Posted in Book Review, Culture, Philosophy

Trivium: Secret Art of Learning

Etymologically, the latin word of “Trivium” means “the place where the roads meet.” The elements within the Trivium represent a crossroads or intersection where the public meets [1]. We would call it a public square, where public meets to discuss or chit-chat the usual topics of the day: How was the weather? How was the harvest? And so on and so forth.

We used to say that people who excel at remembering common experience and knowledge are good at trivia. Trivia is at the center of everyday knowledge.

The term Trivium was comprised grammar, logic, and rhetoric. These three elements were essential to a classical education.

Grammar teaches the mechanics of language to the student. This is the step where the student “comes to terms”. It can be divided into two: technical and exegetical grammar. Learning sentence structure (subject, verb, and object) is technical while learning the meaning and its nuance is exegetical.

Logic is the mechanics of thought and of analysis: identifying fallacious arguments, removing contradictions, thereby producing factual knowledge. Logic directs and guides us after the truth. It leads us to conclusions based on our knowledge. We use all of our faculties of conceiving, judging, reasoning, and disposing of questions before us. Logic trains the mind to think clearly. Dialectics is the term used to describe critical thinking. We observe the world. As we see patterns, we begin to make predictions and convey it to our action plans.

Rhetoric is the application of language in order to instruct and persuade the reader or listener. Sometimes we thought that rhetoric is unimportant as a meaningless throw-away line. Rhetoric is important: it has substance. Rhetoric adds force and elegance to our thoughts. It is essential for the study of law and regulations. Ancient Romans used to learned to speak in public with fluency. Even pre-Islamic Arabs used to read poetry in public and challenge the other poets.

The representation image of Trivium in the middle ages (from Wikipedia)


Grammar, rhetoric, and logic are the trivium, or first three, of the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences [2]. Some would say The Trivium is the three arts of language pertaining to the mind. Logic is the art of thinking; grammar, the art of inventing symbols and combining them to express thought; and rhetoric, the art of communicating thought from one mind to another, the adaptation of language to circumstance [3]. Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric can be described as Input, Process, and Output.

The whole of the Trivium, in fact, was intended to teach the student the proper use of the tools of learning. First, he learned how structure in language was put together, and how it worked. Secondly, he learned to use language; how to define his terms and make accurate statements; how to construct an argument and how to detect fallacies in it. Thirdly, he learned to express himself in language elegantly and persuasively. This whole teaching system arguably is now crumbled, because we are too much focusing on the “subjects” itself, hence obsessed with the results from science, technology or any subjects [4].

Learning these three elements in Trivium will shape us into a formidable force in the world. These are the most powerful tools that human beings have. Luther King knew them, Malcolm X knew them, both of them moved large numbers of people and nation.

Prophet s. is the most logical, grammatically correct and rhetorically effective human being that ever lived. He moved one-sixth of humanity because of that. This is why they are so important in our civilization.

Freemasons up until now are obsessed with the Seven Liberal Arts. Freemasons is a network of very powerful people around the world and they know this tools very well. They are learning seven liberal arts to shape themselves to become a better man in masonry [5].

Winding Stairs, one of the common symbolism in Freemasonry. There are 12 steps, the first 5 are human senses, the second 7 representing the school of learning (Seven Liberal Arts)

Some civilizations though kept these knowledge hidden, some sort of secret arts. They do not want these arts known widely among mankind. Because these arts will free people and not let others think for them. They will be liberated. 

We can see through people lacking in this knowledge if we have mastered it. There is a lot of gaps to fill in the case of President debates in the United States nowadays compare with two or three decades ago. Mastering this knowledge means increased in literacy capacity [6].

In debates, a good argumentation should be delivered well. There are certain things that need to look at, the usage of rhetoric might be a missed hit if the content was not elaborated enough or the method of rhetoric is not well-delivered. The worst scenario is the usage of foul language when someone cornered. This is when debates getting ugly.

