Quintilian and L’Oréal: a commonplace book entry

This term I am teaching a series of classes on broad themes relating to the contexts of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature (e.g. Renaissance humanism, the Protestant Reformation, the Civil Wars). We are doing various fun things like listening to songs by Henry VIII and looking at pictures of places around Cambridge where important events took place. One thing I am asking my students to do is to compile a “commonplace book”.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, commonplace books were typically notebooks in which students and others collected proverbial sayings and striking quotations under a range of topical headings (e.g. ambition, love, war, liberty), with a view to using or imitating them in their own writing. The concept of a commonplace book subsequently broadened somewhat to include other kinds of information (e.g. recipes, reflections and reading lists).

I am adapting this idea slightly for my students by asking them to choose a quotation from a primary source relevant to the topic we will be discussing for each class and then to write a personal reflection of 200-250 words on this quotation. These are not being marked (“graded” for US readers) by standard essay criteria and can range from more conventionally scholarly observations (e.g. “What Luther says about allegory here helps us understand what Milton is doing in Paradise Lost”) to more personal/subjective  responses (e.g. “Erasmus’s sense of humour is a bit weird”, or “I want to lead an Elizabethan fashion revival”). I’m trying to take my own medicine by doing the same thing myself. Below is my reflection on a quotation from the Roman rhetorician Quintilian for our class on Renaissance humanism and rhetoric:


My aim, then, is the education of the perfect orator. The first essential for such a one is that he should be a good man, and consequently we demand of him not merely the possession of exceptional gifts of speech, but of all the excellences of character as well.

(Quintilian, The Education of an Orator, I Preface)

Quintilian says that it is essential for the orator to be a “good man” with “all the excellences of character”. But is this really true? Do we have to be good to be persuasive? Or do we just have to seem to be good? Might it not be the case that being a skilful speaker enables a person more effectively to deceive others, or to persuade them to do evil? Wasn’t Hitler a persuasive orator? A lot of advertising is rhetorically effective, but I’m not sure it necessarily has a positive effect on the ethical formation of its audience. Am I only worth it if I use L’Oréal?

But stepping back, perhaps we can understand what Quintilian is saying a little differently. Perhaps he isn’t saying that every effective speaker is virtuous, but rather that, for rhetoric to be used as it should, the orator ought to be virtuous as well as eloquent. Is it necessary to be a good person to be a good orator? I think it depends what we mean by “good”. As G.K. Chesterton said, “The word ‘good’ has many meanings. For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of five hundred yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man.”

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View from the Second Floor of Cambridge Central Library

Looking out
from the window
of the back side of the city library,
a jumble of roofs –

not the straight street lines;
the soaring spires just out of sight;
instead –

whitewashed houses with crooked tiles;
a wooden trellis;
two streetlights cosying up to the Corn Exchange;
crooked chimneys, five in a row, retired from service;
the sixties shopping centre’s sheer straight box;
grey concrete facades;
quietly dirty windows;
a dragon atop a weathercock, in oxidised green;
to the right and the left, antennae cluster.

A shy skylight (or is it a solar panel?)
frames the reflection as the clouds drift by.

A swooping bird drops by for a moment
as I perch with my book in my hand.

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skunks, nuns and dragons: a dialogue en route to Lincoln

(Overheard recently on a train journey to Lincoln:)

“Skunks aren’t real.”

“Yeah, skunks are real.”

“Oh, I thought skunks weren’t real. I thought they were like dragons.”

“Dragons used to be real, though.”

“No, dragons can’t be real because people can’t breathe fire.”


(Sometime later, as Lincoln Cathedral comes into view from the train window.)

“Look! We’re nearly there. There’s that church.”

“Is that where they have the nuns?”

“No, they don’t have nuns in churches.”

“Where do they have them then?”

“I think they have nuns in a chapel.”

“What’s a chapel?”

“I think a chapel’s a bit like a church, but they don’t have seats.”

“So where do they sleep, then?”

