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Documentation on the Trivium.
Mark Passio - The Trivium
The Trivium is a systematic method of critical thinking used to derive factual certainty from information perceived with the traditional five senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. In the medieval university, the trivium was the lower division of the seven liberal arts, and comprised grammar, logic, and rhetoric (input, process, and output).
Etymologically, the Latin word trivium means "the place where three roads meet" (tri + via); hence, the subjects of the trivium are the foundation for the quadrivium, the upper division of the medieval education in the liberal arts, which comprised arithmetic (number), geometry (number in space), music (number in time), and astronomy (number in space and time).
Educationally, the trivium and the quadrivium imparted to the student the seven liberal arts of classical antiquity.
The trivium is implicit in the De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii ("On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury"), by Martianus Capella, although the term was not used until the Carolingian Renaissance, when the term was coined, in imitation of the earlier quadrivium.
Grammar, logic, and rhetoric were essential to a classical education, as explained in Plato's dialogues.
Together, the three subjects were included to and denoted by the word "trivium" during the Middle Ages, but the tradition of first learning those three subjects was established in ancient Greece.
Contemporary iterations have taken various forms, including those found in certain British and American universities (some being part of the Classical education movement) and at the independent Oundle School, in the United Kingdom.
The quadrivium (plural: quadrivia) are the four subjects, or arts, taught after teaching the trivium. The word is Latin, meaning "the four ways" (or a "place where four roads meet"), and its use for the four subjects has been attributed to Boethius or Cassiodorus in the 6th century. Together, the trivium and the quadrivium comprised the seven liberal arts (based on thinking skills), as opposed to the practical arts (such as medicine and architecture).
The quadrivium consisted of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. These followed the preparatory work of the trivium made up of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. In turn, the quadrivium was considered preparatory work for the serious study of philosophy (sometimes called the "liberal art par excellence") and theology.
These four studies compose the secondary part of the curriculum outlined by Plato in The Republic, and are described in the seventh book of that work (in the order Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, Music.)
The quadrivium is implicit in early Pythagorean writings and in the De nuptiis of Martianus Capella, although the term "quadrivium" was not used until Boethius early in the sixth century.
As Proclus wrote:
The Pythagoreans considered all mathematical science to be divided into four parts: one half they marked off as concerned with quantity, the other half with magnitude; and each of these they posited as twofold. A quantity can be considered in regard to its character by itself or in its relation to another quantity, magnitudes as either stationary or in motion. Arithmetic, then, studies quantities as such, music the relations between quantities, geometry magnitude at rest, spherics [astronomy] magnitude inherently moving.
The Seven Liberal Arts By Andrew Fleming West, Professor at Princeton College
Originally published in Alcuin And the Rise of the Christian Schools by Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912
Edited by Christopher A. Perrin, Ph.D. Copyright 2010 Classical Academic Press
The Seven Liberal Arts
Click here to download this article as a pdf
In this essay, Andrew West traces the origin of the seven liberal arts that comprised the three arts of the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and the quadrivium (geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music) and describes their evolution and consolidation up to the time of Alcuin (c. AD 740–804), the educational reformer under Charlemagne. West pays special attention to those thinkers who shaped the development of the liberal arts, such as Augustine, Martianus Capella, Boethius, Cassiodorus, and Isidore of Seville. This essay will present the reader with a fundamental understanding of the seven liberal arts that formed the foundation for classical education then and now.
This is Partial Copy
Origin in Greece The seven liberal arts, which embraced the studies constituting the curriculum of school education in the Middle Ages, were an inheritance from classical antiquity.
Their origin is to be sought in Greek education.
Thus Aristotle in his Politics defines “the liberal sciences”1 as the proper subjects of instruction for free men who aspire not after what is mmediately practical or useful, but after intellectual and moral excellence in general, and mentions several of these studies separately.
By his time the educational doctrine of the Greeks had become highly developed and exhibited the ideals towards which the best Greek minds endeavored to direct their educational practice.
We are not to suppose that by the terms “liberal arts,” “liberal studies” and “liberal sciences” they meant either the whole of human knowledge or even the whole of liberal culture, for although the terms are not always employed in a uniform sense, yet they have a proper sense which must b e held clearly in mind, if we would avoid confusion.
Their proper meaning is this: the circle of disciplinary school studies which minister to the general education of youth, preparatory to the higher liberal studies, which are compendiously called philosophy.
The distinction between the liberal arts and philosophy thus contains in germ the distinction between what we now mean by gymnasial and university education.
It is of course true that the liberal arts were not always spoken of consistently, and that the practice of Greek writers may be compared in general with the varying modern use of the word “education,” but it is no less true that to the Greeks the liberal arts primarily meant the circle of school studies.
