Imperat aut servit: Managing our knowledge inheritance

This was submitted as my final research paper for Education as Self-Fashioning: The Active, Inquiring, Beautiful Life. See my Zotero folder documenting my research for this essay.

The learning of a Salmasius or a Burman, unless you are its master, will be your tyrant. ‘Imperat aut servit’; if you can wield it with a strong arm, it is a great weapon; otherwise, ‘Vis consili expers / Mole ruit suâ.’ You will be overwhelmed, like Tarpeia, by the heavy wealth which you have exacted from tributary generations.1

Cardinal John Newman acknowledges a problem familiar to any student in this quote from his seminal work, “The Idea of a University.” Every student is well acquainted with that intimidating specter—the constant worry of the weight of his own reading, the sheer pressure imposed by the great minds of “tributary generations.” The student is assailed throughout his undergraduate years with assignments on the landmark publications of each field. The classics professor encourages the student to read Homer, while Plato and Descartes are urged on him by his philosophy lecturer. From the department of economics come aggressive recommendations of Hayek, Keynes and Friedman. It is easy, and indeed common in this environment, to feel overwhelmed by the heights we are expected to climb in order to stand on the proverbial “shoulders of giants.” In our default shortsighted mode of vision, it may appear simpler and more efficient to merely speed through our reading tasks, satisfying short-term goals while neglecting the long-term. It is indeed tempting to sacrifice those lofty aims when suffocating under the weight of past minds, their words forever channeled at us through book after book, article after article. To skim just a few pages or to read for raw information rather than for meaning is an impulse indeed often too attractive to resist.

Newman’s essay urges students to avoid this kind of fervent fact-gathering, however, and instead remain “above [their] knowledge.” His most central recommendations are brief and firm: he suggests that “we must generalize, we must reduce to method, we must have a grasp of principles, and group and shape our acquisitions by means of them.”2 He refers to this entire process concisely by employing a metaphor of digestion:

The enlargement [of mind] consists, not merely in the passive reception into the mind of a number of ideas hitherto unknown to it … it is a digestion of what we receive, into the substance of our previous state of thought; and without this no enlargement is said to follow.3

This “digestion,” according to Newman, is a necessary condition for any actual improvement in intellect—or, in his own terms, for any “enlargement of mind.” The process at a high level is clear enough: a student wishing to best benefit from his reading must always synthesize the new facts he acquires with his existing knowledge, aggregating a cohesive whole of mastery rather than a mere conglomeration of pieces of information. But Newman does not sufficiently detail concrete methods for engaging in this “digestion.” He does not provide practical suggestions for applying these ideas to any learning practice, let alone reading in particular. It is the purpose of this paper to show that a reading practice combined with a slow, thoughtful extraction of passages from the texts being read satisfies the requirements for Newman’s process of “digestion.” The method of integrated reading and writing we examine is by no means novel: it has existed since at latest the era of the Roman Empire, albeit under many unrelated names.

It will first be useful, then, to unify the various overlapping terms for the products of the practice discussed in this essay. The most well-known names still extant in discourse today are the florilegium, the hypomnēma, and the commonplace book.4 These media, though published and discussed under distinct names, are actually quite similar in their methods of composition and the results of their use. This essay will focus on the properties and consequences of the practice at the intersection of these three traditions, which will be termed the “commonplace book” for convenience and consistency. This “commonplace book” under discussion refers to a personal book containing collections of quotations and passages from texts or dialogues of particular value or interest to its owner. The book might also contain marginalia referring to the passages quoted, or a prologue stating the intention of the author or summarizing the texts included.5 Commonplace authors composed these books during their reading or immediately after completing a text.

Historical support for this practice of reading and writing intertwined appears as far back as ancient Rome. Seneca, a major figure in the Stoic school of philosophy, stresses in his works the importance of “continuous writing.” He employs several oft-used analogies, first portraying scholars as bees traveling from flower to flower and gathering the nectar of knowledge at each:

We also, I say, ought to copy these 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 should blend those several flavors into one delicious compound.6

