On Feeling Small: Reading John of Salisbury’s Metalogicon

by Jeroen Bouterse

“I am by nature too dull to comprehend the subtleties of the ancients; I cannot rely on my memory to retain for long what I have learned; and my style betrays its own lack of polish.”[1] Among the benefits that reading the twelfth-century philosopher John of Salisbury’s Metalogicon has brought me were the pleasure of finding a witty and humane voice to introduce me to the new and faraway world of 12th-century learning (of which voice I intend to give plenty of examples below), and the fact that he helped me quit Twitter (again, more to follow). Apart from those, however, a major one was certainly the consolation of seeing an unquestionably capable thinker express his intellectual limitations in terms that seem genuine, going further than what perfunctory modesty would have required.

There have surely been thinkers who were more emphatic about their natural flaws, but there is a fine line between the comforting and the disturbing. When the 20th-century Dutch philosopher Leo Polak dreaded his approaching inaugural address, he wrote in his diary: “I came to nothing […] I have been of no value, for my family or for other people, or even simply done my duty. My pathological lack of memory my only excuse, but it is also partly laziness and sloppiness (no card system) and having whiled away my time, having flattered myself with undeserved success.”[2] That, too, resonates, but not in the uplifting way that John’s confessions do.

John has already implicitly abstracted from his own feelings of inadequacy, and has learned to look kindly upon them; he feels his lack of powers acutely, but he asks and thereby gives sympathy. “Would it not be unjust”, at his age and with all the distractions of his responsibilities, “to expect of me the mental spryness of youth, the quick comprehension of glowing natural talent, and an exact memory, always sure of itself?”[3] John makes himself small, but by connecting his own stature to the universal human condition, he also shows us how to feel small without self-hatred.

In his ‘Shandean postscript’, Robert Merton, the sociologist of science, devoted a few pages to the question where John’s ‘Parvus-complex’ came from. He considered a few ideas, the more plausible of which, he said, was that it had something to do with “his having lived too long with Bernard’s deflationary Aphorism that forced even a Newton in what some regard as a temporary excess of modesty.”[4] The aphorism alluded to is the one whose paper trail Merton was tracing in his wonderfully witty book: it is the metaphor that compares us to dwarfs on the shoulders of giants. John of Salisbury is actually the earliest source for this famous image; John ascribes it to his master Bernard of Chartres. In his own gentle meta-comment about the limits of individual memory in learning, Merton provides the reference as being: “either in Book 3, chapter 4 or in Book 4, Chapter 3 of his Metalogicon. (I vaguely remember having checked this, but no matter.)”[5]

John’s use of the shoulders of giants aphorism also hints at the intellectual function that recognition of our natural imperfections has: it is linked to the importance of education, by which we outgrow our predecessors, “not by our own natural ability, but because we are supported by the strength of others.”[6] John’s Polycraticus begins with an ode to writing, without which whatever dim understanding we would be able to obtain in our short lives, between all our procrastinating, would be swiftly erased by forgetfulness.[7] A similar argument is basically the point of the whole Metalogicon: let’s appreciate these institutions, let’s respect our teachers, and be grateful for the things that we didn’t build but that support us. Written learning is foremost on John’s mind here.

Patronymic horses and hypothetical shoes

The foil to this conservative or moderately-progressive outlook is one ‘Cornificius’: the person, probably fictional, whose doctrines prompted John to write the Metalogicon.[8] The primary fault of the Cornificians is that they seem to teach that education doesn’t really matter, at least not when it comes to anything trivial – literally speaking, anything to do with the arts of grammar, rhetoric or logic which composed the medieval trivium. These things, the Cornificians supposedly argued, are more a matter of natural talent than of proper instruction: one can either speak and write well or one cannot. Or even if some rules may be taught, “the return never compensates for the investments”:[9] people learn their own language naturally, and artificial instruction in a new language can never improve upon that level of mastery. Also, speaking well is not the same as philosophizing; you don’t need to be eloquent to be a good thinker. Don’t waste your time on the study of language, then, and move on to more important stuff.

