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Dec 19, 2018

The Liberal Arts in an Illiberal Age

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Hamza Yusuf

Zaytuna College

Hamza Yusuf is a leading proponent of classical learning in Islam and president of Zaytuna College, a Muslim liberal arts college in Berkeley, California.

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The Liberal Arts in an Illiberal Age

Freeing Thought from the Shackles of Feeling and Desire

The Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library

The Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library. Photo: Alex Proimos

Freedom of expression, cherished enough worldwide to be enshrined as a human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, arises from freedom of thought. The tragedy of our times is that most contemporary thought is not truly free—it lies everywhere in a variety of shackles, most notably those created by a lack of genuine education. Freedom of thought, to be truly realized, demands enterprise in learning and discipline in reasoning. The default settings of an untrained mind prevent it from thinking freely; hence, its expression is not at all free. It contains all the toxins of a slothful mind: pettiness and prejudice, gross exaggerations and hasty generalizations, faulty reasoning and false certitude. These self-imposed intellectual restrictions, famously phrased by William Blake as “mind-forg’d manacles,” limit our freedom to think freely and imaginatively. Freedom of expression has little meaning when not informed by freedom of thought.

The ability to think freely stems from a mind educated in the arts of qualitative thought, which can be enhanced greatly by quantitative reasoning but are essentially arts of quality. And these are the liberal arts, a phrase that, at root, means the arts of freedom. The three basic liberal arts, the trivium, are the qualitative arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The damage that we now see in our civic life ensues from the loss of these “arts of communication” and was foretold over half a century ago by Mortimer Adler:

Where men lack the arts of communication, intelligent discussion must languish. Where there is no mastery of the medium for exchanging ideas, ideas cease to play a part in human life. When that happens, men are little better than the brutes they dominate by force or cunning, and they will soon try to dominate each other in the same way.1

Brutishness now characterizes our public discourse, while intelligent discussion of important ideas finds little resonance. If we are to remain a civil society, committed to reason, debate, and persuasion, then the arts of freedom will be needed more than ever. We should not mistake means for ends: these arts, although studied for their own intrinsic worth, are, nonetheless, tools for perceiving reality; freeing our minds; and disciplining our intellects, wills, and appetites. Our form of government, meant to be built upon consensus—and failing that, upon compromise—depends upon the ability to communicate and its requisite skills. These arts are those necessary skills.

Training the Mind to Study Matter and Spirit

We tend to use freedom and liberty as synonyms, though with slightly different connotations. Liberty is usually seen as something that governments, if they are committed to the population they serve, must protect. Freedom, however, is what we associate with human behavior. Moral philosophers define several types of freedom, including political freedom (freedom from coercion or government oppression), religious or moral freedom (release from the bondage of vice),2 and economic freedom (a circumstantial freedom that enables people to pursue the material objects of their desire freely, unhindered by lack of means).

The essence of freedom, in most premodern civilizations that permitted servitude, was political. A “free” human being was defined in opposition to “a slave.” But such a definition included a moral aspect, as free persons were expected to constrain themselves from akrasia, or moral incontinence. Real freedom was freedom from one’s own baser instincts and desires. The Arabic word for freedom is ĥurriyyah; it is from the root word ĥurr, which means, in its negative sense, “not a slave.” The ancient Arabs have a well-known proverb:

A slave is a free man when free of desire.
A free man is a slave in passion’s fire.

The liberal arts (the arts of freedom, or “the arts befitting free men,” from the Latin liber, free) were distinguished from the servile arts of slaves or lower classes. The phrase liberal arts first appeared in English around the late fourteenth century as a translation of the medieval Latin phrase artes liberales. Liberal, as an adjective applied to a person, came to mean “free from prejudice, tolerant.” By the early nineteenth century, liberal referred to someone who favored constitutional reforms, taken from the eighteenth-century French word libéral, referring to someone who advocated personal political freedoms.