Seneca portrays the collection of ideas as an extremely discerning process, far from the simple mechanical procedure of facsimile that the description of commonplacing might first suggest. We must imitate the bees, using our “supervising care” to select the nectar most especially sweet to us—those passages which send the clearest and most striking messages. Seneca affirms that writing is the most reliable method for gathering these notes. The various ideas which readers collect from books, he says, must be “reduced to concrete form by the pen.”7 This conviction appears in equal force among medieval writings under the name florilegium (literally, the “collection of flowers.”)8 John of Wales, a 13th century writer, quotes Seneca directly as he explains his own practice of compiling quotes and forming florilegia. He works to collect “examples worthy to be imitated, which are all so many flowers.” John stresses the process of selection in his own explanation, emphasizing that readers must make selections carefully, avoiding “poisonous errors” that could otherwise enter the collection of quotes.9 Several centuries later, Erasmus recommends to his readers a specific method of processing and organizing what they take in from books. After a student has prepared separate categories for the storage of ideas, he should proceed to read with “a view to extrapolating.”10 Indeed, for these authors throughout history, reading without simultaneously writing was likely not a serious activity in any amount. As they struggled under the weight of their reading, the commonplace book served as a natural recourse for distilling and simplifying the massive input which these writers had to manage.11 Reading in this style was an eminently practical engagement—students combed through texts with the explicit purpose of extracting useful morsels of information.

The result of such extraction was a collection surprisingly personal and unique. This simple act of rewriting and annotating quotations by hand produced a unique work which evidenced the individuality of its owner. In selecting and arranging choice extracts, a reader would construct a personalized image of his studies—a concrete projection of how the texts had affected his own ideas and beliefs. Kevin Sharpe gives a view of how this practice was paralleled in early modern England:

[T]hough what the compiler copied was extracted from a common storehouse of wisdom, the manner in which extracts were copied, arranged, juxtaposed, cross-referenced or indexed was personal and individual … The compiler essentially rewrote, fashioned a new text, which was anything but common, indeed was unique.12

Sharpe suggests that the way in which any given commonplace author chose to unify heterogeneous entries from distinct sources was necessarily personal and idiosyncratic. As Michel Foucault names the practice in his work “Self-Writing,” this “subjectivation” of new knowledge—the deliberate process by which a learner would attempt through transcription and further writing to blend the lessons from a text into his existing worldview—was absolutely crucial for proper understanding and assimilation.13 This same concept of subjectivation is cited in Newman’s work as a necessary condition for proper “digestion” of information. Newman claims that such a process of fusion of ideas makes “the objects of our knowledge subjectively our own.”14 The process of commonplace book composition would yield something wholly unique, composed of equal parts original text and individual impression. The result was so personal, in fact, that Francis Bacon proposed it would be of little use to other readers: “I think first in general that one man’s notes will little profit another, because one man’s conceit doth so much differ from another’s; and also because the bare note itself is nothing so much worth as the suggestion it gives to the reader.”15 A man’s “conceit” derived from any text was personal and unique. In the end, what readers remembered from their texts was what the works meant to them—the “suggestion” they felt—rather than the exact content of any given paragraph. By Bacon’s claim, then, a commonplace book contained extracts which, as a whole, were of higher value to their creator than a simple sum of the values of the book’s parts. The artifacts of these Baconian “suggestions” could exist in the form of short pieces of commentary, or simply render themselves in the way commonplace writers chose to give certain quotes extra prominence in their books. In allowing original text and impression to mix, whether consciously or not, readers produced a unique view of their own exploration and learning progress. These personal extracts would prove to be of real use in the weeks, months, or years after a reader finished a text, when the passages could be revisited.

Gathering passages and notes from various works allowed readers to greatly simplify the otherwise burdensome task of memorizing the most important lessons they derived from their texts. By perusing their commonplace books, they were able to not only recall the exact content of their past favorite quotes but also experience again the impression which the text had made upon them. Through our modern lens, it is evident that these revision activities were crucial to proper memorization and assimilation of the ideas most important to a reader. There is much scientific evidence today, in fact, which supports this idea of periodic review of important reading content. The phenomenon known as the spacing effect is particularly relevant to this rereading practice. According to the spacing effect, learners who sustain consistent review of content over long periods of time can memorize more effectively than those who commit to large amounts of memorization work in a single sitting.16 The tradition of the commonplace book encouraged this kind of regular spaced review, which modern psychology research has proven to be an effective method for memorization. Historical support for this revision activity is just as plentiful: nearly every author who suggests the composition of a commonplace book also stipulates its constant inspection and revision. The most critical ideas were to be consistently reread until finally learned by heart. This recall practice, which slowly brought the most crucial passages of one’s reading closer to a subconscious level, was of obvious utility for students.17 Historical sources show that recall aided not only students but learners of all ages. Aspiring essayists and professional writers alike benefited in methodically memorizing the many short bodies of text which they found relevant or especially profound. A typical citizen could deploy these memorized commonplaces in conversation or correspondences. Writers could include their own preferred quotations in their compositions on any topic.18 This tradition was an exceptionally useful practice for readers of any sort to memorize the passages they held most dear.

