What is Literature, Part II: Grammar

Some reflections on what people have meant by the term grammar, from CS Lewis’s The Discarded Image, page 185 ff. in my Canto edition

To give an educational curriculum a place in the Model of the universe may at first seem an absurdity; and it would be an absurdity if the medievals had felt about it as we feel about the ‘subjects’ in a syllabus today. But the syllabus was regarded as immutable…; the Liberal Arts, by long prescription, had achieved a status not unlike that of nature herself.

‘Grammar talks’, as the couplet says; or as Isidore defines her, ‘Grammar is the skill of speech’. That is, she teaches us Latin….

Grammar… sometimes extended far beyond the realm it claims today. It had done so for centuries. Quintilian suggests literatura as the proper translation of Greek grammatike, and literatura, though it does not mean ‘literature’, included a good deal more than literacy. It included  all that is required for ‘making up’ a ‘set book’: syntax, etymology, prosody, and the explanation of allusions. Isidore makes even history a department of Grammar. He would have described the book I am now writing as a book of Grammar. Scholarship is perhaps our nearest equivalent.

I like all that because it is informative and helpful. I add what follows because it is amusing.

In popular usage Grammatica or Grammaria slid into the vague sense of learning in general; and since learning is usually an object both of respect and suspicion to the masses, grammar, in the form grammary comes to mean magic…. And from grammary, by a familiar sound-change, comes glamour — a word whose associations with grammar and even with magic have now been annihilated by the beauty-specialists.

One of the things that bothers me about contemporary language is the contradiction between text books and reality. If you study language in the books it tells you two things: 1. language is conventional, and 2. it is formed by the usage of the common people.

I deny both, at some level, but especially the second. It is disgusting the extent to which language is altered and manipulated by advertisers who are professionally indifferent to anything without a utilitarian defense (they would lose their jobs if they submitted to nature). Meanwhile, the human mind, human communities, and human souls deteriorate because the most powerful tool they have for development and growth is stolen from them.

Happy Punctuation Day, comma.

It apears that Jeff Rubin has established his place in history in a manner that few others can claim: he has created a holiday.

It’s today, September 24.

And it is National Punctuation Day, established in 2004.

It is about time somebody recognizes the holiness of punctuation, underscoring once again the profound insight of the great 19th century philologist, Friederich Nietzsche, that “we will not be rid of God until we are rid of grammar.”

Camille Goldston, a graduate of the CiRCE apprenticeship, forwarded the news to the apprentices today and it got me thinking about the purpose of punctuation.

The modernist mind that controls conventional schooling and thought takes an entirely functional approach to grammar and punctuation, and that leads them to basic errors because they lose sight of the logic behind thought, which is rooted in being itself and in the capacity of the human mind to perceive being.

So, being functional and utilitarian, they do things like drop the second comman in a list of three things. This error, which makes reading challenging materials much more difficult, seems to arise from a mistaken understanding of the purpose of a comma.

When I was a child, somebody, probably, I regret to say, a teacher, told me that commas stand in for the word “and.”

So if you say, “John, George, and Sally went running,” you are really saying “John and George and Sally went running.” Therefore, writers should not include the second comma because the “and” is already there. Thus: John, George and Sally went running.

That’s an example of functionalism. We can easily see that there is a list of names and that the word “and” links them together. 

But the instruction goes wrong in two directions, one, the use of the comma and two, the use of the word and.

Consider this sentence from CS Lewis’s The Discarded Image: “This doctrine had a flourishing progeny in the middle ages, and became a popular subject for school debates.”  (What he refers to by “this doctrine” is irrelevant to the discussion at hand, which is strictly formal).

Should there be a comma after “ages”? Generally, in a list of two, you ought not to include a comma. But is this a list of two?

Lewis, a master of punctuation (and one who misuses commas occasionally), would seem not to think so. He seems, on the contrary, to be suggesting that the doctrines status as a school debate is a subordinate idea to its work as a viral parent.

Further evidence that he is trying to subordinate the second clause to the first is his use of metaphor in the first clause, which heightens its poetic quality and therefore impact, and his non-artistic, though perfectly sound, description in the second clause.

So the word and has much too varied a use to be reduced to something that a comma can stand in for.

