Research Stream


Lana Starkey
The University of Queensland

Peter Holbrook
The University of Queensland

Scepticism and the Evolution of English Style in the Essay 1600-1700

This project examines the emergence of a distinctive English concern with reason and the passions in the seventeenth century. It focuses on the essay genre, and how it is linked to scepticism, religious toleration and secularism and may be viewed as a form that is the antithesis of confessional fanaticism.   


This project examines the emergence of a distinctively sceptical outlook in the English essay from the seventeenth century to the beginning of the eighteenth. In particular, it focuses on the influence of Michel de Montaigne’s sceptical Essais (1580; English trans.1603) on a number of essayists who found religious zeal problematic. It is suggested that these writers from Francis Bacon (1561-1626), through Abraham Cowley (1618-1667) and Sir William Temple (1628-1699), to Joseph Addison and Richard Steele (1672-1719; 1672-1729), tended to regard religious enthusiasm sceptically, and that they found the essay a fit genre in which to articulate these doubts. In this context the essay is understood as a genre linked to scepticism, religious toleration and secularism, and the opponent of confessional fanaticism and violent religious passions.

Also of interest is the way in which this form culminated in a distinctively English eighteenth-century public literature preoccupied with style, manners and wit as privileged modes of self-understanding and self-disclosure. In this way, the project draws upon a range of sometimes neglected writers to demonstrate how a contingent historical preoccupation with scepticism and style evolved into a distinctive genre that has come to dominate how we shape our understanding of manners, style and social and political behaviour. In other words, although the form of the essay responded to the distinctive and contingent circumstances of seventeenth century England it led to a form of journalism and a media that very much came to shape western modernity from the eighteenth century onwards.


Professor Peter Holbrook


Starkey, Lana. ‘Albert Camus and the ethics of moderation’. Parrhesia: A Journal of Critical Philosophy 21 (2014): 144-60.

Image: The exemplaire de Bordeaux copy of the second edition of Montaigne’s Essais with his corrections and annotations. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.