The Essay and Western Civilization

As a follow-up to his essay from last weekend, Thomas Bertonneau sends his thoughts on the genre of the essay in our civilization.

The Essay and Western Civilization
by Thomas F. Bertonneau

It takes genius — that of Homer, Virgil, the Beowulf poet, or Frederick Turner — to compose an epic narrative. Real novelists and short story writers are also rare birds; and masters of lyric verse are likewise as infrequent as the visitations of Grace. Everyone knows the centrality of epic narrative to civilization. Looking back four hundred years to the final acts of the Bronze Age, Homer articulated the ethics, aesthetics, and theology of the emerging world of the polis. Virgil, with Homer as his model, summed up his patron’s idea of what the newly established Roman Empire ought to be. In Beowulf, readers become familiar with a Christianized version of Gothic heroism. Novelists and short story writers carry on the epic tradition in prose, with a shift of focus to ordinary rather than heroic lives. The lyricists explore the dimensions of subjectivity, guiding their readers through the pathways of the inner world.

There is, however, one genre that is not the exclusive domain of artistic Titans. The essay lies within the reach of ordinary, literate people. The roots of the essay may be found in the smaller dialogues of Plato, in the disquisitions on innumerable topics by the Neo-Platonist philosopher Plutarch, and in the letters of Seneca the Younger. The name essay was coined by Michel de Montaigne on the basis of a common French verb, essayer, which English renders with accuracy in its modest to try. An essay is therefore an attempt, but at what? For Plato, who acknowledged truth, the colloquy of serious men that any of his dialogues records aimed at the approximation of the truth concerning whatever the topic might be. Plutarch carries on the practice, as does Seneca, who was a Stoic rather than a Platonist. It is important to remark that the discussion, whether Plato’s, Plutarch’s, or Seneca’s, does not necessarily produce the truth that it seeks. The important thing is the search itself. Montaigne comes in for a good deal of ire for his perspectivism, but the juxtaposition of differing views is already a technique in Plato, Plutarch, and Seneca.

An essayist, as it seems to me, is a writer who invites his readers, as few or as many of them as there are, to go with him along unfamiliar ways, sometimes breaking a new trail, in search of truth or at any rate of truths. An essayist is not an author of scholarly articles; neither is he a journalist. An essayist stands closer, perhaps, to a lyricist than to a writer of tales, whether long or short. The essay is a malleable genre: It might be aphoristic and associative; it might borrow the philosopher’s syllogistic exposition; it might make use of anecdote, as much as argument. The essay records the intellectual biography of its author; it is the memoir of a sustained meditation on the aspects of life, on the standing condition, and on the inescapability of moral cause and effect. An essay might be short or it might be long — and some essays run out to book length. An essayist, finally, is a man of persuasion who never regards his text as mandatory for others, but simply issues an invitation. Prose that claims a mandate is not essayistic but propagandistic.

The essay is, above all, a civilized institution. Perhaps this is why the essay is so often misunderstood or misapprehended in a contemporary context. In a social phase dominated by polemics and characterized by shouting heads, in which the majority reject the very idea of truth, few are sufficiently open-minded to follow the essayist in his quiet, absolutely non-obligatory quest. Today, sophisticated people prefer to watch Public Television and read The New Yorker, from which the calm spirit of open-minded inquiry has long since vanished.

One of my reasons for paying attention daily to Gates of Vienna is that Dymphna’s and the Baron’s website is one of the bastions of essayistic thinking. In the past GoV has been a venue for splendid essayists such as Takuan Seiyo, Seneca III, Fjordman, and numerous others. There is plenty of much-needed news at Gates of Vienna, to be sure, but it is well-complemented by the items of speculative and exploratory prose on the looming existential afflictions of our time — and on the sources of the traditional order of things. I am delighted, and somewhat humbled, that the Baron has extended to me the opportunity to be a modest participant in the civilized project at The Gates. I am again humbled, and not a little bit overwhelmed, by the number and energetic quality of the responses to my recent essay (much-rewritten and expanded from its original appearance at the now-defunct Brussels Journal) on René Girard and the phenomenon that he identifies as “the ontological sickness.”

I would like to thank all of those readers who took the time and exercised the patience either to read the article in full or simply to tackle it, as far as they could go. I want especially to thank those readers who offered critical, but constructive, responses and took issue with one or another point made in the course of the essay’s exposition. The essay provoked a discussion, which is one of the things that any essay is supposed to do. The discussion, in turn, revealed to me implications of my argument that had not previously risen to the level of my awareness, and which I hope to address in future. A good example of what I mean comes from the responses to my discussion of Islam (an important topic at Gates). I was prompted to note that the critical consideration of Islam often arrives at the thesis that Islam is not an ordinary religion or is perhaps not even a religion at all, but rather is something else. It then suddenly occurred to me — and I recorded the thought in the comments section — that maybe something else is the case: It is not Islam that is not an ordinary religion or is perhaps not even a religion at all; it is Christianity that is not an ordinary religion or is perhaps not even a religion at all, but rather is something else.

