Back cover of the Old Western Culture Commonplace book.
“Have you kept a regular Journal?” writes John Adams to his son. “If you have not, you will be likely to forget most of the Observations you have made.”
I want to advocate for a specific kind of journaling that pays great dividends to the classical student: the art of keeping a commonplace book.
A commonplace book is similar to a journal, but specifically oriented towards the words of others worth remembering. The result is that phrases, observations, quotes, jokes, or maxims become “commonplace” to one’s own intellect. The man or woman who commonplaces is stocking the larder of his mind. At the opportune time, he can fetch whatever provisions he needs for the occasion at hand. That occasion may be an anecdote in casual conversion, or a formal speech, or at a critical moment may serve him to convince someone to action.
There are other benefits to keeping a physical Commonplace Book as well. John Adams continued his letter to his son: “One contracts a Fondness of Writing by Use. We learn to write readily, and what is of more importance We think, and improve our Judgments, by committing our Thoughts to Paper.”
By Scott Postma
Walt Disney once said something to the effect that he would rather entertain with the hope people would be educated than try to educate with the hope they were entertained. Though, in some ways this is probably a false dilemma, the notion deserves to be pondered.
Successful communicators know that if they hope to persuade on a given topic, win a legal argument, or move a person to action, in addition to arguing a reasonable point, they must also entertain their audience—more correctly stated, they need to be able to delightfully hold the attention of their audience from beginning to end. You can think about it this way, an enlightened audience will only be so if it is also a delighted audience. Uninteresting writers and boring speakers create sleepy readers and unmotivated listeners. To be interesting, a writer or speaker must possess something we call copiousness. Derived from the Latin copia, copiousness literally means abundance. It refers to the stuff writing and speaking is made of. It is the material accumulated by the experiences of life, the fodder of failure, and the absorption of wisdom that makes the writer or speaker–and whatever he or she has to say–interesting and meaningful. Copiousness is possessing a deep, refreshing pool of ideas, truths, and anecdotes from which to draw delightful, compelling arguments.
This is where the commonplace is helpful. In classical rhetoric a commonplace is a pithy maxim, a striking quote, or a delightful morsel of knowledge that is often held in common by tribes and communities. The term is derived from the Latin phrase locis communis, literally, common ground. One author captures this idea by defining a commonplace as “commonly-held worldview phrases circulated in every community.” Examples of familiar commonplaces are expressions like “spare the rod and spoil the child,” or “Mind your p’s and q’s.” The former is a maxim taken from the book of Proverbs (13:24), which is itself a kind of commonplace book compiled by Solomon, the ancient king of Israel. The latter is an English expression meaning to “mind one’s manners,” probably derived from the schoolhouse where children tended to mix up the p and the q, or from the pub where the patrons were reminded to watch their alcohol consumption, which came in pints and quarts.
Writers and speakers have long collected delightful poetry, clever quotations, pithy proverbs, and striking phrases, and compiled them into a florilegium, or what is often referred to as a commonplace book. Collecting, studying, and reflecting on commonplaces is just one effective and practical means of cultivating copiousness. But it is not the only means. As the author of Fitting Words aptly observes, “Developing copiousness starts with maintaining an excellent education, reading the best books, and talking with wise men and women. It continues by expanding your life experiences.”
Having copiousness is more than just possessing a huge pile of random facts and trivia one can reach into and toss out at a whim; rather, it is the idea of oneself being full—overflowing—with nuggets of truth and words of wisdom that are easily recognizable to one’s audience. Filling oneself with “true thoughts and wise words” will not happen automatically. It must be done on purpose. Being too occupied with amusements to read books, too prideful to ask questions, or too lazy to think through difficult problems and important issues impedes the development of copiousness. As one author satirically quipped, “If you listen to stupid music, watch stupid movies, and read stupid books… well, congratulations, you’re stupid. And, being stupid, you have failed in the pursuit of effective communication at the outset.” Like a garden that must be tilled, planted, watered, and weeded, copiousness is cultivated—a work that takes time and effort. It is developed through life experience and the purposed, pleasant discipline of reading many good books, making a point of thinking about what is read, and collecting the best thoughts and ideas on a variety of topics.