The more important point I want to mak here is that the logic of the phrase is confused when writers drop the second comma. It is very obvious how the speaker intends the three characters to be related to each other and to their activity in the first option: “John, George, and Sally went running.”

Each of them went running, and each is related to the others on an equal basis in relation to their running.

But what about this: “John, George and Sally went running.” Only the most carefully trained reader can avoid a sub-conscious or conscious inclination to bond George and Sally more closely than John and George.

And the time spent learning to avoid that inclination was wasted because in other sentences the inclination should be honored.

Over at Wikipedia they present a rather famous example of the ambiguity created by the absence of the second (sometimes called Oxford, Yale, or Serial) comma:

To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

You can probably see the dilemma.

Wikipedia has a really excellent article on this question in which they include the following note on usage:

The Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, most authorities on American English and Canadian English, and some authorities on British English (for example, Oxford University Press and Fowler’s Modern English Usage) recommend the use of the serial comma. Newspaper style guides (such as those published by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, The Times newspaper in the United Kingdom, and the Canadian Press) recommend against it, possibly for economy of space.[18]

In other words, people who are trying to write in the breezy, popular, windy fashion of the 20th century want to avoid the comma and the real reason might well be to save ink. People who have a little more incentive to see people think intelligently want the comma included.

The Economist, which is I usually agree with on basic matters of style tries to walk that Anglican middle way:

Do not put a comma before and at the end of a sequence of items unless one of the items includes another and. Thus ‘The doctor suggested an aspirin, half a grapefruit and a cup of broth. But he ordered scrambled eggs, whisky and soda, and a selection from the trolley.’

But the second sentence is precisely the reason it should be included in the first. I’ve been accused of always teaching and maybe that’s true. But if you write after the pattern of the first sentence, the habit of mind that makes the reader more receptive to logical communication is undercut.

A writer should never (in general) direct the reader’s attention to his punctuation. The purpose of writing is always communication of an idea. The punctuation should be as hidden as the letters in each word. By creating a controversy over the serial comma, style guides diminish a little bit more the joy of reading and the freedom with which it can be enjoyed.

The logical relations are only clear in a series when the serial comma is used. When it is not, ambiguity easily arises. On those occasions when ambiguity is not solved by the serial comma, another form of punctuation (parentheses, dash, etc.) or a rearranged sentence offer the easiest solution.

Modern and Classical Writing Compared

Thought begins with perception and continues through comparison.

Angelina in Louisiana is a college writing teacher who has been comparing modern writing with classical and has had some very interesting things to say. She lives in the trenches, having to work with people who have had their common sense removed from their minds because of loyalty to ideology.

Check out her thoughts here.

On education and the hatred of children

So a little girl is sitting in a third grade classroom and the teacher begins to show the students how to create a key word outline so they can imitate a fairy tale.

“You’ll probably want to pick the subject and the verb in most sentences,” the teacher says, when the little girl raises her hand and asks, “Mrs. Teacher, is this grammar class?”

Good one, eh?

No, it’s not funny. I know that. It’s not funny at so many levels it makes me want to slam my desk.

She’s a third grade girl and she has already learned, by the structure of the curriculum, that one class does not have a relation to another.

What leads to this madness?


That’s correct. Subjects. Where does this idea of subjects come from?

It’s hard to say, excactly, but it seems to have been sealed by the progressives of the early 20th century. I think the traditionalists also thought in terms of subjects, but they seem to have been more open to the fact of types of knowledge.

Let me explain what I mean. In the classical curriculum, there were not “subjects.” There were arts and sciences.

I know, I’m being semantic. But as my friend Joe used to say, you don’t want to be anti-semantic. After all, what does semantics mean? (It means meaning, for those who care).

Subjects became the dominant way of describing what children studied in school when the powers that be decided that all knowledge was equal in value and that skills were not transferable from one “subject” to another. It takes experts to come to conclusions like that, I know.

Actually, it takes ideologues. The egalitarians decided that if some knowledge was more useful than others than people who had it would be superior to others. In their bitterness, they castrated the whole human race rather than risk the possibility that somebody would know something they couldn’t know.

