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Distinguishing between the soul’s cry ‘Why am I being hurt?’ and the superficial cry ‘Why has somebody else got more than I have?’, Weil argues that the best society is about creating ‘an attentive silence’ for hearing the first cry, or for finding spiritual truth within oneself.

Her critique of human rights (amid attacks on collective action, democracy, Rome and Aristotle) concludes: ‘Rights have no direct connection with love.’Sontag wrote that we may be admire Weil’s ‘seriousness’ even as we eschew her madder views, paralleling this essay’s idea of an impersonal, abstract, supernatural truth, beyond the level of personality.

Related recommendation: Charles Blattberg’s ‘The Ironic Tragedy of Human Rights’ (in Patriotic Elaborations, 2009)

Origin: France / Britain

Themes: How to Live, Emancipation and Justice

Genres: Sermon or Jeremiad, Spiritual or Philosophical Meditation

The essay is nothing less than the reflection of all there is: art, personal experience, places, literature, portraiture, politics, science, music, education – and just thought itself in orbit

Elizabeth Hardwick

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The subject is literal: cloud phenomena Ruskin observed over the course of fifty years. This very peculiar essay begins by describing normal weather formations, then argues that there are now diabolic ‘plague-clouds’ (a ‘dry black veil’, bitter wind and bleached sun) never before seen.

Ruskin guesses their cause, correctly, to be industrial coal-smoke, but these environmental pollutants interest him less, as ultimate cause, than his contemporaries’ moral and spiritual pollution.  While opposing scientific writing’s ‘frightful inaccuracy’, Ruskin’s prose is the equivalent of a Turner painting. The first lecture is illustrated with sketches; the second is merely footnotes to the first.

Related recommendations: For good writing on the equivalent issue today, global warming, see Elizabeth Kolbert’s ‘The Climate of Man’ (three essays in The New Yorker, 2005)

Origin: Britain

Themes: Nature or Architecture/ Material Environment

Genres: Scientific or Medical, Sermon or Jeremiad

The essay thinks, and while it thinks it seethes, it bristles, it adventures.

Brian Dillon

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Germany’s first modern essayist attacks his culture’s ‘oversaturation’ in historicism and Hegel in a ‘treatise’ of engaging playfulness – for example, the comparison of this problem to a Little-Prince-ish snake getting indigestion from a whole rabbit.

A conversation with an amnesiac cow starts Part 1, arguing that progress requires ahistorical forgetfulness. Parts 2 and 3 set out Nietzsche’s influential distinction between ‘monumental’, ‘antiquarian’ and ‘critical’ histories. A fourth category of ‘naïve historians’ (neo-Hegelians) is later developed. The final, slightly less sprightly, parts deal with educational reform and cultural renewal; they remain pertinent, setting aside Nietzsche’s dangerous comments on race and nation.

Related recommendation: ‘The Advantages and Disadvantages of an Individualistic Philosophy’ by Jawaharlal Nehru in The Discovery of India(1946); Kleist’s ‘On Marionette Theatre’ (1810); Alexander Herzen’s‘Dilettantism in Science’ (1843)

Origin: Germany

Themes: History, Modernity and Self-consciousness

Genres: Aphoristic, Critical, Sermon or Jeremiad, Tract or Treatise

The essay is nothing less than the reflection of all there is: art, personal experience, places, literature, portraiture, politics, science, music, education – and just thought itself in orbit

Elizabeth Hardwick

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Starting with the essayistic narcissism of meditating on his own writing hand, Lawrence then segues into why he writes novels:  the novelist’s wisdom being the only one, he believes, truly unifying mind and body.

The second half contains, amid Nietzschean aphorisms and Lawrentianjargon, some good sharp humour – comparing philosophers to rabbits defecating their pellets, for example. The prose has explosive force, fighting against Lawrence’s feeling of living in a cultural ‘cul-de-sac’, full of cant and inertia. Anything can be done in a live or dead way, he concludes, and in a novel we can most easily tell the difference.

Related recommendation: Nietzsche’s ‘On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’ (1874); Lawrence’s ‘Insouciance’ (1928)

Origin: Britain

Themes: Artistic Method, Vocation and Celebrity, The role of Art or Artists, Modernity and Self-consciousness, Anti-Academia

Genres: Sermon or Jeremiad

Bound in cloth, handily sized for ambulent reading, each would make a handsome gift for the Tube-bound intellectual - but the real matter lies within.

Richard Godwin, Evening Standard

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Despite an early definition (‘If space-junk is the human debris that litters the universe, Junk-Space is the residue mankind leaves on the planet.’), this essay is as disorienting as the air-conditioned public spaces it describes.

Easily mistaken for a humanist critique of our shallowly consumerist, conformist, globalised societies, Koolhaas is a prize-winning Dutch architect energetically (masochistically?) building this dystopia, making ‘Junkspace’something much more complicated. Fantastic phrasemaking, full of oxymorons and incongruities, alliteration and ellipsis, resists language’s degradation alongside architecture’s. Encompassing everything from motorways to historical conservation, the piece keeps returning to airports as the lowest circles of Junkspace hell.

Related recommendation: Georg Simmel’s ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ (1903); Ruskin’s ‘Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century’ (1884)

Origin: Netherlands / United States

Themes: Familiar Examined Afresh, Nature or Architecture/ Material Environment

Genres: Lyrical or Poetic, Polemical or Political , Satirical, Sermon or Jeremiad

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Water’s concentric circles are ‘the highest emblem’ in the world’s ‘cipher’ since all life is, read rightly, cyclical. An affirmative essay, it contains one huge doubt: that such philosophy implies ‘indifferency of all actions’.

