The Prism of the Trivium : Part I

A full-fledged ancient Trivium training would be so entirely rigorous as to preclude any modern person (saving an unusual exception) from ever participating at all in the discipline. Thus, attempting to institute a full-orbed Trivium would set the stage for its own failure, in all but exceptional cases (which of course can proceed at their own blistering pace, independently if need be). However, in a stunted world, we can aim at the Trivium with a crooked stick. We follow Simone Weil on the subject, when she explains how to initiate “participation” in Geometry for the worker.

If a workman, in the course of a years eager and persevering efforts, manages to learn a few geometrical theorems, as much truth will have entered his soul as in that of a student who, during the same period, has shown a corresponding ardour in assimilating a course of higher mathematics…material obstacles – want of leisure, fatigue, lack of aptitude, sickness, physical pain – hinder the acquisition of the inferior or more ordinary elements of culture, not that of the most precious treasures it contains.1

We are unaccustomed to accepting this possibility, because we do not understand or “see” how creatures/beings participate, according to their mode and their apprehension, up to the measure of their fullness, in the very objective and real higher levels of reality which constitute the beginning of what can be designated as numinous reality. In this sense, a farmer or mechanic may have a much deeper, stronger, and transcendent participation in the world of higher Numbers than someone with a PhD in Chaos Theory or Astrophysics, in that the blue collar man may actually possess savoir faire, or the power of doing, in greater proportion to what is abstractly known. He may participate as a “whole man”, and fully up to the level of his abilities and his abstract knowledge. We don’t deny that a more subtle intellect with better education can potentially go farther, but access to the center of truth is not accomplished by mere complexity or knowledge about, but constitutes a real union of the mind with a higher being, effectively drawing the Self out of the confines of mechanical Mind.

So the point of re-initiating modern Trivium training is not to re-enact in a literally exact way the achievements and methods of earlier times (this is impossible anyway), but to transpose the truth of the Trivium method to modern times in such a way as to create the possibility for “more”. Plenty of basic material on the Trivium is available (and has been available) for decades or centuries, but our culture remains impoverished. Our task, then, is not to rigidly re-enact the Trivium, but to create the conditions whereby the old Ideal can take root again in the very conditions of modern life which seem so deliberately and finally to exclude it2. If participation, rather than abstract knowledge, is the goal, then the scope of the task should not daunt us, for all can participate at their level3.

Modern trivium training would begin “at the beginning”, meeting the student where they were at, taking him down old paths and beginning to show him new things. So where to start? Whereas a medieval student might have been asked to master William of Sherwood’s handbook or Peter of Spain’s work on logic as a prelude to studying the Timaeus, the modern aspirant towards the Trivium may have to take, as his first step, the mere fact of turning a cold eye on what are presented to him in the form of fait d’accompli, or “facts”. He cannot be guaranteed, that is, that an analogical modern primer of thought is similarly free from bias.4

Yes, his world is less cluttered, but only because it is already organized for him, and he has simply not had the experience of being reared in a society in which man was supremely conscious of both unity at home and diversity just over the horizon. In fact, that experience of unity was metaphysical and homely all at once, and that of diversity both exhilarating and dangerous (“here be dragons”). The metaphysical world was not “flat”5, and from an early age, he had grown accustomed to conceiving the inner hierarchies which bound together the edifice of the organic society around him. When a medieval man looked up and saw the stars as angels, this was at least true in the deeper sense. Modern training in logic is exceedingly weakened by the supposition that “all there is” is already known to them; for one thing, it diminishes the scope of logic to a test tube, which is unfortunate. The very lack of medieval scientific rigor6 opened up possibilities of aspirational development for pre-scientific man. Our world is diverse in the sense that space is flattened, rather than articulated, and time is “unified” by being shattered of its inner meaning. This is a large obstacle to emotional development and spiritual health. Our world is prepackaged, and we don’t get to “grow it” out of the friendly clutter around us.

