Trivium II – Prism of the Artes Liberales

It’s a hard sell to convince anyone that the Liberal Arts are “relevant” today. Most people picture endless stacks of provocative, great novels or reams of modernist poetry. And what’s the big deal with the Number Seven? And what (in the name of God, take heed) is a Quadrivium? A better updating of the phrase might help: the Liberating Arts would be better, but that carries connotations of Catholic priests with machine guns. Defense against the Dark Arts might almost work, but the phrase is taken. We don’t have a good word for it, and since the human brain at its lower, natural level can’t think of something it doesn’t have a word for, this makes discussing them difficult. The Japanese have a word for killing yourself by working too much, suggesting that they are familiar with the phenomena. They also have a word for the beauty that comes to dignified ladies in old age, and we do not. Presumably, we notice and experience it, but not very self-consciously. Russians have a great many nuanced words for spiritual states or moods which might help us. What shall we call the great tradition of the Liberal Arts?

The Latins and medievals called them Artes Liberales, and I don’t think the connotations were the same. Possibly, The Arts Which Set One Free. In absence of a good English translation, reverting to the Latin might be of some use, if done with understanding. It would distinguish the Tradition of studying the Logos (the revealed pattern of God’s nature) from self-stimulating and gratifying exercises in deliberate decadence, which passes for “liberal arts” in the Academy. It would also prevent endless invention of new names, such as what occurred in esoteric studies with Theosophy, Anthroposophy, and Archaeosophy (to name a few – nothing against those movements just because of the name). I think of the Artes Liberales as the Science and Art of the Logos – the Wisdom (Paedeia) of God for the study of man. Paedeia is a term re-proposed by Douglas Wilson, based on Scriptures.

In order to train in the Tradition of “the arts which make worthy of being free”, we are going to have to re-condense the diffuseness of the term as it has unraveled and dissipated down to modern times, not in order to avoid what is modern (our own ambient milieu) but to become worthy of being set free from it. The DNA of the Artes Liberales has considerable decay in the arts that wear the mantle of the name. Fortunately, you don’t have to lay supine in the mud of the modern lower circles of Hades and submit to endless James Joyce seminars in the name of liberal arts. Most, if not all, of the work has been done. We just have to identify the form and practice it.

The pattern Grammar-Logic-Rhetoric is basic to the tradition. Even the modern liberal arts mimic this form. First, you learn the grammar of Revolution, with terms like post-colonialism, gender study, oppression, liberation, etc., proceeding onwards to “critical thinking”, or Logic, which consists of long diatribes by consummate word-smiths like Edward Said or the soi disant heirs of Karl Marx, culminating in a Logic of Revolution (they put political Rhetoric prior to social “action” or logical extension) which we currently see operating at light speed, like the mutual discharge of sheet lightning, all over the globe.

The first correction I would make (and this would do much good by itself), is to place Logic after Grammar. Other than the subject of Geography, there is no discipline so little studied or aptly learned today (in America) as basic Logic. It is probably impossible to get too much of it in today’s climate, and there is a reason that the modern Academy neglects it in high school, and then places it last (after formation of the soul in Grammar and Rhetoric), which facilitates turning the subject into an exercise in political will to direct action and extension of pre-programmed memes, twitters, and sound bites. Euclid (or something similarly difficult) along with extensive study of fallacies, should be a major portion of one’s education.

How many times have you heard (or discerned) this line of thought?

    1. All authoritarians are Nazis.
    2. All Nazis are traditionalists.
    3. Therefore, all traditionalists are authoritarian Nazis.

