The Seven Liberal Arts part 2: Three roads to knowledge

The second in a series of articles about a remarkable medieval curriculum which took freedom as its start point and had truth as its end.

In the previous post I traced the evolution of the Seven Liberal Arts from their roots in ancient Greece to their maturity in the medieval Christian era. This time I will take a closer look at the first three Arts, Grammar, Rhetoric and Dialectic, known collectively as the Trivium.

The name Trivium derives from the Latin tri-via – three roads. In the context of education history, it refers to three metaphorical roads to knowledge. How were they built?


“Grammar is the foundation and the beginning of learning.”

– Image du Monde (c. 1245)

While philosophical interest in the power of grammar dates back at least as far as Plato (c. 427-348 BC), it was the Greek scholars of the Alexandrian era (330-200 BC) who made it a subject of systematic study. At first this was just a way of preserving the heights of Greek culture for posterity. Developing new techniques of textual documentation, annotation and critical analysis, they helped readers make sense of the old-fashioned idioms and historically obscure allusions found in Homer’s Iliad and other centuries-old works of poetry and literature. (1)

Homer’s Iliad. Available at all good bookshops.

By the 1st century BC, grammar was rigorous enough to be considered a science that could be studied and mastered. (2) The first Greek grammar book for schools was written by Dionysus Thrax in around 80BC and became the basis for all grammars of antiquity. (3) These schoolbooks distilled insights about the workings of language into abstract rules and concepts, including many of the parts of speech such as verbs and nouns that are taught to schoolchildren today.

Today we think of grammar as a narrow, technical topic, yet for most of its history study of grammar has involved more than learning a set of rules. It was also concerned with how those rules could be applied to the greatest effect, so it was bound up with study of the best available examples of human thought. Gradually, grammar came to be equated with knowledge.

Any knowledge that was written down could fall within the scope of grammatical study. As the 7th century bishop and scholar Isidore of Seville, who codified the division of the Seven Liberal Arts into the Trivium and the Quadrivium, observed: “The discipline of History is part of Grammar, since anything worth remembering is committed to writing.” (4)

Portrait of Isidore of Seville by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


“The rights and laws by which judgements are made, and that by reason and according to right have been kept and maintained in the court of kings, of princes and of barons, come and proceed of rhetoric.”

– Image du Monde (c. 1245)

While grammar described the rules governing the use of words, rhetoric was concerned with how those rules were applied in verbal communication. This perhaps implies that rhetoric is a step up in sophistication from grammar, so it may be a surprise to learn that study of rhetoric predated study of grammar by decades. (2)

This can be explained by the preeminent role of public speaking in the ancient world. Speech was the means by which citizens participated in the world’s first democracies and took responsibility for the societies in which they lived. People quickly learned that if they wanted to win support for their views about how society should be organised, a way with words was vital.

Drawing of Empedocles from The history of philosophy: containing the lives, opinions, actions and Discourses of the Philosophers of every Sect, illustrated with effigies of divers of them by Thomas Stanley. (1865)

In 5th century Sicily, the stakes were particularly high following the expulsion of successive dynasties of tyrants. During the upheaval that ensued, eloquence in political life and the law courts were paramount for anyone hoping to shape the ‘rights and laws by which judgements are made’, and this intensified public interest in the power of spoken words. A Sicilian philosopher from that era, Empedocles of Agrigentum, is considered to be the founder of rhetoric. His student Gorgias became an ambassador to Athens where his speeches requesting military assistance won him fame and admiration. Gorgias developed a schema which became the basis of ancient rhetorical studies, and was an early member of the Sophists, who turned skilled oratory into a paying endeavour. (2)

The word rhêtorikê was first documented in Plato’s dialogue between Socrates and Gorgias (c. 380 BC). Literally, it meant ‘the art of speech’ but Gorgias described it instead as ‘the art of persuasion’, speech with a purpose. Gorgias and the Sophists also showed that this art could be abused, potentially to extreme ends. In Plato’s Gorgias, a sophist named Polos boasts that skilful orators, like tyrants, could have anyone they disliked condemned to death or exile. (2) Aristotle, however, was more sceptical about the alleged power of rhetoric, describing it more accurately as the art of attempting to persuade – a recognition that no matter how carefully words are chosen, their impact upon another person can never be predicted with certainty. (6)

The Gorgias by Plato. Available at all good bookshops.

Rhetoric went on to be embraced by the Romans who prized public life and public speaking highly. As it became central to their education system, they took the somewhat general rhetorical rules of the Greeks to a much greater level of sophistication, with the speeches and writings of the Roman statesman Cicero (106-43 BC) providing the model of excellence.

