What Is An Essay? (Yoda & Montaigne Disagree)

The Meeting Of Minds

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… the wise Jedi Master from Star Wars, Yoda, is sitting with the wise writer and philosopher from the 16th century, Montaigne.

Montaigne begins writing an essay. At the top of his blank sheet of paper he writes, “What is an essay?”

He thinks. But cannot find the answer. Yoda is watching him struggle. His lip curls into a smirk. Their gaze meets. Montaigne says, “Ok, you tell me, what is an essay?”

Yoda pauses for a moment. Finally, he responds, “Two answers, I have for you… writing on a particular topic, a short piece of, I would say.”

Montaigne says to Yoda, “You said you have two answers, what is the other?”

Yoda responds, “Do or do not, there is no try.”

Montaigne begins writing. He finishes his essay and looks up at Yoda. He smirks.

 

An Attempt To Answer “What Is An Essay?”

Open the Oxford dictionary to the word essay and you read; a short piece of writing on a particular topic. Yoda is correct. But why did Montaigne smirk?

The word itself – essay – originally had a different meaning. It has today’s dictionary meaning thanks to Montaigne. Montaigne earned his place in history books, not only because of what he wrote, but how he wrote. For Montaigne, writing was an act of exploration into the unknown. He was searching for truth. Posing questions and trying to answer them.That’s Montaigne’s secret: Trying. ‘To try’ is the essence of an essay. And ‘to try’ was the literal translation of ‘essay’ in the 1600s.

Sure, the body of an essay is indeed a short piece of writing on a particular topic. But the heart of an essay is trying to answer a question or explore a topic.