That sounds like an argument somebody could plausibly make; sympathetic, even, to maintain that it is the thought that counts, and to forgive your Monday columnist errors in grammar and style that may be due to him writing in a second language. For John, however, language is not just a medium of communication; it is related to thought and truth, and ignorance of it will lead to mistakes in thought. Grammar is only partly a matter of convention, in the sense that it varies between people and that the differences don’t really matter; it is partly natural, and there are mistakes that rest on actual misuse of language.

Let’s unpack that a little bit more. Both logic and grammar, evidently, have richer meanings for John than they do for us. By a logical error, he doesn’t just mean direct self-contradiction (“A and not-A”); he means something more Aristotelian, a failure to recognize what is implied by the kind of thing your claim is about. When you say that a person can bray like a donkey, you make a logical mistake, because you have not recognized that the thing you are referring to is something that, by definition or of its essence, does not bray. On the other hand, when you say that a person is white, you say something that may be false but not necessarily – in this case, “its chances of being false are about equivalent to its chances of being true.”[10]

All of these are grammatically correct sentences, however, to John as well as to us. There is also such a thing as absurd language. Here John is not just thinking of incongruence between subject and verb, or other such formal errors; he is thinking of a type of category mistake. Precisely because linguistic objects are different from material objects, there are things that can only be properly said about linguistic objects, not about material ones. If you attach an adjective meant for a linguistic object to one meant for a material object, things go wrong:

“If one speaks of ‘a patronymic horse’ or ‘hypothetical shoes’, he unites terms that are incompatible. […] Although the adjectives agree sufficiently with their nouns in gender, number, and case, to join the principals signified is to jabber like an idiot, as well as to lie.”[11]

John is not saying that you cannot imagine having a pair of shoes; he is saying that you can never point at physical shoes and call them ‘hypothetical’. To John, this is a grammatical error: it is a misjudgment about the rules of language, not logic. I absolutely love these examples, and I think they illustrate beautifully the value that John puts upon proper language as a vehicle of clear thought aiming at true claims. His point is that you cannot simply sidestep this part of the trivium, or rush it.[12]


The case of logic is more complicated: there are Cornificians here, too, but John’s main concern seems to have shifted a little. The problem is not that some people express an explicit disdain for logic; it is that in they wield it with too much confidence, that they treat it like a contest, scolding everybody who has problem following its abstractions or seeing its applications. “I have rather a dull mind”,[13] John reminds us, and in this case he is not just being self-deprecatory; he means to imply that the scholastic subtleties of these specialized logicians are not worth the trouble. These people are dabbling in an extreme form of youthful sharp-wittedness, which doesn’t befit the mature intellectual: “as these Academicians age and gray, they remain preoccupied with the concerns of boyhood”.[14] By relying on the very mental acuity that John now so keenly feels has begun to fade in him, they keep themselves stuck in the relatively small orbit of what people can achieve by their own lights. Though they compile lots of isolated opinions, they are “either unfamiliar with or contemptuous of the views of the ancient authorities”[15] —  they refuse to stand on anybody’s shoulders.

It seems that you need some awareness of your own limitations in order to appreciate the giants, and some engagement with the larger world of learning not to remain stuck in your own conceptual games. For logic, in its proper place, should be integrated with all other studies;[16] it should make itself useful, “not merely to provide exercise, but also as a tool in argumentative reasoning and the various branches of learning that pertain to philosophy”.[17] Natural philosophy for instance can be assisted by logic, although things immediately get more complicated: facts about nature are never demonstrable with certainty, because we never fully comprehend natural forces – people may plausibly have thought the birth of a child to have been necessarily preceded by sexual intercourse, but this turned out not to be necessary after all![18]

Difficult things are allowed to be difficult. The bad logicians that John has in mind were trying to look smart by turning a basic art into something needlessly subtle – we are reminded of Richard Dawkins’ law of the ‘conservation of difficulty’. John has more respect for his teacher Abelard, who “preferred to instruct his disciples and expedite their progress by more elementary explanations, rather than to lose them by diving too deep into [genera and species].”[19]

