An Essay on Essays

“Let us not be like those people who always seem to be pallbearers at the funeral of the past.  Let us utilize, by living, the qualities of the dead.” A man who writes lines such as these must be read!  A. G. Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life[1] is a necessary agent toward molding Christian thinkers.  I have used the book as the primary text for Heartland Fellows’ first retreat forum.  His opening chapter which I quote marks the initial salvo in the battle for “The Intellectual Vocation.”  These pages would be my first choice in conditioning younger minds to consider the importance of study.  His paragraph on “the second state of mind” is worthy of memorization.

21st C. essayists such as Victor Davis Hanson,[2] Thomas Sowell,[3] and Peggy Noonan[4] should be compulsory reading for all conservatives.  While Russell Kirk is rightfully lauded as “the father of modern conservatism,” his prose are a bit dry, certainly for high school students.

There are new voices consistently coming to the fore.  One of whom we should acquaint ourselves is Tracy Lee Simmons.  If you read National Review, you will see his essays from time to time. However, I would encourage you to segment his “A Few Notes at Base Camp”[5] as a wonderful “piece” for your purposes.  A too-rich dessert, Simmons’ writing is succored word by word, phrase by phrase; his logic, immovable.

Dorothy L. Sayers wrote an essay all believers should read entitled “Creed or Chaos?”[6] I have been using C. S. Lewis’ “Learning in War Time” for years.  Together with his essay “Why I Am Not a Pacifist”[7] we stand in good stead, those of us who adhere to liberty necessitate our commitment to education.  There are so many wonderful essays in Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose[8] that I would be remiss by only mentioning one or two.  My copy is marked from stem to stern with notations and exclamation points.

Do acquaint yourself with A.J. Conyers’ work.  The Listening Heart[9] should be read as fine Kentucky bourbon should be drunk—sipping slowly with a smile on one’s face.  Any of his chapters could be considered as singular units.  Vigen Guroian’s name has been on my lips for more than a decade.  If you have students read one of his offerings let it be “Why Should Businessmen Read Great Literature?”[10] You will not find anywhere a more succinct reason why novels establish ethics in any reader.

Contemporary churchmen have added their good word from time to time.  Believers should attune their ears to the voice of Eugene Peterson, no matter what he writes.  I encourage students to read “The Unbusy Pastor”[11] at least once a month.  James Houston’s book I Believe in The Creator[12] made me sit up and take notice of a man whose life had been both impacted by the greatest novels and The Greatest Book.  Joyful Exiles[13] is one of the few books I have ever read where I stop to consider one paragraph half a dozen times.  Again, sections of this book could be excised for rhetorical investigation.

Stephen King, Neal Postman, and Robert Coles are all unbelievers for whom I have tagged the phrase, “they circle The Truth and every once in a while point at it.”  Robert Coles’ The Call of Stories[14] changed how I taught when I came to LCS.  His first chapter “Stories and Theories” could function as a primer for why instruction must incorporate narrative.  [Scholars have estimated the total written content of Scripture to contain 40% narrative.]  A medical doctor, he married a school teacher: surely a good historical reason for his belief in story.

As you know, Chelsea is a poet.  Ever since she introduced my near vacuous knowledge of verse to W. H. Auden[15] I can’t seem to get enough.  Dana Gioia’s essay “Can Poetry Matter?”[16] is a great apology for verbal lyricism.  The American doctor-poet William Carlos Williams wrote a series of mellifluous essays which seem as sweet cream spread across the dry cake of history textbooks.[17]

Fiction depends on fidelity to the truth of life.  Henry Zylstra compelled me to write that sentence in the margin of his only book Testament of Vision.[18] “The Christian and His Fiction” and “The Role of Literature in Our Time” are imperative lessons from a man who lived far too short a life.

The early Christian apologists had written extensively in defense of The Faith.  One of the most famous “essays” was that of Origen “Against Celsus.”[19] For years (in fact, since I began teaching in ND), I have been using cuttings from Tertullian “The Christian Defence” and Justin Martyr “First Apology.”[20]

I used Augustine On Christian Doctrine Book II[21] extensively—even during that year I taught Church History at LCS.  The “Book” is broken into “chapters” and “paragraphs,” all of which are numbered.  Chapters 18, 25, 26, 29, and 30 speak in bits and pieces to the use of pagan materials by the believer.  However, unless you would want to put those pieces together, I would concentrate on chapters 38-42 as one “essay.”  Augustine was the first “Christian schooler” in the sense that Gaebelein got his “all truth is God’s Truth” statement from the great 5th century scholar.

On Geometrical Demonstration[22] has a wonderful section (II) headed by the phrase “Concerning the Art of Persuasion.”  This too could be corralled as an essay, exactly conforming to your interest in rhetoric.  I’ve quoted it in some recent writings (including the dissertation).

