“Ancient quarrel” and its synonyms (1940’s)

The central matter in McLuhan’s work from start to finish was “an ancient quarrel” he identified as enabling “an overall view, which [enables]1 plenary critical judgment.”2

The Classical Trivium (PhD thesis on Nashe) (1943)

the history of the trivium is largely a history of the rivalry among [its three disciplines] for ascendancy. The war between these literary camps is basically the opposition between dialectics and rhetoric3 to control the modes of literary composition; and the ramifications of this opposition stretch into the realms of ethics and politics, both in antiquity and in the Renaissance.  For example, the ethical, political, and stylistic opposition between Machiavelli and Castiglione, between Harvey and Nashe, are at bottom and on the surface, owing to a reconstitution of ancient rivalries between dialectics and rhetoric. (…) The essential opposition between the arts of the trivium being such, then, as frequently to pit the one against the other, with results of the greatest importance…(41-42)

the points at issue in these prolonged quarrels are ineradicable. The controversies stirred up in America by President Hutchins and Professor Adler, and the educational theories which have been put into practice at St. John’s, Annapolis, have given us a contemporary taste of these ancient disputes. (Ibid, 62)

The quarrel between the ancients and the moderns is a revival, or continuation, of the quarrel which Cicero waged with the philosophers, and which the medieval dialecticians waged against the grammarians. So deeply ingrained is the Ciceronian ideal in the pattern of our culture that even Wordsworth can be seen in relation to it. His antipathy to the Ciceronian, Dr. Johnson, and his emphasis upon the feelings, rather than the words, of poetry led him to range himself on the side of the moderns and scientists. A consideration of the Ciceronian ideal and tradition, therefore, has claims to being one of basic importance in the history of Western culture, and its comparative neglect must be ascribed to the impercipience of the ubiquitous…  (Ibid, 68)

Nashe was thus a fulIy enlightened protagonist in an ancient quarrel (…) It was not a quarrel between Catholic and Protestant, but a dispute about methods of exegesis in theology and preaching, concerning which some Catholics and Protestants held patristic views and some held to scholastic positions. (Ibid, 226)

(To be continued through all of McLuhan’s work.)

  1. McLuhan: “which is”.
  2. ‘Poetic and Rhetorical Exegesis: The Case for Leavis against Richards and Empson’, Sewanee Review, 52(2), 1944.
  3. The two extremes of the three-part or trivial “quarrel” do not recognize the possibility of their peace, which is the third party to it. Therefore the frequent manifestation of the quarrel as involving only two powers: “dialectics and rhetoric”, “ancients and the moderns”, etc. Further, the two extreme powers, although fundamentally opposed to each other, share a common structure of “opposition” to the other extreme. Hence McLuhan sometimes speaks of another sort of two-party “dispute” between the two of them ( “dialectics and rhetoric”), exemplifying that common monolithic structure, and the third “grammatical” power with its polylithic structure embracing the extremes despite their difference: “specialized temperament” vs “general intelligence”.