Home » Marshall McLuhan on the History of the Trivium

…the history of the trivium is largely a history of the rivalry among them for ascendancy.  Ancient grammar was at odds with the dialectics of Plato and, especially, of Aristotle, as the art of interpreting phenomena.  As the method of patristic theology, grammar enjoyed uninterrupted ascendancy until the revival of dialectics by Gerbert, Roscellinus, and Abelard in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  With the decadence of dialectical or scholastic theology in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries both grammarians and rhetoricians surge forward again, finally triumphing in the work and influence of Erasmus, the restorer of patristic theology and of the grammatical humanistic discipline on which it rests.  On the other hand, the war between the dialecticians and rhetoricians began as soon as the Sophists attempted to make dialectics subordinate to the art of persuasion.  Plato and Aristotle were the greatest enemies of the rhetoricians, not so much in rejecting rhetoric, as in asserting that as an art it had no power to control dialectics.  The Stoics, however, are the main defenders of dialectics against rhetoric after Aristotle.

Marshall McLuhan, 1943: The Classical Trivium, 42.

A point which will be focused on in the present unnamed Lyceum trivium project (being constituted by a series of lectures and discussion sessions which will result either in a video, text, or other public-facing production: see more on our approach to the Trivium here), the conflict of “ascendancy” among the arts of the trivium is a subtle point to which few have drawn attention as well as McLuhan. One difficulty I see emergent from the history of their rivalry is a certain blindness to their unity. What makes something one? An indication hinted at here—whether intentionally or not—is the point of “decadence” in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries among the scholastics. This decadence itself is a point in need of exploration and exposition, for, certainly, while those under the influence of Ockham and other nominalistic theories were undoubtedly decadent in their dialectical practice, given that they had abandoned the essential principle of unity between thought and things, it is also true that other scholastics were not so decadent, though they may have been quite elaborate in their use of dialectic nonetheless. (See, for instance, the great work being done on the thought of the Conimbricenses.)

The opposition of grammar, dialectics, and rhetoric, that is, has never rendered robust intellectual fruit when one attempts entirely the suppression of the others. Each must be understood as an integral part of a whole. What remains a question—which we will explore explicitly in the second of our lectures and discussions—is how these parts are united and oriented as a whole. This question requires also, antecedently, a consideration of what the trivium aims at; for every unity is governed, in some way or another, by the end for the sake of which it exists. This question was the focus of our first session, wherein it was discussed that the arts of the trivium, as tools of reflection upon thought, are tools whereby we manifest in language what is true. This truth is not merely factual (i.e., of the literal and measurable), but revelatory of being.

And so the question becomes: through which of the arts do we best orient ourselves towards what is true, without leaving behind the others?


  1. Brian:

    Marshall McLuhan initially approached these topics as a “poet” (in his role as modern literary critic) — even though he billed himself as a “grammarian.” No, they are not the same. As a result, he slighted many people and efforts (including the “modists”) in his 1943 thesis (actually written earlier at St. Louis University). At that stage, he was looking for a fight, as reflected in his “The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man.” He described his approach as “intellectual hit-man” in his correspondence with Ezra Pound.

    It wasn’t until the 1970s that he finally got an education in Aquinas from “Fritz” Wilhelmsen (which the folks at PIMS never gave him) and finally could say, “I have been a Thomist all along.” His son Eric had been a student of Fritz’s at UDallas and, as a result, I often suggest that reading “Laws of Media: The New Science” (1988) as the best way to “start” reading McLuhan. The Tetrad is ignored by most McLuhan scholars for the simple reason that it is fashioned about Henri de Lubac’s “Medieval Exegesis: The Four Senses of Scripture.” No, Medieval does not suit the Modern sensibility.

    Re: Aristotle (noting that McLuhan clearly was no “classicist”) he had this to say (a few pages after your quote) — “Needless to say, Aristotle did not share the analogist’s view of words and phenomena as interrelated by proportions and etymologies. Yet, dialectics and rhetoric in the hands of analogists were certainly refashioned until they became not merely sciences but the queen of the sciences.” Perhaps some answers to your questions might be illuminated by this “refashioning,” while helping us to develop the *new* sciences so clearly needed in our times.

  2. My understanding is that the “queen of the sciences” is Cosmology, and that grammar is the mediator between all of the elements of the Trivium and the Quadrivium. Thus, if the Cosmology is correct on the basis of a universal ground all of the other arts will settle into their proper proportions.

    Science, over the period that begins with the Gutenberg press, has wandered into a dialectic trap of uniformitarianism within which it is impossibly entangled. The new physics paradigm that offers a way out of that trap is not Einsteinian relativity or quantum physics, but the electric universe of Hannes Alfvén, Christian Birkeland, Anthony Peratt, Wal Thornhill, and yes… Immanuel Velikovsky. This theory is not dialectic, but grammatical: a genuine foundation as opposed to a misleading mirage.

    The dialectic can’t correct itself. It can only provide tests, but is not capable of attaining scale and time transcendent grounds for action. The reason for this is that, like the individual imprints of letters and words, it’s particularistic and scale-bound. Thus, attempting to “squeeze a ground out of dialectic” is inherently a futile quest. Science was “corrupt” from the very beginning, but the nature of that corruption was a mystery wrapped inside an enigma.

    There is another kind of science to be had, which is more like the opening of an aperture. But finding it requires both a balanced Trivium and Quadrivium, in reciprocity with a balanced sensorium. As McLuhan expressed it, a “dynamic symmetry of tensions among proportions which yields the Golden Section in space and time.” And no “post” or “meta” modern critique that springs from Saussure will gain entry through that stricken portal.

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