If you are an ideological egalitarian, which all our school leadership seems to be, then you pay no heed to reality. You simply cannot tolerate the possibility of anybody excelling. Life is a zero sum game. If one person gets ahead, the rest fall behind.

So, to switch the metaphor (and yes, I know I’m angry – there’s a time for it), they performed a lobotomy on any child whose parents were willing to subject them to their operations.

In the classical tradition, it has always been understood that not all knowledge is equal, that some knowledge informs other knowledge and enables us to fulfill our duties as particular humans in particular places more effectively, and that all knowledge was woven together with the ability to reason and perceive.

It was also understood that people who can’t reason or perceive make horrible leaders and that if we don’t equip our leaders with the ability to reason and perceive we are going to be as lost as lostness itself.

Therefore, the classical curriculum did not teach subjects. It taught the arts of thought, which required content and focused on ideas. By structuring learning on the development of the mind on the one hand, and on the natural relationships among the things known on the other, it presented a curriculum that accomplished astonishing feats in the minds of those who learned it.

The modern seems to fear the classical curriculum because it will promote western bigotry. They are shooting themselves in the face to spite their nose. The classical tradition arises from a love and reverence for human nature.

As the little girl above shows, the contemporary school hates human nature, which wants to see the harmony of knowledge. The structure of the curriculum arises from the formal rejection of the human mind.

Think about that.

As a result, human nature goes uncultivated and the economy, for which the modern school pretends to be preparing children, drifts further and further into the doldrums, as it has for the last 30 or 40 years.

Now let me qualify. I don’t mean that contemporary school experts actively dislike children, though I am quite certain many of them do. I simply mean that they are not about to be distracted by the reality of the child’s nature when they build their programs and methodologies.

They will not sacrifice their quantitative controls no matter how unquantitative a child is. They will not allow the teacher to exercise her own judgment no matter how much the teacher in the classroom understands both content and child.

Any teacher in America can probably tell horror stories about the breakdown between the planners and the child’s soul. I hear them all the time.

So they take children out of their natural environments, put them in cinder block buildings with mobs of pre-civilized (I’m being optimistic) children, and then exercise autocratic control over every movement (including bowel) the child makes through the day.

I call that hating children. The sentimentalized demagoguery they use to perpetuate their cruelty only reinforces this contempt. That they are obtuse to the damage they cause is no excuse.

Jones on children

I’m much more concerned about raising decent but soulless children, children with that blank unconscious stare who run in tight grooves, completely lacking in passion for anything grand and beautiful.

Douglas Jones
Angels in the Architecture: A Protestant Vision for Middle Earth
Chapter 11, Nurturing Fat Souls

What is Literature Anyway?

When we teach literature, if we must, our students should not encounter a general, bewildering sampling of all the types of writing, their philosophical roots, their representative masters, and their characteristic obstacles.

Such an approach teaches literary relativism. (I suppose the act of having a literature class probably already assumes a literary relativism, or at least that literature has a relative place in the curriculum.)

Instead, students should learn the nature of literature from a given philosophy or theory of literature. Even if that theory is wrong it will be better than this mythical neutrality and expertise that the textbook pretends to.

Let me press this just a little further. Literature, in the classical tradition, never had a class of its own and it certainly was never taught as a historical phenomenon. Both the class and the historical approach seem to have developed during the 19th century in Germany, where the modern school was born and nurtured in the short-lived incestuous relationship of Enlightenment and Romanticism.

In the Christian classical tradition, children were taught grammar, which was a rich vein for the intellect.

Grammar comes from grammatikos: letters. It included what we mean by grammar, but that was considered a rather small, though foundational and important, portion of it. However, the word literature itself, which comes from the Latin litera: letters, is probably a better translation of what they meant by grammar.

So that would seem to be a direct contradiction of what I said earlier.

It seems that way because our minds are so fragmented, especially in the matter of languages.

Grammar was the close examination of literary texts.

There was the practical school of the Alexandrians, who developed what we think of as grammar precisely because people were unable to read Homer and they wanted to ensure that children could make the adaptations.

Then there was the more philosophical school of, for example, the Stoics, who believed that language was rooted in nature and therefore there was an ideal form that language should take.

They seemed to believe that Homer and possibly Plato had approached that form quite closely.

