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Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history.

Nov 27, 2015



Mere rhetoric a podcast for beginners and insiders about the people, ideas and movements that have shaped the rhetorical world.


Erasmus was born in Holland, probably in 1466, and was orphaned by the time he was twenty. This meant that instead of getting to go to university, he was shuttled off to monk school, which, while he was ordained, was really not his cup of tea. Instead, he became a “wandering scholar” eventually wandering to England where he became chummy with the likes of Thomas More and the other humanists.



Wandering through Italy, France, the Low Countries and England, he tried to replace medieval learning with a Greek and Latin style, called New Learning, all the while engaging and inspiring some of the most important thinkers of his age. It’s only natural that Erasmus would have been involved in rhetoric because rhetoric was a controversial topic in the Renaissance, as we’ll discuss in depth later.


In Praise of Folly set out to criticize what Erasmus saw a excesses and hypocrisy within in the church, but it’s also just good language fun. For one thing, the Latin title,” Morias Encomium" may have been a pun on his friend Thomas More’s name. the tone is always a little hard to read, as Erasmus says “toys are not without their serious matter” The whole book is written in the voice of Folly, who is depicted as a goddess who keeps a court of vices like self-love, laziness and flattery. Sometimes Folly’s virtues seem sincere, like when she points out that children are happier than grown adults and that so-called folly is behind good nature, altruism and true love, but elsewhere in the book, the satire more directly castigates priests and scholars, especially rhetoricians. Folly complains that “we have as many grammars as grammarians” (41) and that they only write to each other in an echo chamber “more prattling than an echo” (43) and their works lack “the least coherence with the rest of the argument, that the admiring audience may in the meanwhile whisper to themselves, ‘what will he be at now?’” (52)


De copia was one of Erasmus’ greatest successes. In his lifetime it was published more than 85 times by publishers all over the Western world. By the end of the century it had been published more than 150 times, and worked its way into many other textbooks and handbooks.


Copia means simply abundance, and the Romans were so fond of it that there was even a goddess named Copia—so take that, Folly. Quintilian wrote a chapter where he touches on the idea of the abundant style, and that’s where Erasmus really takes off. He suggests that abundance doesn’t have to mean you drag on and on, but that abundance comes in what we might call the pre-writing stage. Erasmus says “who could speak more tersely than he who has ready at hand an extensive array or words and figure from which he can immediately select what is most suitable for conciseness?” Erasmus proposes a copia of ideas and of words, which will prepare the student for extemporaneous speaking under any circumstance. And then, to show off, Erasmus demonstrates how very, very many ways he can say “thank you for your letter”—if you have a chance to see this in print, I recommend you pick it up, because it’s dizzying. Here are some examples:


[we go back and forth]


In the second part of De copia, Erasmus talks about copia of thought, which includes embellishment through describing the thing in depth, its circumstances, its causes, its consequences and other ways to go in more depth on a topic. The amplification of what you can say about any topic is similarly dizzying, but again Erasmus emphasizes that copia is useful for even concise speech because “Let the lover of brevity see to it that he not only say few things, but let him say the best possible things in the fewest words” granted that “in our zeal for brevity we do no omit thins that should be said” (105).


De copia is remarkable for me as a compositionist for two reasons. First because it represents the way that thinking about language leads to thinking about ideas. Sometimes students want to add “fluff” to a paper to get it to a page limit, but Erasmus demonstrates that coming up with a lot of ways of discussing a topic—its past and its present and its characteristics—can add substance as well. Second, I love de copia because it acknowledges that there’s a difference between the prewriting phase of brainstorming and coming up with dozens—or hundreds—of ideas and the final, polished piece. Copia is based on the concept that many or most of your ideas are going out the window anyway, but the process of coming up with ideas is itself a valuable step in the writing process.