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Iolo Morganwg’s (not so) Trivial vision of Liberty

Iolo Morganwg was known in his own day as ‘The Bard of Liberty’. There were very good reasons for this, and I want to explore some of those reasons because they will help us to understand why he and his system are so important to us today.

This will also give the answer to something that has been puzzling me for some time: why it is that so many contemporary Druids are so eager to deny Iolo’s significance, and so adamant in their insistence that ‘he was a forger’ and therefore he and his writings should be dismissed. Usually, they can’t even tell you what he is supposed to have forged, but they are certain that he must be dismissed. There is a reason for this angry denial, as we’ll see.

There are many obvious reasons why Iolo was and is regarded as a champion of liberty. He was a republican, and an outspoken opponent of monarchism and absolutism. He was a campaigner for religious freedom and for an end to state control of people’s conscience and worship. He was a highly visible opponent of slavery. For all of this he was regarded as a subversive by the authorities, pursued by spies and informers, and threatened with prosecution. These positions resonate with the values of our own time but although Iolo does sometimes get credit it’s nowhere near as much as you might think. People still seem to be afraid to bring him back to prominence – even the people you would think would want to.

The reason can be found in the name of the system he developed: Bardism. Not Druidry. Bardism.

For Iolo Morganwg the Bard, not the Druid, was the central role. I would argue that he was right and, more than that, we’re going to see that he was being consistent with a philosophy that stretched back to the earliest records of the Greek philosophers and which was still prevalent in an unbroken tradition in his own day – but which has been almost eradicated today, because it’s too much of a threat to the powerful. This is the system of education based on the Trivium and the Quadrivium.

As we’ve already seen, for most of his life Iolo supported himself and his family by working as a stonemason, the craft he learned from his father. He was extremely talented – but he understood very well, because he was well-educated, that cutting stone was what the Trivium and Quadrivium termed a ‘servile’ art. In other words, no matter how good you were, the stonemason’s art only qualified you to be a ‘servant’, in the sense that you were always dependent on other people for your income. You could never be truly free. This is very, very relevant to our times, when education up to and including university education, is evaluated primarily – only, even – on how useful it is for finding a job. Our entire education system is based on the assumption that it’s training people to fit into a system where they are expected to be cogs in a machine.

This is in contrast to what the Trivium and Quadrivium term the ‘liberal’ arts: the education necessary for someone to be truly free (‘Liber’ is the Latin word for ‘free’). The education needed to be able to think clearly. The education needed for Liberty.

So what are the Trivium and the Quadrivium?

The Trivium, or the ‘Three Ways’, were the basic skills of an education, taught to children at a young age – and expected to be mastered by the early teenage years. These were the skills of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric.

Through the teens, and into university, the Trivium would act as the foundation for the study of the Quadrivium (the ‘Four Ways’) of Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, and Music.

Since the Trivium was regarded as the basics, and every educated child was expected to be competent in them, it came in later times to be held in lower esteem. This is the origin of our term ‘trivial’: something of little significance, because it was taken for granted that everyone knew it. However, the Trivium is what I want to focus on here.

Consider these extracts from Iolo’s Barddas:

The three first points, which a Bard ought to teach and consider: to believe every thing; to disbelieve every thing; and to believe it matters not what.
Barddas: The Triads of Privilege and Usage.

[I]t is incumbent upon [the Bard] also to preserve and maintain the Cymric language free from degeneracy and corruption, and to teach it correctly, according to its quality and original and proper arrangement.
Barddas: The Triads of the Bards of Cymru.

In Iolo’s system the Bard was at the core, and the Bard had the duty to educate the general population in the practice of critical thinking, and in the correct use of language. The central skill of the Bard was in poetry. This is why he was and remains a threat to authority, and this is why he is so vehemently resisted by so many contemporary Druids.

On my desk I have three copies of the Trivium, which offer different perspectives on the material. These are:

  • The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric by Sister Miriam Joseph (ed. Marguerite McGlinn).
  • Trivium: The Classical Liberal Arts of Grammar, Logic, & Rhetoric by  John Michell, Rachel Holly, and others.
  • Trivium 21c: Preparing young people for the future with lessons from the past by Martin Robinson.

Of the three, I’m finding the Miriam Joseph edition the hardest to work through, but also the most rewarding in terms of insight. I’m also using Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy by David Fleming (ed. Shaun Chamberlin) which is useful for its further exploration of how to identify logical errors and flawed arguments.