America was an idea born from the liberal arts. The founding fathers and mothers were generally people of great learning in the arts of freedom, especially in the trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric.3 The trivium was the foundation of all education in early America. It encompassed an education in quality, while an education in quantity was embodied in the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Both were held as essential, and together they comprised the liberal arts. Today, the phrase liberal arts has come to mean “the humanities” and to describe an education centered on literature. Traditionally, however, being fully educated entailed not simply an education in the humanities but being fully conversant in both language and numbers, which obviously entailed the ability to reason well in both.

Part of an architectural frieze from Kashan, Iran

Part of an architectural frieze from Kashan, Iran

Nevertheless, as Dorothy Sayers and others have noted, it was the trivium that established the methodology of both, as mastery of any given subject demands that one pass through the three stages of the trivium: the grammar stage, in which one acquires knowledge of the fundamentals of the subject (the parts that make up the whole), and which answers who, what, where, and when; the logic stage, which provides an understanding of how the parts of the subject fit together meaningfully, and which explains why its teachings are true; and the rhetoric stage, which is the application of the subject, or its practice—how it is done in the best way. Applying this to the study of English, for example, the grammar stage requires learning phonics, vocabulary, and spelling; the logic stage involves formal grammar, including the eight parts of speech and proper syntax; and finally, the rhetoric stage includes the study of composition and elocution.

As for the quadrivium, in the subject of numbers (or mathematics), the grammar stage involves learning the number system, the four arithmetic functions, and measurement systems; the logic stage requires moving on to algebra, the proofs of geometry, and an understanding of why math is true; and lastly, the rhetoric stage involves the real-world applications of math in accounting, engineering, astronomy, computer science, and so forth.

The single most successful methodology of education in human history demanded a deep understanding of these arts, all seven of which have a foundation in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic civilizations, as well as counterparts in the Indic and Asian cultures. In his work On Christian Doctrine, Saint Augustine argues for the necessity of knowing the arts for understanding revelation. The liberal arts also became the cornerstone of Islamic education, and the idea of the college as a training center for the arts in service of religion is arguably a Muslim one. (See George Makdisi’s The Rise of Colleges and Mehdi Nakosteen’s History of the Islamic Origins of Western Education.) More recently, in God and Logic in Islam: The Caliphate of Reason, John Walbridge makes a cogent case not only that these arts were the core of Islamic civilization for a thousand years, but also that their decline and erosion directly correlate to that civilization’s fall and to the rise of extremism.

In her seminal work The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric, Sister Miriam Joseph succinctly summarizes the importance of the language arts and their relation to thought:

The trivium is the organon, or instrument, of all education at all levels because the arts of logic, grammar, and rhetoric are the arts of communication itself in that they govern the means of communication—namely, reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Thinking is inherent in these four activities.4

The seeming paradox of the liberal arts is that, on the one hand, they are the most basic level of learning, the beginnings and lower forms of education, yet on the other hand, they also constitute the essence of our highest attainments as human beings. We begin studying the liberal arts at the elementary level of education and continue through higher education and for the remainder of our lives, because they help us discern what is real and what is not.

Podcast: The Decline of Language and the Rise of Nothing with Hamza Yusuf and Thomas Hibbs

The House of Wisdom was a major intellectual center in Baghdad in the early years of Islam.

The House of Wisdom was a major intellectual center in Baghdad in the early years of Islam

The ability to grapple with abstractions—with nonmaterial existence, as it were—has traditionally been one of the most obvious markers of intelligence. These three arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric discipline the mind in the abstraction of quality, embodied in language and reason and considered by the Abrahamic faiths to be of a spiritual nature. The quadrivium, comprising arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, disciplines us in thinking about quantity, which is the abstraction of matter. Those two—spirit and matter—entail the sum total of reality. Thus, we arrive at the real potential of the liberal arts: nothing less than reality itself is the object of their inquiry. From this, we may understand the metaphysical implications of language and thought.

