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Topos (τόπος, Greek 'place' from tópos koinós, common place; pl. topoi), in Latin locus (from locus communis), referred in the context of classical Greek rhetoric to a standardised method of constructing or treating an argument. [See topoi in classical rhetoric.]
The technical term topos is variously translated as "topic", "line of argument" or "commonplace." Ernst Robert Curtius expanded this concept in studying topoi as "commonplaces": reworkings of traditional material, particularly the descriptions of standardised settings, but extended to almost any literary meme. For example, Curtius notes the common observation in the ancient classical world that “all must die” as a topos in consolatory oratory; that is, one facing one’s own death often stops to reflect that greater men from the past died as well. A slightly different kind of topos noted by Curtius is the invocation of nature (sky, seas, animals, etc.) for various rhetorical purposes, such as witnessing to an oath, rejoicing or praising God, or sharing in the mourning of the speaker.
Critics have traced the use and re-use of such topoi from the literature of classical antiquity to the 18th century and beyond into postmodern literature. This is illustrated in the study of archetypal heroes and in the theory of The Hero With A Thousand Faces (1949), a book written by modern theorist Joseph Campbell. For example, oral histories passed down from pre-historic societies contain literary aspects, characters, or settings that appear again and again in stories from ancient civilizations, religious texts, and even more modern stories. The biblical creation myths and "the flood" are two examples, as they are repeated in other civilizations' earliest texts such as the Epic of Gilgamesh or deluge myth, and are seen again and again in historical texts and references.
- Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. from German by Willard R. Trask (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1953), 80.
- Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, 92–94.
- Branham, R. Bracht; Kinney, Daniel (1997). Introduction to Petronius Satyrica.