John has internalized this model of the teacher, who makes things as simple as possible but no simpler; and indeed, he provides what I found to be a very lucid introduction to Aristotle’s logic. No doubt this reflects the quality of Daniel McGarry’s translation (see the notes), but part of the work is definitely done by John’s clear summaries and examples, and the respectful but pragmatic attitude he cultivates with respect to the master: he wants to explicate and interpret Aristotle, but he is not in competition with him, and doesn’t need to outshine him. We are supposed to understand a text generously (“it is unbefitting a reader or listener to snap like a dog at every figure of speech”[20]), but also not to suppose that it contains everything (people who “refuse to allow [the Categories] to rest content with its own brevity, evidently ‘unteach’ (dedocent) rather than instruct”).[21] Indeed, there is a lot that is not in Aristotle, and which must be provided by other sources or by ourselves – it is in this context that John approvingly quotes Bernard of Chartres about the dwarfs and the giants.

Not everywhere, not always

This is not to say that John has no place for a more adversarial model of discourse. In his paraphrasing of Aristotle’s Topics, he shows himself to be a pragmatist about disputation; there are occasions where your interlocutor may be treated as an opponent, against whom the art of dialectic is a weapon. It is basically an exposition of what John (with Aristotle) considers to be the rules of engagement in such a situation: what can you fairly ask and answer in the context of an argument that you seek to win; to what extent are you allowed to backtrack on claims that you have previously admitted once it is clear that you have been led into a trap, et cetera. For example, you are allowed to say: “I admitted the question having in mind, not this, but its other meaning”, but you should not hide behind ambiguity of language if it makes no difference to your position.[22] Also, it is unfair play to object to a universal statement if your opponent has given positive examples and you have found no counterexamples.[23]

Even this rule-governed antagonistic model, however, is in the end measured to the moralistic standard of sincere intellectual development: generally speaking, discussion is better than solitary meditation for sharpening your mind, but there are cases where it “serves neither to fit the young for life, nor to equip them with scientific knowledge. On the contrary, it infatuates the mind and poisons the tongue.”[24] Some debates simply degenerate into something ugly, and “we should not dispute everywhere, and always, and on all sorts of topics.”[25]

This is where I decided to stop using Twitter. I am not one hundred percent sure that John would have approved; after all, a major strand in his argument is about not cutting yourself off from intellectual resources that could help you grow if you approached them with a charitable attitude. John could perhaps have brought the fight to the Cornificians with some dignity here as well. But then, his experience with courtly life as described in the Polycraticus may well have made him hesitant about the impact of social media on your personal health.[26] The Metalogicon starts off with a rant about those people who John suspects would be only too glad to find reasons to have him cancelled, and John respectfully declines to let himself be drawn further into that world, which by the way is a bad use of his time anyway: “Had I wasted my every moment in the company of my fellow members of the court, […] they could not now be slandering my writings, just as I cannot find any of theirs to challenge.”[27]

He is showing some superiority here about his life choices, and that is not untypical; John has no problem making clear that his self-diagnosed lack of wit is counterbalanced by his good intentions and attitudes. He brings himself into the argument so frequently precisely to make this point: that intellectual strength resides not in raw brainpower but in ethics, and that he approaches everything – the ancient authors, his instructors, his fellow thinkers and his readers – with the proper mindset.

John’s modesty about his memory and slowness is genuine, but it is also meant as an example. You have to recognize yourself as somebody who cannot fly, and who can therefore profit from climbing on something.[28] That our own lights grow dimmer is painful, but it is all right, because there is accumulated wisdom to which we can attach ourselves, a tradition that we can hope to improve upon, but of which the appreciation and continuation is itself meaningful. There is value in learning and teaching, not just in cutting-edge research. There is a place for us less talented.

