The Trivium Through The Ages

by Alexander Rumann

Liberal Arts have been the basis for education since ancient Greece and are still used to this day. The Trivium has been long standing as the foundation for education. The trivium makes up the first tier of the liberal arts and consists of Grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic. Learning the first three liberal arts is the starting point for the rest of learning that would consist of the quadrivium and then higher learning in research. The three parts to the trivium all feed off each other and one must learn each subject thoroughly before moving on. The starting point of the trivium is grammar for obvious reasons. Students must learn to read and write their letters and make complete coherent sentences. After grammar students move on to the more difficult subjects of rhetoric and dialectic. The last two that are mentioned are argument, also known as public speaking, and logic respectively. These three subjects are to prepare students for the other half of the liberal arts, the quadrivium. The trivium was an instrumental tool for education in ancient Greece and is still used in the world to this day.

As a young child in Greece you would have three teachers. One teacher would be for physical training, a music teacher and one who would teach you letters. The teacher of letters would teach you the basics of reading and writing (Barrow 62). The belief was that a student could not continue on to other parts of the trivium until they had a solid foundation in grammar. The goal of education was to generate sociable and happy citizenry. Education of the Athenians in the fifth century B.C.E. was a form of training in a very strict sense that was more a system of instruction. It consisted of two main parts: the training of the mind and training of the body (Walden 10). Due to the strict sense of education the Greeks used physical was the only way they knew how to deal with unruly students and a child’s resistance to learning to read which they found incomprehensible. The reason for having such a strict system was for the purpose of trying to create a civic spirit, a pride in belonging to a free city, and having loyalty to a political community (Finley 186, 188).

Education in ancient Greece was heavily influenced by the sophists. The sophists especially were the ones who promoted grammar (Walden 20). In the ancient civilization of Greece the trivium was started around the age of twelve, much older than a child in today’s world would start education. In Greece a child would start grammar school at twelve and typically stay there till the age of fifteen where they would then move on to the next stage of the trivium. According to an ancient writer grammar is an ancient discipline that we are exposed to from a very early age. This is true that in grammar there is a concern with the written word and literate societies were concerned with an education that had a large role in the mastery of words (Clarke 11, 12). Before reaching the age to attend grammar school, boys were to be taught by their father or guardian. Fathers were to provide some sort of training to their children so they could obtain some profession or trade when they are older (Walden 60).

The ultimate goal of teaching grammar was to assist student in becoming proficient and effective language users (Glenn 10). Grammar was taught by a specialist called the grammatikos. The basic function of the grammatikos was most revealed in times of decadence when the program was reduced to the bare essentials. Even to this day our vocabulary bears witness to the irreducible nucleus of grammar. The grammatikos would teach very elementary exercises in composition. He would also do some preparatory work with students in the areas of the other parts of the trivium. He would give the basic instruction of the theory behind the art of oratory and the elementary principles of logic (Marrou 192). This early instruction would lead into the area that would be taught by the rhetorician. Grammarians would have boy citizens from the ages twelve to fifteen and then the children would move to the rhetorician. The grammatikos would provide what would now be considered preparatory school (Clarke 12).

Today we still have what we would consider preparatory and grammar schools. Even though in today’s life children are sent to school at the ages of five to seven depending on the parents. Grammar schools are still the first step in a person’s education that must be mastered before they can move on just like in Greek culture. Without grammar a student would be completely helpless in higher education and would have no hope of obtaining the necessary tools to knowledge. The use of grammar is important throughout a person’s life no matter what profession they enter in to. Without the ability to read and write there is little that one can do in society today and causes a great hindrance on them as a functioning role in society. Grammar is of the upmost importance and is the major stepping stone for education.

