Grammar – Mythos – Imagining the Real

Grammar is the cradle of all philosophy, and in a manner of speaking, the first nurse of the whole study of letters.

– John of Salisbury, 1159, The Metalogicon

It was Grammar that enabled the Greeks to enter more deeply into the reality of the cosmos, not just by becoming conscious of how language functions, but by becoming conscious of themselves as inventors, sets, and refiners of language.

The actual word Grammar comes from the word grammatikos, meaning ‘letters’. One who masters the grammar of a language has developed the skill of interpretation, of reading symbols made up of individual letters and sounds, which build to whole words and texts. The exegesis of Scripture, of works of art, and even nature herself might be included as an extension of this idea.

…It is not simply that the mastery of words requires an act of remembering sufficient to associate each word with a particular thing (naming), or to recall the way individual words build into statements and questions. Certainly that is true. But there is a more profound sense in which to fill a word with meaning is an act of remembering the being of the thing itself. I take sides here with the Platonic-Augustinian tradition, where the act of defining an essence is guided by an intuition of being – of how this thing belongs to the whole from which we all come.

In Plato’s dialogue Meno, Socrates famously has some fun with a slave boy who has never studied geometry, drawing out from him by a series of questions the right answer to a complex geometrical problem. The questions do not put the truth into the boy’s mind but help him to discover it there. (It is supposed to be an example of the method Socrates habitually employs.) Socrates concludes that the soul already knows all things – moral as well a mathematical – before birth, and simply has to remember them. As a proof the demonstration hardly seems effective to modern ears, but what Socrates is really talking about is the function of a teacher, which is to raise a student from the state of confusion and ignorance to a state of knowing. It is the job of the teacher to lead the student to that interior place where he can see the truth for himself – just as a great sculptor might claim that his art is simply to remove enough stone to reveal the beautiful form within. Truth once known is ‘seen’ in the substance of the soul. Socrates therefore claims that ‘searching and learning’ are a process of anamnesis or recollection, and the dialogue looks forward to the Phaedo where the theory of the Forms is presented: in learning we come to recollect, to remember, the Forms such as Beauty, Even and Odd, Justice, and so on, that are permanently present in that Original Being or ‘pre-existence’ which is our own origin.

– Stratford Caldecott, Beauty in the Word

So much to think about as I make my way through this wonderful work.


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