John Milton on Liberal Arts


Dr. Andrew Selby has been lecturing the Trinity Classical Academy staff this past academic year on the “Art of Grammar.” The art of grammar, in contrast to the mere subject, is a skill that enables the practitioner to read and correctly interpret other people’s sentences and to produce one’s own grammatical sentences. We don’t call people “grammarians” (Greek: grammatikos)) very often any more, but it’s still a perfectly good label for the sort of educated person who can read, write, and think well.

One of Dr. Selby’s examples has been “little Johnny” – that is, John Milton.

John Milton is one of the greatest users of the English language, in a class with Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, T. S. Eliot, Keats. And surprisingly, his education consisted of primarily learning grammar for seven years. “Grammar school”, a term we also don’t use much anymore, referred to the intensive study of grammar that was rightly seen to be the foundation of all other learning. In grammar school, Milton learned (a) Latin, and (b) the universal grammatical rules and terminology needed to understand both Latin and English. Milton also learned (c) literature by reading Virgil directly. (He was also taught Christian theology and morality during this time.)

Milton did not learn science, math, or history per se during his grammar school education. That’s not how it was done. The medievals did first things first: grammar, then everything else.

The art of grammar is so important that it’s hard to understate the matter. However, grammar naturally leads to other arts: logic, for example, and rhetoric.

The reason these arts are united and yet distinct is clear upon reflection: they all concern the correct use of thinking and speaking. Students (and for that matter, business people, artists, and parents) who can think and speak well are most likely to excel in a class.

So how do the first three liberal arts, the trivium, work together?

Here’s a brief explanation from John Milton:

The general matter of the general arts is either reason or speech. They are employed either in perfecting reason for the sake of proper thinking, as in logic, or in perfecting speech, and that either for the sake of the correct use of words, as in grammar, or the effective use of words, as in rhetoric. Of all the arts the first and most general is logic, then grammar, and last of all rhetoric, since there can be much use of reason without speech, but no use of speech without reason. We gave the second place to grammar because correct speech can be unadorned; but it can hardly be adorned before it is correct.1

All of education is about reason or speech, at least at the beginning. Architects may produce blueprints and buildings, but they first must talk and reason about the project.

Milton here emphasizes reason over speech. In classical schools, we most often put grammar first (chronologically first, that is) before logic, but Milton is asserting that logic is the first in priority because it is the most general. We think before speaking – and often think without speaking.

Classical educators must not only be educating others but must also be self-educating. We must teach ourselves, as much as we can, the liberal arts. We must practice improving our reading, writing, and speaking, so that we can model excellence for our students. We cannot give what we do not have.

  1. John Milton, Art of Logic, trans. Allan H. Gilbert, vol. 2, The Works of John Milton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1935), 17.