Joseph Addison – Periodical Essays (Essay Summary)


The essay “Periodical Essays” begins with a proverb “A Great Book is a Great Evil” is a translation from Greek “Mega Biblion, Mega Kakon”. It was published on Monday July 23, 1711 in The Spectator as essay no. 124. This essay is a satire upon those writers who are proud of producing voluminous books. Addison highlights the importance of periodical essays in which a great deal of thought can be put together in a much better way than in a lengthy book.

Satire upon the Writers of Voluminous Books:

Addison satirically says that publishing a man’s works in a volume has a lot of advantage over writing in loose leaflets and single pieces. In a bulky volume a statement with several words at the beginning explain what the book is about. It prepares the reader for what follows. When the reader feels dull or drowsiness at sometimes, he can take rest while reading a voluminous book. So that Addison has chosen the Greek proverb “a great book is a great evil” as his motto.

Those who publish their thoughts in distinct sheets, and by piecemeal, have none of these advantages. In this the readers immediately fall into the subject and treat every part of it in a lively manner or dull. The matter lies very close together. So it is felt wholly new or meets the comments. But in the case of bulky volume, it is very difficult to get the comments from the reader for every page. It goes off with flat expressions, trivial observations, beaten topics, and common thoughts. In distinct sheets, there may be broken hints and irregular sketches. It is often expected that every sheet should be a kind of treatise and make out its thought. A subject can be touched without repetitions and the same thing can not be told twice by using different words. There are no enlargements which require large labours.

The Importance of ‘Periodical Essays’:

The ordinary writers of morality give their readers large volume. But an essay-writer gives the virtue of a full draught in a few drops. Thus all books are reduced to their quintessence. Many a bulk author would make his appearance in a penny paper. A folio is scared. The works of an age would be contained on a few shelves. The millions of volumes are completely annihilated.

The difficulty of furnishing out separate papers has not hindered authors from communicating their thoughts to the world. Press should be only made use of by news writers, and by persons having strong religious or political beliefs as if it were not more advantageous to mankind, to be instructed in wisdom and virtue and to be made good fathers, husbands and sons than in politics and to be made counselors and statesmen. The ancient philosophers and great men took so many pains in order to instruct mankind, and leave the world wiser and better than they found it. They had been possessed of the art of painting. They had made lectures.

Our common prints would be of great use to diffuse good sense through the bulk of a people, to clear up their understandings, animate their minds with virtue, dissipate the sorrows of a heavy heart, or unbend the mind from its more severe employments, with innocent amusements. Knowledge should not be bound up in books, and kept in libraries. A proverb says, “Wisdom cries without, she utters her Voice in the streets. She cries in the chief place of Concourse, in the Openings of the Gates. In the City she utters her words, saying, How long, you simple ones, will you love Simplicity? And the Scorners delight in their Scorning? And Fools hate Knowledge?”

The Number of Subjects in Periodical Essays:

The many letters which come to the author do not encourage him. His bookseller tells him that the demand for his papers increases daily. They are relating to Wit, to Operas, to Points of Morality or Subjects of Humour. He is not at all embarrassed when he sees his works are thrown aside by men of no taste or learning. There is a kind of heaviness and ignorance that hangs upon the minds of ordinary men which is too thick for knowledge to break through. Their souls are not to be enlightened.

Conclusion (The need of renovation in innovation):

The author narrates the story of a mole, a small dark furry animal which is almost blind. After having consulted many oculists for the bettering of his sight, the mole was at-last provided with a pair of spectacles. When he was about to use of them, his mother told him that spectacles might help the eye of a man and it could be of no use to a mole. Therefore it is not for the benefit of moles that the author publishes his daily essays. There are others who are moles through envy. The Latin proverb says, “That one man is a wolf to another”. One author is a mole to another author. It is impossible for them to discover beauties in another’s works. They have eyes only for spots and blemishes. They can see the light, but shut their eyes immediately, and withdraw themselves into a willful obscurity. Thus Addison deals with all the advantages and disadvantages of writing periodical essays as well as his objectives on the need of renovation in innovation are well established in the essay.

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