Of Commonplaces: An Essai for Montaigne

As the ancients said,

“Possessed with hellish torment,

I master magics five”

Mustaine 1990

Are there Commonplaces in my generation? That universal, perhaps conversational, well of references and information. Is it gone? I could call it culture, but if Commonplaces are gone, then that would imply we have no culture, and it seems we do.

Do we lack universal Commonplaces, Topoi? Is Topoi the right word? Perhaps not. I will, then, for purposes of this essai, take Aristotle’s word and make it my own. Let topoi be defined as a topic which one can bring up in conversation with nearly anyone, and on which all have preconceived opinions. Weather is, perhaps, the most universal topoi, following this definition. Family and occupation follow, since they are a little more personal. Sports may also be a topos, depending on who is being spoken to. Each culture has its own set of topoi. It seems that a topos that is deviant from the mainstream and known primarily to younger people becomes the defining feature of what is called a “sub-culture.” Usually, as sub-culture orients themselves around music, like punk or rock and roll.

There have been common contexts, things culturally assumed, in the past. Etiquette, manners, may have been one. Television, I have been told, used only to have a few dominant channels, so everyone was familiar with a certain set of shows. Certain religious folk had common stories, and met at common times to explore and share their given mythos. Many cultures had common folklore, be it gnomes or elves hiding under mushrooms. Toadstools. The Commonplaces of my generation seem to have disintegrated. Perhaps postmodernism truly permeated the culture and grand narratives are all gone. So all we were left with was the fragmented and unrelatable childhoods. And now, technology-assisted isolation.

Sociologists scholars like Benet Davetian speak of “Low Context,” and “High Context” cultures. In high context cultures, there is a lot of assumed etiquette, behaviour, and knowledge. They can be inaccessible to outsiders. France. Japan. Low context cultures are the opposite; they tend to be very direct because little information is assumed. They are easier to visit and immigrate to. America is a prime example, but it seems that even here in Canada, things are similar. There is a lack of Commonplaces.

Education, which should be a gold mine for topoi cultivation (after all, what are the classics of literature but topoi?), has come to fail at this task—precisely at a time when young people need community more than ever. Perhaps high school Shakespeare is a topos, though my peers and I dozed through it (and thus fail to remember the words of the bard). And so, lacking universal Commonplaces, for I cannot—as past figures like Michel de Montaigne, Cornwallis the Younger, or Francis Bacon did—reference what was at a time Commonplaces. Aristotelian assumptions, Cartesian meditations, Platonic beratements, Seneca’s assertions, Solomon’s Proverbs, Cicero’s arguments, Homer’s longwinded epic passages; I cannot expect to get away with quoting such figures—especially uncited—without frustrating my reader (though apparently, I can get away with an early print style page-long sentence, as good Cornwallis did).

So where does a young person find Commonplaces? What words of wisdom have I absorbed, memoria? I can pull mostly from…song lyrics, I suppose. Perhaps that is a topos of our age; as the music industry auto-tunes art, lyrics become a universal of sorts. Isn’t there a phone number that people of a generation previous to mine have universally memorized? Is “Eight six seven five three oh nine” modern topoi? I digress. I personally can cull only from heavy metal songs, which puts me in a minority, one which seems to a lot of men in their 50s. Hardly peers. And so, what Commonplace wisdom literature can I proclaim?

“Possessed with hellish torment,

I master magics five.”

Yet there are problems here too. First, and most egregious, there is a lack of context. Only those familiar with “Five Magics” from the platinum-certified Rust in Peace album would understand the reference. Then—worse—there is the inside-joke. What are the “Magics Five?” The song lists them, but they are quite stupid, all things considered. Alchemy, wizardry, sorcery. So far so good. But the last two are thermatology, and electricity. A branch of therapeutic medicine, and a field of physics study respectively. Hardly magic. So, like Dave Mustaine, I tend to extend the idea beyond its original intent. This is the “inside-joke” where only those familiar with the inside of my head will understand where I’m coming from. Quite the opposite of topoi.

Artistically, I like to fancy that, as an English Literature (and therefore Humanities/ Liberal Arts) major, I do study many things. A wide education. The original Liberal Arts were made up of very specific subjects. The Trivium were the “humanities,” grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The Quadrivium were the “sciences,” arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and…music. The Trivium and Quadrivium made up the Liberal arts, along with the two Queen disciplines, theology and philosophy. So, by the simple logic of counting, I conflate the two subjects thusly: The two Queens, the Trivium, the Quadrivium, the Magics Five. This is what a logician would call, an unsound but entirely valid argument. I study broad education made of parts of the Trivium, not quite the Quadrivium, but certainly the “Magics” five, whatever “magic” happens to be in the context. Perhaps poetry, perhaps thermatology, perhaps biology, or transcendentalism, romanticism, or whatever strange theology William Blake held to, etc. Magics Five, like Liberal Arts, is a broad term. Thus, when I struggle with my own problems whilst also working through a university education, I call upon the following topoi:

“Possessed with hellish torment,

I master magics five.”

Mastery being key here. But returning to the topic at hand, Megadeth is hardly a Commonplace. Without my excessive explanation, how can I assume a person knows certain lyrics off-hand, and how can I then go further use those lines as a launching point for inspiration? And certainly, I cannot use it as a proof for a statement in an essai. Unlike the essaist Montaigne, I have not memorized bits of Plutarch or Homer. I have memorized bits of Mustaine and Halford. I know of what the old Renaissance Humanists used to reference, but I’ve hardly read as widely as them. They, the educated classes, had these classical topoi of learning. They even had a Commonplace language in Latin. This is the brilliance of the commonplace book as put forward by Erasmus. A less learned individual could keep up with the others in their writing and oratory through the reference of their very own collection of topoi.

Have we lost such Commonplaces? Even in my own education, I have managed to dodge Shakespeare so far, and yet I could tell you all about Plato, H.D., and Blake. What a strange time to be educated. Certes then, the Commonplaces of our age must be Trump, Star Wars, and Game of Thrones. People know these things, or know of these things. And yet, these are not sources of education or wisdom, they are all forms of entertainment. I will end on a reference to an old co-worker, a kind electrician who decided to memorize his own set of topoi. Not thrash lyrics like me, but wisdom literature. I will end on a note he would recognise.

“A scorner seeks wisdom in vain;

But knowledge is easy for one with understanding.”


An early release!

Daniel Triumph.

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