Logic
 
	 

The last of the three trivial arts is logic, sometimes also called dialectic or philosophy.  Let us define 
it here as the “art of thinking.”  Of the three fundamental intellectual skills we have been discussing, 
this is the one whose utility is perhaps the most contested.  As Dorothy Sayers observes in her essay on 
the trivium, “the disrepute into which Formal Logic has fallen is entirely unjustified; and its neglect 
is the root cause of nearly all those disquieting symptoms which we have noted in the modern intellectual 
constitution.  Logic has been discredited, partly because we have come to suppose that we are conditioned 
almost entirely by the intuitive and the unconscious” (Gamble, see above, p. 610). 

Anti-intellectualism, of course, is nothing new.  Already in the German Reformation, there were many parents 
and city leaders who questioned the expense of public education. Martin Luther attacked such views in his 1524 
address “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany.”  In his usual colorful way, he calls his fellow Germans 
“brutes and stupid beasts” because they prefer material comforts to a solid education:  “Languages and the arts, 
which can do us no harm, but are actually a greater ornament, profit, glory, and benefit, both for the 
understanding of Holy Scriptures and the conduct of temporal government--these we despise.  But foreign wares 
[silks, wine, spices, etc.] which are neither necessary or useful ... these we cannot do without” (Luther’s Works, 
American Edition, vol. 45, pp. 357-8).

Similar concerns about the usefulness of schooling came up in the early days of our own young republic. One of the most influential of our founding fathers, William Livingston, newspaper editor and later governor of New Jersey, argued that the new country needed practical knowledge, not book learning: “The most intimate acquaintance with the classics, will not remove our oaks; nor a taste for the Georgics cultivate our lands. Many of our young people are knocking their heads against the Iliad, who should employ their hands in clearing our swamps and draining our marshes” (Reinhold, see above, p. 36). A Congregational minister who was later to become President of Yale, Timothy Dwight, blamed the study of literature, in particular, the pagan myths, for promoting immorality, and discouraged the reading of Homer on Sunday. The same bias against the life of the mind seems to thrive in today’s America. In a recent article in Time (November 10, 2008), p. 26, entitled “The Urkel Effect,” Joel Stein marvels that Barack Obama may well be able to overcome racial prejudice, but wonders whether he can “beat back America’s nerdophobia.” He worries aloud that American voters will have no problem voting for a black candidate, but is afraid of what he calls the Urkel effect, “which holds that voters leaning toward Obama will walk into the voting booth and suddenly think, I cannot take four years of listening to that giant-eared nerd. He’s earnest like C-3PO, emotionless like Spock, overly practical like Encyclopedia Brown and incredibly skinny like C-3PO, Spock, and Encyclopedia Brown.” On the other hand, there are those who believe that “America’s lack of desire to drink even a malty Belgian beer with Obama will actually help him. After eight years of jocklike bluster, Obama’s technician calm seems extra attractive.” I once carried on a very public argument with an undergraduate in the pages of a student newspaper of a large midwestern public university. The student was an intelligent and articulate Spanish major named Joe. “Joe, the Spanish major.” (I kid you not.) And Joe was determined to make his case in print to the entire university that it should be possible for him just to learn to use the Spanish language (he was going into law enforcement) without learning anything about Spanish history and culture and philosophy. He wrote a long letter to the editor in which he argued--and I’m virtually quoting him here: I don’t see why I should have to read Don Quixote, or know what “In medias res” means, or study Unamuno, the Spanish existentialist philosopher. It’s useless. I was the Chair of the Foreign Languages Department at the time so I thought I’d better respond. I wrote a letter to the editor encouraging Joe to take advantage of his coursework not only to perfect his Spanish reading, speaking, and writing skills, but also to engage in some thoughtful self-reflection. College students are supposed to learn not only how to do things, I wrote, but to think about what they’re doing, to think about themselves and others. I urged Joe in the words of the Delphic oracle: “Know yourself.” What could be more thoroughly useful? What better way to do that than by reading a great novel, learning a little Latin, and studying philosophy? I ended by quoting Socrates: “Joe,” I wrote somewhat pompously, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
Well, a week later Joe wrote a lengthy follow-up letter to the editor of the student newspaper in which he took me to task. I certainly had not convinced him that it was worth his while to study Cervantes and Latin, but he was really exercised by what I had said about the importance of the study of philosophy for the purposes of self-examination. He pointed out that there were many philosophers who ended up living unhappy lives (the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was famously miserable). Some philosophers even committed suicide (Socrates and Seneca come to mind). All of these famous thoughtful people had examined their lives and they were evidently not worth living. Not only was thinking useless, Joe suggested, it could make you really unhappy! Now, I was kind of taken, in an odd sort of way, with Joe’s spirited reply. He had a point. Without knowing it, he had tapped into a longstanding question about the value of “thinking.” Whether, in fact, serious and sustained professional intellectual activity does indeed always make people better or happier is a fair question, especially given Stanley Fish’s recent observations about how often one finds examples of individuals who have spent a lifetime teaching the humanities who, it seems clear, are not particularly “better” or “wiser” as a result.
I was reminded of the line from John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale in which he laments of living in a world “where but to think is to be full of sorrow and leaden eyed despair.” It’s true, isn’t it? Thinking is not always easy or pleasant. But here’s what’s important to realize: Keats was not so filled with sorrow and leaden eyed despair that he couldn’t write a poem, a poem for others to read, a poem about sorrow and leaden eyed despair! And Joe, too, I suddenly realized, was demonstrating a kind of elaborate thoughtfulness in so publicly rejecting thoughtfulness. Truly thoughtless people don’t usually think about whether or not thoughtfulness is useful. Keats wrote a jubilant ode about his despair; Joe wrote thoughtful letters to the editor about the advantages of thoughtlessness. What better way to demonstrate the usefulness of his training in thinking? I didn’t continue the public discussion with Joe, the Spanish major cum sophist. I let him have the last word. But I don’t think his perspective is atypical. And it does force those of us in the Academy to rethink some of our easy assumptions about the value of thoughtfulness in the real world. In his classic treatise of 1873, The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman distinguishes between “two methods of Education; the one aspires to be philosophical, the other to be mechanical: the one rises toward ideas, the other is exhausted upon what is particular and external” (Gamble, p. 520).
This seems to me to get at the heart of our present predicament. Rather than perpetuating the divide, university level educators need to find ways to shows that the ideal and the philosophical are not entirely incompatible with the mechanical, the particular, and the external. The art of thinking is not just a matter of theoretical knowledge, but it is also about applied wisdom; it embraces ideas and ideals as well as the particular and the external, as Newman puts it. Abstract ideas have real power and applicability and usefulness, not just for professors and nerds, but for every educated student, worker, and citizen in America. After his experience in courses that involved advanced training in grammar, rhetoric, and logic at our large, nameless, midwestern university, Joe had gained the ability to read analytically the ideas of some of the most complicated thinkers the world has ever known...and to reject them. He had learned how to argue eloquently for the validity of his own ideas in a printed exchange...and to take on a professor. He had developed the ability to think through claims of others...and to make his own arguments that the examined life is not the only life that’s really worth living. And, best of all, he could not help but share his knowledge with others, to make the community around him wiser and better because of what he had learned. So, Joe, the Spanish major, is perhaps the most powerful testimony, of all, to the utility of the not-so-trivial arts of the classical trivium.
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