Pre-Christian Logos

As the four levels of understanding and exegesis are found in both the secular and patristic traditions, they would seem to bridge the worlds of Paul and Apollo. (Pound, Eliot, and the Rhetoric of The Waste Land 1979)

McLuhan did not perceive Christianity as being entirely original, as being new truth brought into the world without long precedent. Instead he thought of Christianity as the carrier of an age-old truth, or truths, which it presented and celebrated (or presented especially via celebration) in superlative ways.

When the Church Fathers adapted the neo-Platonic and Stoic concept of the Logos to Christian Revelation, they committed the church to many centuries of symbolism and allegory. The result was that for a very long time the outer world was seen as a net-work of analogies which richly exemplified and sustained the psychological and moral structure of man’s inner world. Both inner and outer worlds were mirrors in which to contemplate the Divine Wisdom. (Where Chesterton Comes In, 1948)

Here are further texts, in chronological order, in which McLuhan puts forward aspects of this view: 

A brief consideration of Stoic philosophy will serve to indicate how the study of language and poetry could become completely wedded to the study of physics and ethics. Vernon Arnold’s fine study of Roman Stoicism points out (…) the Stoics (…)
 “adopted and developed a conception which exercised an extraordinary influence over other systems, when they attributed the exercise of all the powers of deity to the divine Word, which from one point of view is the deity, himself, and from another is something which emanates from him and is in some way distinct.Confronted with the great doctrine of the Logos, it is, perhaps easier to understand how grammar and etymology should have been esteemed as means of investigating both the nature of deity and the natures of phenomena. Inseparable from the doctrine of the Logos is the cosmological view of the rerum natura, the whole, as a continuum, at once a network of natural causes and an ordo naturae whose least pattern expresses analogically a divine message. This notion, already  implicit in the Chaldean cosmology, is the very basis of Plato’s Timaeus, the work of his which had the greatest influence of any of his works, both in antiquity and in the medieval times. If its full influence is to be explained, this dialogue should be seen as a statement of a cosmology already many centuries old, and one which had, long after Plato’s own day, exponents as different as the Pythagoreans and the Stoics. (The Classical Trivium: The Place Of Thomas Nashe In The Learning Of His Time, 1943, 20-21)

The doctrine of the Logos, so important for understanding the interfusion of language and physics in the mind of antiquity, seems to have been adopted by the Stoics from Heraclitus of Ephesus, who propounded it in the early part of the fifth century. (…) The Logos or universal reason is at once the life and order which are in all things, and in the mind of man. When the Romans found it impossible to translate Logos by any single word “they therefore adopted the phrase ratio et oratio (reason and speech); in modern language it seems clearly to include also the broad notion of ‘Universal Law’ or the ‘Laws of Nature’.” It has often been pointed out how profoundly this doctrine of the Logos was received by Christianity; but it has not been seen that the intermediate stages by which the transference of influence occurred was the grammatical art or discipline, which was common both to Stoic physics and to the earliest Christian theology. Seen in the light of the doctrine of the Logos, the Stoic interest in etymology as a source of scientific and philosophic knowledge, is perfectly natural.  (The Classical Trivium: The Place Of Thomas Nashe In The Learning Of His Time, 22; the quotation is from Edward Vernon Arnold, Roman Stoicism, 1911)

The use and continuance of the allegorical and etymological methods by the Stoics and Plato, as well as by Philo, St. Augustine, and St. Bonaventure, is not a carry-over from a primitive world-view. (…) The Stoic interpreters of poetry and mythology knew very well what they were doing, and did not derive their doctrines from, but applied them to, these matters. The Logos, far from being a piece of naïve animism, is metaphysical in character. (The Classical Trivium: The Place Of Thomas Nashe In The Learning Of His Time, 24)

The central clue to the whole matter is once more provided by the doctrine of the Logos. Arnold, reporting [in Roman Stoicism] the ancient interpretation of the Logos as expounded by Heraclitus, says, “All things both in the material and in the spiritual world happen through the ‘Logos‘; it is a cosmic principle, ‘common’ or ‘universal’; and (…) it is the duty of man to obey this ‘Logos‘, and so to place himself in harmony with the rest of nature.” (The Classical Trivium: The Place Of Thomas Nashe In The Learning Of His Time, 62-63)

From the earliest Greek times until the time of Descartes the upholders of civilized life never tired of expressing the fact that man as man is distinguished from the brutes by the power of speech. Inseparable from his rational soul and indispensable to his social and political life is the need to utter himself. Eloquence was therefore cherished as the finest expression of man’s excellence. This doctrine supported by the great doctrine of the Logos (ratio et oratio) inspired the ancient world to achieve and sustain those legal institutions which defined the civis and from which we have civilization. (Education of Free Men, 1943)

The origin of this important claim for the inseparable character of eloquence and wisdom would seem to lie in the familiar doctrine of the Logos, which may be supposed to have arisen with Heraclitus. Society is a mirror or speculum of the Logos, as, indeed, are the external world, the mind of man and, above all, human speech. Society, ideally the cosmopolis or perfect world state, claimed the devotion of every virtuous man. And just as Zeno considered wisdom or prudence “not only as the first of the virtues, but as the foundation of all,” so political prudence is the noblest sphere in which to exercise this virtue. The Stoics deduced from this doctrine the corollary that “The bond of the state is the Logos (ratio atque oratio)”. Viewed from the standpoint of the doctrine of the Logos, man is distinguished from the brutes by speech, and as he becomes more eloquent he becomes less brutish. As he becomes less brutish he becomes more wise. There is thus no conflict between eloquence and wisdom; and since eloquence is the means to political power, the great orator, the great statesman, and the great philosopher are one and the same. (An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America, 1945)