In fact they are often identical with school education itself, so that the saying of Pythagoras, “Education must come before philosophy,” meant to the Greeks that training in the liberal arts must precede the higher culture.
Philosophy also, as the goal of the earlier studies, is not infrequently styled a liberal art, sometimes the only truly liberal art.
Thus Aristotle affirms, “It alone of the sciences is liberal, because it exists solely for its own sake and is not to be pursued for any extraneous advantage.”
The studies which came to be regarded as liberal arts were grammar, rhetoric, dialectics, music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy.
It is not clearly known when each of these began to be considered as a school study, or how many of them were commonly so pursued, or that they were the only liberal arts.
The Greeks did not formulate an unalterably fixed body of studies, seven in number.
No list of seven arts nor any mention of seven as the number of liberal arts is to be found in the Greek writers.
However there was an order which they were pursued, and the first three, grammar, rhetoric, and dialectics, were preparatory studies which were generally pursued in the order stated.
The other four disciplines usually came later, and it is probable that only a portion of those who had completed their grammar, rhetoric, and dialectics passed on to the music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy, and that only a portion of those who so passed onward studied all the four latter arts.
It is clear, however, that the Greeks came to consider acquaintance with the liberal arts as a general education, and the only general education.
Continuation in Rome
By the time of Cicero (106–43 BC) the artes liberales had passed over to Rome and become the groundwork of the education of the Roman liber homo, or gentleman.
Cicero’s references to the arts are abundant and instructive, furnishing as they do ample evidence of the familiarity of educated Romans of the late Republic with the studies of the Greeks.
But it was not the writings of Cicero that saved the liberal arts for the Middle Ages.
For this we must look to the monumental work, now lost, of his learned contemporary Varro (116–27 BC).
It is fortunate indeed that such a writer, in his Libri Novem Disciplinarum, gave a full account of the arts which had passed over from Greek into Roman education.
His list of “disciplines,” as worked out by Ritschl, is the following: grammar, dialectics, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astrology, music, medicine, architecture.
Astrology of course answers to astronomy, and the first seven studies in his list are consequently the well-known arts of the Greeks, but medicine and architecture are added.
It is very plain that Varro had not in mind any limitation of the arts to seven, and yet it would not be safe to assert he meant that all his “nine disciplines” were liberal arts.
Perhaps he did, but more likely all he meant to represent by the “nine disciplines” was the studies generally, whether liberal or professional, which the Romans had inherited from the Greeks.
Passing on to the time of the early Empire, we may trace the course of the liberal arts in the writings of the younger Seneca (8 BC–AD 65) and Quintilian (AD 35–96), both of whom were well acquainted with the writings of Varro and refer to him as their authority.
In Seneca’s famous Epistle to Lucilius on liberal studies, five of the arts are enumerated and described in the following order: grammar, and then music, geometry, arithmetic, and astronomy.
This, though incomplete, yet corresponds, as far as it goes, with Varro and the Greeks.
It is also true that he recognizes in his very next letter the distinction between rhetoric and dialectics; but it would be a mistake to suppose from this that he recognized these seven as all the liberal arts, or that he consciously recognized any unalterably fixed list.
Indeed he speaks in another letter of medicine as a liberal art, and may have followed Varro in doing so.
Shortly after Seneca comes Quintilian, in whose writings the arts are more strictly coordinated as a complete course of school instruction.
He speaks in his Institutes of Oratory of the departments of study which need to be pursued “in order that the circle of instruction, which the Greeks call enkuklios paideia, may be completed.”
He also mentions as such studies grammar, rhetoric, music, and geometry, making the geometry include arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy.
These six might perhaps be regarded as really seven if we suppose that Quintilian combined dialectics with rhetoric, as was sometimes done; but in any event it is clear that he, like Seneca, had not formulated an exclusive list of seven or any other number.
Yet it is also clear that as with the Greeks, so with the Romans, grammar remained the inevitable first study, with rhetoric and probably dialectics immediately following, and that the fourfold division into arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy held its own as a natural distribution for the succeeding studies.
The Response of the Church to the Liberal Arts
The Roman civilization, and with it the education established in the imperial schools, passed on to its decline, partly from interior moral decay, partly by external barbarian assault, and even more irrevocably through the supplanting power of the new ideals introduced by Christianity.
We are chiefly concerned with the last of these, and more particularly here with the twofold attitude assumed by the early Church of the West towards the arts.
The first position was one of antagonism.
Thus Tertullian proscribes pagan learning as both ineffectual and immoral—apparently a most harsh and indefensible judgment.