This is by no means a dismissal of Christianity. Quite the opposite: The statement implies that even among the perspicacious, as among the readership of Gates of Vienna, the radical nature of Christianity has not been thought through sufficiently. The statement also implies that Islam really is a religion, along the lines of immemorial religion of the type that Girard spent his lifetime studying; that Islam is quite as religious a religion as the Dionysiac Revels or the Aztec Pyramid Cult. The thesis is tenuous at its birth, but the prospect of following it out to its conclusions beckons me strongly. If the thesis proved true, it would alter the way in which we discuss the existing relation between Islam and the West. It would confront the multiculturalists with a sudden and unexpected reversal of terms that would disadvantage them rhetorically. It is to insights of this type, unanticipated, that essayistic thinking can lead.

My classroom experience confirms my general impression that ours, sadly, is not an essayistic age. It is an age, rather, of slogans, of lifted eyebrows, and vulgar invective. Contemporary college students can write the race-class-gender “essay” in their sleep. (It has five three-sentence paragraphs and resembles a Power Point presentation.) Ask them to respond to the serene indirection of Henry David Thoreau or Walter Pater — or, let us say, to the wit and irony of G. K. Chesterton or George Bernard Shaw — and they have great difficulty. The difficulty is partly intellectual (they are victims of the criminal enterprise called American education), but it is also partly attitudinal or mood-related. Students are never in a state of calmness. Serenity is a condition unfamiliar to them. Their compulsive recourse to their cell phones suggests not only their sense of continuous disorientation, but their unwillingness to open themselves to the movement of reality to see where it might take them. We arrive, then, at another definition of the essay: It is the vessel in which the essayist gives himself over to the movement of reality to see where it might take him — closer, he hopes, to truth or to truths.

I say, thank you once again to my readers — and to the Baron and Dymphna for their commitment to Western Civilization and to its institutions including that modest thing, the essay.

Thomas F. Bertonneau has been a college English professor since the late 1980s, with some side-bars as a Scholar in residence at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, as a Henri Salvatori Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, and as the first Executive Director of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. He has been a visiting assistant professor at SUNY Oswego since the fall of 2001. He is the author of over a hundred scholarly articles and two books,Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities (1996) and The Truth Is Out There: Christian Faith and the Classics of TV Science Fiction (2006). He is a contributor to The Orthosphere and the People of Shambhala website, and a regular commentator at Laura Wood’s Thinking Housewife Website. For his previous essays, see the Thomas Bertonneau Archives.

22 thoughts on “The Essay and Western Civilization

  1. Lots of internal responses to your contemplation, M. Bertonneau.

    The first one to pop up was “where is Augustine’s work in this? The City of God, or even more important, the (perhaps) first real Western autobiography, his Confessions.

    The Confessions: (Vol. I/1) Revised, (The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century) (The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, Vol. 1)

    This one says Volume 1. I don’t know if they will then divide it up into the original 13 he envisioned.

    Augustine’s work, and the city in North Africa for which he was the Archbishop – Hippo – both disappeared under the onslaught of Islam. We are fortunate his work even survived. Some others, especially in Mesopotamia, were lost forever.

    Augustine is a vital link to the Socratics. Had he not laid the groundwork, would Aquinas have ever managed to make the case for a platonized Christianity? It seems to me that this was the focus of The Scholastics – to reconcile the genius of Greek and Hebrew categories of intellectual and moral thought to Christian life.

    If you have not read it, M. Bertonneau, I recommend a little book that ties in Rome’s contribution:

    Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization by Rémi Brague (2009-07-10)

    So fascinating I even got Fjordman to read it. No small accomplishment 😉

    If I didn’t have to leave for the dentist’s, I’d say more…

    But thank you for this follow up meta-essay.

    • Augustine’s work belongs to the essay-tradition. So do many of the works of the Patres. I particularly like a pamphlet by Basil of Caesarea on the topic “How Young Christian Gentlemen Might Profit from the Study of Greek Letters.” Origen was an essayist. Even Cassiodorus, a Roman of senatorial ancestry who worked for King Theodoric, wrote essays.

