Tag Archives: The Trivium

Defense of Perennial Philosophy

I found this excerpt from the Trivium interesting (p. 224):

The logic of perennial philosophy presented in this book is scorned in many universities today as outmoded, inadequate, and unfit for a scientific age. Logical positivism admits as knowable only sense experience of matter and the relations of coexistence and succession in natural phenomena; it denies spirit, intellect, and the capacity to know essence. Modern semantic regards as arbitrary and shifting not only words but ideas; it denies that words are signs of ideas that truly represent things. The new symbolic or mathematical logic, which aims to free logic from the restrictions of words and thing, becomes a mere manipulation of symbols capable of being tested for their internal consistency but having no correspondence to ideas or things (and therefore no stability or truth).

Perennial philosophy holds that symbols such as those of the syllogism, opposition, obversion, conversion represent a higher degree of abstraction and more clear relationships than words do, and therefore a more advanced knowledge; they are sound precisely because they represent words that do correspond to the ideas and things. These symbols point the way to a more complete symbolic logic which preserves the basic truths of perennial philosophy, in particular its healthy respect for intellectual knowledge derived from sense knowledge by abstraction.

(By perennial philosophy she’s referring to Thomas’ Aristotalean method of thinking rather than to the universalist form of perennial philosophy).

We can see this today in academe and throughout society; words have become unmoored from their purpose of referring to a concrete idea or object, rather they are meaningless utterances of vague emotions that do not approach the level of rational thought.

The word democracy is an excellent example of this. The word democracy, originally referring to rule of the people, has simply become cant; calling something undemocratic holds no more meaning than ungood.

We can see the bizarre meaningless from this, the first link on a google search of ‘it’s undemocratic’. According to the article, yhe person who ruled due to being elected by the majority of Egyptians is somehow ruling undemocratically. Read this quote from “State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki”:

What I mean is what we’ve been referencing about the 22 million people who have been out there voicing their views and making clear that democracy is not just about simply winning the vote at the ballot box.

It’s pure, unadulterated nonsense, but nobody bats an eye. The label undemocratic is thrown at everything that is deemed ungood, while the label democratic is thrown at everything considered good. Take this quote from Barack Obama:

President Barack Obama on Thursday praised the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage as a “victory for American democracy”…

Think on that for a second: the overturning of the laws created due to a referendum of the people in California by an unelected body is a ‘triumph of democracy’. There is no rational way the word democracy can possibly be used to refer to an unelected body overturning the majority will of the people expressed through a referendum, yet, nobody but John Lott even notices.

The word democracy does not refer to anything; it is has no more, and possibly less, meaning or rational thinking behind it than an illiterate barbarian’s simple grunt of approval.

Of course ‘democracy’ is not alone in this. We all remember Moldbug’s classic example of goodthink:

Improper political influence over government decision-making.

But I’m digressing. We have scorned the reason of perennial philosophy for the irrational thinking of arbitrary definitions. Words are used as weapons or as meaningless emotional outbursts, with no rational thinking behind them.

Not only are definitions arbitrary, and hence meaningless, composition is not unaffected. We can see this in this review of the Trivium. It basically argues for the Trivium, but not because the rules of logic and grammar are good for someone writing in English to know. Rather the restrictions of actually adhering to the rules of reason and the English language are quaint enough and outdated enough that it provides a foreign perspective in composition classrooms. In the authors own words:

For instance, a teacher can use The Trivium alongside [other]… textbooks that use contemporary examples and celebrate more rhetorical and logical flexibilities. This deliberate undercutting pushes students to understand the multiplicity of perspectives; while it simultaneously pushes teachers to embrace multiplicity and flexibility.

“Logical flexibility”, I like it. It’s such as fascinating term. How insane is it that the rules of logic and grammar are so foreign to modern English education that people advocate for teaching it simply to get a plurality of viewpoints.

Welcome to a world where there exists a plurality of viewpoints on the use of logic.

Anyway, I will end with a Chesterton quote:

Since the modern world began in the sixteenth century, nobody’s system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody’s sense of reality; to what, if left to themselves, common men would call common sense. Each started with a paradox; a peculiar point of view demanding the sacrifice of what they would call a sane point of view. That is the one thing common to Hobbes and Hegel, to Kant and Bergson, to Berkeley and William James. A man had to believe something that no normal man would believe, if it were suddenly propounded to his simplicity; as that law is above right, or right is outside reason, or things are only as we think them, or everything is relative to a reality that is not there. The modern philosopher claims, like a sort of confidence man, that if we will grant him this, the rest will be easy; he will straighten out the world, if he is allowed to give this one twist to the mind…

Against all this the philosophy of St. Thomas stands founded on the universal common conviction that eggs are eggs. The Hegelian may say that an egg is really a hen, because it is a part of an endless process of Becoming; the Berkelian may hold that poached eggs only exist as a dream exists, since it is quite as easy to call the dream the cause of the eggs as the eggs the cause of the dream; the Pragmatist may believe that we get the best out of scrambled eggs by forgetting that they ever were eggs, and only remembering the scramble. But no pupil of St. Thomas needs to addle his brains in order adequately to addle his eggs; to put his head at any peculiar angle in looking at eggs, or squinting at eggs, or winking the other eye in order to see a new simplification of eggs. The Thomist stands in the broad daylight of the brotherhood of men, in their common consciousness that eggs are not hens or dreams or mere practical assumptions; but things attested by the Authority of the Senses, which is from God.


