The word essay we have from the French, in which tongue it signifies a trial or probation. As it is applied to things, it admits of no positive definition, which might be the reason that neither the great essayist Montaigne nor the Lord Bacon, our more incomparable writer in the same kind, hath thought [it requisite] to define the word, because it hath so little to do with the matter it handles, rather expressing a generality of knowledge than obliged to any particular science. As we see in building, there are many artists that may own the completing of some parts of the fabric, yet not claim the perfecting of the whole structure, so in essays there is required instructions from philosophy, history, and what else can be usefully expressed for other observations and moralities of life, that in them a man may read an epitome of himself, and the world together. Neither is it wit and eloquence (the ornaments of the pen and thought) more lively to be expressed in any kind of writing than in this of essays, which as they treat of men and manners (the most natural employment of our best conceptions) there ought to be in them such a pertinent ingenuity, as tends most to application and benefit. Histories may discover the actions of some particular times and men, whilst essays have more familiarity with ourselves and business, giving us besides a useful acquaintance both of the dead and living together.
Nor are they to be termed descants upon such or such particular objects (like the wit or clinch of an epigram), or the smart sayings in characters and satyrs (though handling much of the same argument), nor the sweet and elegant insinuations of poets and orators, that can contain the business of essays. Though they may gather some honey from the best flowers of wit and learning, they have a limitation from none, and yet come nearer ourselves than these can make them, which as it is a just dignity appearing to this kind of writing, so it needed not to have been [unintelligible] to the judicious reader, who can [or be] unknowing thereof. Besides I am not to forget that in extolling the subject which I handle, I do in some [form] prompt a greater expectation in point of performance than I desire the reader should have from my abilities, since howsoever this book comes now to be published, it was but the result of private thoughts, by which I endeavoured to take some prospect of the opinions, business, and manners of the world (being indeed the chief accomplishments of human[e] life), though not without hopes that if these papers at any time were made so bold as to be seen by the world in print, it would not be altogether without that profit which I have reaped from them myself.
(Spelling and punctuation modernized by Patrick Madden, 2007)
The essay-writer is a chartered libertine, and a law unto himself. A quick ear and eye, an ability to discern the infinite suggestiveness of common things, a brooding meditative spirit, are all that the essayist requires.
To close tedious deliberations with hasty resolves, and after long consultations with reason to refer the question to caprice, is by no means peculiar to the essayist.
Quotidiana is an online anthology of "classical" essays, from antiquity to the early twentieth century. All essays and images are in the public domain. Commentaries are copyrighted, but may be used with proper attribution. Special thanks to the BYU College of Humanities and English Department for funding, and to Joey Franklin and Lara Burton, for tireless research assisting.