While recall was the most visible and straightforward end in revisiting these collections, the commonplace book also served as a tool to instill proper values in its owner. Every commonplace book had its own distinctive selections, carefully gathered and uniquely recorded by their respective authors. Foucault draws a strong contrast between the product of this writing practice and other more superficial methods of collection, which he claims yield nothing more than “memory cabinets.” Commonplace books were vessels, rather, for the most meaningful and crucial ideas that readers wished to “deeply lodge in the soul.”19 To return to this book and rediscover this collection of commonplaces was a wholly solemn and private task. It offered readers an opportunity to relive those solitary moments of deep insight which they had experienced with texts in the past. Furthermore, it allowed them to see their various transcriptions not as isolated morsels of wisdom but as small parts of a larger system. Each quote and comment rested in between many others, and readers who returned to their books for a certain passage could not avoid comparing this entry with those nearby. This is Newman’s digestion forced into action: it is the unification of new ideas with old beliefs. It trained the reader to never contemplate any given concept, in Newman’s words, “without recollecting that it is but a part [of a larger picture of knowledge], or without the associations which spring from this recollection.”20 This process of revision and subsequent synthesis helped the reader to piece together a more uniform self.

Commonplace books had their highest end, then, in helping their owners to build their own characters in the most literal sense: the composition of the book paralleled the construction of the character. Readers strove through their commonplace books to synthesize the heterogeneous opinions they acquired through their reading into a single cohesive statement of identity. Of course, this deliberate integration of different ideas could not be accomplished without significant modification. Seneca compares the gathering of ideas to the chemical process of digestion, wherein no food can benefit us unless it is also changed in the process:

This is what we see nature doing in our own bodies without any labor on our part; the food we have eaten, as long as it retains its original quality and floats in our stomachs as an undiluted mass, is a burden; but it passes into tissue and blood only when it has been changed from its original form. So it is with the food which nourishes our higher nature,— we should see to it that whatever we have absorbed should not be allowed to remain unchanged, or it will be no part of us. We must digest it; otherwise it will merely enter the memory and not the reasoning power.21

Again we return to the abundant metaphors used throughout history in discussion of this practice. The “food which nourishes our higher nature” arrives to readers in the form of well-crafted sentences, aligned in sequence across sections, chapters, and volumes—distilled and compressed knowledge, printed onto lifeless paper. It is our task, suggests Seneca, to revive these ideas, enliven them: that is, to analyze, transcribe and repeatedly modify them until they are wholly our own, persisting in their changed state in our private thoughts. In transcription and subsequent rereading of these copies their owners could not avoid contemplating exactly how the passage affected them rather than simply viewing the old ideas in a dry, objective manner.22 The process of revisiting the book was intrinsically reflective and introspective. It was the catalyst for a “personal construction of meaning,” says Sharpe23—a solemn and meditative activity of recollection and review through which the reader could “[constitute] his own identity.”24 It is this active review and constant inquiry into past lessons learned that Newman promotes as a requirement for “digestion.” He portrays the process as one of deliberate “locomotion”: a “gravitat[ion]” toward some cohesive personal worldview.25

Such constant gravitation brought readers ever closer toward a destined balance in knowledge and identity through reading, writing, and meditation on that writing. The result, to engage once more in the profusion of metaphor present among all the writing on this topic, was a “choir” of past ideas, each memorized and carefully aligned to fit the theme of the whole:

Let our minds aim at showing the finished product, but conceal all that has helped to produce it … take a choir: it consists, as you see, of many voices and yet all those voices form a unity … although individual voices do not emerge, the voices of all are heard and from a number of different sounds there comes a harmony.26

The mind as constructed by the commonplace book was purely a synthesis of the most prized thoughts of the past. After some slight modification, each idea fit in as a voice in a choir, such that the group as a whole produced a single harmony. While this “harmony” is always cited as a beneficial result of commonplacing, sources across history disagree on the related consequences of this practice of collection. Mary J. Carruthers observes that the medieval citizen may have treasured the activity to a fault, seeing himself as precisely the product of his readings and no more.