The Bookshelf: The Trivium

I finished the Trivium, part of the Free Man’s Reading List, after a couple of months(with interruptions for other reading), so let’s get to the review.

Now, your first question, valued reader, might be, “why did a book of little more than 250 pages take months to finish?

To which there are two equally correct answers; First, I fall asleep on the bus, my primary reading time, a lot and, second, and far more applicable to this particular book, this is probably the most dense book I have read. There is more information/word in this book than anything I ever read in university or high school.

I learned from the bibliographical notes at the back that it was actually written as a college textbook for a course on the Trivium of logic, grammar, and rhetoric back in the 1930’s for a freshman course that “met five days a week for two semesters.” And this was in the days when a college education actually meant something. So you know there is a lot of information packed in this book.

That this book was a product of a different time shows clearly throughout the book. There is no coddling or hand-holding of the reader/student here; the text is simply ‘this is what is, here’s a couple of examples, you now know the concept’. A concept or word is defined or explained once, then you are expected to know it throughout the rest of the book. There are no gentle reminders: if the word ‘syncategoramic’ was defined in chapter 3, then you damn well better know what it means when used in chapter 6. (There is also no glossary, which would have been amazingly useful in trying to remember what exactly “a distributed term”, for example, refers to; the lack of a glossary would be my biggest criticism on the book).

If this book was written today, I’m sure it would be padded to a good 500 pages (at least) with examples, hand-holding, and explanation and still contain less information. This is not a ‘friendly’ book. Simply following along and understanding the book requires a lot of mental effort. Retaining the terms and concepts requires a lot more more. To get the most out of this book, would require serious study (such as a 5-day, 2-semester course), which I did not do.

I am almost certain I am not going to retain a lot of the information presented, and I will not remember a lot of the terms; I’ve already forgotten what an enthymeme refers to.

That being said, the concepts are far more important than the terms. I might not remember the term that refers to a particular concept, but next time I see the concept being symbolized in words, it will likely get me to think deeper about what I am reading, and I can always look up the term or concept for further clarification.

I found interesting about the book is how it flowed together and built off itself. The book starts with the function of language and moves onto grammar. From there is moves seemlessly into logic, which makes up the bulk of the book. I found it fascinating how the discussion of logic itself is naturally built within and on grammar. The book ends with a small section outlining the basics of rhetoric, composition, and reading.

At the same time I was fascinated, I was also saddened. This book revealed to me just how ruined our education system currently is. I took “English” throughout school, like most did where I learned grammar. I took a logic course in university (although, the isntructor never did teach any formal logic for some idiotic reason). I am highly educated, intelligent, and my writing has always been better than average, yet no one has ever, through my 18 years of education (18? ouch), pointed out the connection between grammar and logic and how the latter is rooted in the former.

This whole book was a walking indictment of our modern education system. These are the very basics of language and thinking, yet little of it is taught in school. I am familiar with most of the concepts in the book, if not the terms and formal laws, yet this I’ve never seen it so systematized and logically presented anywhere throughout the almost two decades I spent being “educated”. Some rules of grammar are drilled into our heads in grade school, and there are logic courses that are offered, but I’ve seen nothing like this.

This book should be foundational to education. They should start teaching this systematically in grade school. Hell, if all six years of grade school focused solely on the Trivium, ignoring everything else to get kids to fundamentally understand it, it would be a vast improvement to our education system. When my future children are homeschooled, this book will be a major component of the curriculum.

As for the writing style, it is clear, analytical, and precise, if rather stark, exactly what you should looking for in a book like this. You are not going to be entertained, but the writing does the job it is intended to do transmit information, even if it gives you absolutely no slack or mercy.

Anyway, to get the most out of the Trivium would require a commitment to comprehensively study it over a decent period of time. Simply reading it through like I did, will help introduce many concepts or solidify concepts you may be familiar with, but you will know that you are missing a lot. You will get out of this book in relation to the time and effort put into it.

Recommendation:

If you want to learn the basics of grammar and formal logic and/or you are looking to better develop clear thinking and clear language, the Trivium will help you understand these concepts directly in relation to how much effort you’re willing to put in.

So, if you are interested in this and willing to put in at least some effort, I recommend the book. Be warned, even if you are not studying it in-depth, it is still a dense read.

If you are planning to homeschool, I would recommend making the Trivium a foundational text of your curriculum.