The fallacy count in this one is pretty high, because to make it you have to assume anyone can actually define any of those terms in an accurate and subtle way, using history, primary texts, literature of the period, and philosophical acumen. Which is a big assumption. Leaving this whopping monster aside, the two big ones are Oversimplification and Illicit Minor. But of course, you have to commit the Mother of All Fallacies to even torture your mind enough to begin to think in this mode to begin with: you have to read one book (The Authoritarian Personality) and derive from that one experience (which, after all, is contingent like everything else in the domain of mundane existence) the False, But Clear Idea that all Authority is false Authority. You assume this because even prior to this, Authority is assumed to always commit a mega-fallacy in forcing its own mind to crush fallacies in itself and others. But torturing your mind this way is “destroying the village in order to save it”. Authority (auctoritas) does exist as legitimate, or it could not be “false” and objected to. Saying that it is always a fallacy because it commits fallacies all the time puts one in the position of pseudo-authority, which of course is always arguing and running after fallacies in one’s opponents, but never removing the beam from its own eye. Which in this case, means dethroning a false, but clear, authority in favor of a false and unclear one. Such is the modern world in toto, and this is basically all that is taught in the University today. Hence, Logic is denied, and even Grammar changes its terms deceitfully, while Rhetoric becomes a mask for power. The mega-fallacy greases all the following ones1.

And this is perhaps a very good time to point out the necessity of the dreaded “Quadrivium”. A naked Grammar-Logic-Rhetoric is a powerful tool in the creation of earthly orders of dignity, power, and wealth. Athens, for instance, abounded in great orators, was proficient in Greek grammar, familiar with Euclid and logical forms, but that didn’t prevent a disastrous experiment in war and political chaos from weakening the entire Hellenic world to the point of near exhaustion. The age of tyrants succeeded the “Golden Age” of Periclean Athens2. Maybe they should have cultivated rhetoric less, and studied poetry more often.

Understanding this sequence (cyklos) intellectually (as Polybius did) does not make undergoing these things that much easier, and certainly (by itself) does little to mitigate them. For this reason, the sequence of Artes Liberales does not stop in the mere contemplation of the negative examples of fallacies. If it did, we could very justly be termed merely Counter-Revolutionary, or even snubbed eternally as Reactionaries (although it is fair to say that any order on the Right by logical necessity is going to be allergic, and logically so, to pervasive modern fallacies of the mind). We might even risk falling into the errors of a kind of absolutely rigid spirit of inquisition, which was always seeking to ferret out hidden Leftism (always involving a favorite pet fallacy of some sort) in the opponent. This would be a poor environment (by itself) to inculcate self-awareness, consciousness, and confidence, and to incubate the new birth. By itself, it would only be a “No”: necessary, but not sufficient, for the achievement of the True, Beautiful, and Good. The normal necessary first step, saying No to the world, it would be lacking in subtlety to deal with the flesh and the devil were we not rescued by the living powers that flow through the Quadrivium.

The Quadrivium is the spiritual supply center for the positive emotional center, which can successfully oppose or counter-weight, the natural cycles of the human passions. Purity of the emotional center is most effective, initially, against “the lie in the mouth of the beast” (the kingdoms of the world). If the Trivium is the high-octane welder, forger, and shaper of the swift and accurate workings of dialectical reasoning (as the middle term, based in grammar, proceeding by reasoning to high rhetoric), it can assist man to name discrete objects, distinguish them, and sort them, primarily by the process of avoiding fallacies and logical or systemic traps in the way the fallen human mind can tend to move. It is the eternal No, sifting and sorting, saying “this also is not I”.

Not so with the Quadrivium – as we move into its territory we are in the arena where religion, and not philosophy, is triumphant. The Quadrivium deals with the products of man’s higher emotional center; even though it utilizes logic and grammar and rhetoric, it’s center of gracity remains in the realm of the aspirational, what the Middle Ages called the “sixth sense” or “estimation”. It is based upon what man esteems in his soul, what he aspires to, what he yearns and longs for. One can instantly see, surveying the 20th century, how damaging a false orientation of this center can be. A long train of usurpations, wars, famines, civil disorder, revolution, and world cataclysms follows in the wake of a false emotional orientation in the higher arenas of the soul forces offered to man, like Promethean fire. When the sailors aboard the Potemkin mutinied, they were courageous, idealistic, and intelligent, and they wanted good things. Their motivations were often good, their goal was praiseworthy. But their standard (being based in Revolutionary or Modernist dogma), was utterly warped. Consequently, Russia entered a hundred year period of intense suffering and horror beyond almost belief. It is extremely important to correctly stabilize and root the medieval power of estimation/aspiration in positive emotional forces from legitimately higher planes.

