The Trivium

The Trivium

The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric

by Sister Miriam Joseph, Marguerite McGlinn (Editor)
Publisher: Paul Dry Books
Trade Paperback, 292 pages
Price: $18.95

Education revolves around language and the use of language. Knowledge and the ability to use it to think and communicate isn't possible without a sound understanding of the symbols and usage we call language, and it is therefore the foundation on which we build everything else. But for the building to stand, we must ensure that foundation is stable.

The most time-honored method for laying such a sound foundation for language in the West is the Trivium, a Classical conception codified and formalized in the Middle Ages. Those who've looked into Classical-style education will recognize the Trivium as the three fundamentals of education: grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

In the modern world, these three elements are usually retained during education (though increasingly less so), but they're retained in distinction from each other and never as an integrated whole. Sister Miriam Joseph's The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric reverses that trend.

Subtitled Understanding the Nature and Function of Language, the book is an intellectual romp through the liberal arts. By "romp" is not meant that it's full of jokes. But for those (particularly teachers, serious students, and everyone who lives by or for the written word) who really want to understand language, it's like a trip to the educational candy shop.

Joseph likes to reduce things to their essential character. For instance, she calls logic the art of thinking; grammar, the art of inventing and combining symbols; and rhetoric, the art of communication. (Arithmetic is the theory of number; music is the application of the theory of number; and so on.)

This ability to distil makes this book extremely eye-opening. It also makes it challenging, since there isn't any wasted space. Joseph moves briskly, at times rapidly, through her content, and many readers will find themselves backing up and reading pages over just to keep up. That's perfectly fine, and indeed, some pages should be reviewed frequently.

Some readers may be thrown by the different ordering of the Trivium subjects. Instead of the now-familiar grammar-logic-rhetoric progression, Joseph arranges them as logic-grammar-rhetoric. The actual content of her instruction generally follows the more recognizable order, but she also shows how the alternate order is more intuitive.

Each subject gets its own treatment (grammar and logic enjoy more coverage than rhetoric), and each is also fit into the unified form of the whole (how does grammar affect logic? how does rhetoric influence or draw on grammar? etc.). A literary scholar in her own right, Joseph uses innumerable literary examples to demonstrate simple and difficult concepts alike.

Not that there are many simple concepts in The Trivium when it comes down to it. Joseph, we sense, would have little patience for the student in her class who couldn't keep up. Fortunately we don't have to try: her breadth of knowledge is preserved here in writing, and those who love or want to love language can (and should) peruse it at their own pace.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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Summary: A Catholic nun explains the importance of the trivium for teaching language arts to parents and teachers.

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