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The Trivium and the Rhetorician

Why the Trivium is more than just a pedagogical guide

I have always loved solving problems. My solutions are not always innovative or even effective, but I relish the process and the “Aha!” moments it brings.

One particular example is quite humorous.

While an early elementary student, I “solved” the problem of making fire stations more efficient. I reasoned fire departments could operate more efficiently if they were evenly distributed throughout each town. Thus, everyone would have a fire station close by in case their houses caught on fire. It was not until several years later I realized the urban planners had already thought of and implemented this idea. My revelation—though quite exciting to me at the time—was really quite elementary. I can only imagine the look on the local fire chief’s face had I actually presented him with my plan.

Lately, I have frequently found myself meditating on the trivium. I think there is a temptation to view the trivium as a structure or, at best, a form. This was how I understood the trivium when I first encountered it. Yet the trivium is so much more than a framework for mental development or a list of subjects classical students take.

The trivium is a philosophy—a way of life, and it makes itself evident in ways and places we do not expect. One such unexpected place I have recently encountered the trivium is the research paper, or, more generally, the parts of a discourse.

As explained by Edward P.J. Corbett’s Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, a discourse—whether spoken or written—contains the following elements: exordium, narratio, divisio, confirmatio, confutatio, and conclusio. All effective discourse follows this form.

The author or speaker begins by introducing the topic and building his ethos. He next narrates the events of the matter at hand, making sure to define the terms of the case, identifying which matters are agreed upon and which are contested. He provides evidence for his thesis and refutes the arguments of his adversaries. He ends his discourse by restating the matter, explaining to his audience its importance, and telling them what actions they should take.

Though I was not classically-educated in school, my teachers taught me what was more or less this general form. Since becoming a classical teacher, I have instructed my students in this specific form. However, it was not until recently I realized how great a role the trivium plays in the process of discourse.

Every discourse is a mico-trivium. The rhetorician must—through his speech or writing—serve as his audience’s grammar, logic, and rhetoric teacher as he guides them from ignorance to knowledge and from apathy to application.

The effective rhetorician approaches his topic as a grammar school teacher approaches his young pupils. He must not assume his listeners or readers have extensive familiarity with the topic. He must introduce them to the topic and teach them its grammar; that is, its relevant events, personalities, and terms. He provides them with the language they will use to interpret the rest of the discourse. Moreover, he directs their attention to the controversy at hand.

By the end of a well-crafted divisio, the audience should be asking questions; if nothing else, they should wonder “Why is the matter thus?” and “How can we know this is true?” The rhetorician—similar to the logic stage instructor—satisfies this curiosity by teaching his audience the logic of his position and the fallacies of his opponents.

It is not enough to teach students to pursue truth through the study of logic; schools must also teach them to see what implications those truths should have on their lives and mythoi. Likewise, an author or orator must not stop his discourse after proving his position and refuting his opponents; he must tell his audience what action the truth he has related requires from them.

This revelation about the trivium is not groundbreaking—in fact it is quite elementary—and perhaps it will strike you similarly to how my fire station reform plan would have sounded to the fire chief. But it hits at a great truth, a truth I have just begun to see through a glass, darkly.

The trivium is more than pedagogy; it is a philosophy—a way of thinking and a way of living. When we advocate a return to the trivium, we should not mean only a return to a methodology or a list of subjects developed in antiquity and codified in the Middle Ages. Rather, we should recognize the trivium for what it is: a lifestyle, imbued in Creation by a merciful God, given to help us discover Truth, Beauty, and Goodness and communicate them to others.

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