The modern man will have to go farther back, because his basic worldview holds that thoughts are “nothing but” chemical reactions or voluntaristic narratives operating in a void; he is not incentivized properly to undertake a regimen of logical training, as “logical health” has minimal value (technocratic only) in his mental furnishings, rather than being a natural key to meaning which saturates his world. On the contrary, there are few immediate penalties for illogical thought today, and many rewards. He will have to start by questioning all of his knowledge and by repenting (or re-thinking) his basic programming, while never losing sight that the purpose is union with positive and numinous Wisdom. This last part is precisely the possibility that is not admitted in the modern technique, which also neglects the detection of basic fallacies in favor of the construction of premature and politically-charged rhetorical “narrative”.7 Neither of these difficulties would have been prominent against the more emotionally pure medieval aspirant, although he would have his own difficulties (of which we are already acutely aware and immunized).

Our difficulties are more troublesome in an anti-traditional climate in at least this sense: the mechanical programming is much more complete8; a medieval aspirant to wisdom would have had the advantage of cradle-training in some of these positive or non-mechanical aspirations. Although the basic task is nonetheless the same, the conditions of the modern world require the adoption of different methods, while aiming at the same end9.

Perhaps an illustration will help us to re-image ourselves enough to grasp the magnitude of what Trivium education would reach towards. Merely take, in today’s world, the invocation of the term fascist10 ; it is enough to either reach an instant conviction in one’s audience or else throw the entire room into convulsions and mutual holiness-spirals or recrimination. That is, it produces emotional confusion and turmoil (anxiety, fear, and entropy). Everyone uses the term as if they “know” exactly what it means. They think they know, because they have high social incentive for believing this, as our society is fixated on this negation. On the other hand, a real student of the ancient ways would begin to ask (perhaps) for the first time, What is a fascist? What is an anti-fascist? Where did the term come from? Better yet, what should it mean? What are the fasces? Or some other obviously pertinent questions from a different angle; some one mastering the Trivium is starting to know that it’s more important to ask yourself the right questions first, to actually know in the sense of being able to grasp and to do, before right “dogmatic” answers can be possible. Narratives do not accomplish this. They begin with what is passionately believed (doxa or even dogma)11. Classical education was designed to circumvent this – there is a reason grammar comes before rhetoric. You have to walk before you can run.

A classical student would want to penetrate past what is “given” and to actually know the meaning inside the words, beside the words, and behind the words: to be able to turn the words around in their mind and to contemplate the object. In this state, the incandescence of the words would be lit like the wire filament of a light bulb, by something else, which flowed with a life of its own. And they would exert themselves to the utmost to reach, out of the basis of their own given, something beyond (or within) that given.

If the great virtue of the Middle Ages was Faith, surely the great virtue of our Postmodern Era ought to be doubt, starting with the premises of that very doubt. This will require a double effort. Rather than specializing in bashing the Middle Ages (which are gone), a real student of wisdom would begin to demonstrate some ability to question the conventions of his own time, since being raped by the Zeitgeist is not a pleasant experience. This will be difficult, as he is a product of that very Zeitgeist, to some degree. A Trivium education would certainly include the instilling of healthy and normative levels of doubts concerning the orientation, existence, and methods of the modern world, in all of its panoply of technocratic glory and unctuous self-righteousness, while simultaneously nurturing the aspiring elements of the soul without sacrificing modern rigor.

Thus, it is not just Latin grammar or a modern modal Logic or specialization in anti-Propaganda that will constitute a supreme basis of the three “Trivial” arts. Since man’s scope has widened in the modern world, the Trivium would widen with it to include both old and new forms, as well as concrete new contours. One application of this is that all subjects have a certain “grammar” which has to be memorized and mastered, before one is entitled to begin reasoning within the subject. Yet another application would be that the “materia medica” of history and literature could be expanded in providing reasoning material and roughage for training; anthropology or archeology (for instance) could be considered a subject worthy of “classical” treatment12.

