Philosophical Knowledge and the Trivium (St. Bonaventure, On the Reduction of the Arts to Theology, Part 3)

Philosophical Knowledge and the Trivium (St. Bonaventure, On the Reduction of the Arts to Theology, Part 3)

 One of the more helpful books I read last year on education was St. Bonaventure’s On the Reduction of the Arts to Theology. Over the course of the next couple months I hope to write a series of posts on this book. Each post will provide a brief summary of the content followed by reflections on how his insights in the 13th century can help us educate better in the 21st century. All page references, as well as the 26 section breaks, come from the Franciscan Institute’s publication in the Works of Saint Bonaventure Series.

Read Part 1

Read Part 2

Section 4

The third light is the interior, which corresponds to philosophical knowledge that “enlightens the human person in the investigation of intelligible truths.”[1] Philosophical knowledge (i.e., the interior light) is then divided into rational, natural, and moral philosophy, which correspond to speech, the truth of things, and the truth of conduct respectively. Bonaventure asserts that one might express his mind through speech for three reasons: to reveal thought, to move another to greater faith, or to arouse love or hatred in another. Consequently, Bonaventure concludes that discursive (or rational) philosophy likewise has three subdivisions: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Grammar is concerned with expressing, logic with teaching, and rhetoric with persuading (42-43).

Although Bonaventure continues by delineating the formal, intellectual, and ideal, as well as the subdivision of natural philosophy into physics, mathematics, and metaphysics, my focus in this reflection is on the more common subdivisions of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. In modern classical Christian education (CCE), these terms (also called the Trivium) are somewhat difficult to navigate as they have been utilized in three distinct ways. First, grammar, logic, and rhetoric can be understood in terms of distinct arts (subjects). Second, the Trivium can be understood as the method or tools of learning all subjects. Third, the Trivium in modern CCE is closely linked with three developmental stages through which children are thought to progress. [2]

Bonaventure’s work provides a helpful reminder for us in modern CCE, namely that the Trivium, as much as the second and third uses of the term can be helpful, cannot be removed from its context as distinct arts related to discursive philosophy and the principles of speech. In our emphasis on the “stages” and “tools” of learning, we must not forget that the content taught in grammar, logic, and rhetoric must not be undervalued. The tendency of many CCE schools is to force all elements of dialectic into 6-8 grades and not sufficiently continue the development of logical thought processes in 9-12. Likewise, although students may have moved beyond the “grammar stage” in our schools, they must never move beyond grammar, as correct grammar is essential to clarity in writing and speaking. The detailed outline that Bonaventure provides is a reminder to me at least that I must continue to teach students the content of the Trivium, train them in the development of discursive philosophy, and hold them accountable for an ever-increasing mastery of this content.


[2]This use of the Trivium seems to be at the heart of Dorothy Sayers’ famous essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” though as the title suggests, this learning is rooted in the Trivium as arts/tools for learning well.

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