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overheard on train

I overheard half of a phone conversation recently on the train from Cambridge. If this was a TV drama I would think the dialogue was somewhat improbable.

Lady on phone:

“We can’t plan our lives around them not knowing they’re doing. Why don’t we just plan the honeymoon and let them sort things out around that.”


“They haven’t told you you’re going to Liberia until today and you’re travelling on Monday. They’re not very good letting you know about anything, sweetheart.”

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a strategic use of hats

I have recently been reading through an anthology of “newsbooks” from the English Civil Wars of the mid-seventeenth century. These are sometimes seen as the first English newspapers, in that they were the first weekly publications containing English news. However (perhaps not too unlike today’s newspapers) they are not always reliable sources of information as they have a propaganda function favouring either the parliamentarian or the royalist side of the conflict which leads them to select, interpret and sometimes invent “news” in ways which suit their cause. Nevertheless, they often make entertaining reading, as with this episode of the efforts of a resourceful lady to resist the royalist siege on the house of the MP William Purefoy:


At last prince Robert beat for parley, those of the house advised upon it, being but 8. Men, a Gentlewoman of 80. yeares age, and 2. maides, the old Gentlewoman advised them not to yeeld, but to fight it out to the last, and shee would make bullets for them, as fast as they could use them (most of their bullets being spent) and during the parley she made bullets accordingly, and caused the 12. Men that staid within to appeare with Hats, sometimes with white Caps, and sometimes with Hats and feathers in severall parts of the house conspicuous to their adversaries, which made their number to be apprehended far greater than it was.

(Speciall Passages and certain Informations from severall places, number 4, 30 August – 6 September, 1642, in Joad Raymond (ed.), Making the News: An Anthology of the Newsbooks of Revolutionary England 1641-1660 (Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire: The Windrush Press, 1993), p. 88)

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the bend in the road

Hello again. For all tuning in after the intermission, I am writing this from Sleaford, Lincolnshire, back in England. Having had a fabulous time in Canada, I’m currently in an in between phase, waiting to see what comes next (having put in almost 40 job applications). It’s good to have a pause to breathe after a couple of years where I haven’t really had a break, and it’s nice to be back with family for a while and especially to get to know my nine-month old niece, who looked quizzically at me for the first weekend, but seems now to have taken to me and often smiles when she sees me.


I’m going to continue blogging about Canada, at least for a while. During the past year I’ve been mentally noting bloggable observations quicker than I got round to writing posts, so have a fair number of observations of Canada still in store. I might be making some connections between my Canadian and British lives.

In my last few weeks in Toronto, I was helping a Korean friend with English conversation and enjoying her baking. Watching her put the vanilla essence into her banana bread, I was reminded of Anne of Green Gables’ misadventure in baking when she accidentally makes a cake with anodyne liniment instead of vanilla. Anne of Green Gables had been my bedtime reading, for two main reasons. One is that I probably didn’t read enough children’s fiction as a child, since I was a precocious child who preferred non-fiction, so I feel I have some catching up to do, particularly with some of the children’s classics I think I should have read. The other reason is that Anne of Green Gables is also a Canadian classic and so I thought it would dispatch two birds at once by aiding my quest to appreciate the roots of Canadian culture.

I could identify with many of the scrapes Anne gets into, particularly in the earlier part of the book. With regard to culinary misadventures, I recently found that cooking tomato puree with peanut butter was not the optimum combination. As a child I once tried mixing milk and lemon juice and heating the combination in the microwave. The result was a large white curdled blob floating in a residue of liquid.

I have a number of friends in Toronto who originate from Prince Edward Island where Anne of Green Gables is set. Apparently the island is overrun by coach tours filled with fans of Anne, and PEI benefits from the tourist dollars of multitudes of smitten Japanese ladies in particular. On their July tour of Canada, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge bypassed Toronto, but did visit Prince Edward Island, reportedly due to Kate’s childhood fondness for the series. On the royal visit, a Canadian journalist commented:

Now that Canada is the first to officially welcome Will and Kate, the nation is poised to return the love. And what better choice of host could there be? Like the royal couple themselves, Canada is young, clean-cut, polite, uncontroversial and financially secure. A bit dull, perhaps, but we make up for it with upbeat small talk and unfailing good manners. It’s an approach to life the Royal Family instinctively understands.