      I, too, have read Brague’s book, which I would likewise recommend. Brague’s Wisdom of the World is also worth reading although it is slightly tougher going than Eccentric Civilization.

    • “Augustine is a vital link to the Socratics. Had he not laid the groundwork, would Aquinas have ever managed to make the case for a platonized Christianity?”

      Another Christian theologian had enormous influence on later Christian theologians in terms of a Platonic framework — Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (flourished circa 500 A.D. in Syria). His Platonism led him, and those Christians influenced by him, naturally to illuminate the mystical negative theology already latent in the Gospel. Pseudo-Dionysius was probably not an essayist per se, as articulated by Bertonneau here, however. In addition to the essay genre, there was also the “meditation” genre (not in the Eastern sense); sort of a sustained submersion by bathysphere into a philosophical/theological problem and exploring the flora & fauna of its coral reefs down there, so to speak — and (hopefully) taking the reader along for the ride.

      • That’s quite a descriptive paragraph there, Hesperado. I thought for a while i was reading Faulkner. Pretty amazing…

        If you like P-D. I think you’d get along with Gabriel Marcel and his “concrete” philosophy. Others tried to pin “Socratic” onto him but he refused…he was/is certainly an explorer.

        I haven’t checked New English Review specifically for Hugh Fitzgerald lately, but he’s still on the list. Usually when I go there, it’s for something specific.

  2. Thank you. Your essay prompted me to question the steadiness of my own thinking boat.
    An important essay to read and reread during the current polemic epidemic.

      • Is there a better word than “tentative”? I’ve been pondering this sentence ever since I read it…makes me think of Gabriel Marcel’s ideas about not filling faith with content, but to experience it as a process (he didn’t use those words – I’m borrowing them from Hartshorne)…

        My ideas about “faith” changed after encountering Marcel. I even began studying French on my own in the attempt to read him in the original…

        “Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived”…and then chapters on the word “mystery”…

    • Well, I can’t find anything with that title in any of my “to do” folders. Nor can I find any emails from “Gleaner1”. Nor any emails from the email address you used when you posted your comment. So your guess is as good as mine what happened to your email and your essay.

      Unfortunately, it isn’t possible for me to publish every unsolicited essay that is sent to me. At the moment my “to do” queue has thirty things in it. A couple of weeks ago it had nineteen in it. God only knows how many it will have in it this time next month. I can’t ever seem to shrink it; I knock off a few items, and then more come in.

      The same thing applies to emails. I would love to respond to every email that comes in, but once again it simply isn’t possible. Ten years ago I could manage it, but not anymore. I could start answering emails when I get up in the morning and keep answering them until bedtime, without doing anything else — no posting, no eating, no nothing — and I still wouldn’t have answered them all. Even if I gave up sleeping, it couldn’t be done.

      The upshot of all this is that I have to triage my tasks. The most important things are breaking news on the topics I’m required to cover — e.g. Tommy Robinson or PEGIDA — plus translations of things that aren’t widely available in English. This includes editing translated transcripts for videos and putting them into a format Vlad can use for subtitles. And also moderating comments. These three types of activity plus the compiling of the news feed take an average of about nine hours a day. After that comes editing and posting less urgent, but still important material. That can take another four hours or so. The remainder of my day is taken up with answering emails and skype messages. Oh, and also eating, doing household chores, mowing the lawn, grocery shopping, etc.

      That’s seven days a week. And there still isn’t enough time.

      So if you email me and don’t get a response, it’s unfortunate, but there’s not much I can do about it. And at this point, given the volume of submissions I receive, there is only about a 50-50 chance I will have time to read any given unsolicited essay that arrives in my inbox.

      Obviously, I need to hire a staff. I’m still waiting for that big check from the Mossad, but for some reason it’s been delayed. Maybe a postal strike in Tel Aviv…?

  3. I read with interest that the author of this piece regards this site as ” a bastion of essayistic thinking “, well all I can say to that is that when I sent a copy of my six page essay titled A Memorandum of Understanding:- Mass Immigration to Western Countries a few weeks back for publication, nothing more was heard.

    Perhaps it spoke to the truth too plainly.

  4. If I may make a note of correction to a very well thought out “essay” here. ‘Essayer’ which is the French infinitive for the verb “to try” is not meant in the context of an attempt but rather that of a trial of fact. We have the English word “Assayer” for the person who would measure the ore content in the rock that was mined. If I recall my Latin correctly, the verb “to taste” has the same root as you would taste something before you would eat it, again, putting what is on the fork to the test before putting it in your mouth.
    Essays that are written as part of the college curricula are trials that the professor uses to ascertain whether the students have comprehended the material that has been taught. I will agree that the fine art of esssayal (OK, I made that word up) composition has been lost to the sound bite, the cell phone, and the sycophantery (another word I made up) that is demanded of us in the name of political correctness.
    May I suggest that the Gates of Vienna sponsor a competition from among its readership to compose an essay that deals with the topic of the month. Even if the work is not published on the site I am certain that we could all benefit by the cleaned-up prose that would be the product of our competitive efforts.