To illustrate, let us return to Sister Miriam Joseph:

The three language arts can be defined as they relate to reality and to each other. Metaphysics or ontology, the science of being, is concerned with reality, with the thing-as-it-exists. Logic, grammar, and rhetoric have the following relation to reality.
Logic is concerned with the thing-as-it-is-known.
Grammar is concerned with the thing-as-it-is-symbolized.
Rhetoric is concerned with the thing-as-it-is-communicated.5

To illustrate this further, let us take galaxies as an example. While other galaxies existed beyond our own, their existence was unknown to us until the invention of the telescope. Once we discovered the first galaxy, it became a logical entity, a thing known. Once it was named “galaxy,” it became a grammatical entity; and once its existence was communicated and explained to others, it became a rhetorical entity.

The importance of metaphysics and its relationship to the liberal arts cannot be overstated. In the past, the primary purpose of these arts was to enable people to pursue truth with the proper tools of learning. That is why the religious traditions took up the acquisition, transmission, and development of these arts.

The importance of metaphysics and its relationship to the liberal arts cannot be overstated. In the past, the primary purpose of these arts was to enable people to pursue truth with the proper tools of learning.

The Rise and Fall of Grammar

Scholars construct grammars as taxonomies that describe the natural phenomena of language; the need for such grammars often arises due to a natural decay, or when migrant populations threaten the integrity of a people’s native language with solecisms as occurred in the early part of Islam, or when a society maintains a sacerdotal or religious language, such as Latin or Arabic, that needs to be transmitted to its educated classes and masses for religious purposes.

We can look at language through the metaphysical categories of matter and form, the concepts required to understand reality. The matter of language is the spoken sound and the written notation, but its form is in the meaning that it conveys: its essence. When I say “apple,” a particular type of fruit (probably red and/or green) is evoked in your mind. If I say tuffāĥ, if you understand Arabic, the same fruit comes to mind. Through differentiation, meaning is extracted out of matter. Limits (definitions) grant words meaning. A word, due to its limits (literally its definition), enables us to symbolize a concept effectively. Language is a “frame” that evokes in the mind that which prior to the speech was hidden in the mind of the other.

Rumi, the thirteenth-century Persian poet and theologian, relates a simple story of four hungry travelers who come upon some coins on the road. The Persian says, “I want to buy angūr.”

The Turk says, “No! I want üzüm.”

The Arab says, “¢Inab is the only food that will fulfill my hunger.”

The Greek says, “No! We should have stafil.

They begin to quarrel, and Rumi says that a polyglot who knew their respective languages could have resolved their misunderstanding, for each was asking for grapes in his own language. The symbols differ, but the concept is the same. It is through language that we symbolize reality and convey it to others. But language is highly nuanced and ambiguous and hence easily misunderstood. Linguists have shown that in primitive societies, which often have more sophisticated languages than do advanced societies, very specific language is used, and it relates heavily to the concrete realities around them. This does not mean that primitive people do not abstract—they do—but their conversations are more concrete and grounded in reality.

As societies become more complex, written language becomes necessary, but since written language lacks the nuances of inflections and emotions conveyed through sounds, problems arise. Hence, the study of language, to understand and convey complex ideas and abstract meanings, becomes more important, even necessary.

Prior to the advent of Islam in the seventh century and before the Qur’an became the first written work in Arabic, the Arabs had a highly sophisticated and precise spoken language. For example, the Arabic word for lion has dozens of alternatives to convey precise adjectival meanings: Arabs refer to a lion hunting as, ¢awf; when circling its prey, layth; when leaping on its prey, usāmah, and so on. As a highly inflected language—one in which the form of a word, indicating its case or tense, precisely defines its function in a sentence—Arabic enables a much freer syntax than English. For example, a verb may assume its place at the beginning or at the end of a sentence. In Arabic, I can say, “John went” or “went John,” both perfectly acceptable grammatical constructions, with no difference in meaning. However, imposing improper inflections on verbs or nouns does indeed alter meanings and cause misconstruction. Hence, knowing conjugation and declension is absolutely imperative to master the Arabic language and avoid misunderstandings. Furthermore, Arabic’s highly sophisticated morphology allows words to convey layers of meanings, as the same letters in the same positions may convey multiple meanings.