I would not dare to offer an assessment of the accuracy or otherwise of this statement.

The hidden subversive potential of Anne was revealed when I bought a copy of the book which was on special offer at the BMV store (BMV = Books Music Videos). Briefly wandering into and then out of an HMV store nearby, I set off the security alarm. They asked me if I had a CD or DVD in my bag, and I said that I didn’t, but I did have a book. After they ran the book through their scanners, I could leave without setting off the alarm.

One passage near the end of the book had a more particular resonance for me. Not wanting to spoil the story for those who don’t know, Anne is reflecting on a change of circumstances which makes her future uncertain:

“When I left Queen’s my future seemed to stretch out before me like a straight road. I thought I could see along it for many a milestone. Now there is a bend in it. I don’t know what lies around the bend, but I’m going to believe that the best does. It has a fascination of its own, that bend, Marilla. I wonder how the road beyond it goes – what there is of green glory and soft, checkered light and shadows – what new landscapes – what new beauties – what curves and hills and valleys further on.”

I have so far been a perpetual student, staying on the educational escalator from one stage to the next, and am immensely grateful for the privileges this has brought me and the places it has taken me. I would have loved to stay longer in Canada and to carry on life with my Toronto friends, but was unable to extend my stay once my year’s fellowship concluded. For now though, I believe I’m in the right place, even if I can’t see round the bend in the road.

My home town of Sleaford is a market town in rural Lincolnshire with a population of 14,500. It’s a relatively small town (in British terms, we wouldn’t call it a city – though I’m not sure if my North American readers make the same distinction between a town and a city), with country fields only ever a few minutes’ drive away. However, Sleaford has been growing rapidly for the past twenty years or so, partly through commuters moving up from the south of England where houses are more expensive. This growth is set to continue, and the town has had a lot of restoration and regeneration work done in the town centre especially since I started university.


I’ve recently discovered some connections between Sleaford and Canada which I didn’t previously know. Frances Brooke (1724-89), author of what is known as “the first Canadian novel”, is buried in the parish church in Sleaford. It was Frances Brooke and her sister Sarah who reportedly complimented Samuel Johnson on his famous English dictionary as follows:

The two ladies paid him due compliments on the occasion. Amongst other topics of praise, they very much commended the omission of all naughty words. ‘What! my dears! then you have been looking for them?’ said Johnson. The ladies, confused at being thus caught, dropped the subject of the dictionary.

(from H. D. Beste, Personal and Literary Memorials (1829))

Frances produced plays, poems and translations, as well as editing a periodical entitled The Old Maid, under the pseudonym “Mary Singleton, Spinster”, though in fact she was recently married when she began this publication. However, she is best known as the author of the 1769 novel The History of Emily Montague, often called the first Canadian novel. Although Frances Brooke was not in Canada for that much of her life (living for four years in Quebec, where her husband was a Church of England chaplain), the novel’s role in Canadian literary history attracts significant attention from scholars of Canadian literature which it might not have done had it been just another eighteenth-century English novel.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, The History of Emily Montague is a fairly typical eighteenth-century sentimental novel , which “recounts the courtship and marriage of several sets of lovers including, most importantly, Ed Rivers, a lieutenant-colonel on half-pay, and the beautiful, but apparently poor, Emily Montague.” However, it is distinguished by being set in the British colony of Quebec and by including “comments, reinforcing views already expressed by both Brookes in their letters, on the political, religious, and social characteristics of Britain’s recent acquisition”. I was amused to read that “According to Frances Brooke, this Canadian content, which would make it ‘better liked by men than women’, was partly responsible for the poor sales; ‘a novel to sell shou’d please women because women are the chief readers of novels & perhaps the best judges’”. However, one reviewer “was also impressed with Mrs Brooke’s presentation of Canada ‘and the manners of its inhabitants’, for in ‘her description of these the reader will meet with much amusement” and “In the late eighteenth century the work also became a kind of guidebook for visitors to Quebec.”