Foul language was what people that didn’t have words resorted to. When you lose the ability to speak out of frustration you begin to use foul language. Breakdown of language leads to violence. Wars occur because of breakdowns in communication. Later maybe developing an article explaining language and communication might be a good idea.

Simply put, mastering all three of these elements, you can move masses and nations. But if not properly used, wars will be triggered. Careful with your words.

إِيَّاكُمْ وَالْفِتَنَ فَإِنَّ اللِّسَانَ فِيهَا مِثْلُ وَقْعِ السَّيْفِ

“Beware of tribulations, for at that time the tongue will be like the blow of a sword.” (Sunan Ibn Majah)


  2. Trivium is one-third of the total seven, the rest are called Quadrivium: Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy)
  3. Joseph, Sister Miriam (2002). The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric. Paul Dry Books, Inc.

  4. Sayers, Dorothy L., (1947). The Lost Tools of Learning. an essay presented at Oxford University.
  6. Adler, Mortimer J and van Doren, Charles, How to Read a Book, 1972 ed. (see my article:
Posted in Book Review, Culture, Philosophy

Art of Reading

“Why the poets use metaphorical language?” One day my friend asked. “Why don’t he used ‘that’ word and instead using ‘this’ word?”

how to read a book

Poets often using ambiguous words and it is quite difficult to grasp the insight behind those words. Good poets gave us time to think of what they have written. They are good with their language and words. In what sense we are different from the animals? The most sensible answer is language, which can be derived to any specific knowledge.

Human is the best at generating language. It is really amazing to see how children can speak the words and understand its meaning. Have you ever wonder how the language can be processed? Linguistics is a sign of civilization. It is a sign of an ancient heritage that can communicate its legacy to us. As the great writers write in their books.

Many books can be summed up into several paragraphs, even only one or two sentences. That’s ordinary writer. But in most cases, many popular or high selling books suffered the same problem. When you read classical books, sometimes you can’t sum it up easily, you can’t make it short. Because too many important points inside. It is as Mark Twain said about the ancient, “The ancients stole all our ideas from us.”

We must have sufficient knowledge to be able to interpret what they are writes. In order to do that, we must form a set of skill of reading. Reading is not a passive activity. Rather, it is active, depending on how we manage the process inside.

Mortimer Adler in the late of 40’s published an interesting book entitled “How to read a book”. He said, “To become a solid reader, we must able to determine our goals. To get information, to get understanding or maybe just for amusement?”

Information deduced from the facts, while insight is internalized when we are trying to understand something. From sort of passage or paragraph, we get the information and we may or may not get enlightened. It depends on our ability in reading. To understand the insight within, we need to explore what an author has to say, we should know what he means and why the author says it. This is why the Art of Reading is matter.

The other things that he mentioned are how we should manage our level of reading. There are several levels in which Adler described. First, elementary reading, and I guess you probably have this set of skill if you can read this passage.

Second, inspectional reading, it is a set of skill that enables us to get the most out of book within a given time. Easily with this level, we can answer, “What is the book about?”

Third, analytical reading, this is prominently for the sake of understanding. We can ask and organize many questions of what we are reading. This level is prominently for the sake of understanding, answering the “why” questions. As Francis Bacon say, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some to be chewed and digested.”

Fourth, syntopical reading. We put more books to understand how to resolve a specific matter. This is the most active compared to the previous set. It is similar when we are doing a research in a certain field and try to gather all the sources and references, put them on a red line to connect the dots we are trying to solve.

An interesting story on why we need to know our level of reading is the story of Ibn Sina. One day Ibn Sina tried to read Aristotle book, The Metaphysics. He read it almost fifty times! and yet he still couldn’t get it. Then he went to a bookstore and offered a book, “Introduction to Metaphysics”, and voila, he understands easily. Sometimes we need an introduction to the subject we are going to engage, especially difficult subject. Books entitled “Bla Bla Bla for dummies, or introduction to Bla Bla” is needed as a prerequisite to understanding a specific subject. As mentioned in his book, Adler gave an example by using textbooks, or introduction books. So that we may understand a specific subject better.

