The Beauty of the Commonplace

The Beauty of the Commonplace

It’s Thursday evening and the girls are asking about tomorrow’s “special breakfast.” I’ve just returned from a trip and haven’t had a chance to think about it, but thankfully my husband Jonathan already has a plan: he will make apple bread tonight, and we’ll have that for our special Friday morning treat. Fridays are, however, about more than the promise of apple bread or some other treat. The breakfast is made beautiful and meditative with the help of a candle, some soft music, and reading from the lives of the saints or other exemplary persons whose lives are models for study and emulation.

After the reading, the girls will choose a quote to write and reflect on in their commonplace book—a notebook or journal filled with quotations and
reflections that are assigned themes according to their content. Since we’ve been reading about Father Damien who worked tirelessly and selflessly with a community of lepers on the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i, the themes are likely to be along the lines of courage, compassion, faith, charity, and others in a similar vein.

We began this beautiful practice after I learned of the tradition of commonplace bookkeeping at a CiRCE conference many years ago. Jenny Rallens, then a teacher at a classical school, led a session on memory practices, and gave her description of the special candlelit ceremony her class used to bring the beauty of the commonplace book tradition to life. I had no idea then how much the practice would change my life. Not only has it enriched our Friday mornings, but it has also transformed my intellectual life, shaping my reading and writing practice in wonderful, unexpected ways.

The commonplace book tradition emerged out of Aristotle’s elucidation of “commonplaces” of logical argumentation. In his conception, the focus was not at all on writing down quotations. Instead, “commonplaces” were tools for developing logical arguments that one needed for philosophical discussion and debate. Some of the commonplaces he identified were: definition, property, and genus. In addition to using commonplaces for philosophical argument, he also recommended their use in the practice of rhetoric as a way of examining the plausibility and validity of propositions.

Over time, as other writers and speakers such as Cicero, Quintilian, and Seneca adopted the practice, the types of commonplaces used expanded from categories of argument to sentitiae: sayings of great writers whose words and arguments were considered to be authoritative. These, too, could be used to great rhetorical purpose. In his carefully-researched and beautifully-illustrated history of commonplace books, Earle Havens describes Quintillian’s approach to the role of commonplaces in rhetorical education. According to Quintillian, commonplaces should be more than merely “a list of systematic procedures of thought.” They should also include anything that would strengthen an argument or speech, including quotations from great
writers. Seneca the Younger, the Roman statesman and philosopher, provided a compelling metaphor based on the work of bees gathering honey to express the excellence of well-employed commonplaces:

We…ought to copy the bees, and sift whatever we
have gathered from a varied course of reading….
then, by applying the supervising care with which
our nature has endowed us…we could so blend
those several flowers into one delicious compound
that, even though it betrays its origin, yet it
nevertheless is clearly a different thing from that
whence it came.

What a beautiful way to think of the fruit of reading widely and well!

Over time, the practice of commonplaces evolved into the writing down and thematizing of quotations from a variety of readings. The real genius for me of the commonplace book practice is precisely this aspect of assigning and indexing themes. After each quotation written in the journal, one assigns a theme or themes relevant to that quote. For some of the quotes, you may also elect to write a brief reflection. After you have filled the pages with quotations, themes, and reflections, it’s time to create an index of all of the themes recorded in the journal.

This is a great treasure, for imagine that you and your students have spent a year reading great works and recording quotations of interest in your commonplace book. In your index, you now have entries on themes like: hope; courage; goodness; freedom; love; etc. Your student is now well-equipped to write an essay on the virtue of courage as this has appeared in a variety of readings. All of the quotes are there, easily accessible in one or two journals. For several of the quotes, they have already written their own reflections or responses to the authors, and so have begun to develop a perspective or argument that they can further explore in the essay. Best of all, they now have a long-term resource for their future thinking and writing on a variety of subjects that will travel with them beyond your home or school.

My commonplace books are an absolute joy and a treasured resource. I wrote significant parts of my recent book, The Black Intellectual Tradition, from quotations and notes in my commonplace books. Writing the quotations out long-hand forces me to choose only what is most important and strengthens the memory of what I’ve read. I cannot overemphasize the joy this practice has brought to me and the beauty it has contributed to learning in my home with my daughters. Keeping commonplace books and celebrating them with our special Friday ceremony is, for me, the very epitome of scholé, the practice of restful learning so many of us desire to cultivate in our classical schools and homeschools. I invite you, then, to read, write, and delight in the beauty of the commonplace.

Dr. Angel Adams Parham is associate professor of sociology and senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture (IASC) at the University of Virginia. Parham is also the cofounder and executive director of Nyansa Classical Community, a classical educational organization designed to connect with students from diverse backgrounds. She is coauthor of The Black Intellectual Tradition: Reading Freedom in Classical Literature (Classical Academic Press, July 2022).


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