Written for students of my Roman Civilization course.
The great maxim about history is those who do not know it are doomed to repeat it. However, we must use caution when using historical fact to justify our present views, especially the further we look back. The primary mechanism for this type of analysis the comparative essay and the critique thereof. In this quick guide I will attempt to outline in an introductory manner how to write an effective comparative essay. I encourage you to use the Writing Studio as well, especially noting Writing as a Process. You may also note that the first two sections are also applicable in other types of scholarly arguments.
In this stage, we will judge who our audience is, come up with a question, and do research.
1) AUDIENCE. For a college class, your audience is obviously your instructor, but should also include your peers. So, an important consideration to take into account is that I know more than you on the topic and your peers have read the same things as you. No need to repeat facts that we know for the sake of taking up space—statement of facts are the support for arguments. Also, no need for broad platitudes in introductions and conclusions: just state your argument, the reasons for it, and move into the body. Think of a good blog post: it has a specific argument to a limited group (blog readers, coming to the site based on their knowledge base), and more about convincing that group than laying-out information (such as a newspaper or magazine, which has a wider readership).
2) THE QUESTION/THESIS. Most of your papers are relatively short, so a good question will be essential. Unfortunately, by assigning focus on comparison, in effect I am limiting the amount of good questions you can ask. The reason for doing this is to benefit you in the long run—you will better be able to ascertain whether comparison is a productive mode of argument in a larger thought experiment (be it thesis, newspaper article, data analysis, et cetera). So, when writing a comparison, our question needs to focus not just on the validity of the comparison and its strength, but also what further information does said comparison illuminate. We don’t want to just list points of contact and departure, but also make a point. We are not looking for a question like “is the Roman army similar to our modern army” but rather “does our knowledge of the similarities between Roman and modern armies dissuade us from accepting gays in the military?” or something similar. We are looking to make an argument, and a good question will reflect that.
3) RESEARCH! The research in this class will be limited, and I am really more concerned with your ability to interpret primary sources. A good way to go about researching then is to take good notes and read with the end goal in mind. That way, once you formulate your question, you can return to your notes to figure out where you can glean good information. This step is often reflexive with the previous section: as you do more research, you will often find yourself revising your question, and this is probably a good thing.
II. STRUCTURING YOUR PAPER
1) INTRODUCTION. In our introduction we state our thesis: this is the primary goal of an introduction, everything else is of secondary performance. Leading up to it is the background—how you came to the question, what competing theories are, et cetera. As mentioned earlier, platitudes such “Everyone knows that…” or “Man has often wondered…” are tedious and needless space fillers. To take our previous example, a suitable introduction would run something like this: “Opponents of gays in the military use x argument to support their position; however, based on a comparison with Roman military history, I will argue that x argument is not valid but in fact proves y.” This is a short example, but exhibits two elements valuable to a college introduction, namely brevity and argument. It is also helpful to provide a cursory outline of your argument, but this can be just a sentence or eliminated for space concerns.
2) BODY. The bulk of your argument happens in the body. Especially since you will be writing short response papers, it imperative to structure the body effectively. I recommend breaking it into 3 paragraphs when you are writing something less than 5 pages. Each paragraph should present one argument in support of your thesis, which should occur in the first sentence or two of the paragraph. The rest of the paragraph should contain facts to support your argument. For the comparison essay, at least one of these paragraphs should support the comparison or contrast. The rest should follow in a logical fashion from that point. It also useful to present counter-arguments, especially if you think you can refute them in manner that supports your conclusion.
3) CONCLUSION. The conclusion is your opportunity to restate your thesis and show how your evidence supports said argument. It is a refresher for the reader on what the point was you started out on and how everything else fit together to this end. Wrap it up, short and sweet.
III. THE LOGICS OF COMPARISON
This is a couple of pointers on what makes a logical and valid comparison. You cannot have a good argument if the steps you take to get there are flawed, since a nay-sayer can quickly exploit them to their advantage. Mastery of these fallacies will also allow you to pick apart an argument with greater ease.
1) FALLACIOUS COMPARISON. This is comparing two things that either are categorically exclusive (apples to oranges, as they say) or are unfair to compare for ethical reasons. These two criteria are closer than they may appear, since categories are often (some would say always) culturally determined. Apples to Oranges, for example: these are actually great things to compare, they are both fruits. What is important is the reference against which the comparison is made. If I am comparing orange-colored things, then apples and oranges clearly do not belong together. This is important to keep in mind when we discuss ancient history, as a person two thousand years ago grew up under vastly different conditions and thus it is not always fair to compare their decisions with our own. The only way to overcome this is to look deeply into the situations and be upfront with the discrepancies.
2) FALLACIOUS QUANTIFICATION. This will be a little harder to come across in our work, but involves turning into a number a quality of comparison. An example in the recent news (in my opinion) would be ascribing meaning to the length of the platonic corpus based on its similarities to Pythagorean harmonic ratios. A related phenomenon is attempting to find “secret bible codes”, where the arrangement of certain words will reveal hidden messages.
3) FALLACIOUS BINARIZATION. This is very important to all scholarship. A fallacious binarization occurs when equate terms such as “good” and “evil” as two opposites with no middle ground. Another important binary is that of “true” and “false”: as Stephen Colbert hasfamously demonstrated, there exists a certain wiggle room between truth and falsity that adjust depending on one’s viewpoint. In my dissertation, I look at this in the milieu of religion: what today we may consider false because of science may have at one time been considered the truth, based on lack of demonstrable evidence to the contrary. Other important binaries to be on the watch for are “few/many”, “holy/unholy”, “us/them”.
**I consider these the minimum standards for writing a good comparative essay. That said, all these rules and guidelines are flexible and are not the limit. We can work more on this as the year goes on, and I encourage you to explore beyond these expectations!