Adler also mentioned about the architecture of the books. We can understand the books by looking at its structure and asking some basic questions, how the books are arranged? What is the book about as a whole? What is being said in detail and how? Is the book true, in whole or part? What of it? Significant? Important?

If we take a look at the architecture of Ghazali’s Ihya ‘Ulumuddin, what is the book all about? What is the main theme? We should pinpoint the heart of all chapters in the book. The heart is located in the book 20 of Ihya entitled The Etiquette of Living and the Prophetic Mannerism. This is the main point of whole chapters! Ghazaly put this chapter at the heart of the book precisely. All topics in Ihya is based on the characteristics of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.

By doing so (understanding the architecture) we can engage more intimately with the author as proposed by Adler. Figuring out what we understand and what we don’t before agreeing with the author. To be able to read is to be able to grasp the understanding and insight from the author.

Read comes from the Old English verb rǣdan, “to advise, interpret, read.” Rǣdan is related to the German raten, “to advise” (as in Rathaus, “town hall”). Even some argue that it also rooted in the same word as the 4th stomach of a ruminant, “to ruminate”, “to chew”. As we read something, we should grasp its insight, reading is “chewing”. We chew and digest the idea on our mind so that we understand it in a comprehensive way.

To able to read in a comprehensive way is the closer we get to become a literate person. Literates are someone who understand what they read and able to articulate their understanding clearly.

The Art of Reading is to be able to catch every sort of communication as well as possible. It is to become a solid literate person!
If people are able to master the Art of Reading, they will have set of skills such as keen on observation, improved memorizing skills, a wide range of imagination, intellect trained in analysis and reflection.


All of those set skills will improve us both personally and for the society, becoming a literate person and establishing a literate society. Moreover, aside from that, the Art of Reading is a matter of discovery, to learn and master something useful from the book. Therefore if we are disposed to go on learning and discovering we must know how to make books teach us well.

The pinnacle of our civilization is when our society leveled up to a certain point of literacy. They became the literate society. The English language has reached its pinnacle in 16-17th century. While Arabic reached its pinnacle on 6-7th century parallel with the growth of Islam.

Interestingly, in Islam, reading have always been a fundamental root in its oral tradition. The first revelation is “read”. Many argue that this verse has a multidimensional context. There is a mystical component in reading the Quran in which it always refers to the person who thinks, ponder and deeply reflect themselves on the verse of the Quran.

Quran is the book of signs. If we want to understand Quran, we must interpret its signs. Thus, reading is the basic foundation on how we can understand signs. Interestingly enough, ayah in Quran addressed either as verse or sign. The implication is that we should always refer both the sign and the verse as a guidance in our life. We should think and ponders all the creation in our surroundings and also the verse as a text itself. This step of thinking and pondering can be achieved when we have our basic foundation, reading, as a habit. In this globalization era, indeed it is time for us to become a solid reader, a literate person and to establish a literate society. Let’s master the Art of Reading!

How many books you have read this past two months? Hopefully, it will become more in the future.


Adler, Mortimer J and van Doren, Charles, How to Read a Book, 1972 ed

Posted in Book Review, Philosophy, Science

Beyond “What is Life?”

what is life gambar

Many of us may ask “What is life, really?”

All living things made up from cells, and cells made up practically from “dead” matters.

How can dead matters turn into living things? What are the processes inside of it? The key lies in some information that processed inside one part of the cells, which is DNA. As the living things live, the DNA processes all the genetic information needed for cells to grow until a certain time. They produce proteins, they build everything that every cell needed to grow.

All cells, we can say, programmed themselves to be “dead” at some point. Thermodynamically, as they grow, cells tend to be more chaotic in time. As you grow old, you will see a wrinkle, white hair and so on. This is natural things that happen in living things, but does that means living things is the same as “life” itself? Is life the aggregate of all reaction processes that are taking place inside of cells?