A detailed discussion of the Trivium would take up too much space, so I’ll only briefly address some of the content. Remember that Iolo Morganwg was well educated, and would have known all of this in depth, as would every other educated person in his society; when he incorporated it into his Bardism, there was no need for him to spell it out.

‘Grammar’ is the first topic that needs to be understood. It is of course essential to have a good understanding of ‘simple’ grammar: the rules of a given language. Without that, it’s impossible to communicate clearly. In the Trivium, though, the study of Grammar goes much deeper, exploring how language shapes the way we frame and understand the world.

In a simple grammar, we might take the concept of a ‘noun’, and explain that it represents a person, an object, or an idea. We would consider whether a noun is abstract or concrete, countable or uncountable, and so on. We would then go on to study how nouns relate to other parts of speech, such as articles, adjectives, and so on.

In the Trivium, Grammar investigates our thought processes. Drawing on Sister Miriam Joseph’s version of the Trivium, one could formulate a Bardic Triad, for example:

The Three Ways of Understanding a Thing:

– The Percept, being the way we perceive the thing through our five senses;
– the Phantasm, being the way we perceive the thing through our imagination;
– and the Concept, being the way our intellect perceives the true nature of the thing.

This triad alone provides a huge amount to consider. When we form an opinion about something or somebody, what is it based on?

If it’s based on perception, it may be seriously flawed: the parable of the blind men and the elephant comes to mind.

If we are dealing with a phantasm, we are dealing with the thing or the person as we imagine them to be, not with the reality. Understand this, and we’re able to explain what the problem is with so much of public discourse today – as well as most of what happens on the internet.

Only the concept provides a reliable and accurate basis for opinion – and understanding a concept properly takes time and study. But imagine how different the media would be if the public knew just these terms, could say “Your statements are about a phantasm, not the reality”, and be understood.

Moving on to Logic, children were taught at a young age to learn to identify flaws in an argument, which had been formalized over centuries of thought by philosophers.

For example, presented with the statement “Cathbad was both a warrior and a Druid, therefore all Druids were warriors”, a child would be able to say that this is a faulty statement, and an example of the fallacy of inductive thinking – arguing that if something is true of one member of a group, it must be true of all other members of the group. Suggesting that we can understand warrior culture in Iron Age Britain by looking at a failed state in today’s world, because both involve violence, could be identified as the fallacy of false equivalence: after all, militias fighting with AKM and RPG are unlikely to behave in the same ways as tribal warriors who trained for years to master the spear and sword. (For a discussion of this, by the way, the historian Bret Devereaux’s excellent blog has a 3-part discussion of the topic: The Universal Warrior. Part I, Part IIa, Part IIb, Part III). If this resulted in personal insults, as it so often does, the child would be able to point out that this was a resort to ad hominem reasoning, indicating that the speaker lacks any meaningful support for their position.

Finally, training in Rhetoric taught the child to formulate logically sound arguments, to choose the best words and grammatical structures to communicate their arguments to a particular audience, and to deliver the arguments in a persuasive manner using appropriate movement, gesture, and tone of voice.

Wow. Who needs superpowers if you can do all this by the time you reach your teens?

So, again, one might draw on Sister Miriam Joseph’s words to produce a couple more Bardic Triads:

The three products of education:

– Correct use of language;
– Effective use of rhetoric;
– Proper use of logic to understand reality, leading to knowledge of the Truth.

The three functions of language:

– to communicate our thoughts;
– to communicate the exercise of our Will;
– to communicate our emotions.

Returning to Iolo’s Bardism, another primary function of the Bard is to educate the population in poetry. Poetry is absolutely fundamental to Iolo’s system: it is essential. That seems strange to us today, but if we understand what he’s doing we can understand how subversive it is.

Note that poetry here means poetry in strict metre; ‘free verse’ is of far lower value.

The study of poetry achieves two things. First of all, by imposing strict limits on the structure of the verse, it forces the poet to be more rigorous in their use of words. This requires the student of poetry to expand their vocabulary – and as we saw above, building vocabulary builds a finer understanding of the world, the way it works, and how we perceive it. The audience, understanding the words, can understand the poet’s meanings, both on the surface and what is hidden.

Secondly, the study of poetry builds a corpus of famous poems that educated people are expected to know. This in turn achieves two things. It turbocharges the poet’s ability to convey meaning, through allusion to another cultural reference and its meanings. For example, if I mentioned in a poem that someone ‘had tasted the drops from Ceridwen’s cauldron‘, I would expect most readers of this blog to get the reference and to understand exactly what I mean. It also builds and strengthens society – because culture is built on shared understanding and meanings.

