A treatise is a formal and systematic written discourse on some subject, generally longer and treating it in greater depth than an essay, and more concerned with investigating or exposing the principles of the subject.


The origin of the genre traces its roots to written instructions. The first written instructions that were worthy of preserving would be wisdom literature. Earliest examples come from Ancient Egypt such as The Maxims of Ptahhotep (~2300 BC), the Instructions of Kagemni (~1900 BC), Loyalist Teaching (~1800 BC) and the Instructions of Amenemhat (~1500 BC). When written instructions captured abstract topics like politics, which could only be reliably preserved through documentation, the treatise was born.

The origin of the treatise label occurs around the time that the manuscript culture shifted from monasteries to the market in the cities, which was in the 13th century. Some of the most common genres of manuscripts of the time were bibles and religious commentaries as well as philosophy, law and government texts. The manuscripts that had a systematic discourse were labeled as a trestis, which later became treatise during the late Middle English period. Due to the meaning of treatise being deeper than the definition itself, some works that were particularly significant (or promoted to be significant) in its genre were given the treatise label, inappropriately. For example, when comparing the Vivekacūḍāmaṇi and the Tao Te Ching, both philosophical works, the treatise distinction becomes clear. The Vivekacūḍāmaṇi has a clear systematic discourse with a beginning, middle and end while the Tao Te Ching is fluidly organized.

Clarification and further classification

As the meaning of the word treatise is more inferential than the definition alone, the meaning needs further clarification.

By definition, the key features of a treatise are as follows:

  • Written: To expose itself for examination.
  • Formal: To make the work open for objective examination by others.
  • The subject is intellectual or abstact: If the subject is of the physical or natural world, the work becomes scientific writing.
  • Systematic: It is well organized to make it easy to examine by others.
  • Comprehensive: It aims to be complete in scope.

In addition to the features above, to qualify as a treatise, the work has to be revolutionary and create a sustained momentum. The revolutionary feature is important as it positions the work as being notable, which makes other works outdated and obsolete. The sustained momentum feature is important as without it, the work is unsuccessful in exposing the principles of the subject.

Time is the true test of a treatise, which is why it is uncommon for modern day works to earn the treatise label. When subject matter experts (that once had a different opinion) agree that the work has made other works outdated or obsolete, it then earns the treatise label. In the short term, a work might begin as a white paper.

Notable treatises

Treatises that have popularity today

Works presented here continue to be insightful for modern day interests. Such works are often available at libraries and bookstores (possibly specialty bookstores).

TitleAuthorYearSubjectInfluence Reference
The Art of WarSun Tzu~500BCWar

[1] [2]

Treatises with historical influence

The works presented here have been identified as influential by scholars and have since become replaced by modern works.

TitleAuthorYearSubjectInfluence Reference
ArthashastraKautilya~200BCStatecraftReference [3] [4]
De architecturaVitruvius~30BCArchitectureReference
AlmagestClaudius Ptolemaeus200sAstronomyReference
VivekacūḍāmaṇiAdi Shankara700sPhilosophyReference
De re aedificatoriaLeon Battista Alberti1400sArchitectureReference
The PrinceNiccolò Machiavelli1500sPoliticsReference
Discourse on the MethodRené Descartes1600sPhilosophyReference
Two Treatises of GovernmentJohn Locke1660GovernmentReference
Treatise on HarmonyJean-Philippe Rameau1722Music
Treatise on InstrumentationHector Berlioz1844Music

See also


  1. For details of Sun Tzu's influence on Giáp see: Forbes, Andrew & Henley, David (2012), The Illustrated Art of War: Sun Tzu, Chiang Mai: Cognoscenti Books, ASIN B00B91XX8U.
  2. Griffith, Samuel B. The Illustrated Art of War. 2005. Oxford University Press. pp. 17, 141–43.
  3. Roger Boesche (2003), Kautilya's Arthaśāstra on War and Diplomacy in Ancient India, The Journal of Military History, Volume 67, Number 1, pages 9-37
  4. Henry Albinski (1958), Place of the Emperor Asoka in Ancient Indian Political Thought, Midwest Journal of Political Science, Vol. 2, No. 1, pages 62-75
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