Prologue to a tragedy
By Jesús R. Velasco | Published on May 23, 2019
The traditional division of the liberal arts in seven, implies an internal division in two branches, called respectively trivium and quadrivium, the way of three, and the way of four. A much quoted old distich of hexameters gives the following formula:
Gram loquitur; Dia vera docet; Rhet verba colorat;
Mus canit; Ar numerat; Ge ponderat; Ast colit astra.
[Grammar speaks; Dialectic teaches truth; Rhetoric colors words; / Music sings; Arithmetics numbers; Geometry weighs; Astrology cultivates the stars.] 
The list of liberal arts may vary. But ultimately, what seems to be less interesting is whether the list is complete or not, whether these are the arts or whether there are other possible arts. What is really important here is the verbs, the actions that the arts imply, and that half of those actions are transitive, and the other half plus one are not: speak (intransitive), teach truth (a transitive action), color words (transitive), sing (intransitive), weigh (intransitive), cultivate the stars, or perhaps even a better translation would be “to harvest stars”, a transitive action at any rate.
At the center of the trivium, you find the clause Dia vera docet, that Andrew Hicks (and most everybody) translated as “Dia(lectic) teaches truth.” Of course this is not incorrect, but I would prefer a slightly different translation: Dialectic shows, or even teaches, true things (vera being a plural adjective in the neuter encompasses necessary the things that are modified by the adjective, therefore it cannot be translated unproblematically with the noun truth). This is different than teaching truth (which would fall on the field of action of a totally different discipline). With true things (facts, for instance) you can teach truth or not, an entirely different question altogether that seems to be all too timely; but dialectic, or logic, allows you to formulate true propositions of different kinds. Or false ones, at any rate, in the understanding that it is logic the one that teaches you that false statements are false, which is a true statement.
Dialectic falls between the two arts of language —grammar and rhetoric. Grammar was the ars artium, or the technique for all other techniques of knowledge. As Martin Irvine demonstrated in a book published in 1994, this claim is not very new —it is perhaps as old as grammar, and as old as the greek concept of τέχνη.  Grammar is, and must be considered, not only art, but also meta-art, archi-art. Let me tell a tiny anecdote: Martin Irvine promised a second installment of his book, with the purpose of covering the Late Middle Ages, but, instead, he became a personality in the world of contemporary art in Washington D.C. From Medieval Grammar scholar to contemporary art gallerist, multimedia expert, and new media researcher and professor there is, I would argue, not a big leap. His book demonstrated the extent to which grammar had become a full system of cognitive analyses and synthesis using all the new media possibilities in codices and codex-creativity. Grammar, thus, is not simply ‑and not essentially- a particular set of rules useful to learn a language. Grammar is the whole universe, the multimedia research of codex-making, colors, glosses, the semantics and the pragmatics of the present examples, the calculated ways by means one grammar handbook refers to itself and to other grammar handbooks in the metropolitan languages and, hence, cultures. For instance ‑and of this we will see an example a bit later- there is no Western medieval grammar of Arabic language that does not refer to the foundational cultural machine of the Grammar of Latin, be it Aelius Donatus, Varrus, Priscian or Nebrija’s Introductiones Latinae. Latin grammar was also the technological apparatus through which Franciscan missionaries taught indigenous languages, like the Yucatec.  The clause Gram loquitur is therefore much more powerful than it appears to be in the first place: the deponent verb (loquor) indicates a sympathetic movement, a special interests, a deep implication of the art of discourse.
The westbound counterpart of dialectic
Aristotle’s Rhetoric begins with the statement, somehow dark, that Rhetoric is an ἀντιστροφή of Dialectics. This is a metaphor, that has been sometimes translated as “counterpart” or “correlate”. These are good translations. But they miss the key point that antistrophé is a theatrical technical term that refers to a very particular kind of moment within the performance —the moment in which the chorus changes direction after having sung the strophe, and sings a response or a second stanza while heading eastwards on stage. It is a ritual movement of response that implies the return to the origin and to the point from which the sun rises (notice that orient, origin, have the same lexical root), the point where the chorus had begun to sign. This is why counterpart or correlate seem like weak translations, a bit underwhelming, even if they are correct. Some translators left the word antistrophe, but, really, that does not solve anything because it does not take a risk. What matters here is that rhetoric is a return to the origins of dialectic or logic. It comes back to the point where logic started to think while giving a response, while reacting to what dialectic just stated. For some reason, I enjoy thinking this performative moment, this tragedy involving, as part of the chorus, Rhetoric and Dialectic. In sum, they, if you wish, think together, but they do it from the perspective of the chorus, from this very special role they play in the tragedy of knowledge.
Thinking with Aristotle meant thinking with and within this tragedy of knowledge. Persian, Baghdadi, Yemeni, and other neighboring thinkers were, from the ninth century onwards, reading the works of Aristotle, as they were being translated into Syriac and into Arabic (that is, normally from Greek to Syriac, and from Syriac to Arabic) by Muslim and by non-Muslim intellectuals, like the Nestorian ibn Hunayn, or Hunayn ibn Ishaq, known in Latin as Iohannitius. The genealogical lines of this tragedy cross the Mediterranean to the Iberian Peninsula, to al-Andalus, where the corpus aristotelicum was heavily commented, especially, but not only, by Ibn Rushd che il gran commento feo, and from there everywhere else in Europe. These are part of the filosofica famiglia.  The corpus was then translated from Arabic into Latin, with the commentaries of Ibn Sina, Averroes, al-Ghazali, and so many others. A complex corpus, a real philosophical jungle, known, in toto, some years later, as the Aristoteles Latinus.
The tragedy is that this Eastern commentary was only a westbound strophe, and then it became necessary an eastbound antistrophe —a new set of commentaries and interpretations.
- I am using the quotation and translation presented by Andrew Hicks. “Martianus Capella and the Liberal Arts.” Hexter, Ralph J, and David Townsend. The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Latin Literature. Oxford: OUP, 2016. 307–334 .
- Irvine, Martin. The Making of Textual Culture: ’ Grammatica and Literary Theory, 350–100. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
- Hanks, William F. Converting Words: Maya in the Age of the Cross. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.
Poi ch’innalzai un poco più le ciglia,
vidi ‘l maestro di color che sanno
seder tra filosofica famiglia.
Tutti lo miran, tutti onor li fanno:
quivi vid’ ïo Socrate e Platone,
che ‘nnanzi a li altri più presso li stanno;
Democrito che ‘l mondo a caso pone,
Dïogenès, Anassagora e Tale,
Empedoclès, Eraclito e Zenone;
e vidi il buono accoglitor del quale,
Dïascoride dico; e vidi Orfeo,
Tulïo e Lino e Seneca morale;
Euclide geomètra e Tolomeo,
Ipocràte, Avicenna e Galïeno,
Averoìs, che ‘l gran comento feo. (Dante, Inferno. 4.130–144).