One sometimes gets the impression that a medieval person … could do nothing (especially in duress) without rehearsing a whole series of exemplary stories, the material of their experience built up board by board in memory … so that even in moments of stress the counsel of experience will constrain a turbulent and willful mind.27

This is a relatively radical perspective of the effects of commonplacing. Readers were so extremely dependent on their personal books, Carruthers suggests, that without those collected quotes we would see unleashed “turbulent and willful mind[s],” unbridled and unanchored from their safe havens built up from the writings of past authors. Some opponents of the practice criticized this extreme form of the idea. They claimed that those who relied solely on accepted ideas of the past doomed themselves to weak, impersonal argumentation.28 This contention has merit, but only serves to refute the particular conception of the practice that Carruthers presents. The portrayal is indeed unfair to the majority of commonplace book authors, who were not so absolutely dependent on their books. As we have already learned, commonplace books were defined by their more primary use in deliberate reflection and introspection rather than by their purpose as a simple reference. This particular form of study did not yield some sort of unstable debater completely dependent on his past notes, but rather, in Seneca’s words, a unique intellectual child of the authors of quotes gathered.29 A commonplace writer was the product of many disparate (and perhaps even disagreeing) voices, whose precepts were each tweaked and re-aligned by the writer to form a holistic and coherent compilation. The diligent commonplace book owner was not a lifeless portrait of the inputs,30 but rather a living and breathing entity, carrying treasures of accumulated wisdom and prepared to deploy them in situations both trivial and novel.

In such novel situations the benefit of commonplacing becomes even clearer. To many writers of the past, those readers who worked to establish concrete moral codes through their commonplace books proved to be the most resilient in the face of new or resurgent problems. These types of problems require a stable, robust mind: one which can rationally evaluate the root of an issue and resolve it using a combination of past knowledge and new constructions. This thinking, says Foucault, is patently impossible for a reader who does not maintain control over the many distinct ideas he derives from his texts. “Endless reading” without deliberate writing interspersed would lead to the “great deficiency” of stultitia—a state of “mental agitation” and “distraction” in which the reader is overwhelmed by the massive amounts of input which he must process, without the assistance of any external tools.31 A program of intense reading which omits these aids would do little for a student but fill his mind with a hodgepodge of facts and likely contradictory ideas. Newman’s essay claims that readers who simply hoard knowledge “they have not thought through” are thus “only possessed by [it], not possessed of it; nay, in matter of fact they are often even carried away by it, without any volition of their own.”32 The function of the commonplace book from this perspective, then, is to allow readers to establish an intellectual anchor—some definite collection of precepts and past arguments against which new ideas and new problems can be compared—so as to not be “carried away” by the weight of their own reading.

The product of commonplacing was a cohesive composition far greater than the sum of its parts, a physical realization of the identity and intellect of its discerning author. The practice yielded after years a mind rigorously trained and exceptionally prepared, forever supported by this anchor of precepts deliberately assimilated and consciously reaffirmed over time. The commonplace author was a perfect image of the product of Newman’s “digestion.” He used his book to process and memorize important information from the texts he encountered, while simultaneously working to construct a unique, robust self. Over the years the author built an image of himself through his collection, and benefited from a clear view into his own intellectual past.

This is not to say that items once penned in a commonplace book were made eternally true. On the contrary, the book offered detailed images of a reader’s past thoughts and beliefs, many of which he was likely to see invalidated in the future. These collections merely provided a snapshot of the reader’s worldview of the past, which upon revisiting he could choose to reinforce or deny using new evidence or personal experience. In returning to past extractions wielding new evidence or ideas, the author continued that same process of synthesis and modification begun during the book’s creation even after its pages had been filled. As such a projection of the past, the book made for the reader a nearly physical companion out of his former self—a reification of his earlier thoughts with whom he could converse and debate.33 These images of a past self were invaluable to a commonplace writer in providing an image of which intellectual landscapes he had visited and where he had yet to explore. The book was a depository, moreover, into which the suggestions triggered by each individual work could be assembled, mixed, rearranged, and investigated as a cohesive whole. In this way, the commonplace author found a method for managing his knowledge inheritance—for lodging deeply in his soul those precepts most important to him, and thus learning to master the weight of past generations. Imperat aut servit: with the commonplace book at hand, the reader was finally free to choose.