In this sense, the scope of the modern Trivium will be much enlarged (along with man’s dilemmas and doubt), although the platform or beginning could remain in many essentials the same13. Since we are speaking here of eventual aim and initial outline, we don’t imply that Latin studies cannot form the basis of rudimentary Trivium exercises. For one, the study of Latin grammar still persists as a kind of “root” grammar of the Western scientific (and theological) language (along with Greek), just as Euclid can still provide an excellent grounding in logical exercise of the mind, and noble speeches or discourses provide ideal objects for aspiring contemplation, stimulating and impregnating it with Rhetoric judiciously chosen.

There is no need to innovate simply because we assume that need; in fact, the goal is not innovation but new forms for “old” truths. The classic exemplar or model here is William Humboldt, who stood upon a classical education, but (by inspiration as it were) laid hold of and anticipated the entire developments and corpus of the 19th century “new fields of knowledge”, doing so in a spirit of faithfulness rather than the opposition given us in Sigmund Freud’s diabolique motto: Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo (If I cannot bend heaven, I will move Hell). To quote one of the Liberal’s own:

Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers, fusing pagan and Christian and incorporating the entire known world, is multiculturalism at its best. It presents culture as massive and the mighty river of classics monumental yet at the same time in perpetual flux. It is a perfect symbol for enlightened education, whose energies must be constantly renewed by the interplay and confluence of tradition and innovation.

A renewal of the Trivium would worry less about an exact canon (there is an incredible wealth to choose from), and more about extending the energies which formed the Trivium and have been formed within the classical liberal arts, outward in ways suited to changing conditions. The Tragedy of Man, for example, is very similar in spiritual tone to Goethe’s Faust. It is more important to have stood within the exact center of the circle of Truth, and then to be capable of transposing that Truth outwards in whatever direction is needed or desired. The classical Liberal Arts canon has an overwhelming plethora of dense supernovas and clusters of stars rotating around its core, and its scope extends to all corners of the cosmos. Different emphases, aspects, paths and trajectories can all be defined, provided they chart from the central core, and are capable of charting back again.

To this end, from the outset, it should be understood by the teacher (and at least dimly by the student) that these are merely basic exercises, and lead “onwards and upwards”. If we transposed the Trivium to esoteric study, we might well say that grammar corresponds to symbols, logic to signs, and rhetoric to the living beings behind the stars and constellations of those magical symbols and signs. We speak because the Universe speaks. So if the stars and celestial objects themselves are ordered upon the Trivial model, then history, philosophy, and theology, along with metaphysics, become food for thought, structured on the Trivium model. In one sense, the Quadrivium are the objects of the structure of the Trivium.14 They are the beauty captured (or released) by Trivium order, if we view the cosmic dance moving from heaven towards earth. The classical Trivium and the Quadrivium should be thought of as both the foundation, the capstone, and the secret inner design of the entire pyramid of reality: the inherited tradition of Liberal Arts is the basic DNA template for living knowledge.

To this end, the student can even be exercised (for the sake of exercise) in “trivia” (to him) chosen expressly for the purpose of familiarizing the student with much of the “grammar” spoken in the Tower of Babel around him, no longer useless and arcane terms designed to mislead, but rather a kind of “topology” or “geography” of the modern intellectual world. The goal is detachment and mastery. For instance, a knight in training should probably have some idea of what a Decembrist or a Falangist or a Jacobin was, or be capable of finding out quickly. At the very least, he would know what authority to consult as the most useful, while developing more acuteness on his own. This would be done for the sheer joy of doing it (“useless knowledge” for fun), or “to the level of the student”: a man better at fighting might have less absolute need for extensive knowledge, although it’s fun to contemplate the union/reunion of both! Conversely, a less aggressive or dangerous man physically might derive tremendous confidence from mastering whatever came under intellectual purview, and it could even lead (in a great loop) to a point where he was as willing as anyone else to stand tall in great danger, if not more so. As mastery increases in the seven-fold form of the liberal arts, so does scope.