But if we keep in view the utter vileness of a great number of the so-called professors or teachers of the arts in the time of the Empire, a fact easily proven from the writings of Seneca and Quintilian, and the gross immoralities of pagan religion which were a natural development of so much of the mythology that tainted their literature, it will be seen that an antagonistic attitude to certain phases of pagan culture was inevitable from the first on the part of the Church, and this might easily pass into a proscription of the liberal arts.
“The patriarchs of philosophy,” says Tertullian, “are the patriarchs of heresy.”
He also descries them as “hucksters of philosophy and rhetoric.”
Lactantius says, “They do not edify but destroy our lives,” and even Augustine calls them “croaking frogs.”
“Refrain from all the writings of the heathen,” is the language of the Apostolical Constitutions, “for what hast thou to do with strange discourses, laws, or false prophets, which in truth turn aside from the faith those who are weak in understanding?
For if thou wilt explore history, thou hast the Books of the Kings; or seekest thou for words of wisdom and eloquence, thou hast the Prophets, Job, and the Book of Proverbs, wherein thou shalt find a more perfect knowledge of all eloquence and wisdom, for they are the voice of the Lord, the only wise God.
Or dost thou long for tuneful strains, thou hast the Psalms; or to exploe the origin of things, thou hast the Book of Genesis; or for customs and observances, thou hast the excellent law of the Lord God.
Wherefore abstain scrupulously from all strange and devilish books.”
Such is an authoritative utterance of the early church, so that we need feel no surprise at finding it echoed by her great doctors.
Was it not Augustine who made famous the saying, Indocti caelum rapiunt, “It is the ignorant who take the kingdom of heaven”; and did not Gregory the Great assert that he would blush to have Holy Scripture subjected to the rules of grammar?
Augustine and The Liberal Arts
But though antagonism was the first position of the Church, and a necessary position in her first encounter with paganism, there were influential voices raised on the other side, and this harsh opinion was gradually modified, so that by the fourth and fifth centuries it was superseded by a better view.
The liberal arts and their sequel, the ancient philosophy, came to be regarded with qualified approval, and despite his other utterances which embody the earlier attitude of the Church, it was again the great Augustine (AD 354–430), the literary as well as the theological leader of Western Christendom in his time, who was most influential in committing the Church to a recognition of the arts and philosophy as suitable studies for the Christian.
This was accomplished on the ground that they were useful—nay, even necessary, for the understanding of the Scriptures.
His views are best set forth in his treatise, On Christian Instruction, which was completed in his seventy-second year, and may therefore be assumed to represent his final judgment.
Nothing freer or more comprehensive has been said even under the light of later Christianity than the maxim he has there recorded, Quisquis bonus verusque Christianus est, Domini suie est intelligat, ubicumque invenerit veritatem, “Let every good and true Christian know that truth is the truth of his Lord and Master, where ever it is found.”
Such words foreshadow the whole revolution in the ideals of education introduced by Christianity.
In the same treatise he draws a beautiful, though fanciful, parallel between Israel and the Egyptians at the time of the Exodus, and the similar situation of the Christians of his time, emerging from the spiritual bondage of paganism.
As the land of Egypt,” he writes, “contained idols for Israel to abominate and grievous burdens for them to flee, yet there were also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, which Israel going out of Egypt took with them to devote to a better use, not of their own right, but at the command of God, the Egyptians themselves unwittingly furnishing what they themselves had been putting to an evil use.
So all the teaching of the heathen contain vain and idolatrous inventions and grievous burdens of unnecessary labor, and every one of us as we go out from heathendom, under Christ our Moses, ought to abominate the one and flee the other.
Yet there are likewise the liberal disciplines, well suited to the service of the truth, and containing, moreover, very useful moral precepts and truths regarding the worship of the one true God.
This is their gold and silver, which they have not created themselves but have extracted from certain ores, as it were, of precious metal, wherever they found them scattered by the hand of divine providence.
So, also, they have raiment, the human institutions and customs wherewith they are clothed.
These we need for our life here below, and should appropriate and turn them to a better use.
For what else than this have many of the good and faithful done? Behold how that most persuasive doctor and blessed martyr Cyprian came out of
Egypt, laden with what great spoil of their gold and silver and raiment!
How much did not Lactantius take! and Victorinus, and Optatus, and Hilary, not to speak of those now living or of the innumerable Greek fathers.
Moses also, that most faithful servant of God, did so long ago, for is it not written that he was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians?” 8 Spoil the Egyptians!
Take their gold and silver and raiment.
Take all the truths of the pagan schools and use them in the service of Christ.
Henceforth the Christian is not shut up to rejecting or taking secular culture as a whole, but he is to select the best.
A middle course, which is not a mere compromise, is thus opened up, avoiding the extreme of Tertullian in proscribing secular learning and the other later extreme of the Renaissance in taking all, whether base or excellent.
