forms were not of a kind to hinder the free utterance of personal sentiments or opinions. Even when they spoke through assumed characters, as did Cicero in the essays of "Friendship” and “Old Age”, the identity of the original voice could not be mistaken; it is the favorite pursuits and pastimes of the cultivated Marcus Tullius and not of censorious old Cato that are recounted in “De Senectute”. The epistolary mode preferred by Seneca and Plutarch attained the utmost degree of directness, since ostensibly it addressed itself to an individual friend instead of to the general reader. The minds of the austere Roman statesman and of the genial Greek historian are transparent through their counsels, and not seldom their habits and private affections are brought in to illuminate and alleviate the tenor of their instruction. To be sure, the parading of his idiosyncracies and the exposure of the recesses of his heart is far from being an object with the writer of antiquity. Neither does he, like the modern essayist, regard his theme as indifferent, finding a motive for his originality in anything and nothing. If there is any feature that distinguishes him, it is the objectivity of his purpose and his concentration on the themes directly related to human conduct. His affectations, if he has any, are limited to the exercise of the literary technique and the devices of superficial ornamentation elaborately taught in the academies of Rhetoric. This very tendency, kept within the bounds of taste, insures a preciseness of outline and a degree of literary finish in the writing of the classical moralists contrasting with the almost studied negligence by which later essayists strive to give the grace of informality to their work. The only informality which ancient writers thought legitimate was that which came from the easy and natural communication of a writer's thought through an appropriate but not artless medium.
The Greek and Roman moralists received more than their due of imitation during the Renaissance. Petrarch, in some of his Latin treatises, not only captured something of the polished urbanity of Cicero, but under the encouragement of his master, St. Augustine, opened the confidential vein in modern prose. In his imaginary conversation with St. Augustine (Secretum Meum) and in his treatise on the retired life (De Vita Solitaria) there is an emphasis on the expression of individuality which is even more significant than the biographical secrets which those compositions reveal. In the main, however, the writers of the Renaissance did not follow the introspective trend. The cultivated littérateur composed dialogues and discourses in the Platonic or Ciceronian style, in which the speculative or theoretic element predominated; this type flourished with especial richness in sixteenth century Italy. Others, having in mind a public of less intellectual refinement, blended the familiar didactic ingredients of the classics with the unction of Christian homiletics, draping the whole in a specious rhetoric which passed for a time as the height of elegance. The books of this kind by the Spanish Bishop Guevara enjoyed a European vogue during the best part of a century. They claim a relation to the essay by virtue of their direct concernment with reflections on human conduct, but they are separated from it either by abstractness of theme or by the complete absence of originality both in observation and expression. There was no inherent reason why the traditional form should not have developed directly into the modern type of essay writing.
When an original thinker, like Machiavelli, for example, discourses in prose on a suitable theme, the result is
what we should now call informal
essay. Such essays, but not so called, appear as occasional chapters in the Memoirs of Commines, to whom the literature of antiquity was a closed book, and elsewhere in French prose of the sixteenth century. In an important sense it is a mistake, therefore, to speak of Montaigne as the discoverer of the essay. It is a species of writing which does not seem to call for a literary Columbus.
Yet in other senses, equally important, Montaigne is undeniably an originator. For in the beginning he did not build on the lines familiarized by tradition, but worked out his design afresh from the loose materials of the ancient edifice. What his
valued more than the form of classical literature was its concentrated wisdom. Notable sentences were extracted and studied more diligently than the composition as a whole. Not only the moralists, but the philosophers, the historians, and the poets were treated in this manner; Aristotle, Tacitus, and Sophocles were culled with the same zeal as Plutarch and Seneca. The practice of the schools contributed greatly to this procedure; for their benefit compilations of sentences were made, to be used for their instructive power and as subjects for themes. The "Adages" of Erasmus was the most widely used school-book of the sixteenth century, and it was valued by adult readers for its original matter. From the schools also the practice of keeping commonplace books was carried into the years of maturity, and to this practice Montaigne's essays owe their beginning. In the solitude of his tower-library Montaigne was fond of ransacking his favorite authors for precepts and