Mark Belshams Essays

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Published in two volumes in 1789 and 1799, Belsham's Essays Philosophical and Moral, Historical and Literary are typical of the religious philosophy of the day. HIs first essay was "On Liberty and Necessity," a topic much discussed since Thomas Hobbes' famous essay of the same title. This essay is cited as the first to use the term "Libertarian." For Belsham it was a term of abuse. Liberty was nearly synonymous with libertine, a description of a person with no responsibility. Belsham dismisses the ideas of the Libertarians, citing the foreknowledge of God, as did Hobbes and the religious leaders Luther and Calvin before him. Belsham is a Necessarian, as he describes his fellow determinists. Here he describes the confusion in the libertarian's view of a "self-determining power."
By the self-determining power therefore must be meant, if indeed it has any meaning, either the actual exertion of volition, or the mental energy which precedes volition, and which is the efficient cause of it. If it means the actual exertion of volition, then the assertors of this power evidently confound the cause with the effect, making the act of volition prior to itself, distinct from itself, and the cause of itself. But if it means the mental energy preceding and producing volition, it is then plainly equivalent to the term motive, and the question is reduced to a mere verbal controversy; for this mental energy, denoting only a particular disposition and state of mind, muff itself have resulted from a previous disposition of mind, as likewise that previous disposition from one yet more remote: — a regular and uninterrupted concatenation of volitions thus extending itself backwards to the original source of agency, each volition or mental state, like wave impelling wave, arising from preceding, and giving rise to succeeding states or definite situations of mind analogous to itself, and corresponding to those immutable laws by which the mental no less than the material world is governed by infinite wisdom and power. But the term motive, according to the Necessarian definition, includes all those previous circumstances which contribute to produce a definite volition or determination of the will. To what purpose then attempt to distinguish between the power and the motive of determination, when the ideas precisely coincide; the definite cause of a definite volition being all which is really meant by either? Or where is the difference between the Libertarian, who says that the mind chooses the motive; and the Necessarian, who asserts that the motive determines the mind; if the volition be the necessary result of all the previous circumstances? The distinction in this case can only amount to an idle and trifling evasion; and it is evident, that in order to preserve a shadow of liberty, its advocates make no scruple to adopt a gross impropriety of expression: to boast, that the mind chooses the motive when the mind is restricted to a definite choice, is ridiculous; and it is in fact as great a solecism, as to affirm that the volition chooses the motive: for the choice of the mind is not prior, but subsequent to the motive; it is therefore not the cause, but the effect of the motive; and this pretended mental choice manifestly neither more nor less than the necessary determination of volition.
(On Liberty and Necessity, Essays (1789), pp.10-12)
Normal | Teacher | Scholar

Dear student,

I have just read your essay, and I must apologise – I have absolutely no idea what it said.

When you hold this essay in your hands in a few weeks’ time, I know that you will look immediately at the mark I’ve written at the top of the first page. You will make assumptions about yourself, your work – perhaps even your worth – based on this number. I want to tell you not to worry about it.

How to survive marking dissertations

When I was a student, I assumed – as you probably do now – that my work was meticulously checked and appraised, with the due consideration it deserved, by erudite scholars who perhaps wore tweed.

I wonder now if it was actually marked by someone like me: a semi-employed thirtysomething on a zero-hours contract, sitting at home in pyjamas, staring at a hopeless pile of marking, as hopes of making it to the shops for a pint of milk today fade.

Your essay is one of 20 or so I’ve tackled in one sitting this afternoon. They are beginning to blur into one; a profusion of themes and things “to be noted” and endless variations on the phrase “It is interesting that...”.

I’m reading something you wrote on page two and I’m wondering if I just read an explanation of this concept on page one, or if that was in someone else’s essay. I have to go back a page, eyes swimming, and check.

Your essay does not stand alone, but becomes amalgamated with the others I’ve read so far today, all talking about the same things, with varying degrees of clarity. Your words are diluted by the ones that came before, they are lost on me even before I begin.

It should not be like this. In an ideal world, I would spend my morning carefully marking three essays at most, giving them the thought they deserve. I would spend the early afternoon wandering around a meadow picking flowers – something, anything, to clear my head so I can approach the next batch with a fresh outlook and enthusiasm.

Academic workload: a model approach

But I do not have that kind of time. I have academic work of my own; I have a job interview to prepare for; at various points of the year, I have additional employment to help tide me over. (And I’m only a part-time lecturer, I’m aware that my colleagues in full-time jobs have a lot more of this to do.)

I have cleared this bit of space in my schedule to read your essays, and I have come at them genuinely excited to see what you have found out this term, and to tell you how you can improve. I try to be thorough and write actual comments on your essay, even though I’m aware that I could probably get away with a few ticks, question marks and a cryptic “needs improvement”.

I’ve been at it all day and it is 6.20 pm. There are 11 unmarked essays. I could carry on, but I can’t make sense of anything you say any more. I have to force myself to understand anything other than the clearest, nicest writing; the kind of writing that takes me by the hand and shows me round all your ideas. (Dear student, please note: I am not so exhausted that I can’t spot nice writing. Do us both a favour and spend time on your essay. Make it good. Edit, polish, relieve my boredom and let me award you a first.)

I know that I should go back and reread a few essays to compare the marks I’ve given, but there isn’t time. I would like to look up the references you cite, to tell you if there are other gems in those books you may have missed, or suggest other interpretations, but there’s no chance. I also have a life – washing to do, family to spend time with, that sort of thing.

In this letter (which I’ve written with an aching hand) I ask three things of you:

  • Work hard on your essays. Help people like me. It’ll open your mind, and it’ll make me happy. And I really, really want to give you a first.
  • Don’t think that if you just waffle on for three pages to bring your essay up to the required word count, I won’t notice. I will.
  • Do not get too upset – or complacent – because of whatever mark you’ve got. Don’t take it too personally. I’ve tried my best to be consistent and fair, and other lecturers will moderate my marking, but really, by a certain stage, I’m just pulling numbers out of the air. (55? 58? I don’t know)

Teaching at a university means constant pressure - for about £5 an hour

Your essay does not stand alone; it’s either going to impress me or sap my energy, and if it does the latter, it affects how I read the ones which come afterwards. Too many awful essays and I can’t concentrate anymore.

The books on your reading list will tell you everything about the subject that you need to know; read them. There are also books in the library with titles like How to Write an Essay; make use of them. If you don’t understand something, come along to my office hour. I’ve gone on about it all term, and you know where that is.

All the best,

Your lecturer

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