Arabic grammar is notoriously difficult for both Arabs and non-Arabs, and I would contend that this is a primary reason for the dearth of scholarly production in Arabic as compared with that found in the European languages. The point, however, is that pre-Islamic Arabs knew their language intuitively and spoke it correctly. It was rarely written, and the literate among them were a small minority. Due to the complexity of Arabic inflection, grammar became necessary to enable correct interpretation of written works. Arguably, there has been no civilization with a greater history of linguistic analysis and development of language studies prior to and after the first few hundred years of the Islamic culture. It is only in the late European civilization, influenced by the Muslims, that language studies become predominant. Muslim grammarians delved deeply into syntactical possibilities. They exhausted lexical studies, ensuring that every word mentioned in the Qur’an and hadith (prophetic traditions) was understood.

In the West, the medieval scholastics entered the fray and also dived deep into the ocean of language. Scholars mastered Latin and Greek grammars, enabling them to communicate philosophical, theological, medical, and legal ideas effectively. The tradition of grammar schools emerged as the elementary schools wherein students learned the nuances of Latin grammar. Latin, the scholarly language of Western Christendom, became the language of many books. As local languages grew increasingly important and learning more widespread, grammars emerged for the vernacular languages as well. Grammars enabled children to quickly learn a civilizational language, which in turn, gave individuals in society the ability to make sense of one another through oral and written communication, as well as to understand correctly what previous generations left behind, communicating with us from beyond the grave.

Alas, grammar has been on a decline for decades now, and not only by accident or neglect. In The War Against Grammar, David Mulroy documents the devastating and destructive war waged within the ivory towers of academia. It began in the early 1950s, although arguably its seeds were sown long before. The bitter fruits of that unfortunate turn away from the traditional emphasis on language arts are evidenced today in the arguments of critical theorists who understand the world merely in terms of the powerful and the powerless; among the things they believe is that standardization of language is designed to marginalize the powerless, and that an imposition of standard language traumatizes those who speak dialects. Undeniably, those without the tools of dominant discourse end up marginalized, but instead of helping them learn the language of the dominant class, thus enabling them to overcome their marginalization, the critical theorists, intentionally or not, leave them in their marginalized state, seething with resentment at the privileged class who speak the standard language.

Malcolm X demonstrated that a mastery of the English language, which he accomplished in prison, building on an excellent foundation acquired at a good grammar school, gave him a power even kings envy: the ability to move masses with the mastery of words. Malcolm’s verbal virtuosity and rhetorical effectiveness took him to the Oxford Union, England’s highest debating society, but critical theorists cynically attribute this achievement to the “repressive tolerance” of an oppressive but highly sophisticated system.

A popular view today deems the study of grammar dry, difficult to master, and decidedly unpopular. And, because it is learned less and less, we lose the ability to understand each other and hence the freedom to communicate. As witnesses in a time during which language is losing its precision and meaning, we see vocabularies shrinking and misunderstandings growing rampantly. Students today enter our colleges with feeble grammatical skills and anemic vocabularies, despite twelve years of schooling. They have been deprived of a basic education and training in the language arts; the fault lies not in them but in their schools. They enter colleges mostly unable to comprehend, much less cherish, the literature they so desperately need and the great books that can edify their souls and enrich their impoverished states. Melville’s glorious prose, with its abstruse syntax, is beyond the ability of students to pierce without the harpoon of precise language skills. Grappling with Shakespeare becomes a daunting chore, and comprehending the layers of meaning in such classic works becomes well-nigh impossible. Meanwhile, the distractions of grammarless texting and tweeting beckon, as does a monoculture that adulates celebrities who are themselves unschooled in the language arts.

