Discussion → What is an essay?

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    Ann Bogle
    Mar 14, 06:46am

    From the Wikipedia entry on esssay:

    "The word essay derives from the French infinitive essayer, "to try" or "to attempt". In English essay first meant "a trial" or "an attempt", and this is still an alternative meaning. The Frenchman Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) was the first author to describe his work as essays; he used the term to characterise these as "attempts" to put his thoughts adequately into writing, and his essays grew out of his commonplacing.[4] Inspired in particular by the works of Plutarch, a translation of whose Oeuvres morales (Moral works) into French had just been published by Jacques Amyot, Montaigne began to compose his essays in 1572; the first edition, entitled Essais, was published in two volumes in 1580. For the rest of his life he continued revising previously published essays and composing new ones."


    I have the collected Montaigne on the bookshelf inside my front door, alongside the collected Chekhov, next to the fireplace. There's a photo of my shelves here:


    Montaigne's inscription to his portrait: "My bald old pate, where the painter has set before you not a perfect face, but my own."

    -- Essays 1, XXV

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    eamon byrne
    Mar 14, 04:35pm

    Interesting. I've The Complete Essays (trans M A Screech) inside my bedside table drawer. I occasionally read a few pages when I can't sleep. That doesn't sound too flattering of Montaigne, I know. One thing I like is the frequent insertions from his Latin masters. They are mainly in the nature of aphorisms. Also I like Screech's copious footnotes. Often, these two features are combined. (1. An echo of Seneca, Epist. moral., XX, 2-3: the wise man acts consistently, his deeds always in harmony with his words.)

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    Kane X. Faucher
    Apr 15, 12:47pm

    Interesting anecdote about Montaigne is that he hadn't the stomach for the hunt, himself being a rather keen lover of animals. One of the more refreshing aspects of his "essays" has been in his candour, which is opposite of Rousseau's attempt at the same which are only rhetorically positioned to place his "genius" in starker relief.

    The word essay and its French origin has a slightly longer history than Wikipedia knows. The answer to that riddle can be found in Montaigne's work and his connection to the Latins!

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    eamon byrne
    Apr 16, 05:07am

    But you must not say anything in this forum against Rousseau. One of my wife's favourite writers is Rousseau. A jihad against all who malign Rousseau!

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    Kane X. Faucher
    Apr 16, 05:17am

    So no catty anecdotes about him running out the backdoor of rich ladies' homes when husband returns surprisingly early? O ho ho. I have a strange relationship with JJ...At times, I just want to poke fun at the pre-revolutionary!

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