No Shortcuts: Why the Trivium Matters

John of Salisbury wrote his Metalogicon in response to contemporary detractors of the arts of the trivium, detractors he places under the name of Cornificius. According to Cornificius, people can reach wisdom and eloquence through “shortcuts” without needing to attend to the rigorous practice of grammar, logic, and dialectic. The Metalogicon largely concerns itself not with simply delineating the contours of the trivium in the abstract, but in showing how it is a fundamental prerequisite for advanced learning in philosophy, theology, wisdom, and eloquence. 

John begins his defense by clarifying the ends of proper education, as well as why he thinks the Cornificians cannot achieve those ends because they reject the proper means to those ends. In the prologue, John clarifies that the final goal of education must be wisdom and virtue, stating that “all things read or written are useless except so far as they have a good influence on one’s manner of life. Any pretext of philosophy that does not bear fruit in the cultivation of virtue and the guidance of one’s conduct is futile and false.” Throughout the rest of the book, he maintains that virtue must always be kept as the primary end, and yet man is not naturally endowed with the ability to reach wisdom and virtue apart from the fundamental instruction of the trivium

Cornificius “boasts that he has a shortcut whereby he will make his disciples eloquent without the benefit of any art, and philosophers without the need of any work.” But John maintains that there are no shortcuts. While nature has given man the capacity for reason and the “love of good,” and grace “fructifies” human nature through her gifts, man cannot reach a state of virtue and wisdom without proper effort and study of the arts of language, putting to use the gifts that nature and grace has given. Speaking of eloquence as an example, he asserts that “just as eloquence, unenlightened by reason, is rash and blind, so wisdom, without the power of expression, is feeble and maimed. [. . .] Reason, the mother, nurse, and guardian of knowledge, as well as of virtue, frequently conceived from speech, and by this same means bears more abundant and richer fruit.” Hence, reason and wisdom are enabled, enhanced, and put to better use by eloquence. Similarly, without speech man cannot be virtuous, but rather would “degenerate to the condition of brute animals” with no cooperation or care for the common good.

With this as his foundational argument, John proceeds to show how nature must be perfected through study and effort. While God implanted in man the divine nature, because of sin and natural weakness it can be “canceled or hindered by defects” and it can be “restored and helped by aids.” While grace and natural ability are required for learning and excellence, effort and study in the rudimentary elements of language, logic, and speaking are necessary to fan the gifts into flame and live a life of virtue. The language arts are, in this way, a means of perfecting one’s nature: “Art is a system that reason has devised in order to expedite, by its own shortcut, our ability to do things without our natural abilities,” enabling one to fulfill their potential in a direct and effective manner. 

The rest of The Metalogicon is an exploration of the trivium as a means to this very end, alternating between arguing for how the language arts can aid the pursuit of wisdom and virtue and also in what they consist. In order to do this, John discusses the process of knowledge itself, revealing the ways in which the mind moves from perception, to memory, to reason, and then finally to judgment, culminating in understanding and wisdom. If this is the means to true wisdom, then people need to be equipped with the ability to reason and judge–abilities cultivated by grammar, logic, and dialectic. He goes as far as to say that the liberal arts enable the student to “comprehend everything they read,” elevating “their understanding to all things,” and empowering “them to cut through the knots of all problems possible of solution.” If virtue is born out of wisdom, and wisdom is born out of the ability to reason, judge, and understand, then the trivium is the necessary “way” to that end, while not being an end in itself. 

Much of the rest of the book shows how the trivium liberates man’s mind so that he might know. Speaking specifically of grammar, he states that it can “prepare the mind to understand everything that can be taught in words. [. . .] Nursing and feeding her charges, she conducts them on to the art of philosophy, thoroughly training them beforehand so that they will not babble in barbarisms or solecisms.” Because man is a rational creature, and nature and grace have endowed man with the ability to know, it is essential to learn grammar so that we might be fully human, full of knowledge leading to virtue. So while “liberal studies do not make a person good,” they nevertheless “contribute much to the formation of virtue, which makes a man good.” While “grace alone makes a man good [. . .] grammar, which is the basis and root of scientific knowledge, implants, as it were, the seed [of virtue] in nature’s furrow after grace has readied the ground.”

John argues in a similar vein for the preparatory benefits of logic, stating that “prudence is the root of all the virtues” but that the only way to gain prudence is through logic, for it “provides a solid basis for the whole activity of prudence” because prudence begins with logical and sound judgments. He maintains the same approach in defending the dialectical method of Aristotle and the Peripatetic school, stating that studying dialectic “opens up a primary and evidence highway for the perfection of knowledge,” being the “principle means of affording a complete knowledge of everything pertaining to the Peripatetic discipline, which is concerned with investigating the truth.”

John concludes by asserting that man is frail and his capacity for knowledge is limited and fraught with difficulty. Nevertheless, the goal of wisdom and virtue and, ultimately, knowledge of God, is worth it if done in a spirit of humility, with the aid of grace and faith, and through the proper means of learning. Joining together these elements, John concludes his argument by asserting,

If a person who is ignorant of natures and morals and reasons, and who is a puppet of his passions, and an addict to perishable things, or who perhaps lives chastely although he is ignorant of the various branches of knowledge, imagines that he can find God by processes of investigation and argumentative reasoning conducted by the faculties of his own [unaided] mind, he is doubtless making the greatest of all mistakes.

We must not be so confident as to expect that study without preparation in the “trivial” disciplines of grammar, logic, and dialectic will bear much fruit. And yet, none of these things are worthwhile without faith, hope, and love.

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