Topic. This word as frequently used, nowadays, denotes the whole subject
of discourse, a meaning flowing out of, but not altogether identical
with, its proper sense. With Aristotle, in the eight books of Topics,
and in the treatise on Rhetoric, the term
τόπος means a locus communis,
a common-place, and is the original of these titles.
A topic is thus identical with a
maxim, although some of the schoolmen drew a distinction between the
two, denoting by the topic or commonplace the head of
thought to which the maxim belongs. For example, testimonium is
the locus to which the dictum semper cuilibet in arte sua
is to be referred, and the Port Royalists and Dr. Watts adhere to this
distinction. It is not, however, Aristotelian. The titles
locus indicate, as Cicero observes, that a general or received
maxim is a
of argument in which the disputant may find the weapon which he wants.
As arguments from places must scarcely ever be more than probable,
inasmuch as the place itself is but a received dictum,(1) the adjective
topical has been used by some writers as almost synonymous with
probable. "That," such will be found saying, "is no more than a
The uselessness of studying topics has been enlarged on by the Port
Royal logicians and by Dr. Watts, and if our aim be scientific inquiry,
or accurate and truthful reasoning, useless enough it must assuredly be.
The lawyer, however, would hardly be persuaded to neglect the maxims of
his profession; and though formal disputation outside the bar or the
senate, and formal disputation was that which Aristotle had in view, has
fallen into disuse, yet it is worth remarking how large a share in the
common disputation which springs up in conversation is occupied by
commonplaces. "Show me your company, and I will tell you what you are,"
and the like, are phrases which continually occur in ordinary
discussion; and the thoughtful man will do well to suspect the arguments
of which they form a feature.
The word commonplace is familiar to us in modern language, and is used
as an adjective, meaning ordinary, trite, insignificant. This, I suspect, is very modern: I doubt whether it is older than the age
of Queen Anne, and whether it had much ascendency till times nearer our
own. Johnson in his Dictionary gives it neither as substantive nor
adjective, but uses it himself as Todd notices in his criticism on Gray:
" The ensuing stanza, exhibiting Mar's car and Jove's eagle, is unworthy
of notice. Criticism disdains chasing the schoolboy to his commonplaces"
It is beside my purpose to comment on the flagrant injustice of this as
applied to a truly splendid imitation of one of the most magnificent
passages in Pindar. What I have to remark is that the word before us is
still used as a substantive, though it has broken loose from its
technical and scholastic meaning. Todd himself takes no notice of the
(1) Unless it be an axiom, and axioms have been ranked by some among