If all you want to do is figure things out, why do you need to write anything, though? Well, there precisely is Montaigne's great discovery. Fundamentally an essay is a train of thought-- but a cleaned-up train of thought, as dialogue is cleaned-up conversation.
Essayer is the French verb meaning "to try" and an essai is an attempt. And so you can't begin with a thesis, because you don't have one, and may never have one. Sometimes you start with a promising question and get nowhere. Those are like experiments that get inconclusive results. You already know where you're going, and you want to go straight there, blustering through obstacles, and hand-waving your way across swampy ground. But not the specific conclusions I want to reach; from paragraph to paragraph I let the ideas take their course. Sometimes, like a river, one runs up against a wall.
An essay is something you write to try to figure something out. An essay doesn't begin with a statement, but with a question. Just as inviting people over forces you to clean up your apartment, writing something that other people will read forces you to think well. The things I've written just for myself are no good. When I run into difficulties, I find I conclude with a few vague questions and then drift off to get a cup of tea. Particularly the sort written by the staff writers of newsmagazines. One thing is certain: the question is a complex one. We didn't draw any conclusions.)The River Questions aren't enough. An essay you publish ought to tell the reader something he didn't already know. But that's not what you're trying to do in an essay. Then I do the same thing the river does: backtrack.
The time was then ripe for the question: if the study of ancient texts is a valid field for scholarship, why not modern texts?
The answer, of course, is that the original raison d'etre of classical scholarship was a kind of intellectual archaeology that does not need to be done in the case of contemporary authors.
In a real essay, you don't take a position and defend it. Outside writers tend to supply editorials of the defend-a-position variety, which make a beeline toward a rousing (and foreordained) conclusion. But what you tell him doesn't matter, so long as it's interesting. At one point in this essay I found that after following a certain thread I ran out of ideas.
You notice a door that's ajar, and you open it and walk in to see what's inside. Most of what ends up in my essays I only thought of when I sat down to write them. In the things you write in school you are, in theory, merely explaining yourself to the reader. But the staff writers feel obliged to write something "balanced." Since they're writing for a popular magazine, they start with the most radioactively controversial questions, from which-- because they're writing for a popular magazine-- they then proceed to recoil in terror. I had to go back seven paragraphs and start over in another direction.These earlier civilizations were so much more sophisticated that for the next several centuries the main work of European scholars, in almost every field, was to assimilate what they knew.During this period the study of ancient texts acquired great prestige. As European scholarship gained momentum it became less and less important; by 1350 someone who wanted to learn about science could find better teachers than Aristotle in his own era. In the 19th century the study of ancient texts was still the backbone of the curriculum.With the result that writing is made to seem boring and pointless. Dickens himself would be more interested in an essay about color or baseball. To answer that we have to go back almost a thousand years.Around 1100, Europe at last began to catch its breath after centuries of chaos, and once they had the luxury of curiosity they rediscovered what we call "the classics." The effect was rather as if we were visited by beings from another solar system.In that case, in the course of the conversation I'll be forced to come up a with a clearer explanation, which I can just incorporate in the essay. For the essayist this translates to: flow interesting.More often than not I have to change what I was saying as well. As the reader gets smarter, convincing and true become identical, so if I can convince smart readers I must be near the truth. The path it has discovered is the most economical route to the sea. Of all the places to go next, choose the most interesting.This idea (along with the Ph D, the department, and indeed the whole concept of the modern university) was imported from Germany in the late 19th century. It's no wonder if this seems to the student a pointless exercise, because we're now three steps removed from real work: the students are imitating English professors, who are imitating classical scholars, who are merely the inheritors of a tradition growing out of what was, 700 years ago, fascinating and urgently needed work.Beginning at Johns Hopkins in 1876, the new model spread rapidly. No Defense The other big difference between a real essay and the things they make you write in school is that a real essay doesn't take a position and then defend it.But due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature.And so all over the country students are writing not about how a baseball team with a small budget might compete with the Yankees, or the role of color in fashion, or what constitutes a good dessert, but about symbolism in Dickens.