Commonplace Books

I speak of the collected volume of passages that I have transcribed from the books I’ve read as a commonplace book. So does Andre Bernard who edits a “Commonplace Section” for each issue of the American Scholar. Bernard collects extracts from various authors who have written about a particular topic and simply lists them on two pages of this publication without commentary or analysis. For example, recent topics have included Loafing, Change, Failure, and Marriage.

Yet a collection of this sort is quite different than the way “commonplace book” is formally defined. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as:

A book in which ‘commonplaces’ or passages important for reference were collected, usually under general heads; hence, a book in which one records passages or matters to be especially remembered or referred to, with or without arrangement.

My collection was never intended to be a reference book, nor have I organized the material under separate “heads” or topics. Yet that was the way commonplace books were originally conceived. The term “common place” can be traced to the Greeks who referred to the group of philosophical arguments and discussion topics used by statesman and orators as koinoi topoi (“general points). The Romans translated the phrase as communes loci (general areas of discussion) that scholars and orators also drew upon in composition or speaking. According to Gilbert Highet “some tasteless fellow Englished the term into “commonplaces.” The sense in which the headings were “common” signifies their acceptance as the fundamental beliefs and moral principals of the times. It is ironic that in popular speech the term has come to mean something rather ordinary and unremarkable since there is clearly nothing the least bit ordinary or common in the commonplace books that stretch back to classical antiquity and the Renaissance.

According to Earle Havens Aristotle referred to the collected passages as: “the principal tools of any logical and systematic interrogation of the truth or falsity of an opinion.” It is in this sense that commonplace books were originally considered to be organized sources of knowledge and practical wisdom. In Roman times Cicero carried on the tradition by drawing his commonplace material from the works of philosophers, orators, and poets and subsequently applied them in his public speaking and courtroom presentations. In the Middle Ages Scholastic philosophers continued the practice but turned away from secular applications and substituted instead theological and religious words of wisdom as the materials for their commonplace books.

From all accounts the commonplace book tradition reached its peak of popularity during the Renaissance. This was associated with the revival of classical learning and the emergence of the humanistic critique of Scholasticism. Havens writes:

Renaissance humanists, teachers, and students were among the first to deliberately invoke the term “commonplace book” to describe collections of quotations organized for the express purpose of demonstrating the best moral wisdom and rhetorical felicity of ancient Greek and Latin authors.

Erasmus was perhaps the most influential advocate of drawing upon classical learning in this fashion and formulated several different methods for organizing the material. He was also instrumental in promoting commonplace books as an important educational tool, particularly in guiding students to a more disciplined method of reading.

During the Renaissance commonplace books were developed for a wide range of disciplines including literature, law, philosophy, and science. But with the rise of science and the diminishing importance of proof by authority, the value of commonplace book collections declined fairly rapidly. This process was accelerated by the development of comprehensive encyclopedias as sources of reference during the Enlightenment. Havens summarizes evidence that fewer and fewer printed commonplace books appeared during the eighteenth century, “a period marked by greater public familiarity with other distinct forms of text compilation—verse anthologies, concordances, encyclopedias…”

Over the course of the next centuries, commonplace books continued to be published although their character changed significantly. Rather than sources of knowledge, they became more personal collections of literary extracts, occasionally followed by brief comments, but largely unorganized and highly idiosyncratic in subject matter. Insofar as the passages in these printed collections were gathered together under specific topics or themes, they still deviated significantly from the earlier forms of commonplace books that were structured and indexed in a rather systematic fashion. In a word, the nature of commonplace books evolved from a resource for argument and persuasion in antiquity, to a reference for knowledge and wisdom that flourished during the Renaissance, into its contemporary version of a personal collection of memorable literary quotations without any formal conceptual scheme.