The Trivium by Sister Miriam Joseph

The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and RhetoricThe Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric by Miriam Joseph
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This dense, authoritative textbook takes all of Aristotle’s teachings on logic, grammar, and rhetoric, and some of his teachings of poetics, adds some of the insights gained in the subsequent centuries, and presents it in a well-organized flow.

Sister Miriam Joseph (1898-1982) was an American nun who, inspired by a lecture by philosopher Mortimer J. Adler on the liberal arts, developed a course on the language arts at Saint Mary’s College which she called “The Trivium.” There being no existing textbook for it, she wrote her own, and The Trivium was published in 1937. And, luckily for those of us who would like to think, write, and read clearly, it’s still in print.

I have decided to do my best to acquire a liberal education through my own efforts. Toward that end I have read, so far, the two-volume Syntopicon of the Britannica Great Books of the Western World series, several other works by Mortimer J. Adler, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student by Edward P. J. Corbett, all six works of the Organon of Aristotle, plus Robin Smith’s guide to Aristotle’s Prior Analytics. Now, having read Sister Miriam Joseph’s book, I think that her text should be the master text for the student of the liberal arts, and all other works, including Aristotle’s originals, should be read as supplements. Sister Miriam has boiled down and systematized the material, connecting and relating all the different aspects for the student.

For a book just 292 pages long, its scope is shockingly wide and deep. The student is taken on a sometimes overwhelming journey from metaphysics (the nature of reality and experience) to grammar (how language reflects our thoughts about reality) to logic (how clear statements can be ordered to discover truth) to rhetoric (how statements can be structured in discourses to persuade others). Every thought presented in the book is clear, complete, and connected with everything else. There is no vagueness, no subjectivity, no inconclusiveness.

I was fascinated to read about the concept of “general grammar”, as distinct from the “special grammars” of specific languages: general grammar is the way that speech conforms to thought. Sister Miriam shows how the familiar parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.) correspond to Aristotle’s “categories” of thought: the specific ways in which the mind is able to cognize reality.

This book is not meant to be read casually. It is a whole course, or really a whole degree program, in a single binding. To master this material you will have to do a great deal of work, but the book itself contains only a few exercises; it would be great if some generous soul developed a workbook with plenty of exercises and quizzes to be used along with Sister Miriam’s text. For my part I’m going back and boiling the text down into longhand notes, and trying to come up with examples and exercises of my own.

I’m doing this because I believe that this material is worth mastering. Its loss from our educational system–a loss that has been progressive, apparently, since about the 14th century–has been a calamity. Homo sapiens has named himself after his supposed intellectual powers, and we are certainly the only species to have developed written language. Why would we not want, as individuals, to develop these powers? to take hold of as much of our specific nature as we can? to be as fully human as we can?

Well, I do, anyway. And if that possibility also appeals to you, this text is an excellent place to start. Start soon, for the journey is not short. But whenever you start, Sister Miriam has done her utmost to make your journey as easy as it can be made.

View all my reviews

Share this post—why not?
Tweet about this on Twitter
Share on Facebook
Share on Reddit
Email this to someone
This entry was posted in book reviews and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Trivium by Sister Miriam Joseph

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *