English 233:  Introduction to Western Humanities - Baroque & Enlightenment

Revisiting the out-of-class essays
on Exam #1 (Fall 96):
Example:  "The role of Original Sin within the traditional Christian picture of history"

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Both topics had the same form:  "Explain the role of concept X within idea-system Y," Y being in each case "the traditional Christian picture of history" and X being either "Original Sin" or "advent," depending on which option you picked.  We'll focus here on the option dealing with Original Sin, since that is the one that almost all of you decided on.  In what follows, you will notice that certain points (about the issues involved in the topic, about decisions writing about them) crop up under more than one heading.

Generating appropriate materials: 
discovering appropriate ideas and evidence

First off, let's get clear on what the job is.  The general subject of the essay could be said to be the traditional Christian picture of Original Sin.  It could just as well be considered the traditional Christian picture of history.  But the assignment is not (just) to talk about these general topics.  

You will go astray if you take the task to be "to say some true things about the concept of Original Sin," or "show me some stuff you know about Original Sin."   If you do this, you will end up with a miscellaneous bag of items "unified" only by the circumstance that everything you bring in has something or other to do with the concept of Original Sin.  Put another way:  you will present a series of beads on a string, and the only thing the beads might end up having in common is the fact that the same string (here, the same general subject) happens to pass through them, somehow.  This is not the kind of unity that a cogent analysis has.  For that we have to have a pointed thesis, as distinct from a general subject or topic.  

Now the specific topic is the role of the concept of Original Sin within the traditional Christian picture of history.  And the prescribed task is to clarify that role.  If we set about this task, we will be able eventually to decide upon a specific thesis -- the sort of thing that can serve as the unifying principle of an essay.  (Of course, you will still have to make sure that what you end up writing does not go deviating from this thesis, and at the same time does finish the job of developing it.)

But how does one go about such a task?  First, use analogy to draw on what you already know how to do.  Suppose you had never been instructed in the operation of an internal combustion engine (which you've seen purring away) and you wanted to figure out the role of a certain piece in it (a spark plug, say, although we are imagining that maybe you've never even heard of this term).  What would you do?  A good opening strategy would be to take it out.  This might not immediately bring a comprehensive answer to your question, but it would do something very helpful right off:  it would point your curiosity in profitable more specific directions, and suggest the right sort of next things to get puzzled about.

So, here:  what other elements of the overall picture of history characteristic of traditional Christianity would be affected if we were to subtract from that picture the idea of Original Sin (or, if you're doing the other topic, advent)?  What kinds of differences might this particular difference make?  You'd then review what you saw as the complementary elements (i.e., in the rest of the overall picture, those which in it "complete" the one whose role you want to explain), and see how they would either evaporate, or become altogether unintelligible (pointless, arbitrary, unmotivated?), or be forced to take on some importantly different meaning(s).

This kind of thought experiment is something you will want to make a ready part of your repertoire of intellectual moves.  What would it turn up here?  

Suppose we take the question dealing with the role in the picture of the concept of Original Sin.  If there is one sub-issue that probably deserves to be made your central point in an essay on that topic it is the connection of (the traditional Christian conception of) Original Sin with (the traditional Christian conception of) the Atonement.  Schematically, we indicate what's at stake here like this:

Unless human beings are in a condition of depravity of such a sort that they are powerless to remedy it by their own efforts, there will be no call for the Atonement.  (This of course would need explaining.)

But if Christ is inessential in history, then we have stepped outside of the traditional Christian conception of history, within which the central episode of Universal History is what God accomplishes within it by submitting himself to its vicissitudes in the Person of the Son.

To sum up:  No Original Sin, no (traditional) Christianity.

A way to drive this home would be to point out how Pelagius is led to devise an account different from the traditional one of the significance of Jesus' career (i.e., role in history).  (What is that?)

[As we are going to see, this circumstance is going to be the source of some of the most bitter conflicts that will arise in the course of the European Enlightenment.]