So even though Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Cosmology have a strong dialectical component that connects with the Trivium, the power and desire and contemplation of these forms flows purely out of the purity of the emotional center. Although one can intellectually “come” to the Quadrivium based upon logic, the penetration of these orders of beauty is only accomplished through the power of estimation. As I’ve noted in other essays, the Quadrivium is the “content” of the Trivium in a deeper sense, the actual substance within the “form” of definition, dialectic, and manifestation. People don’t drive or walk hundreds of miles to see schematic plans of nuclear reactors, impressive though they are. They want to see something beautiful which consoles, elevates, and sustains them, or hear music that transports them to “the higher spheres”, or taste an elegant meal which brings back childhood memories, thus restoring the power of the eternal in their life.

The power of the Quadrivium is so potent that what is a Pathetic fallacy in one context is, raised to a sufficiently high power, undeniably a transcendent truth. If I say that the “sea is angry” that is a pathetic fallacy, but if Homer personifies mother-earth, it grasps a truth: “So she spoke. But them, already, the life-giving earth possessed, there in Lacedaemon, in the dear fatherland.” Even Ruskin, in his famous and powerful attack on aspects of our higher emotions, acknowledges that at a higher level, with sufficient poetry, “it is so”. This should give you some idea of the tremendous power of the subject matter contained and dealt with on the interior of the Quadrivium. As CS Lewis so beautifully put it, “he who is writing a sonnet must both be in love with his Beloved, and also the sonnet”. The form may be arithemetical (based in the “counting” of the Trivium), but emotional tension and aspiration is what generates the beauty of the poem “out of nothing”, not the “outline” of the form. Even the Trivial arts of Rhetoric, Dialectic, and Grammar involve the careful selection of a certain emotional content, tendency, and style, which is operative at a very subtle level in the apparently more precise and logical Trivial arts. For instance, ME Bradford has an extraordinary piece which analyzes Abraham Lincoln’s evolution of emotions in his speeches. Regardless of what you think of his conclusions, the light is illuminating – Lincoln was not operating in an emotional void of pure Logic. He, too, depended upon the estimation/aspiration of the emotional center. It would be extremely advantageous for a Templar order to become more adept at understanding the ways in which this center operates, to see if there are ways to avoid being manipulated by it without understanding why (which is at least half the misery of the world).

Our choice, to put it rhetorically, is between having a Prism of Gnosis and true Knowledge, or accepting the Prison of bondage to the world, the flesh and the devil. The Artes Liberales are truly the Defense Against the Dark Arts, the Arts Which Can Set One Free, the Liberating Art. Admittedly, the white light of pure Knowledge is viewed through the “Prism” of the Artes Liberales, and is thus not a perfect end goal for human evolution. However, it is available to even the most common of men, accessible to even weaker minds who have sufficient aspiration, and is a vast improvement on the modern condition of living at the level of animals in a Sorcerer-State, manipulated by powers that course and pulse through us, which we do not understand or even sense. It offers the possibility of cooperation with the Logos at the level of the psyche and intellect, and thus, keeps open the door to something “More” beyond even Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.



1To get a feel for how this plays out concretely in absurd irony, read a history of the 1905 Russian Revolution, or the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin: the revolutionaries were constantly having to resort to ad hoc committees with total power, and to somehow salvage their new authority, despite the fact that the basis of their revolt was rejection of all authority.

2Some of this can be blamed on “cycles”, but what is a cycle if not the natural alteration in human nature between misplaced allegiances based on passions? Are humans unable to understand, and understanding them, artfully fend off a “natural” progression until more favorable times begin to work in a better condition?