Emerson moralises mellifluously on eternity’s chastening perspective, and worries over his chosen path, critics, friendships and ruthless ambitions (‘Every personal consideration that we allow costs us heavenly state’). The essay circles back to propound a law of ‘eternal procession’, but is most engaging on concrete questions like the American commercial mindset. It ends with several optimistic aphorisms, some truisms, about worldly pleasures as surrogates for spiritual conquest.

Related recommendation: Emerson’s ‘Experience’ (1844); Thoreau’s ‘Walking’ (1862)

Origin: United States

Themes: Nature or Architecture/ Material Environment, America, How to Live, America

Genres: Lyrical or Poetic, Sermon or Jeremiad, Spiritual or Philosophical Meditation

The essay is nothing less than the reflection of all there is: art, personal experience, places, literature, portraiture, politics, science, music, education – and just thought itself in orbit

Elizabeth Hardwick

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Emerson finds himself standing halfway up some stairs; an image of personal disorientation in middle age and an allegory for Life. He writes with wit and candour about procrastination, envy and self-doubt.

Apparently rambling, the essay’s underlying structure is laid out like stepping stones towards the end: ‘illusion’, ‘temperament’, ‘succession’, ‘surface’, ‘surprise’, ‘reality’ and ‘subjectiveness’.  The essayist’s disillusionment seeks consolation in collective effort and practical labour, yet Emerson knows he is a thinker, chasing his own tail, not a doer. He describes life as a series of surprises, stylistically mirrored by his inventive vocabulary and imagery at every turn.

Related recommendation: Emerson’s ‘Circles’ (1841)

Origin: United States

Themes: Independent Thinking, How to Age and/or Die

Genres: Autobiographical, Sermon or Jeremiad, Spiritual or Philosophical Meditation

Bound in cloth, handily sized for ambulent reading, each would make a handsome gift for the Tube-bound intellectual - but the real matter lies within.

Richard Godwin, Evening Standard

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A Romanian intellectual discourages an aspiring author. Intending to shock, Cioran spews vitriol over the twentieth century addiction to confessional, therapeutic self-expression, urging us to preserve ‘our sickness and our sins’ (among which Cioran himself could number Iron Guard fascism and racism).

He prays for ‘a Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of men of letters’, revels in the Spenglerian death of Western civilisation, and, rejecting equilibrium, wisdom and normalcy, uplifts the heretic as hero. A pseudo-Nietzscheanhowl, the clue to reading this essay with the appropriate level of irony and sympathy is in the title and in its final word: ‘perplexity’.

Related recommendation: Nietzsche ‘On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’ in Untimely Meditations (1874)

Origin: Romania/France

Themes: The role of Art or Artists, Modernity and Self-consciousness

Genres: Dialogue or Epistolary, Polemical or Political , Sermon or Jeremiad

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Chesterton decides to sketch on the Sussex downs, prompting a lightly comic encounter with a housekeeper about obtaining brown paper and a digression on pocket contents.

He then vividly describes the landscape, his intended subject (not a cow, but the soul of a cow) and thinks about ‘the old poets who lived before Wordsworth’. Then he realises he has forgotten white chalk. Appreciation that white is not merely an absence inspires soaring spiritual raptures, descending bathetically: ‘Meanwhile, I could not find my chalk’. His despair, however, turns finally to triumph and roaring patriotic joy. An ‘artful’ essay in every sense.

Related recommendation: Chesterton’s ‘A Defence of Nonsense’; John Berger’s ‘Field’ (1971)

Origin: Britain

Themes: Familiar Examined Afresh, Nature or Architecture/ Material Environment

Genres: Familiar or Personal, Humorous, Sermon or Jeremiad

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Prompted by 40-50 Roman burial urns unearthed in Norfolk, this five-part essay is mainly a survey of historical burial customs, ending with a moving, baroque meditation on mortality.

The first part considers how much of history is hidden (‘in the Urne’) from us. The next two parts consider the specific archaeological discovery, emphasising all we can never know. The fourth part suggests relativistic understanding of religious customs and how beliefs about an afterlife influence men’s actions. The final part mourns, in prose with the elegant cadences of blank verse, the ultimate futility of all monuments but the ‘Register of God’.

Related recommendation: Wordsworth’s ‘Essay on Epitaphs’ (1810); Thomas Lynch’s ‘Funerals-R-Us’ (Bodies in Motion, 2000)

Origin: England

Themes: How to Age and/or Die, History, Superstition

Genres: Scientific or Medical, Spiritual or Philosophical Meditation, Sermon or Jeremiad

Bound in cloth, handily sized for ambulent reading, each would make a handsome gift for the Tube-bound intellectual - but the real matter lies within.

Richard Godwin, Evening Standard

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Baldwin wrote this long essay amidst the Civil Rights Movement, but it speaks forcefully to post-9/11 preoccupations.

Structured around two autobiographical passages – his adolescence as a Harlem preacher and his visit to the Nation of Islam’s headquarters – it argues against the ‘fantasy’ of adversarial separatism based on fabricated theologies. Filled with surprising perspectives, such as race relations being ‘involved only symbolically with colour’, Baldwin’s prose mixes ‘ironic tenacity’ with prophetic urgency. He distinguishes between just causes and unjust solutions, and, despite liberal scepticism, sees the spiritual state of the nation as fundamental. He concludes that white America had better grow up.

Related recommendation: Baldwin’s ‘The Price of the Ticket’ (in the essay collection of the same name, 1985)

Origin: United States

Themes: America, Emancipation and Justice

Genres: Autobiographical, Polemical or Political , Sermon or Jeremiad

For the writers considered here the essay is often the most appropriate medium. Its freeness of form encourages exploration and leaps of imagination in writer and reader that is both a pleasure and a challenge.

Carl Wilkinson, Financial Times

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