The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Masonic Trivia

The Ahiman Rezon instructs new Fellowcrafts:

Grammar is the science which teaches us to express our ideas in appropriate words, which we may afterward beautify and adorn by means of Rhetoric; while Logic instructs us how to think and reason with propriety, and to make language subordinate to thought.
These three arts are collectively known as the Trivium, the initiatory phase of a Classical education, to be followed by the Quadrivium: Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy. As the latter four are more technical than the former three, and taught with these as their prerequisites, the Trivium was considered to be more basic than the Quadrivium, and is where we get the modern word trivial from.

It was assumed that an unlearned person would begin by mastering these three arts, Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric, and from this basis would be able to handle more specific concepts explored in more detail in the Quadrivium. Thus the ability to think rationally, to order these thoughts coherently, and to express them persuasively were abilities that an educated person had mastered.

That brilliant educator, Sister Miriam Joseph, wrote a book about the Trivium and what it means to education. She wrote:

Logic is the art of thinking; grammar, the art of inventing symbols and combining them to express thought; and rhetoric, the art of communicating thought from one mind to another, the adaptation of language to circumstance.
This quote is worth exploring in more detail. Humans think. Animals probably are able to cobble a few impulses together into something more profound. My dog hears my footsteps in the stairwell, and can distinguish mine from my roommates and neighbors, and has an emotional response: his tail begins wagging vigorously with enthusiasm. He likes to sleep by the front door, and my footsteps alert him so that, without getting up, he wags his tail, slamming it into the floor with a resounding thump that I can hear as I ascend the stairs. When I take his leash off of the hook on the wall, he dances with enthusiasm, because he can deduce that we are about to go for a walk. Is this a thought he is entertaining? I'm not really sure.

But humans think, and most of it do it without any explicit training. Why, then, is there an art to thinking? Because we can think things that are false. And those false thoughts can get us into trouble. Without training, we can make leaps of thought that are unsound. In the study of logic, we learn about fallacies, common errors in deduction that humans are prone to making. There is hubris in learning about logic, because one cannot learn about logic without learning how often one has failed to apply logic. Learning logic requires self-examination, and this threatens the ego. It takes an evolved human to examine errors one has committed, and by implication, their consequences. Therefore it takes humility to learn logic, and logic teaches humility to some degree, but it can also instill arrogance as well. Logical failures are ubiquitous, and the student of logic, in spotting these errors in the field, can conclude that most people are stupid, or worse, duplicitous, and feel superior as a result. People who hold logic above all other arts can become misanthropic and disdainful of those who order their values differently. So the student who learns logic first and will learn other arts learns a two-fold humility: one humility upon learning that one is frequently erroneous, and another from sitting in fellowship with others who are frequently erroneous. Logic is Wisdom.

Grammar is the art of infusing words with meaning. Sister Miriam Joseph tells us that grammar consists of "inventing symbols and combining them to express thought". We may think that inventing symbols is something our ancestors did, a finished task, but that would be short-sighted. Each new learner recreates the world anew. A word becomes ours when we own it as if we had invented it ourselves. Any student may put a string of words together that have never been put together before, and in this, there is invention. But the crucial concept in this phrase is the expression of thought. What we think is trapped in our brains, and others can only infer what thoughts we think. This is the basis of human liberty. Our thoughts are our own, and only ours unless we choose to share them with others. That transfer may be orderly, but it rarely is. Too often we fail to convey what we really think, and each word we utter is recontextualized by our hearers, to the detriment of what we intend to mean. Because thoughts are impulses cobbled together, it could be that we don't really understand our own thoughts until we can trap them into structures that have meaning in them, like rounding up wild mustangs, and taming them one by one.

We can observe that there are different types of words. Some words convey objects, some actions, some relationships between other objects or actions, and some color the actions or objects we mean to describe. By knowing how these different kinds of words fit together, we can ensure that our words convey the meaning we intend for them as suitably as possible. Without a mastery of grammar, we do not know if our utterances actually convey what we intend them to convey, but our confusion is even worse that that: until we concretize our thoughts through writing or deliberate speech, our thoughts have no form, no transferability, no existence outside of our own minds. Grammar is Strength. It takes logic and grammar for us to become effective thinkers.

No matter how polished our thoughts may become through the arts of logic and grammar, they will not be accepted by others until we make an effective study of rhetoric. We have to train how to shape our thoughts into a form that others will receive with meaning intact. It is useless to formulate ideas that cannot be shared, and useless to have thoughts that do not fit into the circumstances one finds oneself in. Circumstances change. The people we find among us will vary. We need to be able to tailor our ideas to each and every new situation we are in, in order for them to be effective. Rhetoric is Beauty.

Mastery of the Trivium is essential for any mason. It is not only an intellectual imperative, but a moral imperative. Masons are distinguished by the self-discipline that our obligations put upon us. A mason should be a man of his word, and it takes study to master thought enough to organize thought, to shape thought into words, and to shape words so that they are appropriate for the occasion. A mason cannot fulfill his obligations without a commitment to a life-long study of the Trivium.

We do not assume that an Entered Apprentice has these skills when he is challenged to learn them upon taking his Fellowcraft degree. But we do assume that a Master Mason has, by virtue of being found worthy to take that degree. The responsibility to ensure that these skills have been mastered is balanced between a Lodge that finds a Fellowcraft worthy to take another degree and that Fellowcraft who stands before his lodge and takes the Oath of a Master Mason for the first time.

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