The virtues are One, and truth, beauty, and goodness lead up to a unitary “More”.15 There are individual exemplars who proved this by uniting both, or trying to; Dante, for instance, was both a poet and statesmen, and served in the army. There are other examples, whose rarity should not discourage us from cultivating the twin virtues of courage (natural order) and philosophy-poetry (Order of grace).16

What would the Trivium, even and ever more concretely, look like? Particularly for a knightly order? We will continue to explore this in a second essay, before moving on to the Quadrivium. Since the lapse of the discipline of the classical and esoteric liberal arts, there is an illusion that they are “outmoded”, and have been superseded by other disciplines. As we explore ever more concrete examples of what training in the liberal arts could be today, especially for the Bernard option, we will be able to see more clearly how to dispel the great delusion that these liberal arts are obsolete.

1Page 66. Simone Weil, The Need for Roots. Routledge Classics, 1952 NY: NY.

2The classical Christian movement has a huge wealth of resources for basic training in the Trivium, and should of course be utilized along the way.

3Which, for them, is perfection: or God.

4The closest thing we might get to the rigor of Scholastic thought might be an extensive background in the hard STEM field, or physical sciences.

5Our world is “flat” in comparison to theirs.

6It’s possible even this is a mistaken myth; see Pierre Duhem’s work on medieval science. It would not be surprising if “lack of modern rigor” actually corresponded to a deeper rigor of Logic from the whole

7The Left used to merely require the abstention of expressing certain emotions they defined as negative; now they are positively requiring the expression of positive emotions which can only be freely offered from a higher level than Leftism will admit is even possible.

8Ancient or medieval students would have benefited from astonishing variety of local and positive cultures, which nevertheless also shared over-arcing metaphysical languages and customs which created “nurseries” for this aspiration to Wisdom. In a flattened post-modern world dominated by technology (by definition highly mechanical), this is no longer true for us.

9See Philip Rieff’s great work on Therapeutics. Arguably, we are in a similar position as the late Roman Empire, in which “therapy” required extraordinary measures, in their times going into the desert – our world is more completely the desert, and thus, measures are undertaken from within the modern world itself.

10George Orwell, half a century ago, noted that the word had already lost any objective meaning.

11Recognizing this in no way detracts, but rather enhances, divine revelation, which meets us where we are at. It is more liberating to understand how the modern world has its own dogma and doxa, even if that means understanding that one’s own beliefs share a kind of relativity with the divine. There is a world of difference between traditional dogma and revolutionary ones, which are seen even more clearly when one gets down to one’s own roots.

12William Humboldt is a good example of a more traditional thinker who built on the basic fields of knowledge in a unitary and aspirational way.

13Latin and Greek are still the basic root languages of Western knowledge, even in our revolutionary times.

14This will be a separate article.

15Training in logical dialectics would have to come under the governance of synthetic aspiration towards a unitary Truth; it would cease to be a demon, and begin to be a tool: the sharper it is, the more caution should be used. The Quadrivium would help to provide the beauty or form of material which could shape the unitary aspiration towards Truth, and it would complement the Trivium. The One which is striven for is infinite, and unification opens the door to that more that lies behind Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. Just so, the liberal arts’ strict seven-fold form does not in any way limit its scope, but rather, prepares the student to grasp all in the one thing needful (unum necessarium).

16The Nature-Grace pattern of the natural virtues and the supernatural virtues is (of course) analogous and related to the dialectic of the Trivium-Quadrivium. Just as Grace perfects Nature (and, from a certain perspective) cannot do without Nature (this is by the double oath of God’s free choice and also the beauty of His inner nature, which desires to share His glory in a loving way by creating sons and daughters), neither the Trivium or the Quadrivium can do without the other. They are both the inner articulation of the form of the other one, and reach the same end from different aspects: the Quadrivium is the beautiful embodied form of the pre-existent word of the Trivium, while the Trivium is the outer and beautiful form of that which accompanies Nature as it rises: they layer, or nest, infinitely, the one within the other, heaven and earth speaking back and forth in perichoresis.