So why do I say this is subversive?

Iolo’s vision was of a society in which ordinary people were trained from childhood to be able to think creatively and communicate effectively. They would be able to critically evaluate anything they were told – including and especially everything they were told by anybody claiming authority over them – by analysing the reasoning for logical flaws, and by analysing the vocabulary used for both overt and hidden meaning. They would be able to convey huge amounts of meaning to each other through allusion, which would be meaningless to outsiders. Oh, and they would be doing this both in English and in Welsh – which the English Establishment could not understand.

It’s really important to understand how feasible Iolo’s system actually was. As I noted above, all of these skills were widely learned in childhood by anybody educated – although that, in Iolo’s day, usually meant the affluent. At the same time, as we saw in a previous post, Welsh-speaking society in Iolo’s day had an unusually high level of literacy amongst ordinary people, compared to the rest of Britain, or even Europe. However, they generally only had Christian tracts to read. Putting the two together, and teaching the literate Welsh commoners the reasoning tools of the Trivium would hardly have been impossible. This would have created a society able to argue, debate, and dispute any claim of authority over them – and to do so amongst themselves in a language which those seeking authority could not understand. In fact, in the century following Iolo’s death, the Gorsedd of the Bards and the National Eisteddfod did in fact establish something like Iolo’s vision.

Still, no wonder the authorities hated and feared Iolo. No wonder, too, that his memory has been damned and suppressed by anybody who seeks to impose authority and fears a critical, educated populace.

This is not an abstract concern of the past, either. In Nineteen Eight-four, George Orwell introduced the concept of Newspeak: the form of English taught to the ordinary people. Newspeak had a very limited vocabulary and a simplified grammar. The purpose was to make it impossible for any dissent to be discussed; more than that, since language defines the way we conceive the world, Newspeak made it impossible for dissent even to be imagined.

We aren’t there just yet, but it’s worth noting that in today’s Britain, a lot of people get their information from tabloid media, which uses simplified grammar and a limited, cliched vocabulary which actually diminishes readers’ active vocabulary to levels lower than that of people who don’t read at all. I’ve seen the effects of this myself in the lecture room, when undergraduate students do not even understand what they are supposed to do when given a case study to analyse, or when not one person in a group of postgraduate students of Economics understands what is meant by ‘Nouveau riche‘, or when I’m chastised because “not everyone understands what you mean when you talk about an ‘Achilles Heel‘”.

Media narrative on all sides of the spectrum deals with phantasms rather than facts, and those narratives are riddled with logical fallacies. The existence of a common corpus of literature and ideas is actively being attacked and denigrated. None of this could happen were the population educated as Iolo proposed in his Bardism – and so a lot of powerful people today would prefer that Iolo’s ideas not be known or understood. They know, as Iolo knew, that a society in which the people can reason, communicate and argue effectively is a society that has Liberty of the mind. As Dorothy Sayers warned us in her famous 1947 lecture on the Trivium:

For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armour was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects. We who were scandalized in 1940 when men were sent to fight armoured tanks with rifles, are not scandalised when young men and women are sent into the world to fight massed propaganda with a smattering of “subjects”; and when whole classes and whole nations become hypnotised by the arts of the spellbinder, we have the impudence to be astonished.

As for why some modern Druids are so adamant that Iolo is irrelevant, a fraud, and should be ignored… well, Iolo’s Bardism sets a very high standard. If we take Iolo’s vision seriously, the Bardic candidate needs to acquire skills in grammar, rhetoric, logical reasoning, debate, and poetic composition. He or she needs to learn and understand a corpus of literature. He or she has to be able to examine their own thinking and behaviour for flawed reasoning or understanding. What’s more, he or she needs to be able not able to practise all of these but teach them as well. It’s a huge challenge – harder for us today because unlike people in the past we didn’t acquire these skills in childhood. A lot of people will find it too much; a few will resent the existence of a standard which they cannot meet. And frankly, anyone with sense will understand that acquiring these skills and living by these standards will find themselves questioning orthodoxies, disputing the preferred narratives of the media, and setting themselves against the values and trends of our times: never a comfortable thing to do, as Iolo knew well.

Still, we have the motto of the Bards to inspire us: Y Gwir yn erbyn y Byd – The Truth against the World.

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