Another important figure in Canadian history linked to Sleaford is William Henry (Bill) Wright (1876-1951), the first publisher of The Globe and Mail (a prominent national Canadian newspaper published in Toronto), who made his wealth through gold-prospecting. Wright was born in Sleaford and was a butcher’s apprentice who then joined the British army and fought in the Boer War before moving to Canada in 1907. According to Wikipedia: “In 1916, Wright felt the need to support the Allies in World War I. Though he was a millionaire and almost forty years old, he joined the Canadian army as a private and served overseas. He remained a private throughout the war, though he had to turn down the opportunity of promotion several times.”

The Globe and Mail was not an entirely new newspaper, but rather a merger between two newspapers each founded by politicians who played a major role in Canadian history, though their politics differed. According to Wikipedia, The Globe was founded in 1844 by George Brown, one of the Fathers of Confederation (who have a similar status in Canadian history to that of the Founding Fathers in US history). Brown was aligned with the Clear Grits, an agriculturally based reform movement which fed into the Liberal Party of Canada. The Toronto Mail, on the other hand, was founded in 1872 by John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister and a Tory: The Toronto Mail merged with Toronto Empire, another conservative newspaper, to form The Mail and Empire before merging with The Globe in 1936 to form The Globe and Mail. George Brown and John Macdonald both have names that live on in Toronto through buildings, colleges and the like named after them. Incidentally, both immigrated from Scotland. A book was published in 2010 entitled How the Scots Invented Canada (by Ken McGoogan), exploring how Scottish immigrants played a leading role in creating both the institutions and the culture of what became Canada. But, if the Scots invented Canada, Sleaford had its small role in furnishing Canada with culture.

There are some possibilities in the pipeline for me, and, to mix metaphors, there is a chance that the bend in the road will lead back across the Atlantic, though perhaps not to Canada this time. Keep tuning in.

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John Stott, double listening and dependency

Wednesday this past week (27th July) saw the death of the Rev John Stott at the age of 90. In 2005, Time magazine named Stott as one of the 100 most influential people in the world then living. This may seem far-fetched, since, although John Stott is a prominent figure in certain Christian circles, he is not a household name to the world at large. However, if we are thinking in terms of influence rather than fame it does seem plausible to me, since his writing, preaching and personal encouragement have been formative in the lives of thousands of Christian leaders around the world, whose own ministries have thus borne the marks of Stott’s influence and in their turn have shaped the lives of millions of Christians, at least some of whom have made substantial positive contributions to wider society.

John Stott will be remembered for many things, variously emphasised in the numerous obituaries and tributes he has received. These include his over fifty books, his ministry to the same London parish (in various capacities) from his ordination in 1945 until his death, his conviction that Christians should be involved with issues of justice and social concern, and his worldwide travels encouraging and training Christian leaders particularly in the majority (non-Western) world. Taken together, the obituaries in the Daily Telegraph and Christianity Today give fairly good overviews of his life.

I thought I’d talk a little about one of the aspects of John Stott’s thought that has become increasingly important to me over the past year. This is his concept of “double listening”:

I believe we are called to the difficult and even painful task of ‘double listening’. That is, we are to listen carefully (although of course with differing degrees of respect) both to the ancient Word and to the modern world, in order to relate the one to the other with a combination of fidelity and sensitivity.

