Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

Grammar, Grace, and Good Works in John of Salisbury

For John of Salisbury, virtue is necessary for man, but knowledge is necessary for virtue, but grammar is necessary for knowledge, but grace is necessary for grammar. Quite a catena causarum, but it’s his, and he’s sticking with it.

More expansively:

In Metalogicon 1.23, a chapter preceded by the titulus “What things are important for the exercise of philosophy and virtue; and the fact that their foundation is grammar” (Quae praecipua sint ad exercitium philosophiae et uirtutis et quod grammatica eorum est fundamentum), John lists four prerequisites for philosophy and virtue: lectio, doctrina, meditatio, and assiduitas operis: reading, learning, meditation, and continual work.

The difference between “reading” (lectio) and “learning” (doctrina) is that “reading” always takes a text as its material, whereas “learning” very often does, but also sometimes progresses to things not written (ad non scripta) which are “hidden in the memory’s archives” (in archivis memoriae recondita sunt), a lovely phrase, or which “shine forth” (eminent) in the understanding of an object that is present (in praesentis rei intelligentia).

“Meditation” (meditatio) goes yet further, for it also “stretches forth to things unknown” (ad ignota protenditur), and “raises itself to things incomprehensible” (ad incomprehensibilia…se ipsam erigit).

The fourth requirement, “continual work” (assiduitas operis), is formed from a pre-existing knowledge (a praeexistente cognitione) and aims at scientific knowledge (scientiam desideret), but is not itself those things. Rather, it “prepares the ways of understanding” (vias…parat intelligentiae) and seems to exists midway between cognitio and scientia.

Still, this scientia must be acquired before virtue can be performed: that is, “knowledge of virtue naturally precedes the doing and cultivation of virtue (operationem cultumque virtutis scientia praecedit), for virtue, to be virtue, must be aimed at the right object and so must know what that object is; it “sees where it is headed, and at what it directs its bow” (videt quo tendit, et in quod dirigit arcum). Where does that knowledge come from? From reading, learning, and meditation (at lectio, doctrina, et meditatio, scientiam pariunt)–helped, we can safely assume, by constant effort (assiduitas operis). 

And this is where grammar comes in. For reading, learning, and meditation (which are necessary for virtue) cannot proceed without a prior understanding of grammar, and thus “grammar, which is the foundation and root of those things [i.e., reading, learning, and meditation] somehow plants the seed in nature’s furrows, so to speak” (grammatica, quae istorum fundamentum est et radix, quodammodo sementem iacit quasi in sulcis naturae). 

But that nature is not opposed to or supplanted by grace. Grace and nature work together–one might say that they are complementary, even. We all know the old saw: gratia non tollit naturam, sed perficit (“grace does not destroy nature, but completes it”). And so, for John, grace goes before grammar, as it were; if it is present as a “co-worker” with the seed (quae si ei cooperatrix quoque affuerit), it “grows together into the strength of solid virtue” (in solidae virtutis robur coalescit). That seed, vivified by grace, “grows in a manifold way so that it brings forth the fruit of good work, for which reason men both are called ‘good,’ and really are” (crescit multipliciter ut boni operis fructum faciat, unde boni viri nominantur et sunt).

Again, it would be a mistake to pit nature against grace here, as though they are in competition. As John makes clear, “grace alone, which works both to will the good and to do it, makes a man good” (sola…gratia, quae et velle bonum et perficere operatur, virum bonum facit). As this is true in ethics generally, so it is true, he believes, in education: “it [i.e., grace], above all other considerations, bestows the faculty of writing correctly and speaking correctly on those to whom it is given, and furnishes the various arts” (prae ceteris omnibus recte scribendi et recte loquendi quibus datum est facultatem imperitur, artesque ministrat varias).

In sum, John sets education within a broader ethical context that presupposes an economy of grace. As Pelagianism is out of place in the Christian life generally, so educational Pelagianism ought to have no place among God’s people, either. 

God ordains an end in ethics, namely, virtue. But when he ordains an end, he also ordains the means, namely, education. But he goes further still, realizing that man’s efforts would be in vain if he were left to himself; and so he gives man his grace, to the end that his nature might be formed in true knowledge for the practice of true virtue, yielding the good fruit that God both commands and supplies. So, at any rate, contends John of Salisbury.

Grace, therefore, “when it kindly offers itself to the needy, ought not to be scorned” (cum se indigentibus benigne offert, contemni non debet).1

  1. All translations are my own.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.