Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century. In 1903 he published Principles of Mathematics, an examination of the foundations of mathematics and logic. But he was also an inspiration to scientists in another way: in 1950 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his lifetime of clear, beautiful prose and his ability to explain science and philosophy to a popular audience. Russell lived to be 97 years old. His three-volume Autobiography (1967 – 1969) begins with a perfect thesis statement, followed by its development in a mini-essay. This Prologue is a model of organization and clarity that we should imitate whenever we write academic essays:
What I Have Lived For
“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair. I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy - ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness--that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what--at last--I have found. With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved. Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer. This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.”
All the words in this Prologue (with the exception of “hither and thither”) are ordinary words that we all have in our vocabulary. Yet, Russell uses them in such a way as to present his ideas with clarity and emotion. I would recommend that students memorize Russell’s thesis statement, so that the next time you need to write one you will have a perfect model immediately available.
Anatomy of a Thesis Statement
A thesis statement has two parts:
An Opinion (Claim) + The Reasons That Support the Claim
Mixed prairie grasses should be substituted for corn as a source of biofuel, because, first, they grow on marginal land, freeing up more fertile land for food crops; second, they require no fertilizers or chemicals that can run off into the water supply; and third, they produce more energy per acre than corn or sugar cane.
“Mixed prairie grasses should be substituted for corn as a source of biofuel” is an opinion, a claim you are making. The part beginning with “because” lists your reasons for your opinion, the support for your claim.
Students often write only half a thesis statement, the opinion part, but neglect to add the reasons for their opinion. Opinions without reasons are not interesting, especially to your professors. The readers of your thesis will be asking themselves: Why should I believe you? How do you know?
In high school you may have been taught that an academic essay requires three reasons. This is too rigid. Your thesis statement can contain one to several reasons. You should list your reasons, and then select from them the strongest ones. The number of reasons may also be constrained by the word limit on your assignment. You only have space for a certain number of reasons.
Support for Your Reasons
Be sure to support your reasons with evidence: statistics, facts, logic and examples. In the case of prairie grasses you can first describe “marginal land”, define it, compare it to fertile land; give its cost per acre and so on. Second, describe the pollution from fertilizer run-off: statistics on quantity; the effect it has on ground water; the health risks; the cost of removing it and so on. Third, statistics from scientific studies showing how much fuel is derived from various grasses; compare this to what has been the experience with corn in North America and with sugar cane in Brazil.
Thesis Statement as Mini-Outline
This is your template for writing a thesis statement and supporting it with evidence and argument. The thesis statement is half the battle in writing an academic essay: it is a mini-outline of your essay. Once it is written, all you have to do is fill it in with your data.
We Are Here To Help You
The Bethune Writing Center will help you construct a good thesis statement, narrow down your topic and get you started with finding resources. You will also receive help on how to use APA or other citation systems and how to write your bibliography (references).