D.C. BAR 2020 CONFERENCE – DISCOVER MORE AT https://www.dcbarconference.org

Washington Lawyer

The Commonplace Book of Wisdom

From Washington Lawyer, January 2015

By Jacob A. Stein

spectatorThe Oxford English Dictionary reports that a commonplace book is one “in which common places or passages or references were collected, usually under general heads; hence a book in which one records passages or matters to be especially remembered or referred to, with or without arrangement.”

John Gross, in his Oxford Book of Aphorisms, writes that in a Commonplace Book, there will be aphorisms. He gave many definitions of that word aphorism, such as its brevity, verbal artistry, and things to use at the right time.

Metaphors also are writings that are in a Commonplace Book. A metaphor is a little different. It compares two unlike statements or ideas that are similar. Here is a metaphor. A lawyer says to another, “That last witness was a sly cat.” That metaphor is worth a hundred words.

I have collected aphorisms, metaphors, quotations, and essays. I will put them in my Commonplace Book.

My Commonplace Book will differ from others. It has been said that the Commonplace Book, if read carefully, tells the character of the person who made the selections. Probably true.

In this passage below from Samuel Shellabarger, the words “the unburned bridge” caught my eye. Shellabarger was a biographer of Chesterfield (1694–1773), a man of the world. He is now remembered by the letters to his illegitimate son. Here are selections from Shellabarger as well as other notables that you will find in my Commonplace Book:

Distinguishing the man of the world of all ages is a philosophy at times implicit, but in general avowed, which perhaps is most conveniently expressed by the indefinite term worldliness. It is an alliance of rationalism with materialism in the practical exercise of social life. Less formally stated, it is a belief in the supreme desirability of what most men strive for—power, position, wealth, the esteem of one’s associates, the pleasures of the senses—the pursuit and enjoyment of all this to be regulated partly by some code of good form and partly by common sense, which is rationalism en négligé. The objectives of worldliness will always commend themselves to that legal fiction, the ordinary prudent man; its values will always seem valuable to 99 percent of the population; it is the most plausible form of selfishness.

The true man of the world is no doctrinaire and would warmly disclaim the title of worldly. It may often serve his purpose to be considered or consider himself as an idealist. But his distinguishing features are the same: he is the adept of compromise, expediency, the unburned bridge, the secret reservation, the ultimate confidence in Mammon.

—Samuel Shellabarger

Guilt and crime are so frequent in this world that all of them cannot be punished and many times they happen in such a manner that it is not of much consequence to the public whether they are punished or not.

—John Adams

Where the least thing is seen as the center of a network of relationships and the investigator does not restrain himself from following and multiplying the details, the inquiry becomes infinite. Whatever the starting point, the matter in hand spreads out and out, encompassing ever vaster horizons—and if permitted to go further and further in every direction, it would end by encompassing the entire universe.

—Italo Calvino

When young, when our own understanding is not yet fully developed by years or experience, we believe humanity to be ruled by reason. When, however, our understanding has reached maturity, and our inferences are drawn more logically and supported by long experience, we find that humanity is much less swayed by reason than by emotions, impulses, fancies, whims; by chance happenings, chance actions, even chance words.


The enemy increaseth every day. We, at the height, are ready to decline. There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune, omitted all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, and we must take the current when it serves or lose our venture.


On the whole, human beings want to be good, but not too good and not quite all the time.


This day I shall have to do with an idle curious vain man, with an unthankful man, with a talkative railer, a crafty, false or an envious man. An unsociable sarcastic man. A greedy man. A deceiver. Such is the way of the world, and I shall be no more affected by it than I am about changes in the weather.

—Marcus Aurelius
(Stein Translation from the Latin)

Now back to the scraps picked up in the past.

Reach Jacob A. Stein at [email protected].