The extent to which knowing this is a comfort, to which our appreciation of a shared intellectual heritage soothes the loss of interest, hair, and enterprise, remains ambiguous. Feeling compelled to write his work on education now, lacking his previous self-confidence, is something of a bittersweet experience to John: it reminds him of his own good years, which would, “as Seneca muses, be ‘most pleasant’, if only one were not oppressed by a bitter sadness, owing partly to the realization that the good old days have gone […].”[29] More at ease with Roman writers and Aristotle than with his immediate surroundings, and reminiscing about his student days, John often seems weary and lonely. But he knew to write it down, for later dwarfs to pick themselves up by.



[1] Metalogicon, book I, prologue. All Metalogicon quotations are from Daniel D. McGarry’s translation (The metalogicon of John of Salisbury: a twelfth-century defense of the verbal and logical arts of the trivium. University of California Press: 1962), in this case p. 5.

[2]Niets is er van mij terecht gekomen […] noch voor m’n gezin, noch voor de mensen iets van waarde geweest of maar mijn plicht gedaan. M’n pathol. geheugenloosheid m’n enig exkuus, maar is ook deels luiheid en slordigheid (geen kaartsysteem) en m’n tijd verlanterfant, me met onverdiend succes gepaaid.” Quoted in Klaas van Berkel, ‘“Eindelik vrij”’: in Klaas van Berkel, Stefan van der Poel ed., Filosoof van het vrije denken. Nieuw licht op Leo Polak, 1880-1941 (Hilversum: Verloren 2016) 57-82: 76.

[3] Metalogicon, book III, prologue (p. 143).

[4] Robert K. Merton, On the shoulders of giants: a Shandean postscript (New York: The Free Press 1965) 205.

[5] Merton, Shoulders of giants, 203.

[6] Metalogicon, book III, chapter 4 (p. 167)

[7] Polycraticus, prologue: “If indeed the shortness of life and the obtuseness of understanding, the negligence of inactivity and the uselessness of occupation, permit us to know little, then even this is constantly banished and torn from the soul by forgetfulness which deceives knowledge through perpetual hostility and infidelity to its stepmother, memory.” Translation Cary J. Nederman (John of Salisbury, Polycratus: Of the Frivolities of Courtiers and the Footprints of Philosophers. Cambridge University Press 1990) p. 3.

[8] On this see for example Rosemary Barton Tobin, ‘The Cornifician motif in John of Salisbury’s Metalogicon’, History of education: Journal of the History of Education Society 13.1 (1984) 1-6.

[9] Metalogicon, book I, chapter 6 (p. 25)

[10] Metalogicon, book I, chapter 15 (p. 46)

[11] Metalogicon, book I, chapter 15 (p. 42).

[12] Metalogicon, book I, chapter 24 (p. 71).

[13] Metalogicon, book II, chapter 6 (p. 86).

[14] Metalogicon, book II, chapter 7 (p. 88).

[15] Metalogicon, book II, chapter 7 (p. 89).

[16] Metalogicon, book II, chapter 9 (p. 93-95).

[17] Metalogicon, book II, chapter 13 (p. 103).

[18] Metalogicon, book II, chapter 13 (p. 102).

[19] Metalogicon, book III, chapter 1 (p. 146).

[20] Metalogicon, book II,  chapter 20 (p. 139)

[21] Metalogicon, book III, chapter 3 (p. 164).

[22] Metalogicon, book III, chapter 10 (p. 194).

[23] Metalogicon, book III, chapter 10 (p. 195).

[24] Metalogicon, book III, chapter 10 (p. 200).

[25] Metalogicon, book III, chapter 10 (p. 201).

[26] Polycraticus III.6, for example: “All seek favour with those with whom they live; such is not only permissible but honourable, since all that nature brings forth obeys virtue and provides the best guide for correct living. But as soon as the seeking of favour deserts the rule of moderation, one is carried off head first into rushing between doing everything and doing nothing, between an infamous and a good reputation, a captor of favour and an incestuous solicitor of influence.” Translation Cary J. Nederman (see above, note 7) p. 19.

[27] Metalogicon, book I, prologue (p. 4).

[28] Metalogicon, book I, chapter 11 (p. 35).

[29] Metalogicon, book IV, prologue (p. 203).