An Apologia for the Study of Logic

In the never ending world of education reform, from “No Child Left Behind” to “Common Core Standards,” we are continually told of the need for “critical thinking,” reading, and writing skills—along with technical skills for future employment. A survey of the reforms and initiatives put into law and practice, however, all have a similar defect: a failure to teach Logic. When, exactly, Logic was dropped from the curriculum, I do not know, but it’s reintroduction does not seem to be a goal of any reformers of public education.

metalogicon250One of the most cogent and eloquent defenses of the teaching of Logic comes from the 12th century thinker John of Salisbury. In his book, The Metalogicon, John argues persuasively that a study and knowledge of Logic is necessary for myriad reasons. The title, while admittedly daunting, means simply “on behalf of Logic,” and in the book John sets forth to refute those thinkers of his own time (who he refers to collectively as Cornificius) who were adversaries of the teaching of Logic (or the trivium more generally). Cornificius, says John, is the “ignorant and malevolent foes of studies pertaining to eloquence, attacks not merely one, or even a few persons, but all civilization and political organization” (11-12). Bold words indeed, for as John sees it, to oppose the teaching of Logic, is to oppose civilization. John’s apologia includes more than just a defense of Logic, undeniably it is a robust defense of the whole of liberal arts education, but I will restrict my discussion here to the focus on Logic.

What exactly is “Logic” as a field of study? For John, Logic has a twofold meaning: “the science of verbal expression and reasoning” (32). That is, Logic (in the narrow sense) covers the rules of rational thinking and (in the broad sense) knowledge and skill of how to express reason with speech—or, as John puts it, “all instruction relative to words” (32). This broader sense, Augustine referred to as, “the science of argumentation” (80). Thus, John suggests that the traditional trivium of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, is what he has in mind by “Logic.”

This seems to go beyond the traditional definition of Logic which was restrictive to the art and science of reasoning, with Rhetoric taking up the ability to express ideas eloquently and winsomely and Grammar the science of words. The reason John extends the use of Logic to encompass all of the art of argumentation seems to be due to the nature of Logic itself as the hinge to both proper Grammar and effective Rhetoric. Grammar, affirms John, “is the science of speaking and writing correctly—the starting point of all liberal studies” (37). Rhetoric is the art of expresses those words eloquently, or as John puts it, “Rhetoric, where persuasion is in order, supplies the silvery luster of its resplendent eloquence” (67). In order to show why Logic is the “linchpin,” so to speak, of the verbal arts, it’s nature and purpose must first be explored.

The kind of Logic, in the narrower sense, John has in mind is that formalized by Aristotle. Aristotelian Logic, certainly at the time of John, was the only game in town. Aristotle, being its one and only founder, dominated Logic studies and John did not depart from this tradition.

So, why study Aristotelian Logic? John gives several reasons. First, logic provides the groundwork or rules which give birth to Prudence. Says John, “Of all things most desirable is wisdom, whose fruit consists in the love of what is good and the practice of virtue” (74). Could we considered anyone wise who reasons illogically? In fact, is that not a true oxymoron, to “reason illogically”? Logic provides the tools for the mind to operate and enable it to judge (if not to act) wisely. In order to act Prudently, one’s mind must operate along the rules of logic, which guide the mind to the proper course of action. This, of course, is not a perfect road map, but without it, one could only follow the proper course by accident. With all the roads that we would take, who could navigate without the ability to read the map?

In an age which is tempted to worship science, it is a wonder that training in Logic is not mandatory, given that the presumed object of science is truth and logic is the mind’s aid to discover truth. As John says, “Prudence consists entirely in insight into the truth, together with a certain skill in investigating the latter; whereas justice embraces the truth and fortitude defends it, while temperance moderates the activities of the aforesaid virtues” (74). That is, at the center of the Cardinal Virtues is Truth and Logic provides the means to attain the Truth.

Given all of this, we can now see why Logic is the linchpin of the verbal arts, and why John calls the whole of the trivium “Logic.” Logic is what connects the grammar of the word with the eloquence of expression. Without Logic, Rhetoric becomes Sophistry. Logic aids in judging propositions, it is what guides the mind in the discovery of Truth. If the mind is not aimed at Truth, Rhetoric is merely aimed at power, overcoming one’s opponent. As John puts it, Rhetoric “unenlightened by reason, is rash and blind” (10). The uniting of the trivium John explains poetically:

If we may resort to a fable, antiquity considered that Prudence, the sister of Truth, was not sterile, but bore a wonderful daughter [Philology], whom she committed to the chaste embrace of Mercury [Eloquence]. In other words, Prudence, the sister of Truth, arranged that [her daughter], the Love of [Logical] Reasoning and Knowledge, would acquire fertility and luster from Eloquence. Such is the union of Philology and Mercury. (78-79)

It may be that the modern educator’s failure to teach and instruct in the art and science of Logic is an implicit rejection of Truth. For if there is no Truth, Logic is irrelevant. So too is reason, knowledge, and science. If, however, Truth is deemed possible, to ignore the study of Logic is to handicap the mind. It is to lead the student in the study of truth but not to give the student the tools to discover it. A recovery of the study of Logic, therefore, is one of the truly necessary areas of “reform” for modern education, even if it is not on the agenda of any modern school boards or legislators.


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

The Copulation of Reason and Eloquence

Just as eloquence, unenlightened by reason, is rash and blind, so wisdom, without the power of expression, is feeble and maimed. Speechless wisdom may sometimes increase one’s personal satisfaction, but it rarely and only slightly contributes to the welfare of human society. 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. Reason would remain utterly barren, or at least would fail to yield a plenteous harvest, if the faculty of speech did not bring to light its feeble conceptions, and communicate the perceptions of the prudent exercise of the human mind. Indeed, it is this delightful and fruitful copulation of reason and speech which has given birth to so many outstanding cities, has made friends and allies of so many kingdoms, and has unified and knit together in bonds of love so many peoples.

~John of Salisbury, The Metalogicon, Book I. Chapter 1.