Famous Prefaces[23] could oblige as essays, the frontispiece of a person’s work, now that the work of writing the book is complete.  Great Essays[24] have been defining and defending ideas for millennia.  Nicholas A. Basbanes, Michael Dirda, and Brian Lamb have all made forays into lives and letters that themselves deserve a hearing as treatises laboring to make their point.[25] We ourselves operate as essayists every time we wax eloquent to support an idea, craft a play’s prologue, or justify our decision.  Perhaps some day, someone will take the pages of Colleen Averill, amassing them in a tome for the ages.  I can think of no one better to represent the guild of rhetoricians than my friend.

An Essay on Essays: Essays and Essayists for Rhetoric for my friend Colleen Averill.  Originally written and sent via email 23 July 2009.

[1] A. G. Sertillanges. 1920, 1998. The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods, trans. Mary Ryan. (Reprint, Catholic University of America Press): 3-16

[2] Hanson is a classicist in the truest sense of that term.  His many books span topics such as military history to the immigration problem in California—his home state.  He is a college professor who was profoundly changed by 9-11.  His essays are unassailable, so deep is his erudition, so incisive his rhetorical skills.

[3] David Mamet recently referred to Sowell as our greatest, living philosopher in an article published last year in The Village Voice entitled “Why I Am No Longer a Brain Dead Liberal.”

[4] I refer to Noonan as our National Essayist Laureate, her current “softness” on Obama and his policies, notwithstanding.

[5] Tracy Lee Simmons. 2002. Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin. (ISI): 1-13.  The introduction is about 26 pages long; but the first section is worthy of what I call a “stand alone” essay.

[6] Dorothy L. Sayers. 1969. “Creed or Chaos?” In Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World, ed. Roderick Jellema. (Eerdmans): 31-45.

[7] C. S. Lewis. 1949, 1976, 1980, 2001. “Learning in War Time” and “Why I Am Not a Pacifist.” In The Weight of Glory. (Reprint, HarperCollins): 47-63, 64-90.

[8] Flannery O’Connor. 1957, 1997. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. (Reprint, Farrar, Straus, Giroux).

[9] A. J. Conyers. 2006. The Listening Heart: vocation and the Crisis of Modern Culture. (Spence).

[10] Vigen Guroian. 2005. Rallying the Really Human Things: The Moral Imagination in Politics, Lierature, and Everyday Life. (ISI): 177-86.

[11] Eugene Peterson. 1989. The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction. (Eerdmans): 17-23.

[12] James M. Houston. 1980. I Believe in The Creator.

[13] James M. Houston. 2006. Joyful Exiles: Life in Christ on the Dangerous Edge of Things. (IVP).

[14] Robert Coles. 1989. The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination. (Houghton-Miflin).

[15] She had great teachers at Wheaton Academy and my students at Moody were the recipients of fine insights from exceptional high school instructors.  College professors are wrongly over-rated!  I have benefited greatly from reading Auden’s non-fiction The Dyer’s Hand (Reprint, Vintage, 1949, 1989).  I would heartily recommend his essays “Writing,” “The Virgin & The Dynamo,” or “The Poet & the City.”

[16] Dan Gioia. 1992. Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture. (Graywolf Press).

[17] It was no mere coincidence that the bookmarks from Chelsea’s wedding bore one of his short poems on love and marriage.  William Carlos Williams. 1925, 1989. In the American Grain. (Reprint, Penguin).

[18] I wrote in response to the essay “Why Read Novels?” Henry Zylstra. 1958, 1963. Testament of Vision. (Reprint, Eerdmans).


[20] Anne Fremantle, ed. 1953. A Treasury of Early Christianity. (Viking): 277-79, 391-95.  Irenaeus Against Heresies is a famous apologetic against paganism.  These and many other writers can be found in The Ante-Nicene Fathers Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds. (Reprint, Eerdmans, 1973).

[21] Augustine. 1954. “On Christian Doctrine.” In The Great Books of the Western World, v.18: Augustine. (Chicago: Brittanica): 636-56.

[22] Blaise Pascal. 1954. “On Geometrical Demonstration.” In The Great Books of the Western World, v. 33: Pascal. (Chicago: Brittanica): 430-46.

[23] Famous Prefaces, v. 39 in The Harvard Classics. (Collier, 1910).

[24] Great Essays, ed. Houston Peterson. (Reprint, Washington Square Press, 1954, 1963).

[25] Michael Dirda. 2005. Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life. (Henry Holt); Brain Lamb. 1997. Booknotes: America’s Finest Authors and Reading, Writing, and the Power of Ideas. (Times Books); Nicholas A. Basbanes, 1995, Patience & Fortitude., 2001, A Splendor of Letters, and 2005, Every Book Its Reader.

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  1. Thanks for this gift! Heading into my third year of teaching AP Language (which focuses on nonfiction) this post carries a freighter full of good reading material!

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