Suggested Reading: The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric

Sister Miriam Joseph was a member of the Sisters of the Holy Cross. She earned her doctorate at Columbia University and served as professor of English at St. Mary’s College from 1931 to 1960. She learned the trivium from Mortimer Adler, who instructed her and the teaching staff at St. Mary’s College on how to use it. These quotes are from an excerpt of Sister Miriam Joseph’s The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric, which is available here.

The liberal arts denote the seven branches of knowledge that initiate the young into a life of learning. The concept is classical, but the term liberal arts and the division of the arts into the trivium and the quadrivium date from the Middle Ages…

The seven liberal arts differ essentially from the many utilitarian arts (such as carpentry, masonry, plumbing, salesmanship, printing, editing, banking, law, medicine, or the care of souls) and from the seven fine arts (architecture, instrumental music, sculpture, painting, literature, the drama, and the dance), for both the utilitarian arts and the fine arts are transitive activities, whereas the essential characteristic of the liberal arts is that they are immanent or intransitive activities.

The utilitarian artist produces utilities that serve the wants of humanity; the fine artist, if he is of the highest order, produces a work that is “a thing of beauty and a joy forever”2 and that has the power to elevate the human spirit. In the exercise of both the utilitarian and the fine arts, although the action begins in the agent, it goes out from the agent and ends in the object produced and usually has a commercial value; and therefore the artist is paid for the work. In the exercise of the liberal arts, however, the action begins in the agent and ends in the agent, who is perfected by the action; consequently, the liberal artist, far from being paid for his hard work, of which he receives the sole and full benefit, usually pays a teacher to give needed instruction and guidance in the practice of the liberal arts.

Question: It is no longer controversial to claim that the significant growth in professional training programs at liberal arts colleges influence their mission and culture, a development that student and parent interest in “getting a job” underscores. How might the distinctions between the liberal, the utilitarian (or servile), and the fine arts inform discussions about pre-professional programs at Hope College? As Sister Miriam Joseph points out, traditionally a liberal arts education preceded training in the utilitarian or fine arts. What does it mean that at Hope, as at other liberal arts colleges, training in the liberal, utilitarian, and fine arts takes place more or less simultaneously?

Because communication involves the simultaneous exercise of logic, grammar, and rhetoric, these three arts are the fundamental arts of education, of teaching, and of being taught. Accordingly, they must be practiced simultaneously by both teacher and pupil. The pupil must cooperate with the teacher; he must be active, not passive. The teacher may be present either directly or indirectly. When one studies a book, the author is a teacher indirectly present through the book. Communication, as the etymology of the word signifies, results in something possessed in common; it is a oneness shared. Communication takes place only when two minds really meet. If the reader or listener receives the same ideas and emotions that the writer or speaker wished to convey, he understands (although he may disagree); if he receives no ideas, he does not understand; if different ideas, he misunderstands. The same principles of logic, grammar, and rhetoric guide writer, reader, speaker, and listener.

Question: Setting aside a consideration of how effectively (or even whether or not) we teach our students logic, grammar, and rhetoric, Sister Miriam Joseph calls us as educators to consider our own abilities to exercise the trivium as we communicate with our students—and, by extension, one another. How might we as professors cultivate our facility with logic, grammar, and rhetoric in order to achieve mutual understanding?

From Milton: “Of all the arts the first and most general is logic, then grammar, and last of all rhetoric, since there can be much use of reason without speech, but no use of speech without reason. We gave the second place to grammar because correct speech can be unadorned; but it can hardly be adorned before it is correct.”

Question: Milton’s form of argumentation (noted above and cited by Sister Miriam Joseph) highlights the benefits of sequence or hierarchy. That is, it is one thing to list the three arts in the trivium and another to argue that one comes before (or above the other)—and why. In many of our majors and minors, we make similar arguments about the sequence of courses, the building/scaffolding of skills, and the development of our students’ knowledge and abilities. In the General Education program, however, no structures exist between FYS and Senior Seminar. How might thinking through the Gen Ed requirements in a manner such as Milton deploys with logic, grammar, and rhetoric change our students’ education?