In Mallarmé the Word has no theological overtones. It is rather a return to the pre-Christian doctrine of the Logos which included ratio et oratio and was the element in which all men were thought to move and have their being. (T.S. Eliot [Review of eleven Eliot books], 1950) 

Many of the ancient language theories of the Logos type (…) have recurred and amalgamated themselves today under the auspices of anthropology and social psychology. Working concepts of “collective consciousness” in advertising agencies have in turn given salience and practical effectiveness to these “magical” notions of language. (McLuhan to Harold Innis, March 14 1951, Letters 220)

But even for Aristotle the obvious fact about speech is that it is a technique of arresting the hearer’s mind and fixing his attention. For a culture of readers it seems strange to define speech as a series of acoustical gestures for arresting the mind. We had long ceased to

speculate on this mystery until the mechanization of speech, image, and gesture brought the wheel full circle. Today, with all our technology, and because of it, we stand once more in the magical acoustical sphere of pre-literate man. (Space, Time, and Poetry, 1955, emphasis added)

Multi-levelled exegesis of Ovid or Virgil or the Scriptures was not only a medieval mode of reading and writing. It preceded Christianity and was the norm among ancient “grammarians.” To-day it is again the norm in physics, in psychology, in poetry and the arts. (‘Grammars for the Newer Media’, 1960)

I was not concerned with theology in my observations, but merely rhetoric and psychology. The speaker or performer has inevitably to “put on” his public as a corporate mask, and this involves simultaneously the three roles of the logos: the logos prophorikos (the uttered or spoken word), the logos spermatikos (the embedding of the seed in things), and finally, the logos hendiathetos (the mode of inner resonance): “You that have ears to hear, let them hear!” [Luke 8:8] (McLuhan letter to the editor of Commonweal, Mar 17, 1978)

…”every sentence” involves the whole man and the whole art, as in the Logos of the Herakleitos epigraph at the opening of the poem [Four Quartets]. The theme is of liberation through involvement in the “timeless moments”, between the way up and the way down [=  ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή, “the Herakleitos epigraph”]. “Between two waves of the sea” is the resonant interval, the stilling of the unheard music that assures that “all shall be well”.  (R
hetorical Spirals in Four Quartets, 1978)1

This “classic” poem [Hugh Selwyn Mauberly] has the claim to be truly classic in respect to its structural use of the five divisions of classical rhetoric. Seven years before the appearance of The Waste Land, Pound had developed the style of classical eloquence in contemporary poetry. He divided “Mauberly” into five numbered sections which are simultaneous, rather than sequential, resonant rather than logical, as are the five divisions of classical oratory as understood by Cicero and Quintilian. The importance of this simultaneity concerns the classical claim to embody the Logos in the resonant interplay of these divisions. (Pound, Eliot, and the Rhetoric of The Waste Land, 1979) 

The space of early Greek cosmology was structured by logos — resonant utterance or word. (Laws of Media, 35)2 

the spoken word, logos, functioned in oral society as the principal technology both of communication and of fashioning and transmitting the culture. Logos was also related to formal cause, to the existential essence of things. In this sense, Pedro Laín Entralgo observes, all things are, as it were, words, expressions: “The logos of the philosophers, from Thales to Democritus, was used to declare what things ‘are’. (…) The logos (…) belongs therefore to the very structure of being” [Therapy of the Word in Classical Antiquity]. The logos in its double sense of word and reason (the Romans had to translate it ‘ratio et oratio‘) was considered by the preliterate Greeks as the ‘highest and most specific’ of the gifts of nature. By means of active utterance, logos (speech), men could express what things are as well as exercise rhetorical power over other men. Fair words and lofty deeds are the titles of social excellence in Homer. Before writing, logos was active and metamorphic rather than neutral — words and deeds were related as were words and things. The logos of creation is of the same order: ‘Let there be light’ is the uttering or outering of light. (Laws of Media, 36) 

and the logos that informs it are encyclopedic (as they concern the universe, ‘the world of nature taken in its widest sense’) and both are concerned with metamorphosis. These properties of the logos are of particular importance to the later development of Stoic and Roman grammar and rhetoric. (…) While common-sense acoustic space held sway, the cosmos was perceived as a resonant and metamorphic structure informed by logos: “The structure of man’s speech was an embodiment of the structure of the world.” (Laws of Media, 37, citing Harold Innis, Empire and Communication, 76) 

The Stoics developed a ‘threefold logos’ that served as the pattern for the trivium, although the trivium itself was not formally recognized as the basis of education and science for some time. The pre-alphabetic logos was retrieved in two ways; it informed the Patristic ‘doctrine of the logos,’ and it was recapitulated in the overlapping structures of the threefold Stoic logos. (Laws of Media, 124) 

Following the Greek rhetorician Isocrates, Cicero, and after him Quintilian, established the basic pattern for Western civilized education, reaffirmed by St Augustine four centuries later, as the alignment of encyclopedic wisdom and eloquence. That is, with the trivium as a retrieval of the oral logos on the new ground of writing, the conjunction of grammar and rhetoric on the one hand, and dialectic on the other, provided a balance of the hemispheres. (Laws of Media, 124-125)


  1. The Four Quartets quotations are from ‘Little Gidding’, lines 227; 238; 254; 258.
  2. Laws of Media was published posthumously. Most of the notes incorporated into the volume by Eric McLuhan came from late in his father’s career.