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The Genesis of the Essay


THE essay, like almost all forms of literary art,

has its roots in remote antiquity. It is in origin a

brief discourse, a compact homily, a compendium of thought, experience, and observation. Its relation to the spoken word is obvious. Even in our own day the public address, reduced to writing, is accepted as an essay; and it is tolerably certain that the essay commenced its career as an oral utterance.

Thus, for example, although Socrates wrote no books, he is nevertheless related to the origin of the essay. From the memorabilia of two of his disciples, Xenophon and Plato, we learn all that we know with certainty concerning his personality and method of thought. Of Aristotle, Plato's disciple, the same is true, although in a more limited sense. Aristotle taught by means of the spoken word, and "even of his most famous and undisputed works, the structure is so irregular, and the style so unequal, that it has been with great probability supposed that they are to a large extent not finished writings, but notes and rough jottings edited by his disciples.” In the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. a race of wandering wisdom-dealers arose, who, in the scarcity of written knowledge, taught men orally, in return for money, that which we should now learn in a library. These men were known as the Sophists, a name which means the skilled or the wise. They passed from city to city, imparting knowledge, disseminating philos

ophies, founding schools of thought, acquiring influence and reputation, much as a university-extension lecturer of to-day might do; but while they thus used the spoken word, their prelections, wherever they have been preserved, observe either the dialogue or the essay form.

The essay also derives itself, upon even clearer evidence, from the Chokhmah or wisdom-literature of the Hebrews. To this wisdom-literature belong such books as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach, and the Wisdom of Solomon. The love for wise sayings had always been present in Hebrew literature (e.g., II Sam. xiv), but during the Post-Exilic period, and especially after the Greek influence had begun to fashion thought, it found its most remarkable expression and became a literary form. Mr. R. G. Moulton, in his admirable Modern Readers' Bible, has rendered a great service to literature by enabling the reader to distinguish the great variety of method practised in these wisdom-books. What appears at first a disconnected and disorderly whole resolves itself under his skilled analysis into a series of sonnets, epigrams, maxims, but especially of deliberate essays on set themes. The themes are poverty, riches, gluttony, inordinate pleasure, friendship, gossip, wives, children, the choice of company, consideration for the high and low, and so forth; and it is curious to remark how closely they forecast the exact method of the modern essay. They are homiletic in spirit, as most good essays are, but they transcend the homily in their shrewdness of observation, their note of personal experience, and their frequent ironic wit. It is probable that no inconsiderable portion of these books consists of the oral sayings of wise men memorised and written down by their disciples. It appears certain that they set the model for Bacon. Printed side by side, Bacon's essay on Truth, and the essay of Jesus the Son of Sirach on Gossip, reveal

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