In both cases, when they approached grammar or literature (both mean “letters”), their purpose was to give the student a profound encounter with a great text.

They didn’t study very many texts. For example, one of my favorite educators, Vittorino de Feltre, took years to teach his students only a few books, such as Homer, Virgil, and a couple others. But they didn’t need to study very many texts for their purposes.

Their goal was to become “men of letters,” by which they did not mean that they had read lots and lots of “letters” by other people but that they were masters of their use. Such a goal requires a close analysis of a few texts, not a shallow introduction to a multitude of texts.

They placed a much higher value on intellectual skills (liberal ARTS) and the deep experiences that arise from close, sustained consideration of an idea than on a superficial acquaintance with a vast array of content.

They would have been puzzled by the compulsion to “get through the material.”

 But they were in a tradition, and I think this might be the critical point. They recognized that some texts were out of this world, came from another world, were works of heartbreaking genius and merited everybody’s attention and reverence.

As a result, they could feed on those texts for their whole lives without missing anything that mattered. Indeed, some of them could go on to produce their own works of immeasurable genius.

Since then, the tradition has been broken. Are there any schools that self-consciously regard themselves as carriers of that tradition, who deliberately set aside the relative trivia of the modern curriulum, and who teach their children deeply to contemplate those few masterpieces that sustain civilization and nourish our souls? Are there any schools filled with teachers who simply teach their students to contemplate beautiful and good things?

The worst of it is that once a tradition is lost, much of it can never be regained.

What am I dreaming about? A school that teaches its students only a few books and teaches them how to read them with all their hearts and souls and minds and strength. They read them, they translate them, they discuss them, they imitate them, they write about them, they live in their wisdom.

They do not demean literature by reading a bunch of novels because Shakespeare is too hard. And they recognize the full wealth of grammatikos, litera, letters, grammar.

This is what the president of Yale refered to in the 19th century when he said that the goal of eduation is to read Homer in the original.

American Apocalypse?

Eighty-six percent of respondents believe there is a unique American identity based on freedom and opportunity secured by the Constitution including freedom of speech, religious liberty, and private property. Respondents younger than 35 years old were more likely to hold that there is no unique American identity.

Victoria Hughes, The Insider, Fall 2008 commenting on  a poll by the Bradley Project on National Identity

I am not numbered among those who believe that being American makes me one of God’s chosen people. However, this quotation (the emphasis is mine) requires serious reflection.

First, how many of those under 35 believe there is no unique American identity? The entire significance of the paragraph turns on the answer to that question. If it is 15% for those above and 16% for those under 35, then who cares?

Second, do those under 35 believe there is no unique American identity (a ridiculous notion no matter how you look at it) or do those under 35 believe there is no unique American identity “based on freedom and opportunity secured by the Constitution including freedom of speech, religious liberty, and private property”?

Therefore, I do not appreciate the way the author recorded this paragraph at all. She makes a rather apocalyptic sounding point about those under 35 without even letting us know if the point really is apocalyptic. Clearly, she was writing only for the “choir,” but even choirs have their faith shaken by bad sermons.

But let us assume the worst for a moment. Let us assume that those under 35 are significantly more ignorant and lacking in awareness and common sense on this matter than those over 35.

Do those under 35 not believe in a unique American identity because they are simply too young to recognize it, or is there some other, more nefarious reason for this complete lack of self-awareness? How, after all, could a nation not have a unique identity?

If it is not simple youthfulness that makes them so stupid, what does?

  • Lack of good TV shows about American history like you could watch in the 50’s and 60’s?
  • Public schools rooted in the content minimized progressive tradition that doesn’t want children to be stuck in the traditions of their parents and ancestors?
  • A media that rather obviously wants US to be part of an abstracted global community?

What do you think causes this problem, if indeed there is a problem?

Having come down hard on the paragraph above,  I want to direct you to the Bill of Rights Institute, promotion of which was the real point of the article I referenced. I have not done a thorough analysis of their web site, but given how crucial it is that we understand our constitution, I want to champion anybody who helps us read it. Go to www.billofrightsinstitute.org/constitutionday.

(You’ll have to forgive them the folly of putting the word institute in their domain name. I would never, ever do that…)