The cycle continues as they continue to breed so that their species do not fall into extinction. To avoid losing track of information, new entity succeeded their predecessors. The information (genetic then carried through generations. In a way, life is just a lot of stuff that carries genetic information around. So is DNA life then? DNA itself is certainly a very complex molecule, but it can’t do anything by itself.

Then viruses added problems. We are not very sure if they can count as living things or dead. It depends on the condition in which they are inside a host or not. There are some viruses that can re-animate the dead cells, well it blurred the line, again.

Furthermore, there are mitochondria, the “power plant” of most complex cells and were previously free-living bacteria that entered a partnership with bigger cells. They still have their DNA and can multiply, but they are not alive anymore! They traded their own life for the survival of their DNA. Maybe, life is information that manages to ensure its continued existence, or it is not?

One person who thought deeply about it was the Quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger. He really gives his thought on what is going on in our cells, although his effort in this biology-related matter, some ( says, unheard or plays an insignificant role at some point.

Does Quantum mechanics which underpin many physics and chemistry phenomenon also play a role inside living organism?


Probably most of us have probably heard of quantum mechanics or quantum physics. Quantum mechanics describes a reality on the tiniest scales; the world in which particles can exist in two or more places at once spread themselves in a wave-like behavior, tunnel through impenetrable walls and so forth. A really different world!

Over a century, this bizarre description has been part of all our lives. The mathematical formulation was completed in mid-1920’s. Quantum mechanics already describing how the electrons arrange themselves within atoms. By doing so it underpins the whole chemistry, material science, and electronics; we can say that it is the very essence of most technological advances of the past half-century.

If Quantum mechanics can describe the behavior of the atoms with all their weirdness, then why aren’t all the objects around us, including humans (which made up of atoms) also able to be in two places at once, and so forth? One obvious difference is that the Quantum world does apply to single particles consisting of just a handful atoms.

Quantum effects were certainly unexpected to play any role inside of living cells. Yet, 70 years ago, Nobel-prize winning physicist and Quantum pioneer, Erwin Schrödinger suggested that deep down, some aspects of biology must be based on the rules and orderly world of quantum mechanics. His book inspired a generation of scientists. Probably we have heard his journey in exploring the quantum world, but only a few knew he was also tackled one of the biggest questions: “What is Life?”


DUBLIN. In the first Friday of February 1943, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger give a lecture with an intriguing title: “What is Life?”

The interest was so great that the lecture had to be repeated on the following Monday. On three consecutive Fridays, 56-year-old Schrödinger walked into the Fritzgerald Building lecture theater to give his talks, in which he explored the relationship between quantum physics and recent discovery in biology.

But what about life? What is the nature of it? Schrödinger was amazed by the fact that chromosomes are accurately duplicated during cell division (mitosis) and during the creation of sex cells (meiosis).

He pointed out that heredity depends on molecules made of comparatively few particles – certainly too few to benefit from the order from disorder rules of thermodynamics. But life was clearly in order. Why?

For biologists, the apparent unchanging characteristic of genes was simply a fact. But for Schrödinger, it’s a “problem”. He calculated that each gene might be composed of only 1000 atoms. Thus, genes should be continuously shimmering and altering because the fundamental laws of physics and chemistry are statistical; although atoms overall tend to behave consistently, an individual atom can behave in a way that contradicts these laws. For most objects we encounter, this probably doesn’t matter. Most of them don’t behave in unpredictable ways.

If genes are made only a few hundred atoms, they should display that uncertain behavior, and they should not remain constant over the generations. And yet, the experiments showed that mutations occur quite rarely!

The challenge was to explain how genes act lawfully and cause organisms to behave lawfully, while being composed only a few number of atoms, a significant proportion of which may be behaving unlawfully. He then suggested that life was based on a novel physical principle whereas its macroscopic order is a reflection of quantum level order, rather than the molecular disorder that characterizes the inanimate world. He coined this as “order from order”.