  1. John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University: Defined and Illustrated (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), 125. The Latin phrases translate as “master or slave” and “brute force bereft of wisdom / falls to ruin by its own weight,” respectively. Newman’s Idea, the work on which this essay is based, has had a profound—some might say even revolutionary—effect on our modern view of education. See Cornwell, John. Newman’s Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint. New York: Continuum, 2010, 128. 

  2. Ibid., 120. 

  3. Ibid., 120. Emphasis added. 

  4. There are plenty of names for this practice which happen to have fallen out of fashion. A 1964 analysis lists 38 different names which authors of the past used to refer to the same concept of the florilegium: see Henri-Marie Rochais, “Florilèges spirituels,” in Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique, doctrine et histoire., vol. 5 (Paris: Beauchesne, 1964), 438. 

  5. Jacqueline Hamesse, “Les florilèges philosophiques du XIIIe au XVe siècle,” in Les genres littéraires dans les sources théologiques et philosophiques médiévales, vol. 5, Textes, Études, Congrès 2 (Louvain-la-Neuve: Université catholique de Louvain, 1982), 184. 

  6. Lucius Annaeus Seneca, “On Gathering Ideas,” in Ad Lucilium epistulae morales, trans. Richard M. Gummere (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970), 279. This metaphor is often stolen by later writers. See for example Ambrosius Aurelius Theodosius Macrobius, The Saturnalia, trans. Percival Vaughan Davies (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), 1.5. 

  7. Seneca, “On Gathering Ideas,” 277. 

  8. Alternate names included the flores philosophorum and the flores auctorum. See Ann Moss, Printed Commonplace-Books and the Structuring of Renaissance Thought (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 24. 

  9. Quoted in ibid., 30. 

  10. R. R. Bolgar, The Classical Heritage and Its Beneficiaries. (Cambridge, England: University Press, 1954), 273–274. 

  11. Rochais, “Florilèges spirituels,” 457. 

  12. Kevin Sharpe, Reading Revolutions: The Politics of Reading in Early Modern England (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 278. Emphasis added. 

  13. Michel Foucault, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, vol. 1, The Essential Works of Michel Foucault, 1954–1984 (New York: New Press, 1997), 210. 

  14. Newman, The Idea of a University, 120. 

  15. Francis Bacon, The Letters and the Life of Francis Bacon (Longmans, Green and Co., 1890), 25–26. 

  16. Douglas L. Hintzman, “Repetition and Memory,” in Psychology of Learning and Motivation, by Gordon H. Bower, vol. 10 (Academic Press, 1976), 65. 

  17. Freyja Cox Jensen, Reading the Roman Republic in Early Modern England, Library of the Written Word v. 22 (Boston: Brill, 2012), 37. 

  18. Ibid., 91. John of Salisbury, a writer well known for his commonplacing practice, serves as evidence of the utility of commonplacing for writers. See Rochais, “Florilèges spirituels,” 462. 

  19. Foucault, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, 210. 

  20. Newman, The Idea of a University, 123. 

  21. Seneca, “On Gathering Ideas,” 279–281. Emphasis added. 

  22. See Barbara M. Benedict, Making the Modern Reader: Cultural Mediation in Early Modern Literary Anthologies (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 47; Susan Miller, Assuming the Positions: Cultural Pedagogy and the Politics of Commonplace Writing, Pittsburgh Series in Composition, Literacy, and Culture (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998), 21, 24. 

  23. Sharpe, Reading Revolutions, 279. 

  24. Foucault, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, 214. 

  25. Newman, The Idea of a University, 121. 

  26. Macrobius, The Saturnalia, 1.9. 

  27. Mary J. Carruthers, “Memory and the Ethics of Reading,” in The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 180. 

  28. Moss, Printed Commonplace-Books and the Structuring of Renaissance Thought, 21. 

  29. Seneca, “On Gathering Ideas,” 281. 

  30. Ibid.: “I would have you resemble [the authors from whom you collect ideas] … not as a picture resembles its original, for a picture is a lifeless thing” 

  31. Foucault, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, 211–212. 

  32. Newman, The Idea of a University, 126. 

  33. Kenneth Lockridge, “Individual Literacy in Commonplace Books,” Interchange 34, no. 2/3 (September 2003), 338–339.