Part 5, Notes on “The Liberal Arts Tradition” by Clark and Jain – “Liberal Arts: Trivium”

(Link to notes on previous chapter.) (Link to book on Goodreads.) (Link to notes on next chapter.)

We are now into the first three of the seven liberal arts, proper.  If you don’t know:

Latin for the three ways, the Trivium is the threefold curriculum of the language arts: grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric.

Many sources will refer to “dialectic” as “logic”, although these authors clearly see the term as holding wider meaning.  I did appreciate that they mentioned that there have been many ways of dividing the educational curriculum historically, with the seven liberal arts as they are now discussed being either a 6th century (Cassiodorus) or 9th century (Alcuin) synthesis.  Speaking personally I do think that synthesis should be recognized as something helpful (especially as compared to the modern free-for-all), but not something that fell from heaven – if we have some good educational reason to push the historical boundaries, that’s OK.

First, to grammar…

We all know what grammar is, it is the study of how words are used and put together in a language.  And these authors would say yes… but…

By the time of Quintilian the study of grammar consisted of everything that was necessary for interpreting a text – geography, history, even what we might call hermeneutics.

Therefore when some of the ancients describe being educated in nothing but grammar, that education was nonetheless broader than we might think today.  I will say – the part of me that demands precise categories, and believes that one of the problems with our public discourse today is imprecise categories, is again wary of attempts to expand the definition of any word.  But the flip side of this concern is that, of course, classical education is attempting to be integrative in a way standard public education is not (and may I say, public education does seem to recognize this problem and is trying to be more integrative today, but often isn’t quite sure how to do that).

They then come to what is actually a big emphasis of this chapter, and something they know is going to be a hard sell – classical schools have to recognize the importance of studying the classical languages, including Latin and Greek certainly, and possibly Hebrew.  And this is not learning a language for the sake of knowing the language:

The notion that the primary goal of studying classical languages is something other than the reading of classical texts would have been foreign to earlier generations.


The indispensability of the study of classical languages… is something that our schools will have to realize…

More on that later.

But next, dialectic…

Dialectic, again, they see as including logic, but being more than logic, with the particular note that “philosophy takes place in conversation”.  And I must say that, once upon a time, it was common to write treatises even in the natural sciences in the form of a dialogue (I’m thinking of Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems for example).  In addition to books like that probably being more fun for students to read… yes, reasoning and philosophy often taken place in conversations.  A dialogue is a very natural way to interact with the arguments being made by both (or all) sides of a dispute.

Finally, I did appreciate their emphasis here that good reasoning has a much to do with asking a good question as giving a good answer.

As in Plato’s dialogues, however, the reader of the Summa is often struck by the quality and subtlety of the question perhaps as much as the answer.

And finally, rhetoric (and again the rest)…

They acknowledge there is a historical tension here that persists to this day, to the question of whether rhetoric is primarily about persuasion, or primarily about truth.  They then offer a nice quick summary of what the first three liberal arts do:

  • Grammar: teaches us to read and write well.
  • Dialectic: teaches us to think and reason well, and especially to ask good questions.
  • Rhetoric: teaches us to speak the truth well, recognizing that we may appeal to the mind, will, and affections of our hearers

They then conclude the chapter by, again, making the case for the importance of studying the classical languages.  The Bible itself, they say, certifies for us the appropriateness of reading in translation (Jesus quotes the Septuagint), but also indicates that an original language can sometimes express a concept in a way a translation can not (the gospel writers left Christ’s exclamation on the cross untranslated for a reason, surely).

Bit of an aside, but I did appreciate a quotation from W.H.D. Rouse.  Learning the original languages, he said:

We get free from our modern predispositions and see things as they are: away goes the clammy sentimentality of the modern world, its pharisaism, its cowardice: we see facts before we know it, and we have to face them – a most wholesome and exhilarating discipline, like a cold shower-bath on a winter’s morning.

Probably overstated, but I appreciated that because, indeed, sentimentality is one of the problems with our public discourse today.  As James White has sometimes said, pay attention to whether someone is thinking their way through a question, or feeling their way through a question, and you can predict well what conclusion they will reach.  Sentimentality divorced from and overriding reason leads to many errors.

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