Let us not be misled into supposing that Augustine thought the arts or philosophy were to be studied purely for their own sake.
Not so—for he reasons that if the spoil of Egypt taken by Israel was great, yet the treasures of Solomon in Jerusalem were far greater.
Accordingly he writes: “As was the amount of gold and silver and raiment taken by Israel out of Egypt when compared with the treasures they amassed afterwards in Jerusalem, treasures at their greatest when Solomon was king, such is all knowledge, useful though it be, which is gathered from the books of the heathen, when compared with the knowledge of the divine Scriptures.
For whatever man has spoken elsewhere, if it be harmful, it is here condemned; if it be useful, it is herein contained.”
The Scriptures are the final test of the “harmful” and the “useful.”
They are even more, for they embrace whatever of human learning is useful.
Inconsistent indeed is this position with Augustine’s other statements and with his injunction to study the good things in the liberal arts, if it be true that these things are already in the Scriptures.
It sounds like a late echo of Tertullian.
But let it be remembered that Augustine represents in himself the history of the differing successive attitudes of the Church towards pagan culture, and that the general tenor of his writings is decidedly in favor of studying the arts and philosophy, though not solely or principally for themselves, but as ancillary to the supreme teachings of the Bible.
Augustine’s connections with the liberal arts are even more definite.
He had himself been a teacher of rhetoric before his conversion, and a writer on seven of the arts.
The record of this, in his Retractationes, which was written shortly before AD 427, is of distinct importance, particularly from the fact that he was well acquainted with the writings of Varro, to whom he frequently refers as his greatest authority.
He states that while at Milan awaiting baptism, he endeavored to write Disciplinarum Libri (almost the title o Varos old work), and that he finished only a book on grammar and part of another on music.
After his baptism he returned to Africa and continued what he had begun at Milan.
Besides the two treatises mentioned, he says that he wrote de aliis vero quinque disciplinis similiter inchoatis, that is, finished books he had begun upon five other disciplines, in addition to grammar and music.
It has been held by many with Ritschl11 that this means “on the other five disciplines,” and that Augustine consequently recognizes seven as the total number of the liberal arts.
But such cannot be proved from this passage, because it is possible that de aliis quinque disciplinis means “on five other disciplines.”
It is clear, however, that Augustine enumerates seven arts which he recognizes as liberal, and that he nowhere else recognizes more.
His list is as follows: Grammar and music, as above stated, and besides them the following “five other disciplines”: dialectics, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, and philosophy.
Elsewhere he speaks of pursuing memoratum disciplinarum oridinem, a previously cited “order of the disciplines,” and in still another passage of having studied in his youth omnes libros artium quas liberales vocant, “all the books of the so-called liberal arts.”
Taking all his statements in one view it becomes plain that Augustine listed only seven liberal arts, and that he refers to a fixed order among them and to his acquaintance with each one. His list is remarkable in one respect, for astronomy is lacking and in its place we find philosophy, a substitution apparently due to Augustine’s deep abhorrence of astrology as an impious art and his love for philosophy, which he puts in its place as the last and presumably the highest study.
But why should Augustine have only seven arts in his list? Certainly not by accident. He exercised some choice in the matter, as appears from his substituting philosophy for astronomy. Varro had written on nine disciplines, and though Augustine refers to him repeatedly as an authority, he does not adhere to Varro’s number. The point is obscure. It may be Augustine knew of the seven arts in Martianus Capella’s book, or that, though the arts were settling down to a body of seven by his time,15 the limitation to seven was not definitely before the mind. The important point, however, in connection with Augustine, is not the number of the arts.
His position and influence may now be summarized with clearness. His settled view, attained after long meditation, was one of favorable regard toward the arts, principally because they ministered to the better understanding of distinctly Christian truths. Expressions of a different tenor are indeed to be found here and there in his writings. At one time he seems to go back to the idea that secular studies are useless, though not to be proscribed, and at another to advance fearlessly to the position that all truth everywhere is to be reverenced, in or out of the Scriptures, thus mirroring in his own experience the early rigid attitude of the Church at the one extreme as well as the enlightened attitude of the distant future Reformation at the other, but finally resting midway between them. His influence was so commanding that from his time onward the Church was decisively committed to toleration and even the encouragement of secular studies.
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Hello, and welcome to WhatOnEarthIsHappening.com, the official web site of Mark Passio. This body of work is a culmination of many years of my extensive research and investigation into the nature of our shared reality. Through my presentations, videos and podcasts, I take my guests on a journey of self-exploration, examining human Consciousness and the way it relates to the universal problems which we currently face as a species. Some of the questions I attempt to answer are:
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