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The Grammar of Existence


In this age of scientific and empirical reductionism, when we hear the word “grammar” we are likely to think of what takes place in an elementary classroom. Education in the modern age is a mere shadow of an authentic education. Its constituent parts have been hollowed out and husks are dangled in front of students followed by an assessment of temporary recall of quickly fading shades. Grammar has been reduced to a mere empty shadow of its former self as well. It used to be the primary liberal art by which to begin to cultivate the inner landscape. Grammar today is a mimic of a sort of atomized applied linguistics. When Moliere said “Grammar, which knows how to control even kings,” he was not speaking about grammar as we understand it today.

The word “grammar” comes from the Greek “grammatikí̱” (γραμματική) meaning “the art of letters,” but in its deepest sense it signifies literacy or the reading of things as they actually are. It is both an art and a science. It is complicated to master literacy and all its guiding principles. The ancient grammarians mastered the arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric in order that they might teach. If we compare what the grammarians considered grammar in ages past with what people call grammar today, the difference may be shocking.

Dionysius Thrax, (170–90 BC) an ancient Greek grammarian, outlined the hierarchical structure of grammar from the least important components to the greatest. He begins with prosody, followed by an understanding of literary devices, followed by considerations of phraseology enhanced by etymology. At the upper reaches of grammar we find analogy and metaphor followed by the highest aspect of grammar, the art of exegesis. Exegesis has its etymological roots in a word that means “to demand” from a written work what it is most deeply trying to convey, considering its origins, the authors intentions, the validity and value of its assertions, as well as the range, breadth, and depth of its knowledge. This understanding of grammar has long since disintegrated in the public schools.

Grammar has suffered the same fate as theology and philosophy in the age of scientism. Grammar has been cut off from its transcendent and philosophical roots. Grammar ought to embody the rules for the structure of language, which intend to reflect the hierarchical structure of the universe, but it no longer does. Prosody, the lowest level of grammatical concern for the ancients has become the highest concern in the modern school. Prosody generally means “the defining feature of expressive reading that comprises all of the variables of timing, phrasing, emphasis, and intonation.” A little longer reflection on this lowest level of grammar will reveal that it lends itself to measurable observation.

To add insult to injury, prosody has gone under the knife of dissection to the point that literacy has become a sort of pseudo-linguistic analysis of the written word. The ancient grammarians’ concerns have been replaced by the constituent parts undergirding prosody we now call morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, phonology, and phonetics. Added to these considerations are superficial nods to various parts of speech and reduced versions of some of the ancient grammarian’s categories. Grammar, like the frog in the science lab, lies dissected in the laboratory of the modern school empirically mapped out, but dead to its vital concerns.

If we are concerned with living a full life in consideration of the fullest developments of our intellects and wills, then we must begin with a recovery of the true nature of grammar. Grammar has its roots in eternity and its arrangement of categories signifies the rules of existence as well as words can. In identifying the grammar of existence, there are two primary considerations, that of space and time, which correlate to our two categories of being and doing. Being and doing are reflected by our speech categories we call nouns and verbs. In the entirety of language, we can notice that all our linguistic constructions revolve around particulars articulating general things and what they do (nouns and verbs). Just so, we understand our lives in terms of being and doing correlated to space and time. All of our considerations revolve around what we are and what we do, in that order.

A cursory glance at Part I, the first 26 questions of St. Thomas Aquinas’ masterwork, the Summa Theologiae, demonstrates a proper understanding of the grammar of existence simply in the organization of its initial topics. The universal subject is “God and His Perfections.” Question one deals with the Queen of the sciences, theology and question two asks the foundational question “Does God exist?” For the next 24 questions Aquinas demonstrates the hierarchical order of the grammar of existence by dealing with the two universal topics of God’s existence (being) and The Divine Operations (doing). He begins with being as it is primary and goes from universal to particulars in questions 3-13. This is followed by doing, which necessarily proceeds from being in questions 14-26.

St. Thomas Aquinas’ considerations on the existence and nature of God are presented in a way that not only reflects the hierarchical structure of properly understood grammar, but also echoes the hierarchical structure of the Cosmos as dictated by our Creator. Language has the twofold purpose of conveying truth in the service to the other. It should be self-evident that the grammar of human language ought to properly reflect the grammar of existence, if not, than what are we ever talking about?

Steven Rummelsburg

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Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Catholic convert after 40 years of secular humanism. He is a Catholic writer and speaker on matters of Faith, culture, and education. He teaches, theology, philosophy and Church history at Holy Spirit Prep in Atlanta.

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