What other elements of the traditional Christian picture of history should be looked at under the thought experiment of doing away with the idea of Original Sin? (You won't of course have to discuss each of these.  For one thing, the categories as given below overlap in some respects.  For another, any one of them admits of being developed either more extensively or less.  But the question at this point is:  what, ideally, would you want to generate as the wealth of material from which you could select a set of implications of most genuine interest to you?)  Here are some definite candidates.

Notice that careful selection is going to be required, along with insightful integrating analysis.

There is first of all the question of relevance.  Quite apart from the fact that you have your hands full here and don't want to waste precious space on stuff that's off the main track, bringing in logically extraneous matter actually detracts from the clarity and focus of your analysis.

On the other side of the coin from relevance is the problem of manageability.  What initially struck many of you about the assignment was how daunting it seemed.  It is easy to imagine writing a 400-page book on this topic.  So how is it supposed to be possible for an undergraduate to cover the ground in a 2-page single-spaced essay?  The dilemma seems to be:  how can anybody discuss this in any specific terms without going on forever -- or, put the other way round, how can one treat such a mammoth subject succinctly without being so abstract as to fall into vagueness? 

In the end, the quality of the analysis you achieve depends - as always! -

Composing and organizing.

The remarks so far have to do with the problem of coming up with eligible things to say.  What about the problem of organizing the presentation of what you decide to include?  

Framing an Introduction and Getting Started:  two very different things.

Remember, your job is to synthesize your reflections on a body of material (readings and class discussions) under the guidance of a specific analytical concern:  breaking down a particular idea system into its elements, and figuring out how one of these affects and is affected by the others.  This means that it will be a mistake to do something that, at first glance, may seem like the most natural thing in the world -- to "begin at the beginning"!  That is, you don't want to lead off by retelling the Fall story (or, worse yet, the Creation story that precedes it in the Genesis narrative).  This is starting off on the wrong foot, because your job is expository-argumentative, not narrative (story-telling -- or even the summarizing of a told story).

Plotting the body of the essay.

What we've said about the introduction applies as well to deciding how to organize the body of your essay.  This is a problem you can't solve until you've devised or discovered a suitable overall logical framework for integrating your analysis -- but this integration itself is not something external, or "added to" your analysis:  it is, rather, the very essence of it.  There are, however, some general principles that are worth taking account of.

Here again, experienced writers will resist the temptation to let their organization of the material they treat be dictated by what happens to be the order in which it happens to come to them.  I used the word "happens" twice there in order to stress the accidental quality of this kind of sequence.  This irrelevance to the central issue at hand will almost certainly infect this mere "order of arrival" of thoughts.  This is pretty obviously so when it is the temporal series in which the writer thought up whatever occurred to him -- the largely hopping and skipping, backing and filling sequence in which they came across relevant material or dreamed up an insight into it.  But it will also be the case when the order in which the material emerges is already embodied in some pre-existing account the writer is relying upon -- in this case, the Biblical narrative itself and the chronology of history in general.  If one were to follow the chronology of history within traditional Christian picture that one is attempting to explicate, then mention of the Incarnation and Crucifixion would show up somewhere in the middle (if one adopts the standpoint of people living around 1500) or the end (if one adopts the standpoint of people living shortly after Christ, most of whom thought the Second Coming was fairly eminent).  But proceeding this way doesn't make the best expository sense.  You want to make the organizational structure of your case illuminating in its own right. 

Winding it all up:  arranging a sense of an ending.

Concluding your essay is often easier than students suppose.  It is in any case not a good idea to repeat what you've already said -- unless, of course, you can do so in a way that goes beyond mere repetition, and actually throws new light on what you are resuming.  (This is a general principle of course, not something that just applies to conclusions.  We already saw it at work in Examples I and II in our discussion of introductions.)

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Revised 21 October 1996, 25 August 99.