(John Stott, The Contemporary Christian: An urgent plea for double listening (IVP, 1992), p. 13)

Stott had a firm conviction that God has made himself known in the person of Jesus Christ, and that this divine revelation can be accessed particularly through the words of the Bible as unfolded to readers by the Holy Spirit. Christians thus need to pay careful attention to this divine revelation, which should shape how they perceive all of life. However, Stott believed that having lots of Bible studies was not sufficient to enable Christians to engage constructively with the people around them or with wider society. For this, Christians need truly to listen to the people we meet, and to the experiences, ideas, aspirations and fears of our time expressed in books, journalism and entertainment media. Stott also insisted that that although Christians should be firm in their convictions, we need to empathise with the way the world is experienced by our fellow human beings, even if we have points of disagreement with them, rather than taking the first opportunity to jump on them with pre-packaged answers:

It is a truism to say that we have to listen to the Word of God, except perhaps that we need to listen to him more expectantly and humbly, ready for him to confront us with a disturbing, uninvited word. It is less welcome to be told that we must also listen to the world. For the voices of our contemporaries may take the form of shrill and strident protest. They are now querulous, now appealing, now aggressive in tone. There are also the anguished cries of those who are suffering, and the pain, doubt, anger, alienation and even despair of those who are estranged from God. I am not suggesting that we should listen to God and to our fellow human beings in the same way or with the same degree of deference. We listen to the Word with humble reverence, anxious to understand it, and resolved to believe and obey what we come to understand. We listen to the world with critical alertness, anxious to understand it too, and resolved not necessarily to believe and obey it, but to sympathise with it and to seek grace to discover how the gospel relates to it.

(The Contemporary Christian, pp. 27-28)

In connection with this, Stott quotes Archbishop Michael Ramsey:

We state and commend the faith only in so far as we go out and put ourselves inside the doubts of the doubters, the questions of the questioners and the loneliness of those who have lost their way.

(Michael Ramsey, Image Old and New (SPCK, 1963), p. 14)

This model has acquired a greater resonance for me living in North America for the past year, where in certain social settings, particularly in academia, hostility towards Christianity is aroused partly by Christians being associated with the strident voices of one pole of the “culture wars”. (Several friends have heard me ramble repeatedly about my dislike of the whole culture wars paradigm, so I won’t inflict that on you here.) In this context, it is perhaps especially important that Christians should learn to listen and to engage in genuine conversation rather than simply shouting across the barricades.

On the other hand, however, my impression is that many Canadian Christians, perhaps especially in Toronto, are so concerned not to conform to this negative stereotype of Christians as preachy right-wing crazies that they are often afraid to voice their convictions at all or even to own up to being a Christian. I feel that I have succumbed to this fear myself on occasion in the past year (more so than when studying in the UK, which is a fairly secular country) and ducked away from expressing my true self even when these matters have naturally arisen in conversation. It’s a difficult balance, as I think that there is a legitimate prudence in not always putting all our cards on the table straight away where this does not seem helpful, but I fear that to conceal one’s core convictions indefinitely is damaging to a sense of personal integrity.

Thinking about Stott’s model of double listening started me thinking more widely about the nature of conversation and how the interplay between listening and speaking says something important about the ethics of communication. This is not exactly the same topic which Stott was addressing, though it is related, and these broader thoughts might perhaps be more readily accessible to those reading this who may not share the Christian convictions presupposed by Stott’s model.

Conversation involves interacting with another person, and so necessarily entails acknowledging that other person, at least to a minimal degree. The rhythm of conversation, its ebb and flow, embodies a principle of giving space to another person, letting them be who they are and express how things look from the place where they are standing, before responding with something of who we are and how we see things. Though the content of our conversation might legitimately affirm, challenge, or gently nuance what we hear from the other person, the prior condition of true conversational engagement is an acknowledgement of the other person as a person. Communion is the prior condition for communication.

Those who are truly gifted in the art of conversation seem to have a way of drawing out the other person, engaging in a dance whose moves aim to allow the other person to reveal something of themselves. Those with this gift seem to want not so much to unload onto the other person what they find interesting as to find those keys which will unlock the other person and so allow the other person to unfold to reveal themselves to be the profoundly fascinating person that they are (as pretty much everyone seems to be if you can ask the right questions). It seems that the best conversationalists combine a skill (partly a natural endowment and partly a skill which can be learned and improved) with a true interest in and care for the other person which has an ethical dimension.

