The Legacy of Words
From the time of the Middle Ages in the twelfth century, John of Salisbury not only depicts the thorough and balanced measure of the education of the ideal scholar, but he also points to the deficits within our modern educational system. Like his antagonist Cornificius and his followers, our educational culture of today appears shallow and showy, and in many ways, unprepared and one-dimensional in its thinking. So many students see their education as a means to have the job or prestige they desire, and so they do not embrace their education as a lifelong preparation, a how-to for thinking.
Much misunderstanding of how to cultivate critical thinking and logic stems from this modern factory system where a student is one of thousands straining en masse to get what they want. John of Salisbury would liken this culture to that of Cornificius’ thinking. Salisbury roundly tears into Cornificius’ ideas, exclaiming “he undermines and uproots all liberal studies, assails the whole structure of philosophy, tears to shreds humanity’s social contract, and destroys the means of brotherly charity and reciprocal interchange of services” (11). In The Metalogicon, Salisbury vigorously defends not only a way of study, but also a way of life as one pursues a liberal arts education.
For Salisbury, logic is his most valuable player. In Book II, he states that “Every branch of philosophy therefore has its own questions. But while each study is fortified by its own particular principles, logic is their common servant, and supplies them all with its ‘methods’” (103). It is a tool for argumentation and also a skill to use in all learning throughout life (Ibid). Since “logic is exercised in inquiry into the truth,“ its use can lead to wisdom and all its fruits as well (74). This advantage lends to a lifestyle of learning, much more than most modern students could appreciate. Salisbury also points out that logic carries power (74), a force. By its proper use, it not only exercises our minds, but also can stir us and others to action. It is here that Salisbury advocates methods of learning, practicing our logic and reasoning skills.
Even a modern reader can relate to his views on how to reason and how to choose and use their own words. Salisbury exclaims that he is “not interested in verbal hair-splitting” (152) or a legalistic way of addressing how to learn or interpret. He clarifies that “Dialectic accomplishes its entire purpose so long as it determines the force of words and acquires a scientific knowledge of how to investigate and establish truth by verbal predication” (153). It becomes everything about how words are understood, “whether it is dividing, defining, inferring, or analyzing” (153). To make his point, Salisbury cites the power of words as used by past philosophers and scholars. “Like a whirlwind, they [the words] snatch up those who are ignorant of them, and violently lash such persons about or dash them to the ground, stunning them with fear” (166). They are “veritable thunderbolts” of power that he encourages learners to use for their own proofs or refutations. Why waste time creating your own arguments or examples when they have done it for you? Salisbury’s unintimidating point here is that part of the learning practice is to use or mimic the greats because their reasoning and ideas bear “wide applicability” (167-8).
Along with logic and reasoning, John of Salisbury persistently addresses the clear use of words and their force. Without clarity and context, we judge or misread in error—“The meaning of words should be carefully analyzed, and one should diligently ascertain the precise form of each and every term . . . so that one may dispel the haze . . . that would otherwise obscure the truth” (58). This is a step that many in the mass educational systems ignore. If they don’t understand, they argue, just like Salisbury’s opponent Cornificius who “assails with bitter sarcasm the statements of everyone else . . . in the effort to establish his own views and overthrow the opinions of others” (13). By detailing his opponent thus, Salisbury points to those who are quick to argue, those who reflexively combat any idea they disagree with. They use words as weapons of retaliation, evidencing the vice of impatience, a prevalent issue in learners today. Words then become meaningless without clear intent, and Salisbury’s ideal of force or power is neglected.
Salisbury further cites Aristotle’s standards for clear word choice and predication—“For they either deter or impede, or foster and expedite the work of those who are endeavoring to proceed” (155). This involves definition (186) and what Aristotle would describe as dividing words accurately (174). We might call it understanding denotation, connotation, and context. Take, for instance, Salisbury’s investigation of the use of “true” (254). An opinion is “true” if it reflects reality because it can be defined as a thing itself or its influence upon things. “A being is a true man if this being has true humanity . . . true ‘whiteness’ is that which makes white; true ‘justice’ is that which makes just” (254). By examining and using a single word with care, misunderstanding can be avoided. But perhaps, most importantly in our day, an author’s meaning “should not be discarded by quibbling over a word” (153). We are all guilty of jumping to conclusions, a similar impatience as mentioned with verbal arguments earlier, but to glean a truth from an author or speaker when they do misspeak or misuse words requires a mature learner.
Salisbury also equates the force of speech with understanding the intended meaning of words (81). This involves learning implied meaning, a difficult skill that Salisbury says Cornificius was incapable of applying (26-7). In the science of effective argumentation, Salisbury says, “the effective force is to be found in the words themselves” (80) and later, “One who wishes to know what is being discussed, must shake out the [full] force of words” or he won’t understand what is being said (175). This idea speaks to our use of clear diction and our unobstructed interpretation. It does not mean, however, using more words to explain ourselves: “Excessive verbosity is the greatest wastrel of all” (197).
For those who bemoan the plight of today’s educational system, let them take heart in Salisbury’s admonitions and advice. Salisbury did not allow misinterpretation of himself or his words because he countered Cornificius directly in person and offensively in writing. His legacy of The Metalogicon exemplifies a practice that we must advocate to change our learning systems—to address the failings directly and to see that one educator can transform the world in which he teaches. “The faculty of speech” must bring to light “its feeble conceptions, and communicate the perceptions of the prudent exercise of the human mind” (11). Salisbury’s learning philosophy can become our own as we advocate a conscious observation and effort in ourselves and our students, where a student both trains himself and is trained to notice and analyze how words are used. Words have power and force, and when enabled by logic, can produce the fruit of wisdom and truth—“Reason, the mother, nurse, and guardian of knowledge, as well as of virtue, frequently conceives from speech, and by this same means, bears more abundant and richer fruit” (11).