When many of us think of the essay, what comes to mind are those standard five-paragraph forms that we to used for the writing section of countless standardized tests. Poems, short stories, and even journalistic articles are places to flex creative muscle, but the essay is often construed as some sort of academic chore. This, though, is just one version of the essay, which has a much richer and perhaps shorter history than you may imagine.
Non-fiction writing has existed for nearly as long as writing itself. There are no philosophical texts written by Socrates since writing was likely not used as a method of recording philosophy in his time. But the trend shifted by the time his student Plato had achieved intellectual maturity, resulting in foundational philosophical works like the Republic in the fourth century BCE. Philosophical writing represents the genesis of the essay form, but the essay itself wouldn't surface until the European Renaissance, roughly 1,800 years later.
The man credited with creating the essay is the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, who was more revered as a politician than as a writer during his own time. The very term essay comes from the title of his collection of philosophical writings, Essais. Etymologically, essai is a derived from the French verb essayer, which means "to try." This was an ideal title for Montaigne's philosophical work, which oscillated between more classical, objective philosophical discussion and anecdotes relayed with a less conventional and more subjective voice. Hence, Montaigne was always trying when it came to delving into whatever subject he chose, trying to make sense of idleness, or vanity, or cripples, or thumbs.
Montaigne famously wrote "I am myself the matter of my book," and that very subjectivity would define the essay form. No matter what subject Montaigne tackled, it was clear that he was addressing it because it was of some concern to himself, and he never shied away from inserting himself into his subject matter.
And while Charles Lamb, in his essays, never pays tribute to the Frenchman Montaigne quite like he does to fellow Englishmen such as Shakespeare and John Milton, Montaigne's mark is all over Lamb's essays. Like Montaigne, Lamb dove deep into subjects that were either of utmost relevance to existence and humanity as well as into the seemingly most superfluous. Like Montaigne, Lamb had a personal and personable style, and never asserted his own point of view as the absolutely authoritative one. What both writers displayed in their essay writing was their own humanity.
Lamb should get at least some credit for helping modernize the form. Essays written in the period between Montaigne and Lamb more closely resembled philosophical texts than Lamb's easy-going, conversational style. By taking the license afforded by the Romantic movement and inserting his whim and whimsy into his writing, Lamb helped define the essay as a truly personal form of writing. Perhaps we can attribute this to the fact that Lamb was also a poet, and that he never totally left his poetic sensibilities behind when moving into this other genre.