Great Essays & Essayists

Some of my favourite essays

On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings – William Jamesread online
The Lantern-Bearers – R.L. Stevensonread online
What Makes a Life Significant – William Jamesread online
Theophile Gautier – preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin – read online
Michael Oakeshott – Rationalism in Politics
A Christmas Sermon – R.L. Stevenson
Philosophy’s Ulterior Motives – Bertrand Russell
Ralph Waldo Emerson – John Jay Chapmanread online
Robert Louis Stevenson – John Jay Chapmanread online
Criticism of Criticism of Criticism – H.L. Mencken
Experience, Nature and Art – John Dewey – ch. 9 of Experience and Nature
The Critic as Artist – Oscar Wilderead online
The Decay of Lying – Oscar Wilderead online
The Death of Art – Adrian Heathcote – read online
Idealism: A Victorian Horror Story – David Stove
Personal Style – J.A. Symonds
The Dehumanization of Art – Jose Ortega y Gasset – read online
Life Without Principle – Thoreau
How to Do Philosophy – Paul Graham – read online
The Age of the Essay – Paul Graham – read online

books of essays – I can’t single out just 1 essay
Hazlitt – Table-Talk
– The Plain Speaker
Montaigne
Hilary Putnam – Realism with a Human Face
Emerson – Essays, 1st & 2nd series
Chesterton – Heretics

writers of essays – I can’t single out just one book
Chesterton
Thoreau
R.L. Stevenson
William James
H.L. Mencken
George Santayana
Bertrand Russell
George Orwell
David Stove
Roger Kimball
Paul Grahamread online


Personal note:
++++First (aged about 19) I discovered Russell, who wrote many excellent books of “popular” essays, on many subjects – Sceptical Essays, Unpopular Essays etc etc. I don’t think his excellence in essay-writing is generally recognized. Well, even by me – I don’t include him in my pantheon (currently, and for some years: Emerson, Hazlitt, Stevenson, Chesterton – in order of accession). But he’s very funny, cheeky, witty, with a wonderful prose style. I learnt my love of short words, right words, hatred of cant and unclear writing, from him.
++++(I guess before that, Vonnegut had been my favourite. He excels in heart and common sense. In my mid-teens I was a Carl Sagan devotee. He’s no woolly waffler either.)
++++Soon after Russell came Emerson, who was the greatest discovery of my life, I suppose. (Thanks to Russell’s first wife Alys’ brother Logan’s books of aphorisms!) It was like he’d written about 10,000 things that I’d experienced, but supposed couldn’t be written about. I read him most days for many years (10-15).
++++Then aged about 30 I realized how great Hazlitt is as essayist. And not long after, Stevenson – actually I have William James’ “On a Certain Blindness” to thank for that. William James also wrote a lot of great essays.
++++Most recently, Chesterton. What can I say – he’s amazing. As silly as he is sensible. (Very.) The list of people he inspired in the 20th C is an incredible one. I doubt many writers would surpass that influence. I must make a list for this site. And inspired in so many directions – E.F. Schumacher, Gandhi, Tolkien, etc etc. (Yes, apparently Gandhi was inspired by a Chesterton essay on Indian nationalism before he was into it himself!)
++++Since then – not much new. A few of Paul Graham’s essays have impressed me more than anything else written recently – more for the quality of thought than particularly the writing style. There are essayists like Gore Vidal and Clive James who I’ve enjoyed very much, but somehow they seem too smooth, too.. too something. I don’t know. I hope it isn’t that quality that led Santayana to be mostly-unread these days – being a wonderful writer. (You really have to write opaquely, not caring about being understood too much, even deliberately making it difficult for the reader – like Heidegger, Adorno etc – to be respected and studied in academia.) Oh yes, Santayana! I read in him quite often these days. I still haven’t read most of his writing. He probably will be my favourite of all in 20 years.
++++(Nietzsche isn’t really an essayist, but he would be in my top list if he’d written mainly in that form. I find his 10,001 paragraphs on assorted topics very funny and inspiring. A great writer.)

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