Mr. Patch Blakey, Executive Director of the Association of Classical & Christian Schools, has written an article entitled “Why Only the Trivium” for publication on the Veritas Academy Blog. In this the first of three installments, Mr. Blakey gives an account of the origins of what we today call “the Trivium.”
The liberal arts were defined in the fifth century AD by a pagan author, Martianus Capella, in his seminal and singular work, On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury[i], an allegorical account of the union of an intelligent and productive pursuit as represented by Mercury, to his betrothed, Philology, representing the art of letters or the love of words. In writing the story of this particular marriage, one of the wedding gifts presented by Mercury to bride is comprised of seven maids who are intended to serve her. These seven maids represent the seven liberal arts. The liberal arts in ancient times comprised the education that was worthy of a “free” people as opposed to slaves or drudges. Therefore by inference, a liberal education was one that developed the mind of a noble person in the broadest possible sense, and did not just prepare the recipient for a limited, menial vocation.
The first three of the seven liberal arts are known collectively as the Trivium, while the last four are called the Quadrivium. Trivium is Latin meaning “three ways,” or the place where three roads meet. The Trivium includes grammar, dialectic (or logic), and rhetoric. The Quadrivium contains the studies of arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy (or astrology, in which the modern meaning of that word was included in the understanding).
During the sixth century AD, a Christian Roman statesman, educator and writer, Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, usually referred to by just his name Cassiodorus, had a high regard for the seven liberal arts and promoted them for the education and betterment of Christians. He was a serious-minded Christian who believed that the Scriptures were central to a right understanding of all things and hence a right understanding of the Bible was essential to a sound education. He saw the seven liberal arts as the means to help develop a broad understanding of the Scriptures, and not just a simplistic one. This was the form of education employed by Western civilization for about the next millennia.
[i] Martianus Capella, Martianus Capella and the Seven Liberal Arts, Vol II (“The Marriage of Philology and Mercury”), translated by William Harris Stahl and Richard Johnson with E.L. Burge, Columbia University Press, New York, 1977