The second part of the trivium is known as rhetoric, also known as oratory or argument. Boys would start rhetoric school after completing grammar school at the age of fifteen and remain there until the age of eighteen (Walden 33). Rhetoric or public speaking was considered a way of employing various oratorical tropes or ‘tricks of the trade’. Scholars like Plato and Aristotle didn’t initially agree with the art of rhetoric because it was not based on objective facts that could be backed up, it was all about presenting your side in a fair light. Oratory was mainly used to appeal to a person’s emotions rather than present facts (Fuller 296). The main goal of an orator is to express his appealing personality to his audience. It is of the utmost importance to impress that he is a man of common sense, upstanding moral character, and of good will. The orator must be able to read the various emotions of the audience any play to their sympathies and use their feelings to his advantage, in a sense he must excite them. In rhetoric a man must be an expert in controlling the emotions of his audience. He should be able to cause a rise in anger or quickly turn away the wrath of a crowd; or possibly implant a feeling of friendliness or hatred. He cultivates fears in his listeners or inspires them to make a motion. In the same ways he should make the audience feel shame or shamelessness or he must impress on them how kind he is and the unkindness of his opponent and by doing that appeal to their pity. Needless to say the orator must use various methods to excitants not with any respect to the merits of his cause but only to ensure victory. A great rhetorician is one who has the power to impress his own personality onto the audience. He uses this art to manipulate what he says into something that seems credible so as to win the assent of his spectators. It makes no difference if he uses this power of influence for good or falsehood. Orators’ who skillfully choose or invent maxims that express the beliefs of his listeners gets a reputation of being a man of good reputation. The gist of oratory is to string together maxims properly and apply them to the situation at hand. In order to be a great rhetorician one must be familiar with the subject they are presenting whether it is history, finance, or law. Athenian society was constituted on the fact that every citizen should be both their own congressman and lawyer if they were ever convicted of a crime but also to function in society. Most political arguments largely consist of discrediting the opponent as making the other persons argument seem unjust, unimportant or useless (Fuller 294, 296-7, 301).

Rhetoric has two sides to it. When someone uses the art of oratory for good everyone loves it but when it is used for evil we find rhetoric to be terrible. Modern day rhetoricians that we know are Roosevelt and Churchill and also Hitler (Barrow 25). As in ancient Greece as it is today public speaking is extremely important whether it is used for good or evil. Speaking clearly or marshalling an argument can determine whether anyone will listen to or follow you. In today’s world rhetoric is still in use to the same extent it was in ancient Greece. Lawyers and congressmen today use the art of oratory every day to defend clients or rally people to their cause. Without rhetoric there would be a different world than the one we live in. The United States justice system is based on rhetoric; condemning or clearing accused of charges is the way our courts run.

The third part of the trivium is dialectic or also known as logic. Dialectic is literally translated means ‘discussion by question and answer’. Plato argued that discussion between individuals is a much better way of seeking knowledge. Through this discussion one can develop understanding which Plato saw as the essence of education. Dialectic plays off of rhetoric in the sense that it is a form of conversation that is built from the basics of grammar and also a part of rhetoric. The original purpose of dialectic was to understand mathematics. “The metaphor of the line introduced four modes of perception, the final two of which are thinking focused on mathematical objects and true intellect or knowledge focused on the Forms. Mathematical thinking is inferior to dialectic in two respects: it makes use of models, diagrams and so forth and it takes its own concepts for granted or does not question its own hypothesis”, this was not the case later on (Barrow 87, 96, 105-6). What Plato defined dialectic as was “not thinking applied to this or that field but pure thinking, proceeded by independently by sensuous perception”. Dialectic was and is a very abstract study. One devotes themselves to the analysis and clarification of concepts, leading to their arrangement in the interrelated systems which follow the laws of classification and decision and make technical definition possible (Lodge 97, 106).

Logic is still a topic that is used in education today. There is no set curriculum for logic in today’s school system but it is still used. At a young age children usually learn by question and answer even before they are enrolled in school. Anyone who has been around a four year old can attest to that. This style of learning has been used since ancient Greece. There are classes in the college level that are logic based but this is a subject that has been eradicated from early education.

The trivium has come a long way since ancient Greece but it is still a vital part in our educational system. The use of grammar, rhetoric and dialectic has continually been a part of the education that a young person receives. The main pieces are in place still to this day even if how they are taught is completely different. The quadrivium was abandoned during parts of the Middle Ages but the trivium has been constant. There have been changes to the teaching method and presentation of the trivium but it has ever been there in education. The trivium as the foundation of the liberal arts is still the same today as it was back in ancient Greece.

Bibliography
——————–
Clarke, M.L. Higher education in the ancient world. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971. 11-2, 33. Print.

Marrou, H.-I. The Legacy of Greece. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981. 186-192. Print.

Glenn, Cheryl. The Place of Grammar in Writing Instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Boyton/Cook Publishers, 1995. 9-11. Print.

Fuller, B.A.G. History of Greek Philosophy. New York: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1968. 294-301. Print.

Barrow, Robin. Plato. Great Britain: Biddles Ltd, 1988. 5, 25, 62, 87, 96, 105-6. Print.

Walden, John. The Universities of Ancient Greece. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1909. 10, 20-21. Print.

Barrow, Robin. Plato, utilitarianism and education. London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975. 179-180. Print.

 

This paper was originally created for Steve Jackson’s History of Higher Education course.