This is an area where I feel that I often fail. As a child and a teenager, I didn’t see the point of small talk. I mean, why bother talking about the weather or what the other person did at the weekend (which never seemed all that earth-shattering) when there were far more significant things to discuss, like Shakespeare, or electoral reform, or predestination? As part of my belated learning of social skills at university, I came to realise that the point of small talk is not usually the actual topic of conversation, but rather, it’s a way of acknowledging the presence of the other person and forging a connection based on our shared humanity.

However, I think I still have a way to go in learning to be a good conversationalist who is able to affirm and draw out the other person in the way I engage with them. I think where I derail as a conversationalist now is particularly once we’ve moved past the small talk onto those topics that interest me, onto books, ideas, theology, politics and the like. The trouble is that if my mind gets onto a topic I am interested in, about ten different thoughts come to mind, and I feel a compulsion to share all of them, which makes my contribution to conversation resemble a lecture to which the other person doesn’t have space to respond (or a sermon, depending on the topic of conversation). Alternatively, I share one or two of my thoughts but then get frustrated that the topic of conversation moves on and I didn’t get to say what I really wanted to say, and so am inclined to want to parachute it in somewhere later, whether or not it’s really of interest to the other person.

Occasionally this is because my conversation partner says something I disagree with and I feel the need to correct them prematurely rather than having the grace to give them space to reveal themselves before discerning whether or not it would be helpful to that person at that moment to prompt their thinking in a different direction. (This is more directly related to Stott’s idea of double listening.)

More often, though, I don’t want to shut the other person down. I just get so carried away with my excitement with the subject of conversation that I don’t give space to truly hear the other person’s contribution. Sometimes I go away from a conversation or replay it later lying in bed and am frustrated that I didn’t get to hear as much from the other person as I would have liked. If you are someone I have done this to, I am sorry. I am still learning the art of conversation and appreciate that you have the grace to give me space to learn, despite my mistakes.

I would like to conclude by returning to John Stott, but to his thoughts on a different topic. In my quest for his thoughts on “double listening”, I borrowed a number of his books from one of the college libraries here in Toronto, including his final book, The Radical Disciple: Some Neglected Aspects of Our Calling (IVP, 2010). This book was intentionally written as a farewell – it has a postscript which begins “As I lay down my pen for the last time (literally, since I confess I am not computerised)” (p. 137). The book is pretty readable and most of the chapters are only 10 to 20 pages long, with the small format of the book meaning that there are not that many words to a page. The chapter titles indicate areas which Stott feels are important to following the way of Christ but to which Christians today may not give as much attention as they should: Nonconformity, Christlikeness, Maturity, Creation Care, Simplicity, Balance, Dependence, Death.

There is an obvious and presumably deliberate poignancy to ending with a chapter on death. However, perhaps the most moving chapter is the penultimate one on dependence, in which Stott begins by recounting the experience of a fall which put him in hospital on a day he was due to preach. The chapter ends with this reflection:

We come into this world totally dependent on the love, care and protection of others. We go through a phase of life when other people depend on us. And most of us will go out of this world totally dependent on the love and care of others. And this is not an evil, destructive reality. It is part of the design, part of the physical nature that God has given us.

I sometimes hear old people, including Christian people who should know better, say, “I don’t want to be a burden to anyone else. I’m happy to carry on living so long as I can look after myself, but as soon as I become a burden I would rather die.” But this is wrong. We are all designed to be a burden to others. You are designed to be a burden to me and I am designed to be a burden to you. And the life of the family, including the life of the local church family, should be one of “mutual burdensomeness”. “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

Christ himself takes on the dignity of dependence. He is born a baby, totally dependent on the care of his mother. He needs to be fed, he needs his bottom to be wiped, he needs to be propped up when he rolls over. And at the end, on the cross, he again becomes totally dependent, limbs pierced and stretched, unable to move. So in the person of Christ we learn that dependence does not, cannot, deprive a person of their dignity, of their supreme worth. And if dependence was appropriate for the God of the universe, it is certainly appropriate for us.

(The Radical Disciple, pp. 110-11)

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