  5. Very well put together and informative. I hope my essays for gatesofvienna blogspot have met up to those standards. Reading the comments is good and helps to enlighten me. A lot of good Authors on Gatesofvienna and I look forward to read this blog, and I often post their link of Facebook.

  6. Some eighteenth-century English poets like Swift, Pope, Defoe, and others, wrote essays. Some had their titles as essays, as in An Essay On Man. Some wrote essays as poems instead of prose. The poets of that time could be great models for us today. I like Swift with his satires.

  7. [insults redacted]

    I much prefer the writings of the Baron or Paul Weston, or David Greenfield. They usually have something to say and express it well. This writer (can’t even be bothered to find his/her name) leaves me cold.

    Maybe someday you might get David Greenfield to submit something, or more from Paul Weston, but give me the Baron any day – succinct, to the point and worth my time to read.

    I’m sorry if I offend, but this is [insulting description redacted].

    This sort of writing will turn away many more readers than it could ever attract.

    • It’s not David but Daniel – apologies to Daniel Greenfield – it’s late here in Australia and I’m a little tired. But my comment stands – I do look forward to insightful commentary on the GoV, especially from what I consider to be “real” people MC, Fjordman and others, but this sort of writing reminds me of elitism and leaves me cold.

    • I think the war of ideas we are in has, and should have, a wide array of different “battle spaces” and tactics — from the abstruse essays of a Hugh Fitzgerald of the old days (for some reason he doesn’t do them any more) and the more clarified examples of Thomas Bertonneau here; to the punchier missives of a Daniel Geenfield; to the stillicidal barrage of the newswire like Jihad Watch; to the incisively journalistic probes of a Diana West; to the sassy, trashy dish of a wickedly acerbic Debbie Schlussel who even if she may miss more than half of the time, when she hits it’s square on the kishkes; to the intelligence briefing style of a Stephen Coughlin or Bill Warner; to the conversationally informative interview in a radio medium of a Frank Gaffney or a Sam Sorbo; to the comprehensively multi-pronged bird’s-eye focus of a blog like GOV on the heart of the West, Europe; to the sprawlingly diverse and dizzyingly amorphous fields of civilian chatter (various comments fields, discussion forums, Twitter, Facebook, chat rooms, etc.) — and in between the cracks of all these there are many more permutations, like the little videos of Gad Saad or the various types of communiqués available on YouTube; etc.

      I could also add the civilian blog — example, moi, with a blog of probably 17.5 readers (puffing up my résumé) on which since 2006 I’ve been plugging away, with perhaps a small handful of actual essays over the years, but mostly with posts that are not really essays, but are more exercises in trying to devise ways to prod people awake to the escalating danger of the global revival of Islam. Some of these exercises almost feel like the activity of constructing, or deconstructing, puzzles — not the puzzle of the problem of Islam, but the puzzle of the problem of the problem of Islam: the problem, that is, of the West failing to grasp the problem of Islam (which then has led me to notice and analyze the tertiary problem of the problem of the problem — namely the problem of the Counter-Jihad’s inadequacy of dealing with the secondary problem).

  8. StraightShooter, I guess your reaction would be the same if this site were let’s say a music radio station that played mostly pop or rock and roll – I am not equating this site to a rock and roll radio station, only for argument’s sake – but every now and then the producer inserts a Beethoven sonata or a Bach fugue. I guess you would call up the producer and tell him that that music reminds you of elitism and it leaves you cold.

  9. Tom:

    All I can suggest is that you understand that revolutions always begin from the bottom. The elites are too concerned with continuing the status quo regardless of how perilous their situation has become. They are the last people to understand that change must occur. Consider who you really need to speak to and address them. The vandal who spray paints “Islame Suks” on the side of the mosque, does have focused crystalline clarity in his message, despite all his errors, but only lacks an address of the why, or of his own personalized ideology as a suggestion of something better. Perhaps you can give them that why, or offer that ideology that is worth fighting for in a manner that anyone can visualize. That is my goal, but I don’t know that I have the talent to do so. Perhaps you do. Tomes and essays are fine, but I am thinking we are way past that point as the educated elite (excluding yourself and notable others) have clearly sided with an ideology that will prove to be self destructive.

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