Marshall McLuhan: Postmodern Grammarian
Young scholars often focus on the work of persons they expect to emulate. Henry Kissinger’s Harvard dissertation on Metternich is a classic example of this ambition, reminiscent of Babe Ruth gesturing to a spot in the bleachers where he would make good on his promise to launch the long ball. In 1936, a 25-year-old Canadian graduate student in the English department at Cambridge, Marshall McLuhan, published his first article, “G. K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic.” For his doctoral dissertation completed in 1943, McLuhan wrote a sweeping survey of the classical trivium of grammar, dialectics, and rhetoric, showing how this tradition had been alive in the work of a largely forgotten pamphleteer and controversialist at Cambridge, Thomas Nashe (1567–1601), an “eccentric and original writer” as McLuhan called him.
At a moment when Big Government statism was in vogue from Washington to Berlin to Rome to Moscow, young McLuhan lauded Chesterton’s “inspiriting opposition to the spread of officialdom and bureaucracy.” He called Chesterton “a revolutionary, not because he finds everything equally detestable, but because he fears lest certain infinitely valuable things, such as the family and personal liberty, should vanish.”
McLuhan’s highest praise for Chesterton was to measure him favorably to the standard of St. Thomas Aquinas. “What Mr. Chesterton has written of the power of St. Thomas to fix even passing things as they pass, and to scorch details under the magnifying lens of his attention, is strikingly true of himself. His is the power to focus a vast range of material into narrow compass; and his books though very numerous are extremely condensed. They might even be considered as projections of his mastery of epigram and sententious phrase.”
From 1937 to 1943 McLuhan, a convert to Catholicism from what his son Eric describes as a “loose sort of Protestantism,” taught at Saint Louis University, whose English department chairman, a Jesuit priest, was a Cambridge Ph.D. McLuhan directed the master’s degree studies of the Jesuit Walter Ong, who became a lifelong friend and intellectual associate. McLuhan also formed a deep friendship and intellectual bond with a leading Thomist and medieval expert on the Saint Louis philosophy faculty, Bernard Müller-Thym.
Studying Aristotle and Aquinas, McLuhan became fascinated with formal cause, a difficult doctrine that defies linear time and logic. With a Chestertonian sense of paradox, he liked to show examples of effects preceding causes. (Usually this meant that causes were not recognized until after the perception of effects.) It is fitting then that the first book he wrote, his dissertation, was to be his last book published. In 2005, twenty-five years after McLuhan’s death, Gingko Press released The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time. Not until 1999 had other significant early works of McLuhan become available, with the publication of The Medium and the Light, edited by Eric McLuhan, a collection of writings on religion, including the essay on Chesterton.
The dissertation focuses a “vast range of material into a narrow compass”; it drinks deeply from the reservoir of Étienne Gilson’s scholarship. McLuhan shows Nashe to have been an upholder of grammar—that is, the art of interpretation, of “reading the Book of Nature,” then under attack from followers of the dialectician Peter Ramus including Nashe’s bitter antagonist at Cambridge, Gabriel Harvey. “The grammarian is concerned with connections; the dialectician with divisions,” McLuhan wrote. “Grammarians distrusted abstraction; dialecticians distrusted concrete modes of language.”
Repeatedly in The Classical Trivium, McLuhan extols the natural law tradition and defends it from its antagonists.
The Middle Ages never lost sight of the ius naturale, but St. Thomas fully restored the Ethics and Politics of Aristotle. Without these works the Renaissance would have been much different from what it was. (p. 183)
Characterization in all branches of European literature follows the ancient doctrines [of the trivium] until the rise of sentimental ethics in the eighteenth century challenged the entire body of doctrines. Not until the rational nature of man is questioned, not until the basis of natural law is brought in to doubt does there arise any doctrine or method of characterization to interrupt the influence of those continuously effective from the time of Aristotle to the time of Dr. Johnson. (p. 118)
The dissertation’s contribution to political understanding is that of the grammarian, criticizing the “consciously” anti-Ciceronian Machiavelli and praising the humane, Ciceronian Castiglione and Erasmus. (pp. 195-196)
McLuhan points to a way of understanding “postmodern” thought as retrieval and conservation of “ancient” wisdom and rejection of “modern” errors:
Since the tradition of Descartes, Hobbes, and Newton is that not of the Fathers but of the schoolmen or Moderni, it is small wonder that some writers have been puzzled how to reconcile Erasmus and Bacon with the “moderns.” Humanists such as Erasmus, Vives, Reuchlin, Agrippa, Mirandola, and Bacon took great pains to advertise themselves as “ancients.” (p. 146)
Ancients, they were, yes, but not as relics of extinction but as spirits perennially alive.
