Copia and Copiousness in Rhetoric

Erasmus - copia
Portrait of Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536).

De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

The rhetorical term copia refers to expansive richness and amplification as a stylistic goal. Also called copiousness and abundances. In Renaissance rhetoric, the figures of speech were recommended as ways to vary students' means of expression and develop copia. Copia (from the Latin for "abundance") is the title of an influential rhetoric text published in 1512 by Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus.

Pronunciation: KO-pee-ya

Examples and Observations

  • "Because ancient rhetoricians believed that language was a powerful force for persuasion, they urged their students to develop copia in all parts of their art. Copia can be loosely translated from Latin to mean an abundant and ready supply of language—something appropriate to say or write whenever the occasion arises. Ancient teaching about rhetoric is everywhere infused with the notions of expansiveness, amplification, abundance."
    (Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee, Ancient Rhetorics for Modern Students. Pearson, 2004)
  • Erasmus on Copia
    - "Erasmus is one of the early enunciators of that sanest of all precepts about writing: 'write, write, and again write.' He also recommends the exercise of keeping a commonplace book; of paraphrasing poetry into prose, and vice versa; of rendering the same subject in two or more styles; of proving a proposition along several different lines of argument; and of construing from Latin into Greek...
    "The first book of De Copia showed the student how to use the schemes and tropes (elocutio) for the purpose of variation; the second book instructed the student in the use of topics (inventio) for the same purpose...
    "By way of illustrating copia, Erasmus in Chapter 33 of Book One presents 150 variations of the sentence 'Tuae literae me magnopere delectarunt' ['Your letter has pleased me greatly']..."
    (Edward P.J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, 4th ed. Oxford Univ. Press, 1999)
    - "If I am truly that peace so extolled by God and by men; if I am really the source, the nourishing mother, the preserver and the protector of all good things in which heaven and earth abound;... if nothing pure or holy, nothing that is agreeable to God or to men can be established on earth without my help; if, on the other hand, war is incontestably the essential cause of all the disasters which fall upon the universe and this plague withers at a glance everything that grows; if, because of war, all that grew and ripened in the course of the ages suddenly collapses and is turned into ruins; if war tears down everything that is maintained at the cost of the most painful efforts; if it destroys things that were most firmly established; if it poisons everything that is holy and everything that is sweet; if, in short, war is abominable to the point of annihilating all virtue, all goodness in the hearts of men, and if nothing is more deadly for them, nothing more hateful to God than war—then, in the name of this immortal God I ask: who is capable of believing without great difficulty that those who instigate it, who barely possess the light of reason, whom one sees exerting themselves with such stubbornness, such fervor, such cunning, and at the cost of such effort and danger, to drive me away and pay so much for the overwhelming anxieties and the evils that result from war—who can believe that such persons are still truly men?"
    (Erasmus, The Complaint of Peace, 1521)
    - "In the right spirit of playfulness and experimentation, Erasmus's exercise can be both fun and instructive. Although Erasmus and his contemporaries clearly were delighted by language variation and exuberance (think of Shakespeare's indulgence in his comedies), the idea was not simply to pile up more words. Rather copiousness was about providing options, building stylistic fluency that would allow writers to draw upon a large array of articulations, choosing the most desirable."
    (Steven Lynn, Rhetoric and Composition: An Introduction. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010)
  • Backlash Against Copia
    "The latter part of the sixteenth century and the first part of the seventeenth witnessed a reaction against eloquence, specifically against Ciceronian style as a model for writers, both in Latin and in vernacular literature (Montaigne, for example)... The anti-Ciceronians distrusted eloquence as something speciously ornamental, therefore insincere, self-conscious, unsuited for expressing private or adventurous reflections or disclosures of the self... It was [Francis] Bacon, not inappropriately, who wrote the epitaph of copia in that famous passage of his Advancement for Learning (1605) where he describes 'the first distemper of learning when men study words and not matter.'...
    "It is ironical that in later years Bacon came to dislike the excesses of Senecan style nearly as much as those of 'copie.' It is likewise ironical that the man who deplored the former popularity of copia was, of all writers in his time, most responsive to the advice in De copia about collecting notes. Bacon's obsessive fondness in his writings for sententiae, aphorisms, maxims, formulae, apophthegms, his 'promptuary', and his habit of keeping commonplace books were a tribute to the methods taught by Erasmus and the other humanists. Bacon was more indebted to prescriptions for copia than he allowed, and his prose leaves little doubt that he was studious of words as well as matter."
    (Craig R. Thompson, Introduction to Collected Works of Erasmus: Literary and Educational Writings I. University of Toronto Press, 1978)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Copia and Copiousness in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Copia and Copiousness in Rhetoric. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Copia and Copiousness in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).