“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
Reading on a variety of topics helps us expand our thinking while it contributes to our ability to discover patterns across different disciplines. This method of learning is based on the liberal arts subjects of study in schools and apprenticeship studios of the first millennium after Christ in the West—the Middle Ages.
The classification originated directly from the body of work of rhetorician Martian Capella. In the fifth century he determined there were seven bodies of knowledge people should learn from. Capella separated them into two groups of studies—three literary and four scientific.
Trivium and language
Linguistic, political, and philosophical studies formed the trivium, which covered grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The heart of the trivium was language because it was the foundation of thinking and the communication of thought, drawing its inspiration from the ancient Greek's philosophy of education.
Trivium: The Classical Liberal Arts of Grammar, Logic, & Rhetoric is a new Wooden Book that includes sections on euphonics, grammar, poetic meter and form, logic, rhetoric, and ethics.
The short crisp introductions to language orient us on the five types of information we can convey with a verb (person, tense, voice, aspect, mood), the four types of logical reasoning (deductive, inductive, abductive, analogical), the five elements of rhetorical persuasion (invention, arrangement, style, memory, delivery), Aristotle’s list of virtues (courage, temperance, generosity, magnanimity, gentleness, truthfulness, wit, friendliness), and the difference between a sonnet, a villanelle, and a sestina.
Quadrivium and numbers
The sciences to form the quadrivium were arithmetic, geometry, astronomy (astrology), and music. These subjects were studied from antiquity to the Renaissance as a way of glimpsing the nature of reality. Geometry is number in space; music is number in time; and cosmology expresses number in space and time. Number, music, and geometry are metaphysical truths: life across the universe investigates them; they foreshadow the physical sciences.
Wooden Books also published Quadrivium: The Four Classical Liberal Arts of Number, Geometry, Music, & Cosmology covers sacred geometry, sacred number, harmonograph, the elements of music, platonic & Archimedean solids, and a little book of coincidence, which were previously separate books.
The entire body of knowledge—trivium and quadrivium—would be the curriculum between the ages of fourteen and twenty, after which it was possible to go on to study jurisprudence, theology, or arts.
Mastering the fundamentals
As we debate the role of technology in our lives, we are also facing an enormous shift in the types of jobs of the future—near and longer term. It's hard to pin-point exactly how our work will change, as we're in the process of creating what is next. But problem solving and solid thinking are not going to go out of demand any time soon.
Of his classical education Tim O'Reilly says:
culture (vs. mere education) is how you put what you’ve learned to work in your own life, seeing the world around you more deeply because of the historical, literary, artistic and philosophical resonances that current experiences evoke. Classical stories come often to my mind, and provide guides to action (much as Plutarch intended his histories of famous men to be guides to morality and action). The classics are part of my mental toolset, the context I think with.
The unconscious often knows more than the conscious mind. I believe this is behind what Socrates referred to as his inner “daimon” or guiding spirit. He had developed the skill of listening to that inner spirit. I have tried to develop that same skill. It often means not getting stuck in your fixed ideas, but recognizing when you need more information, and putting yourself into a receptive mode so that you can see the world afresh.
This skill has helped me to reframe big ideas in the computer industry, including creating the first advertising on the world wide web, bringing the group together that gave open source software its name, and framing the idea that “Web 2.0” or the “internet as platform” is really about building systems that harness collective intelligence, and get better the more people use them. Socrates is my constant companions (along with others, from Lao Tzu to Alfred Korzybski to George Simon, who taught me how to listen to my inner daimon.)
I believe that I’ve consistently been able to spot emerging trends because I don’t think with what psychologist Eugene Gendlin called “received knowledge,” but in a process that begins with a raw data stream that over time tells me its own story.
I’ve been deeply influenced by Aristotle’s idea that virtue is a habit, something you practice and get better at, rather than something that comes naturally. “The control of the appetites by right reason,” is how he defined it. My brother James once brilliantly reframed this as “Virtue is knowing what you really want,” and then building the intellectual and moral muscle to go after it.
Becoming whole in our thinking, no matter where we live and what work we end up doing to activate our imagination, is a way to get back to the fundamentals, the basis of our world. Understanding language and the numbers, at least at the panoramic level, will help us master the fundamentals.
There is value in having multiple ways to explain or promote an idea or process. For example, knowing the origins of words from learning Greek and Latin helps us see the layers of meaning.
The everyday benefits of this approach include learning to ask better questions, a critical tool to have along with listening skills, expanding our imagination to apply to problem solving, and appreciating empathy to build a shared understanding.
We hear about the value of agility, flexibility, and creativity in our work. We can learn to navigate the uncertainty of context by grounding ourselves in a core set of values and principles we can use to be resourceful and resilient in the face of volatility.
For those curious about practical applications to our actual lives and in search of deeper reflection during the holidays, Philosophy as a Way of Life by Pierre Hadot offers a synthesis of the Stoics and Epicureans into “Spiritual Exercises.”
Hadot's central insight into Hellenistic philosophy is that, for most of the writings that we have, the intent is to (re)form, not to inform. In other words, this is philosophy that is meant to change the way we live. More deeply, it is meant to change the way we see the world, the way we feel about our lives and the way we treat each other.