Essay Defined

The notions of “precision” and “essay” are the twin pillars of Ulrich’s (and the author’s) moral aesthetics.

Later, when Ulrich’s intellectual capacity was more highly developed, this became an idea no longer connected with the vague word “hypothesis” but with a concept he oddly termed, for certain reasons, “essay.” It was more or less in the way an essay, in the sequence of its paragraphs, explores a thing from many sides without wholly encompassing it–for a thing wholly encompassed suddenly loses its scope and melts down to a concept–that he believed he could most rightly survey and handle the world and his own life. The value of an action or a quality, and indeed its meaning and nature, seemed to him to depend on its surrounding circumstances, on the aims it served; in short, on the whole–constituted now one way, now another–to which it belonged. This is only a simple description of the fact that a murder can appear to us as a crime or a heroic act, and making love as a feather that has fallen from the wing of an angel or that of a goose. But Ulrich generalized this” all moral events take place in a field of energy whose constellation charges them with meaning. They contain good and evil the way an atom contains the possibilities of certain chemical combinations. They are what they will become, so to speak; and just as the word “hard” denotes four entirely different essences, depending on whether it is connected with love, brutality, zeal, or discipline, the significance of all moral events deemed to him to be the function of other events on which they depended. In this way an open-ended system of relationships arises, in which independent meanings, such as are ascribed to actions and qualities by way of a rough first approximation in ordinary life, no longer exist at all.  (I,270)

The way of the essay is not a philosophical system.

He was no philosopher. Philosophers are despots who have no armies to command, so they subject the world to their tyranny by locking it up in a system of thought. This apparently also accounts for the presence of great philosophers in times of great tyrants, while epochs of progressive civilization and democracy fail to bring forth a convincing philosophy, at least to judge by the disappointment one hears as widely expressed on the subject. Hence today we have a terrifying amount of philosophizing in brief bursts, so that shops are the only places where one can still get something without Weltanschauung, while philosophy in large chunks is viewed with decided mistrust. It is simply regarded as impossible, and even Ulrich was by no means innocent of this prejudice; indeed, in the light of his scientific background, he took a somewhat ironic view of philosophy. This put him in a position where he was always being provoked to think about what he was observing, and yet at the same time was burdened with a certain shyness about thinking too hard. (I,272-273)

 So the “essay” is a stance, a model, rather than a system of thought.

The accepted translation of “essay” as “attempt” contains only vaguely the essential allusion to the literary model, for an essay is not a provisional or incidental expression of a conviction capable of being elevated to a truth under more favorable circumstances or of being exposed as an error (the only ones of that kind are those articles or treatises, chips from the scholar’s workbench, with which the learned entertain their special public); an essay is rather the unique and unalterable form assumed by a man’s inner life in a decisive thought. Nothing is more foreign to it than the irresponsible and half-baked quality of thought known as subjectivism. Terms like true and false, wise and unwise, are equally inapplicable, and yet the essay is subject to laws that are no less strict for appearing to be delicate and ineffable. There have been more than a few such essayists, masters of the inner hovering life, but there would be no point in naming them. Their domain lies between religion and knowledge, between example and doctrine, between amor intellectualis and poetry; they are saints with and without religion, and sometimes they are also simply men on an adventure who have gone astray. (I,273)

 And, finally, what is the point of adopting this model?

If someone had asked him at any point while he was writing treatises on mathematical problems or mathematical logic, or engaged in some scientific project, what it was he hoped to achieve, he would have answered that there was only one question worth thinking about, the question of the right way to live. (I,275)


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