Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Erasmus on Common Places

Another writer who was even more important with regard to commonplace books was Erasmus of Rotterdam. His De Copia (On copiousness in words and ideas) of 1512 became a model of commonplace books. Erasmus thought "whoever has resolved to read through every type of writer (for he who wishes to be considered learned must do that thoroughly once in his life) will first collect as many topics as possible. He will take partly from classes of vices and virtues, partly from those things that are especially important in human affairs, and that are accustomed to come up most often in persuasion; and it will be best to arrange these according to the principle of affinity and opposition. for those that are related to one another automatically suggest what should follow, and the same thing is true of opposites."

And he suggested the following organisation. Suppose the first heading is Piety, then the following would be appropriate:
  1. Piety and Impiety
    1. Piety
    2. Piety toward God
    3. Piety toward fatherland
    4. Piety toward parents or children
    5. Piety toward teachers and others who have a similar status as parents
  2. Impiety
    1. improper indulgence of children
  3. Superstition (fits here)
    1. strange cults
    2. various ceremonies of different people
  4. Fidelity and Infidelity (might be next)
  5. Fidelity
    1. fidelity to God
    2. human fidelity
    3. fidelity to friends
    4. servant's fidelity to their masters
    5. fidelity to enemies
  6. Beneficence (might be next)
    1. Gratitude, etc.
"All these topics can be treated along the following lines: First what piety is, how it differs from other virtues, what is peculiar to it, in what ways it is preserved or violated, by what things it is strengthened or corrupted, what it profits man. Here a field of exempla and judicia is opened up. But anyone may make an orderly list of the virtues and vices for himself, following his own judgment, or if he prefers, he may seek it from Cicero or Valerius Maximus or from Aristotle or from St. Thomas. Finally, if he prefers he may follow an alphabetical order." The arrangement does not matter. what does matter is that the list does not deteriorate into listing minutiae, but only those things that "are frequently needed in speaking."

This list of the virtues, is followed by a list of general classifications (partly exempla and partly commonplaces):
  1. Extraordinary longevity
  2. vigorous old age
  3. senile youth
  4. unusual happiness
  5. remarkable memory
  6. sudden changes in fortune
  7. sudden death
  8. unnatural death
  9. extraordinary eloquence
  10. unusual riches
  11. famous men of humble birth
  12. subtlety of intellect
  13. extraordinary physical strength
  14. extraordinary appearance
  15. distinguished character in a deformed body
and "innumerable others"

Again, the opposites and the things that are related should be listed. Furthermore, "a disorderly mass of materials [will] produce confusion." It is therefore "useful to divide the more general classifications into several subdivisions".

Given this scheme, one can promptly mark down everything that is noteworthy under its proper heading. This "method will also have the effect of imprinting what you read more deeply on your mind, as well as accustoming you to utilizing the riches of your reading". "And so the student, like the industrious bee, will fly about through all the authors' gardens and light on every small flower of rhetoric, everywhere collecting some honey that he he may carry into his own hive; and, since there is such a great abundance of subjects in these, a complete gleaning is not possible, and he will be sure to select the most important and adapt them to the pattern of his work"

Again, no tension between order and chaos. The order of an individual commonplace book may be up to the individual, but the fundamental order of the subject matter is, in fact, given and not in doubt—at least if you consider yourself as working within the commonplace tradition.

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