Daily Archives: April 26, 2012

Frye Scoop! An Unpublished Talk by Northrop Frye

Communication and the Arts: A Humanist Looks at Science and Technology

Northrop Frye

A talk Frye gave at the Philips Series of Science Lectures at the Ontario Science Centre, Don Mills, Ontario, 12 December 1969.  He was introduced by Ted Rogers, founder and CEO of Rogers Communications.  Transcribed by Robert Denham from a tape produced by the Media Centre, University of Toronto.


Thank you very much, Mr. Rogers.  The reason why I am here is that I got a letter from the director of the Science Centre, Mr. [Douglas N.] Omand, saying that while most of the people in this series were scientists and technologists he would like to include a humanist.  This of course is a familiar procedure, which is known in other circles as tokenism.  He went on to say that what he wanted was not on humanism but a talk on science and technology from a humanistic frame of reference.  This seemed to be a very reasonable and sensible proposal, except that I cannot quite manage the separation between the two things.  I’m not sure that I can talk about the sciences from a humanistic frame of reference without explaining what humanism is and what, if any, its importance in society may be.  Perhaps we have to go back all the way to the Middle Ages when the original and oldest universities of our culture were established––Oxford, the Sorbonne, and the great Italian and Spanish universities.  In those universities there was of course the training of the professional faculties––theology and law and and medicine––and there was also liberal education based on the conception of seven liberal arts.  The principle behind this conception of seven liberal arts was that there are two great tools that man has evolved in his mastery of his environment, those two tools being words and numbers.  So the seven liberal arts were divided into two groups.  There was a group of three, called the trivium, which were concerned with the arts of words, and they were called grammar and rhetoric and logic.  Rhetoric was extremely important, because the two key professions, theology and the law, were both rhetorical ones.  Grammar meant, of course, the study of the inflected language of Latin, and the word “gramarye” acquired the meaning of magic or something mysterious.

After mastering the three arts of words, the student went on to the quadrivium, the four arts of numbers, and those in the middle ages were geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music.  We can see how that has left its legacy in the culture of our own world.  The sciences have developed very largely in the order of their closeness to mathematics.  The most deductive, the most amenable to mathematical treatment evolved first.  Astronomy in the sixteenth century with Copernicus, and later Galileo and Kepler; physics in the seventeenth century; chemistry, with Lavoisier, in the later eighteenth; the biological and geological sciences in the nineteenth; the social sciences in the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth century.  In all this it became gradually clear that mathematics was the central informing language of the sciences, particularly, of course, of the physical sciences, but in some degree of all the sciences. Mathematics itself is not so much a science as a study of the possibilities of scientific formulation.

The arts of words, in the meantime, developed very differently.  With the Renaissance, with Copernicus and Galileo developing the new astronomy, the humanists took shape as a group of people who were studying the languages which related to man as distinct from theology, which related to God, and the sciences, which related to nature.  The humanists were concerned mainly with reviving the Greek and Latin texts.  The printing press had just been invented, and it provided a means of producing accurate and mechanical copies of Greek and Latin authors.  Unlike the sciences, which were founded on experiment and observation, the humanists were concerned very largely with a cult of authority.  They traveled around Europe digging the manuscripts of Greek and Latin literature out of the monasteries, where they had often lain abandoned for centuries, and they wrote formal epistles to each other in Latin, reinforcing each other and keeping their spirits up in the course of visiting such barbaric countries as England and shivering in the cold climate for the sake of discovering whatever manuscripts might turn up.

Their general social influence was to regard the Greek and Latin writers as having produced the definitive statements on practically everything.  The great classical poets––Homer and Virgil––were the models of poetry and would be forever.  The great orators––Demosthenes and Cicero––were still the schools to which one should go for oratory, and the same cult of authority extended even into architecture and into the sciences themselves.  Along with this went an attack on technical language of all kinds, especially the language of philosophy.  There had been a considerable development of philosophy in the Middle Ages but the humanists said that a technical language of philosophy was not the way that people ordinarily talked.  In other words, the humanists were concerned to defend the social importance of the use of words.  Their ideals revolved around the idea of the gifted amateur or more specifically the orator.  The technical philosophers were ridiculed and attacked as people who talked a kind of jargon which nobody could understand.  Of course, the great philosopher of the Middle Ages, Saint Thomas Aquinas, still held some of his authority, but his great critic, the nominalist philosopher, John Duns, called Duns Scotus, who taught at Oxford, became a synonym for the old obsolete way of thinking and writing, the old jargon way.  And the people who held by him were called the “duns men” or the “dunces,” and so the name of one of the greatest critical intellects in the history of thought became a byword for stupidity.

At the same time, while there was much that was reactionary in humanism, there was also something that had an intense social concern for the proper use of words.  Roger Ascham, who was an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, said, “You know not what hurt you due to learning when you separate words from matter.  For if you look at the history of all nations, you shall find that social manners began to decline as soon as the use of words became vague and imprecise.”  Almost exactly the same words were being used in our own day by the American poet Ezra Pound, who claims to have derived them from a Chinese origin.  So this sense of the social importance of the precise, accurate, and powerful use of words was the mainspring which was the impetus of the humanist movement.  It has left on our day and our modern universities the term “humanities,” which means the subjects of the literatures and philosophy and history.  In general, it is a term favored by university administrators to designate the low‑budget departments.  All through the nineteenth century the courses which the serious student took were courses in the two essential tools of knowledge, that is, words and numbers, which until about 1900 were interpreted as a course in the classics and a course in mathematics.  In my own college, Victoria College, when it began in the nineteenth century in Cobourg, there was the course for intellectuals, which consisted of the classics and the mathematics, and another course for the people who made money and endowed the college, which was called the English course and was essentially a business training.  It was not until the turn of the century, when the classics began to be replaced by the modern languages, that the same general set‑up and formulation of university curricula still was retained.

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