The Metalogicon — Education from a Christian Perspective

John of Salisbury. The Metalogicon: A Twelfth-Century Defense of the Verbal and Logical Arts of the Trivium: Translated by Daniel D. McGarry; Paul Dry Books, Philadelphia. 2009. 305 pp. $25.50.


Classical Christian education has much to benefit from this medieval academic work from John of Salisbury. The Metalogicon, literally about logic, is a timeless insight into the value of grammar, dialectic, and logic to the development of the mind. Completed in 1152, the outline of education found in The Metalogicon is crucial to the current renaissance of Christian Classical education among Christian institutions and home school families. John of Salisbury weaves the wisdom of ancient philosophers (i.e. Plato, Aristotle, Seneca), and Christian fathers, (Augustine, Jerome), to argue for a solid academic life that not only brings eloquence to the student, but more importantly God’s wisdom to a place of treasured honor.

Although John writes this work as a rebuttal to the influence of Cornificius, he argues successfully the importance of defending the trivium as the means to prepare the uneducated mind for a life of philosophical defense of the gospel. Original reason, God’s Reason, then defends truth from deception (224-25). The low state of man should not be abandoned, “…even though he is oppressed and handicapped by the burden of his earthly nature and the sluggishness of his physical body, man may still rise to higher things.” (9) That which is highest is God’s wisdom and grace. “This appetite [for truth, goodness, and reason] has been implanted in man’s nature by God; but it cannot obtain its objectives by nature alone, for it also needs the assistance of grace.” (246).

The relevance of The Metalogicon in today’s academic world is that debate over educational curriculum and method is not new. John of Salisbury wrote defensively against contemporaries who argued the lack of need to study and learn the art of eloquence. Rather than training the intellect for eloquent expression of truth, the philosophy that education is merely rote memorization of facts is opposed. That only those with the gift of eloquence can speak and debate philosophy is opposite of John’s defense (24).

The telos of education for John of Salisbury is morality rather than intellectual sophistry. For John, Logic is an art and like the skilled craftsman, devotion to the craft produces fine results of the mind (25). “One who can with facility and adequacy verbally express his mental perceptions is eloquent.” (26). But John shapes the perception of eloquent learning well in that the skill of logical eloquence grows with time and practice. His opponents who argue that logical reasoning is a gift granted have difficulty defending John’s argument that, “Who has ever, by nature’s gift alone, and without study, had the privilege of being most eloquent in all tongues, or even in only one language? If it is good to be eloquent, surely it is better to be very eloquent.” He further argues, “Although some of the arts pertaining to and imparting the power of eloquence are natural, still the art [of eloquence] which is practically as we would want it cannot be known by nature since it is not natural.” (31).

John of Salisbury begins his philosophy of logical reasoning with the beginnings of knowledge in poetry and the imagination. The emphasis on the poet is then directly connected to the emphasis of the divine end, the telos, of education. If wisdom begins with God’s wisdom, then the telos of educating fallen man must lift his state from the primitive mire to the heights of salvation. All great journeys begin somewhere and man’s intellectual journey through to the divine begins with the imagination. Imagination and wonder are that which was, and still is, present before the development of language and grammar. “Speech was invented as a means of communicating mental concepts; and figures [of speech] are admitted as far as they compensate by their utility for whatever they lack in conformity to the [rules of the grammatical art].” (56)

John of Salisbury is a strong advocate for logic and eloquent defense of true wisdom. “That Poetry is the cradle of Philosophy is axiomatic. Furthermore, do not our forefathers tell us that the liberal studies are so useful that one who has mastered them can, without a teacher, understand all books and everything written?” (63). The study of Great Books yields the purpose of a journey to wisdom and understanding and finally with God’s glory. He sees the philosophical journey for the scholar as not mastery of one’s own making. Yet in order to successfully navigate the path of knowledge, John strongly cautions to learn independence lest one be dependent on false teachers. “Sensation deceives the untutored.” (221). Likewise, eloquence is necessary to be prepared to defend true wisdom” (199).

John of Salisbury promotes Goodness, Truth, and Reason as the transcendentals that lead one to the higher aspects of ultimate truth, God. “One who aspires to become a philosopher should therefore apply himself to reading, learning, and meditation, as well as the performance of good works, lest the Lord become angry and take away what he seems to possess.” (65). The study of the Great Books is not something created by man alone. This passion for knowledge is implanted in man by God. Appetite and desire motivate the imagination to seek Who imparted the hunger for Truth. “For God, breathing life into man, willed that he partake of divine reason.” (227). “This appetite [for truth, goodness, and reason] has been implanted in man’s nature by God; but it cannot obtain its objective by nature alone, for it also needs the assistance of Grace.” (246) “It is clear in particular cases that subordinate things cannot exist or be understood without superior ones.” (122).

The point of logic is to guide one to God’s wisdom and divine revelation of Himself. Logic is not the tool of Man’s own self advancement. Rather, man exercises the intellect given by God to think and reason in order to ultimately see the divine beauty of God himself who is unknowable. Man is then humbled, seeing himself in light of God who is all wisdom and understanding. (266-271). The Metalogicon does not mention “Beauty” but I do think that it is implied in reference to the Transcendentals when John repeatedly mentions “Goodness, Truth, & Reason.” His argument for the Trivium was for the attainment of eloquent wisdom and brings a great defense that reason and logic are Beautiful.

John’s emphasis on sensation and imagination as the foundation of philosophy (214-220) shows that philosophy itself is not simply logic alone. This is part of the genius of John of Salisbury’s work. The value of education is not simply robotic logical absolutes. True logic begins with, and often includes, sensation. “Accordingly, bodily sensation, which is the primary power or initial operation of our conscious soul, constitutes the basis for all the arts, and forms the initial knowledge which both clears and makes ready the way for first principles.” (216).

The journey of intellect and wisdom rests on the rising growth of the imagination. As the soul perceives things, images are retained and as the mind recalls these images, imagination rises higher (217). This building of imagination then leads to contemplation and rationalization resulting in logical dialog and reasonable conclusions. John of Salisbury’s strength in this argument is that he never abandons the importance of sensation and imagination in the development of wisdom. The defense of logical reasoning must benefit from and never abandon the imaginative.

The source of desire and hunger for knowledge begins with sensation as God, man’s creator, breathed this desire into man for reason. John states that, “…reason is defined as both a power and the activity of a power.” (226). That power being God. “For God, breathing life into man, which comes from, and will return to God, alone contemplates divine truths.” (227). John of Salisbury never abandons the truth of the Christian faith in his effort to defend philosophy and logic. The Metalogicon never abandons faith for logic, rather the work sees faith as crucial to the purpose of logic. Since God is the original reason (225), it is then logical to conclude that the role of reason and logic is to lead on to the origin, that is God. John of Salisbury writes, “In this connection, I believe that wisdom derives its name from the fact that good men have a discerning taste for the things of God.” (231). If good men then have a taste for all things good, the resulting journey to satisfy the taste resides in wisdom that is God’s wisdom. “For if it is to fecundate the soul to bear the fruits of philosophy, logic must conceive from an external source.”(100). Man’s wisdom alone is not the goal of the philosopher. Godly wisdom is the goal. Godly wisdom is what satisfies the craving for wisdom and is thus the purpose for developing the logical mind.


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