Melville’s glorious prose with its abstruse syntax is beyond the reach of students to pierce without the harpoon of precise language skills.

Many of today’s youth are literally dying to read, as Barry Sanders shows in his A is For Ox: The Collapse of Literacy and the Rise of Violence in an Electronic Age. Grammar matters. Without it, we are matter without form; thought without substance; people without purpose; but most of all, alienated atoms in solipsistic silos, lamenting that no one understands us and we do not understand the world.

Diction was once an important subject, enabling students to penetrate both the complexity of words, with their various denotations and connotations, and their richness and beauty; we see this in the word thesaurus, from the Greek word for treasure. Words are precious, and their preservation a sacred trust handed down to each generation. The Arabs have a profound science known as fiqh al-lughah, which reveals the subtle differences between synonyms often used interchangeably. As these nuances are lost, precision dissipates; as precision dissipates, communication breaks down; as communication breaks down, divisiveness spreads; as divisiveness spreads, civil society retreats, and taming the savage nature of men and making gentle the way of the world become impossible.

Tools Against Tyranny

We are losing our language, and in losing our language, we are losing our selves. An easy thing this is not. We speak but fail to define terms; we no longer share a culture and education that enable us to understand the terms being used. Freedom, the right to life, the right to choose, good, evil, right, wrong, meaning, relativism: all of these words vex us profoundly. Embedded in each we find whole philosophies, but the tools to penetrate those philosophies we no longer possess. Even when we had those tools, these philosophies and the questions they pose were elusive; but at least then we could pursue their meaning with some hope of success and intelligent dialogue.

When we lose the arts of quality (the trivium) and quantity (the quadrivium), when we cannot grapple with the abstractions of spirit and matter, we lose our ability to understand the metaphysical implications of language and thought, and we are no longer free to think: indeed, “freedom of speech or expression” loses its meaning. This void invites the demagogues and tyrants who, like Dracula, can only thrive in darkness, in the absence of the light of the unshackled minds of citizens.

Shakespeare knew well the dangers that knowledge of language presented to tyrants, and how much they feared an educated public. In Henry VI, Shakespeare puts in the mouth of the sovereign these words:

Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar-school; and whereas before, our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally [the tools of materialism and business], thou hast caused printing to be used, and, contrary to the king, his crown and dignity, thou hast built a paper-mill. (Act IV, scene 7)

Grammar, books, and paper are revolutionary materials to the tyrant because they enable the transmission of the arts of freedom, which are the bane of every despot. In fact, arguably, Shakespeare himself resulted from the spread of grammar schools and their requisite primers from the years 1529 to 1545, as documented by Charles Butterworth in The English Primers: Their Publication and Connection with the English Bible and the Reformation in England.

The liberal arts resisted change for almost two thousand years. The eight parts of speech, introduced by the Hellenistic grammarian Dionysius Thrax and popularized through the Ars Grammatica and its primer, the Ars Minor by Donatus, have been taught to countless children for two thousand years. Aristotle’s rules of logic, formulated by one of the greatest minds in human history, remained almost unchanged for over two thousand years. Those are the rules of thought that contributed to the intellectual power of such diverse luminaries as Avicenna, al-Fārābī, Averroes, Maimonides, St. Thomas Aquinas, Francis Bacon, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Immanuel Kant.

The rules of term logic undergird our legal system and enable us to perceive fallacies in arguments presented to us by politicians, social scientists, economists, and philosophers, whose expertise can sometimes veil from us their susceptibility to error—they too are merely human. In a society and a social order that rest upon the ability of citizens to make rational and moral choices, we must be prepared to understand those choices, and the arguments presented by our leaders, in order to make the right decisions needed for our society and ourselves to flourish. We must have the freedom of thought and the language skills to persuade—and be persuaded—with sound communication, logical premises, and valid conclusions. That is the heart of the trivium. These arts of freedom will not disappear, nor will they forever be suppressed. Our very nature compels them to stir within us and remind us once again of what makes us human.


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