Schrödinger then argued that chromosomes “contain, in some kind of code-script, the entire pattern of the individual’s future development and of its functioning in the mature state.” This was the very first time anyone clearly suggested genes might contain, or even simply could be, “a code-script”.

Years to come, that code-script like was founded. It is the DNA. James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins (The founders) – all claimed that Schrödinger’s “What is Life?” played an important role in their personal journeys toward their work on finding the structure of DNA.


Entering the new realm of science: Quantum Biology

Theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili and molecular geneticist Johnjoe McFadden have been discussing physics and chemistry phenomenon that might affect biology in their published book entitled Life on the Edge: The Coming Age of Quantum Biology. As the books said, Quantum Biology is about “looking for non-trivial, the counter-intuitive ideas in Quantum mechanics and to see if they do indeed play an important role in describing the processes of life.”

Life on the edge - quantum biology

The first question raised to build a new foundation for Quantum Biology is: Does quantum mechanics play a role inside living organism?

Up until a decade ago, most biologists would have disagreed that quantum physics plays a role inside living organism. But as the scientists, particularly biologist probes the dynamics of smaller systems – even individual atoms and molecules inside living cells, the sign of quantum mechanical behavior in the building blocks of life are becoming increasingly apparent.

There are certain specific behaviors in living organism that required quantum mechanics to be explained. For example, the European robin, Erithacus rubecula. Every year, around this time (autumn), thousands of European robins escape the oncoming harsh Scandinavian winter and head south to the warmer Mediterranean coasts. How they find their way is one of the wonders of the natural world. Unlike many other species, they do not rely on landmarks, ocean currents, a position of the sun or a built-in star map. They are using a remarkable navigation sense. They are able to detect tiny variations in the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field. They also seem to be able to “see” the Earth’s magnetic field! The birds’ built-in compass appears to make use of one of the strangest features of quantum mechanics.

Over the past few years, the European robin and its quantum “sixth sense”, has emerged as the pin-up for a new field of research. One that brings altogether the complex, wonderful yet messy living world and the strange orderly world of atoms and elementary particles in a collision of disciplines that is astonishing. It’s Quantum Biology!

Another example is Enzymes, the workhorses of life. They speed up chemical reactions so that processes proceed in seconds inside living cells. How they accelerate chemical reactions? Experiments over the years have shown that enzymes make use of quantum tunneling to accelerate biochemical reactions. The enzyme encourages electrons and protons to vanish from one position in a biomolecule and instantly reappear in another, without passing through the gap. A kind of teleportation.

Another vital process in the biology is photosynthesis. Many argue that it is the most important biochemical reaction on the earth. The processes essentially happens when light energy captured by chlorophyll molecule and converted into chemical energy in which harnessed to fix carbon dioxide and turn it into plant matter. The process whereby this light energy is transported has long been a puzzle because of its efficiency. The question then, how?

In 2007 in California, an experiment carried out and probed what was going on by firing short bursts of laser light at photosynthetic complexes. Then it was revealed that the energy packet performing a neat quantum trick. It behaves quantum mechanically, like a spread-out wave, and samples all possible routes at once to find the quickest way.

All these quantum effects have come as a surprise to most scientists who believed that the quantum mechanics only applied in the microscopic world. All delicate quantum properties were thought to vanish in bigger objects, such as living cells. So how does life manage its quantum trickery?

Rather than avoiding molecular storms, recent research suggests that life embraces them. Just as Schrödinger predicted, life seems to be balanced on the boundary between this sensible everyday world and the weird yet wonderful quantum world.

This thought gathers all quantum physicist, biochemist, molecular biologist, and all related inter-disciplinary field for joining the new-breed, a brand of new emerging science: Quantum Biology.

Perhaps, although Quantum Biology is still speculative, it may explain life’s biggest questions: “What is life?”

What is Life then? 

1. Discover: Science for the curious September 2015 edition page 60
2. Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden