De Inventione, and an Unexpected Enlightenment

Oğuz Albayrak
4 min readFeb 19, 2023

While I was reading one of the earliest works of Cicero “De Inventione” (On invention), and I was thinking about why on earth he claimed that it kinda escaped his self-notes (1) and fell into circulation unfinished and raw, I had somewhat an enlightenment.

Remembering some very good note-taking students from classes that I took back in the day, I can clearly tell that the best were the ones that were able to share the notes as if what they wrote were actual books. They were never intended to be published (at least as the primary objective of the note taker) yet they had the quality matching the level of being ready to be published as a book. As years passed, I even started seeing some lecture notes that were taken decades before, being passed around as a valuable historical artifact because they were taken in the classes of some known professors, posthumously.

Never being the best note-taker, not even an adequate one, I myself was never able to produce such high quality works, and now I know why. They weren’t meant to be read again in the first place. Not even by myself. I was taking notes, because I had a pen and paper as everybody had, and I felt like I needed to do something with them to compensate the effort of carrying them around, resulting in the only thing they are capable of: (unless one was more interested in doodling which would not seem so respectful to the effort of the lecturer) taking notes. Meanwhile on the other extreme side of the note-taking-axis opposing me, were the best note-takers that produced the notes in the quality of a book, ready to distribute as a book — which, unlike Cicero’s works, could be subject to copyright infringement since we are taking it very seriously in our age — .

So since we are talking about a quality on the level of a book, maybe we should also briefly touch on what defines quality of a notebook in the level of book, or a book with good quality. The contents of a book should be generic enough to be consumed by wider population that is interested in the scope of the book. The content should not jump through or skip over information that is not available for everybody. A really good one should be readable for people through ages, which means it should also either contain, or find a way of not requiring the context that is not readily available for future generations. Nothing that is not interesting can be contained, unimportant content should be limited, and repetitions should only happen in the abstract sense, only in the case that the abstract sense is hard to catch without examples in different directions.

Supplying all these requirements, as a summary guideline, the content should be understandable by everybody meanwhile being able to explain the intended judgements, methodologies or facts, without losing the reader. The time spent reading should be worth it for as many relevant reader as possible.

So we can readily say, that a good note is as mature as a book, which contains matured information, which in turn also matures the note taker throughout the process. So writing is not a one directional improvement but it is an iterative cycle. Writing matures the ideas of the writer which will reflect directly back into the writing again, as form of additions, edits, rewrites and back-and-forth references.

What do these have to do with “De Inventione” though? I will explain what you are already guessing as my daily enlightenment, I think Cicero started whole this work as his self notes about rhetoric while he was working on it. Because that was the only way to bring together all conflicting ideas of different rhetoric masters, evaluate the conflicts, resolve the conflicts and bring them together as a unified and sufficiently consistent theory ready to be used for himself, to help the person that was going to become the best orator of Rome ever!

The objective of having a unified theory would not be possible without writing it down, since it is very hard to remember so many conflicting ideas in your head and try to match every information with every information and be consistent with previous conclusions in the same time. So, the primary benefiter was he himself, as in the similar modern way of eating your own dog food.

Farewell.

Notes

Translations:

(1) “quae[which] pueris[boy] aut adulescentulis[young man] nobis ex[out of] commentariolis[little commentaries] nostris incohata[unfinished] ac rudia[raw] exciderunt[fall away]” Cic. de Orat. 1.5 “Which slipped out of the notebooks of my boyhood in an unfinished and raw way”

Self-Notes

Patterns: “Do for self as if it is for everybody”, “Aimed use bringing quality versus quality bringing use”, “Quality-bringing abstraction”, “Scaling quality by not dropping it ever”, “Categorical imperative of quality”

Elaboration Candidates: “What makes a good book?”

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