Common-place: The 8th Progymnasmata Exercise Explained

Common–place (koinos topos) , the 8th exercise in the series of the Progymnasmata exercisesOpens in new window, is language amplifying evils that are attached to something. It is a technique similar to encomion and vituperation (invective), which as a result, some have defined it as “a source of a formal argument directed at one who has made a particularly bad (or good) moral decision.” It is so called from fitting all in common who take part in the same deed; for speech against a traitor applies in common to all who share in the deed.

According to TheonOpens in new window, Common–place (koino topos) is “language amplifying something that is acknowledged to be either a fault or a brave deed.” In the same vein, Nicolaus defines common–place as “an amplification and attack on an acknowledged evil; or as other define it, an amplification of an acknowledged evil or human goodness.”

Generally, common–place is of two kinds: one is an attack on those who have done evil deeds; and the other in favour of those who have done good deeds.

How It Differs from Encomion & Vituperation

The actual difference that exists between common–place and vituperation is that in the case of common–place the judges are being urged to punish the wrong doer, while in vituperation hearers are being incited to hatred of the individual against whom the attack is being made.

Furthermore, they differ because common–place target its attacks on unspecified persons, whereas in vituperation, attacks are targeted at specified (named) persons. However, common–place also differs from encomium in that encomium is usually directed towards specifically named person, whereas common–place is directed towards an unspecified person, such as a prostitute or an adulterer.

Theon says there are two kinds: “one is an attack on those who have done evil deeds, for example, a tyrant, traitor, murderer, profligate; the other in favour of those who have done something good: for example, a tyrannicide, a hero, a lawgiver.” These typical occasions of common–places can be combined, for example, towards a traitorous general or a temple robber.

Aphthonius offers a clear explanation that it is called a common–place because it is “fitting all in common to all who share in the same deed.” Thus the common–place is a starting point from which one can construct arguments directed towards a specific person.

Template for Composition
  • Begin with the contrary statement.
  • Introduce a comparison; compare something better to what is attacked.
  • Introduce a maxim that upbraids the motivation of the doer of the deed.
  • Employ a digression with a defamatory conjecture as to the past life of the person accused.
  • Repudiate the idea of taking pity on such a person.
  • Make argument on the virtue or vice in consonance with these headings: just, lawful, expedient, honourable, pleasant, practicable and easy of accomplishment. These headings are explained in depth hereOpens in new window.
  • Meanwhile, observe below, “A Common-place Against A Tyrant”
A Common-place Against A Tyrant

(Prooemium 1) Since laws have been established and courts of justice are part of our government, let one seeking to annul the laws be subject to the laws for punishment. If he were going to become more democratically inclined by acquittal of the present charge, perhaps one would let him off from trial; but since he will be more violent if he is acquitted now, how is it just at present to provide forgiveness for his initiation of tyranny?

(Prooemium 2) Now all men who have been chosen by lot to serve on juries receive no harm from their acquittal of the accused, but acquittal on a charge of tyranny will cause harm to those making the judgment; for making judgment does not survive once a tyrant has gained power.

(Contrary) It seems to me that you will rather more accurately consider the state of mind of the man before you if you consider the intentions of our ancestors. As a benefit to us they invented a constitution free of domination, and quite rightly so. Since different accidents befall mankind at different times and cause the judgments of men to alter, they sought out laws to balance the vagaries of fate by the equal application of the laws, working out for themselves therefrom a single standard of judgment for all. This becomes the law for the cities, a rectification of the evils that accidents create.

(Exposition) Taking no thought of these things, this man has plotted some most evil purpose: to change the basis of the constitution. He debated with himself in some such way as this: “Why is my situation what it is, O gods? Since I am clearly superior to the common people, shall I put up with being constantly treated as the equal of others and allow Fortune to bestow wealth upon me in vain? If I am subject to the same conditions as the many and the poor join together in judgment of me, whatever seems best to the many becomes a law for me. What escape will there be from these conditions? I shall seize the acropolis and put aside the laws, curse them, and thus I shall be a law to the many, not the many to me.” These are the ideas he considered, though not bringing them to fulfilment; for the gods’ good will prevented it. May the things for which we owe thanks to the gods not also protect this man today.

(Comparison) A murderer is a dreadful thing but a tyrant is a greater evil. The former does wrong against some ordinary person, but the other alters the whole fortune of the city. Thus, to the extent that causing grief on a small scale falls short of shedding the blood of all, to that extent murder is a lesser thing than tyranny.

(Intention) It is characteristic of all other men, even if they do very dreadful things, at least to distinguish their intention from their action, but the tyrant alone cannot say his daring is unintentional. If he had unwillingly attempted tyranny, perhaps one would excuse him from trial but since he acted after much planning, how is it just to dismiss something fully intended before the actions?

(Digression) All other persons brought before you for judgment are held responsible only for their present activity, and often they are let go because of their past life, but the one before us is being judged on the basis of both parts of his life: he did not live his past life with moderation and his present life is worse than his past. So let him be judged for both, both the harm he did earlier and what he did thereafter.

(Rejection of pity) Will anyone then try to win his release by emotional appeal? Probably his children will. But when they come into court weeping, think that the laws stand before you; surely it is much more righteous to cast a vote for them than for the children of this man; for (if you pity him) this man’s tyranny will have been secured by means of his children, but it is through the laws that you have acquired the right to make judgment. Thus, you will more justly vote in favor of that by which you have been made judges.

(Legality) And if it is the law to honor those who free their fatherland, it follows that it is just to punish those who enslave it.

(Justice) It is just for him to submit in your court to a penalty equal to what he has done.

(Advantage) The fall of a tyrant will be a benefit; for it will make the laws stand up.

(Possibility) It will be easy to exact punishment from the one before us; for it is not the case that just as he needed armed guards for the establishment of his tyranny, so we shall need allies to put down the tyrant; rather, the vote of the judges will suffice to abolish the whole power of a tyranny.

—An excerpt from: Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric edited by George Alexander Kennedy

(Honor and result are omitted; John of Sardis, ad loc., says they are not needed.)

Hermogenes, Progymnasmata 19 (Kennedy). Theon, Progymnasmata 106 (Kennedy) Nicolaus, Progymnasmata 36 (Kennedy)