The term commonplace has multiple meanings in rhetoric.
In classical rhetoric, a commonplace is a statement or bit of knowledge that is commonly shared by members of an audience or a community.
Meaning of Commonplace in Rhetoric
A commonplace is an elementary rhetorical exercise, one of the progymnasmata.
In invention, commonplace is another term for a common topic. Also known as tópos koinós (in Greek) and locus communis (in Latin).
Etymology: From the Latin, "generally applicable literary passage"
Commonplace Examples and Observations
"Life holds one great but quite commonplace mystery. Though shared by each of us and known to all, it seldom rates a second thought. That mystery, which most of us take for granted and never think twice about, is time," says
Michael Ende in his book, "Momo."
"In John Milton's 'Paradise Lost,' the devil's speech to the deities of the void is a deliberative oration; he seeks to persuade them to give him information he needs by pleading the 'advantage' his mission will bring them. He bases his argument on the commonplace of regal power and imperial jurisdiction, promising to expel 'All usurpation' from the new-created world and to re-erect there the 'Standard… of ancient Night,'" according to John M. Steadman in "Milton's Epic Characters."
Aristotle on Commonplaces
In the book, "Rhetorical Tradition," authors Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg say, "The commonplaces or topics are 'locations' of standard categories of arguments. Aristotle distinguishes four common topics: whether a thing has occurred, whether it will occur, whether things are bigger or smaller than they seem, and whether a thing is or is not possible. Other commonplaces are definition, comparison, relationship, and testimony, each with its own subtopics…
"In the Rhetoric, in Books I and II, Aristotle talks about not only 'common topics' that can generate arguments for any kind of speech, but also 'special topics' that are useful only for a particular kind of speech or subject matter. Because the discussion is dispersed, it is sometimes hard to determine what each kind of topic is."
In the book, "A Rhetoric of Motives," Kenneth Burke says that "According to Aristotle, the characteristically rhetorical statement involves commonplaces that lie outside any scientific specialty; and in proportion as the rhetorician deals with special subject matter, his proofs move away from the rhetorical and toward the scientific. (For instance, a typical rhetorical 'commonplace,' in the Aristotelian sense, would be Churchill's slogan, 'Too little and too late,' which could hardly be said to fall under any special science of quantity or time.)"
The Challenge of Recognizing Commonplaces
"To detect a rhetorical commonplace, the scholar must generally rely on empirical evidence: that is, the collecting and evaluating of related lexical and thematic elements in the texts of other authors. Such components, however, are often hidden by oratorical embellishments or historiographical dexterity," explains Francesca Santoro L'hoir in her book, "Tragedy, Rhetoric, and the Historiography of Tacitus' Annales."
The following assignment is explained in the book, "Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student," by Edward P. Corbett: "Commonplace. This is an exercise that expands on the moral qualities of some virtue or vice, often as exemplified in some common phrase of advice. The writer in this assignment must seek through his or her knowledge and reading for examples that will amplify and illustrate the sentiments of the commonplace, proving it, supporting it, or showing its precepts in action. This is a very typical assignment from the Greek and Roman world in that it assumes a considerable store of cultural knowledge. Here are several commonplaces that might be amplified:
a. An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory.
b. You always admire what you really don't understand.
c. One cool judgment is worth a thousand hasty counsels.
d. Ambition is the last infirmity of noble minds.
e. The nation that forgets its defenders will be itself forgotten.
f. Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.
g. As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.
h. The pen is mightier than the sword."
Jokes and Commonplaces
The following examples of jokes with a religious bent are from Ted Cohen's book, "Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters."
"With some hermetic jokes what is required is not knowledge, or belief, in the first instance, but an awareness of what might be called 'commonplaces.'
A young Catholic woman told her friend, 'I told my husband to buy all the Viagra he can find.'
Her Jewish friend replied, 'I told my husband to buy all the stock in Pfizer he can find.'
It is not required that the audience (or the teller) actually believe that Jewish women are more interested in money than in sex, but he must be acquainted with this idea. When jokes play upon commonplaces-which may or may not be believed-they often do it by exaggeration. Typical examples are clergymen jokes. For instance,
After knowing one another for a long time, three clergymen-one Catholic, one Jewish, and one Episcopalian-have become good friends. When they are together one day, the Catholic priest is in a sober, reflective mood, and he says, 'I'd like to confess to you that although I have done my best to keep my faith, I have occasionally lapsed, and even since my seminary days I have, not often, but sometimes, succumbed and sought carnal knowledge.'
'Ah well,' says the rabbi, 'It is good to admit these things, and so I will tell you that, not often, but sometimes, I break the dietary laws and eat forbidden food.'
At this the Episcopalian priest, his face reddening, says, 'If only I had so little to be ashamed of. You know, only last week I caught myself eating a main course with my salad fork.'"
Bizzell, Patricia and Bruce Herzberg. The Rhetorical Tradition. 2nd ed, Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001.
Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Prentice-Hall, 1950.
Cohen, Ted. Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters. The University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Corbett, Edward P.J. and Robert J. Connors. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. 4th ed., Oxford University Press, 1999.
Ende, Michael. Momo. Translated by Maxwell Brownjohn, Doubleday, 1985.
L'hoir, Francesca Santoro. Tragedy, Rhetoric, and the Historiography of Tacitus' Annales. University of Michigan Press, 2006.
Steadman, John M. Milton's Epic Characters. The University of North Carolina Press, 1968.