Essay / Education

The Abundant Style of Erasmus


I had heard that Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) wrote a book showing hundreds of ways to say “thanks for your letter,” so I went and looked it up, just to see what one of the Renaissance’s prime movers was thinking when he did that.

The book in question –originally published as De duplici copia verborum ac rerum Commentarii duo, and available in English in volume 24 of  his Collected Works as Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style (translated and annotated by Betty I. Knott)– is much more than a stunt. It’s a really helpful exercise in developing a style that is rich and full.

Generations of readers have known this: De Copia was used as a textbook for rhetoric and composition throughout northern Europe in  Erasmus’ lifetime. It was popular enough to be pirated, to give rise to summaries, to be circulated in the form of excerpts, and to spawn commentaries.

In his classic opening sentence, Erasmus points to the goal of his instruction: “The speech of man is a magnificent thing when it surges along like a golden river, with thoughts and words pouring out in rich abundance.” He wants to train speakers and writers in the abundant style, so they can wield this magnificent power of spoken abundance. But he also warns, in the very next sentence, that the goal is not abundance for its own sake, and that cultivating this style has its dangers:

Yet the pursuit of speech like this involves considerable risk…. We find that a good many mortal men who make great efforts to achieve this godlike power of speech fall instead into mere glibness, which is both silly and offensive. They pile up a meaningless heap of words and expressions without any discrimination, and thus obscure the subject they are talking about, as well as belabouring the ears of their unfortunate audience.” (p. 295)

From this second sentence on, Erasmus constantly includes warnings against glibness and word-mongering. In fact, he says, the best defense against such errors is learning the art of abundance, because he who can expand can also contract. Those who learn this art have practiced contracting an idea to its briefest statement, and then expanding it to its fullest scope, “first compressing the subject to such an extent that you can subtract nothing, and then enriching and expending it so that nothing can be added.” (298)

Homer, according to Quintillian (according to Erasmus) exemplifies this mastery because he “is equally admirable for fullness and for compression.” But the Latin-loving Erasmus chooses his most apt illustrations from Virgil, who can show readers “the plains where Troy once stood” (Aen. 3.11), a handful of words in which “As Macrobius says…he has …consumed and swallowed up the city without even allowing the ruins to remain.” (Macrob. Saturnalia 5.1.8) Yet when Virgil needs to pile it on, he can provide ten lines of “Come is the final day, fate’s inevitable doom / …we see Trojans are no more…” (Aeneid 2.324ff, 241-2, 361-2, etc.) 

Why will such fullness result in a self-controlled and interesting speaker or writer? “Who,” asks Erasmus, “will speak more succinctly than the man who can readily and without hesitation pick out from a huge army of words, from the whole range of figures of speech, the feature that contributes most effectively to brevity?” (300)  Lack of fullness is, rather paradoxically, what leads to empty verbosity, because “we find ourselves destitute of verbal riches and hesitate, or keep singing out the same old phrase like a cuckoo, and are unable to clothe our thought in other colours or other forms… we shall bore our wretched audience to death.” (p. 302)

Abundance makes variety possible, and “variety is so powerful in every sphere that there is absolutely nothing, however brilliant, which is not dimmed if not commended by variety. Nature above all delights in variety; in all this huge concourse of things, she has left nothing anywhere unpainted by her wonderful technique of variety.” The audience is always in grave danger of boredom, but tedium “can easily be avoided by someone who has it at his fingertips to turn one idea into more shapes than Proteus himself is supposed to have turned into.” (p. 302)

De Copia is a book designed to help form the capacity for abundance. Erasmus assumes that his task as a teacher is to coax students into unfolding and elaborating on ideas, not to criticize and curtail their thoughts. In fact, he would rather see too much fullness than not enough: “I am giving instructions for the young in whom Quintillian was quite content to see an over-exuberant style, because the excessive growth can easily be cut back by criticism and the passing years will wear down other excrescences, while it is quite impossible to do anything to improve a thin and poverty-stricken style.” (p. 300) Critical cutting-back can wait; without the burst of verbal flourishing, nothing can happen.

For this reason, de Copia itself is an exercise book, and Erasmus makes sure his readers know that he is “not prescribing how one ought to write or speak, but merely indicating what is useful for practice, and everybody knows that in practicing everything must be exaggerated.” (p. 299) In other words, don’t try this in public!

The bulk of the book is a set of categories and comments on the techniques of rhetorical expansion. But along the way Erasmus gives “some brief advice on the exercises by which this faculty may be developed.” Step one is to commit Erasmus’ categories of expansion to memory (you’ll have to go to his book to get those); step two is that “we should frequently take a group of sentences and deliberately set out to express each of them in as many versions as possible, as Quintillian advises, using the analogy of a piece of wax which can be moulded into one shape after another. This exercise will be more profitable if a group of students competes…”

This is the context in which Erasmus sets out his celebrated list of ways to say “thanks for writing.” The actual sentence he transforms, to “see how far we can go in transforming the basic expression into a Protean variety of shapes” (p. 348),  is this:  Your letter pleased me mightily. tuae litterae me magnopere delectarunt. Some of the variations work better in Latin, and you’ll hear various reports of how many different ways Erasmus produces here. In the Collected  Works edition I consulted, the list runs from page 348 to 354, and I count about 150 variations (the edition published in 1512 printed the list with numbers, from i to cxlvi).

Here are just a few of the variations:

Your brief note refreshed my spirits in no small measure.
I was in no small measure refreshed in spirit by your grace’s hand.
From your affectionate letter I received unbelievable pleasure.
Your pages engendered in me an unfamiliar delight.
I conceived a wonderful delight from your pages.
Your lines conveyed to me the greatest joy.
The greatest joy was brought to me by your lines.
We derived great delight from your excellency’s letter.
From my dear Faustus’ letter I derived much delight.
In these Faustine letters I found a wonderful kind of delectation.
At your words a delight of no ordinary kind came over me.
I was singularly delighted by your epistle.
To be sure your letter delighted my spirits!
Your brief missive flooded me with inexpressible Joy.
As a result of your letter, I was suffused by an unfamiliar gladness.
Your communication poured vials of joy on my head.
Your epistle afforded me no small delight.
The perusal of your letter charmed my mind with singular delight.

And so on. And on and on!

Much of what Erasmus teaches in the Copia would need to be updated before being applied to modern education in rhetoric and composition, but he is fundamentally right about the need for speakers to find the fullness of their powers of expression. The power of speech is indeed magnificent when it rushes on like a mighty stream!  Call to mind the most powerful writing you’ve read, and you’ll likely remember wondering how the author found such ways of speaking. There is a mighty mystery in the abundant style.

And Erasmus continually guards against being misunderstood by mocking the pseudo-abundant style:

So if anyone sets out to acquire variety of language before equipping himself with a Latinity that is neat and clean, he will be no less ridiculous (in my opinion at any rate) than a beggar who has not got even one garment that he can decently put on, but keeps changing his clothes and coming out in public draped with different sets of rags, ostentatiously displaying not riches but penury. The more often he did it the madder he would be thought. Yet certain persons with aspirations towards the rich style act with equal absurdity; they cannot express what they have to say even once in elegant language, but apparently feeling ashamed if they fail to jabber as well as they can, they display their jabbering in one variation after another, each worse than the last, as if they had entered a competition with themselves to speak just as barbarously as it is possible to speak. … I would have all kinds of food served at a splendid banquet, but who could put up with a hundred dishes appearing on the table, every one of them nauseating? (306)


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