The natural law written in the heart is eternal, and unlike linear, paper-and-ink positivist legalism, the natural law is a moral environment. The intellectual life and history of the human race is not a linear path of constant progress, nor is it a zig-zag line like the Dow Jones Average charted over time. Consonant with the non-linear, non-temporal character of formal cause, one can recognize Cicero, who of course lived before Christ and before the Middle Ages, as a “postmodern” thinker. Likewise one can perceive the postmodern in Thomas More, whom some call the last Medieval Man as well as a vanguard of the modern. McLuhan was postmodern not only temporally but also, like Cicero and More, sub specie aeternitatis.
Again and again in his full body of work, McLuhan emphasizes the grammarian’s epistemology of percept versus the Cartesian concept. For what came to be his best-known work, McLuhan chose the title Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man deliberately to set his work in the same class with Brooks and Warren’s Understanding Poetry—in other words, as an “ancient,” or postmodern, and implicitly Christian humanist grammar of technology.
During the 1960s, McLuhan gained celebrity in large part because of his mastery of epigram and sententious phrase—ancient terms for the postmodern “sound bite.” He coined the expression “global village” to describe the social, economic, political environment of the world with the arrival of instant worldwide electronic communication. In the classical grammarians’ sense of the power of form over “content” and style over “substance,” he originated the phrase, “the medium is the message.” His influential studies of technology and his emphatic aphorisms caused some to misperceive him as a technological determinist. He was nothing of the sort, but rather a believer in mystery, including the Catholic sacraments and dogmas—in other words, he was a practical mystic.
Some political practitioners and even political scientists were puzzled by the catholicity of McLuhan’s friendships and intellectual associations and were vexed in their efforts to define him in terms of some variety of political conservatism. In this regard, McLuhan was much like Russell Kirk, a stumbling block to Republican partisans and a scandal to “movement” conservatives through his friendship with the liberal Democrat poet-politician Eugene McCarthy. McLuhan’s deviationism was reflected in his friendship with the charismatic 1960s liberal Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
In like manner, he befriended, learned from, and corresponded with the poet/critics Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis, but he did not partake of their fascist politics. In dialogue with thinkers on the Right and the Left, McLuhan remained true to Chesterton’s defense of family and personal liberty and opposition to officialdom and bureaucracy.
Grant Havers, a professor of political philosophy at Trinity Western University in British Columbia, made an earnest but ultimately flawed attempt to describe what he called “The Right-Wing Postmodernism of Marshall McLuhan” in an article by that name published in 2003 in Media, Culture & Society. Havers’ article did not have the benefit of reference to The Classical Trivium, not published until two years later. Havers does make reference to The Medium and the Light but is too concerned with distinctions and fails to make connections, such as the significance of McLuhan’s friendship with the Thomist Frederick D. Wilhelmsen, who during McLuhan’s later years was his close advisor on philosophical matters of metaphysics, epistemology, communications, and politics. Late in life McLuhan spent a very satisfying semester as visiting professor at the University of Dallas with Wilhelmsen, the literary critic Louise Cowan, and their students.
Still it is noteworthy that McLuhan, for all of his respect for Wilhelmsen as one who had much to teach him, did not join in Wilhelmsen’s quixotic political involvement with the Carlists of Spain.
McLuhan was neither an ideologue nor a partisan, nor did he have a political project. He supported the pro-life cause against abortion, but he was not an “activist.” He was repelled by “activism,” which he described as “obsession with efficient causality”—a “Protestant sort of fixation.” Reverence for Being and the quest for understanding and making natural law a way of life in the tradition of Cicero and Aquinas were the alpha and omega of McLuhan’s politics.
Throughout his prolific career, McLuhan did his best to retrieve the lost sense and sensibility of the classical grammarians. Like Nashe, he was an aphorist, an “eccentric and original” communicator. In gestures that can be understood in light of his affinities for Nashe and Rabelais, he scandalized self-important academic colleagues by spoofing himself through appearances on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” and in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall.” If he gets his just deserts, his work, like that of his heroes Chesterton and St. Thomas, will be taken seriously for a very long time to come.
Joseph P. Duggan is a former State Department official and speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. He is a visiting professor of politics and communication at Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico City.
Posted: May 18, 2009
The Achievement of Irving Babbitt
Volume 2, Number 1 (Autumn 1961)