The potential for rhetoric to be abused was nevertheless ever present, an uncomfortable fact which led some rhetoricians to attempt to give it a moral foundation. One notable effort was made by Quintillian, the influential Roman educator. In his Institutio Oratoria he claimed: “no man, unless he be good, can ever be an orator”, since it is foolish to be wicked and “a fool, assuredly, will never become an orator”. (7) Sadly, many eloquent fools have proven him wrong. To help keep rhetoric in check, something else is required…


Dialectic “proveth the ‘pro’ and the ‘contra’: that is to say the verity or truth, and otherwise.”

– Image du Monde (c. 1245)

For most people, the concept of dialectic is less familiar than grammar or rhetoric. Well-read students of philosophy or politics will probably have encountered its forbidding 19th Century forms – the dialectics of Hegel or the dialectic materialism of Marx and Engels. Logic is sometimes treated as synonymous with dialectic, when it is more accurately a tool of dialectic. (Logic will be the subject of a separate post.)

For our purposes it helps to know that the word is derived from the Greek dialektikos, meaning conversation, and the ancient version of dialectic is best thought of as simply the art of debate. If rhetoric is concerned with our attempts to persuade, then dialectic concerns what happens when someone attempts to persuade us back.

Plato and Aristotle in dialectic debate by Luca della Robbia (1400-1482).
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Again, the Sophists played an important role in its development. Meeting resistance in their efforts to persuade, they went on to develop methods for winning an argument. These included being able to argue for thesis and antithesis – both sides of an argument – in order to anticipate an opponent’s position and hone one’s arguments against it. But winning the dispute was more important to the Sophists than establishing the truth, and they prided themselves on their ability to argue on any topic, including those which they knew nothing about.

The origin of dialectic is usually traced to the Socratic dialogues documented by Plato, in which the Sophists met their match – the street philosopher Socrates. These dialogues did not follow the structure of modern formal debates where a motion is proposed, arguments for and against are heard, and a winner is declared following an audience vote. Instead, Socrates adopted the position of a novice questioning an expert. Through persistent interrogation of the Sophists’ bold claims to know the truth about matters of ethics and wisdom, he exposed inconsistencies in their arguments, forcing them to shift ground until they eventually retreated into contradiction, thus revealing that their alleged expertise was built on shaky foundations.

The Speech of Socrates (1867) by Louis Joseph Lebrun.
Courtesy ‘Mir Art’ Gallery

The Sophists may have taken great pride in their skills of argumentation, but their success in a given debate depended on persuading their opponent (and, perhaps more importantly, their audience) of the truth of their claims. That meant they had to acknowledge, at some level, the existence of the truth as something outside of them. And no matter how impressive their debating skills, the truth could be stubbornly inconvenient.

Socrates demonstrated the power of actively seeking the truth through debate, rather than treating debate as a demonstration of one’s skills. But did the dialogues in which he participated settle the truth of the matters under discussion, as the quote that begins this section suggests? Rarely. There was not always a clear victor and the ‘Socratic method’ turned out to be better at proving the ‘contra’ than ‘the pro’. Yet knowing what the truth isn’t can still be helpful, as it directs us away from intellectual dead ends and perhaps towards a better understanding of what the truth might be.

Above all, dialectic shows that thinking is a collective activity. We each have a narrow, partial and imperfect perspective on the world and the truth – but thankfully we are not alone, and by asking questions of each other we may build a more accurate picture of how things really are. In the ancient world, the role of questions in advancing knowledge was hard to ignore. Dialectic was taught at the famous schools established by Plato and Aristotle, and went on to became an important part of both Greek and Roman education and the Christian system that followed.

Where three roads meet

The literal meaning of trivium is ‘the place where three roads meet’. In the next post I will look at how these roads met during the Christian era and consider what we can learn from the Trivium today.


  1. Alexandrian School entry in 1911 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Reproduced online at Wikisource.
  2. A History of Education in Antiquity by H. I. Marrou (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1956)
  3. An Encyclopedist of the Dark Ages: Isidore of Seville by Ernest Brehaut (Columbia University, 1912). Available on the Wayback Machine.
  4. Etymologiae by Isidore of Seville (c. 625). Preview available on Google Books.
  5. Educational Documents 800-1816 by D. W. Sylvester (Methuen & Co Ltd, 1970)
  6. ‘What is Rhetoric?’ by Alexander Stagnell at
  7. A Short History of Education by John William Adamson (Cambridge University Press, 1930)

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