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  • The Politica of Justus Lipsius and the Commonplace-Book
  • Ann Moss

Throughout Western Europe in the sixteenth century, schoolboys and grown men educated in the Latin schools of the humanists would recognize the commonplace-book as an indispensable tool for making sense of the books they read, for assimilating the written culture transmitted to them, and for possessing the means of production in their turn. This handy organizer of information and rather effective retrieval mechanism has been treated with a fair amount of contempt after being sidelined towards the end of the seventeenth century and then falling into public disrepute, its rich stock of precious commonplaces devalued into the small change of mere banalities. Nor indeed does it suit the agenda of post-Romantic scholars and critics looking in a simplistic way for signs of originality and innovation. However, the last few years have seen commonplaces in their more sophisticated guise back on the critical agenda, with several particular studies and, latterly, two major overviews published in a single year. 1 The thesis underlying this paper is that the commonplace-book is central to an understanding of how knowledge was organized in the early modern period. More than that, the commonplace-book keys us into procedures of investigation and debate and into the dialectical and rhetorical modes of articulating thought which were agreed to have persuasive force; and it exhibits the commonality of expectations, the common places, which ensured a common route into a shared area of communication when the cultural consensus of Western Europe was strained to breaking point.

One test of this thesis will be whether it can be usefully applied to texts which fit badly into interpretative frames familiar to the modern reader. The particular purpose of this paper is to apply the principles of commonplace-book [End Page 421] reading to just such an awkward case, in order at least to suggest the possibility of recovering an historically probable reading strategy which may more fully recuperate the text for the modern reader. The Politica of the eminent Stoic philosopher and scholar of antiquity, Justus Lipsius (1547–1606), is a network of quotations from ancient authorities linked together by Lipsius’s own words. He himself regarded it as one of his most important achievements. His contemporaries and their seventeenth-century descendants knew perfectly well how to read it, and there is plenty of evidence that they regarded it highly. 2 Modern readers find it an embarrassment, not knowing quite what to do with a book from which the author eclipses himself, yet keeps a dead hand on it: “All of it is mine and nothing is.” 3 Modern critics tend to assume it is all Lipsius, riding roughshod over the quotation indicators 4 ; or they prefer to think that nothing is and treat the text solely as a compilation of extracts 5 ; or they get tied in knots trying to rescue Lipsius’s voice drowned out in his quotations. 6 But Lipsius’s original readers in 1589 knew how to read it, because he told them: “For what is it but a well-arranged register of accounts or COMMONPLACES?” 7

If we are going to get anywhere near the original point of reception, we must remind ourselves about commonplaces and commonplace-books. It was Erasmus in De copia who gave the first systematic guidelines for making commonplace-books, but by the time of Lipsius schoolboys in every Latin school in Northern Europe were busy excerpting from their [End Page 422] texts as they read, either under the schoolmaster’s instructions or at their own discretion. The commonplace-book was a probe and an instrument for redistributing text so as to ensure maximal retrievability and optimum application. Here is one of the many enthusiastic promoters of the practice, writing in 1564:

So that the more important passages in the authors set for reading and the more brilliant sententiae, exempla, similitudes, words, phrases, and outstanding figurative expressions may be the more readily imprinted on the memory and available and ready for use as occasion requires, it is extremely useful to have the common-places of the main intellectual disciplines arranged in a definite order, under which students may note...

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pp. 421-436
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