What is the Trivium?

The Trivium consists of three subjects: Grammar, Reasoning, and Rhetoric. These subjects were designed to teach students how to think and communicate effectively.

I. Grammar

The Trivium begins with the art of Grammar, as seen here in Lily's Grammar, 1723.
The Trivium begins with the art of Grammar, as seen here in Lily’s Grammar, 1723.

Grammar is the first part of the Trivium, and is “the art of writing and speaking rightly” (Lily). The art of Grammar is divided into four parts: Orthography, Etymology, Syntax and Prosody.

Orthography is “the rule of writing rightly, by which we are taught with which letters any word may be formed”. In orthography, we learn the letters of a language, the sounds represented by these letters, and the correct spelling of words.

Etymology has two different meanings, both of which are necessary. First, etymology refers to the investigation of the origins of words, whereby we learn that the English word “metropolis” comes from the Greek words meter (mother) and polis (city). Second, etymology is “the art of learning the differences of cases”, or forms, for the eight parts of speech.

Syntax is “the due composition and connection of the parts of speech according to the right order of Grammar.” In syntax we learn the rules of construction by which sentences are rightly formed.

Lastly, Prosody is that part of Grammar “which teaches the right pronunciation of words”. Prosody takes into consideration the time or length of syllables, the accentuation of words, and use of aspiration or breath. This is essential for the study of poetry and music, which depend on a mastery of this part of Grammar.

These four studies–Orthography, Etymology, Syntax and Prosody make up the first part of of the Trivium: Grammar.

II. Reasoning

Study the works of Aristotle in the Classical Liberal Arts Academy.
Aristotle (384-322 BC) is history’s master of the art of Reasoning (and Rhetoric).

Reasoning is the second part of the Trivium. The art of reasoning developed over time and this leads to some confusing in the uses of the terms “reasoning”, “dialectic” and “logic”. It was not until the development of Aristotle’s Organon in the 4th century BC that the art of Reasoning was fully established. Before then, the best effort to make an “art” of reasoning was the “Socratic Method“, which was only useful in proving that a certain line of argument was impossible. The “Socratic Method” was unable to prove what was positively true and was, therefore, incapable of serving as the method by which the philosophical sciences could be established. It was Aristotle who established the method and used it to establish the philosophical sciences.

Aristotle presents the entire art of Reasoning in the five books of the Organon. In the Categories, Aristotle explains the species of simple “spoken things”. He proves there to be ten classes of predicables, or things that may be predicated of subjects and provides definitions and examples of these. In On Interpretation, Aristotle explains the nature of enunciative speech, which is the only kind of speech appropriate for reasoning. He explains the nature and kinds of the proposition. In Prior Analytics, Aristotle makes the great breakthrough, establishing the definition of the syllogism as,

“a discourse in which certain things being posited, something different from the things posited, happens from necessity through the things posited.”

Topics, I.1

The syllogism reveals to us the actual process of reasoning and how it benefits us. The faculty of reason allows man to discover new truths from relationships discerned between existing truths. However, as the nature of these propositions differs, so are there two different kinds of reasoning: demonstrative and dialectical.

Aristotle explains that when the propositions we begin with are “true”, that is, absolutely certain, the conclusion drawn from them is also absolutely certain. This is called demonstrative reasoning. On the other hand, when the propositions we begin with are at best probable, then the conclusions drawn by syllogizing are also, at best, probable. This is called dialectical reasoning. Demonstrative reasoning is taught, by Aristotle, in his two works on Analytics. Dialectical reasoning is taught in the Topics.

After teaching the true art of reasoning, Aristotle uses the last book of the Organon, Sophistical Refutations, to identify and resolve the confusion false arguments of the sophists, which plagued men before the discovery of the art of reasoning.

The study of these six books–Categories, On Interpretation, Prior Analytics, Posterior Analytics, Topics and Sophistical Refutations–makes up the complete art of Reasoning, the second part of the Trivium.

III. Rhetoric

Cicero (106-43 BC) is history's master of the art of Rhetoric.
Cicero (106-43 BC) is one history’s masters of the art of Rhetoric.

Rhetoric is the third part of the Trivium, and is as misunderstood in modern times as it was before Aristotle wrote his famous Art of Rhetoric. For most, the name “rhetoric” leads to thoughts of tricks and gimmicks used to lead people to a desired conclusion–the pitch of the salesman, the promise of the politician, and so on. This, however, is not what the true art of Rhetoric is concerned with because, first of all, a true rhetorician is only concerned with what is true.

The art of Rhetoric, then, as defined by Aristotle, is,

“the power of perceiving in every thing that which is capable of producing persuasion.”

Rhetoric, I.2

The difference is subtle, but significant. Rhetoric is not concerned with persuading people, but with understanding what is adapted to produce persuasion regarding any given thing. People, after all, are not always honest or reasonable, and may choose that which is evil or false, regardless of how clearly the truth is presented to them. The art of the rhetorician, then, does not depend on the decision of the hearer but on the objective principles of the art itself.

This study of the art of Rhetoric is studied in the works on the subject by Aristotle and Cicero, its great masters. Rhetoric is the third and final part of the Trivium.


If man was created to live in isolation, there would be no need for the arts of Grammar or Rhetoric. Man would observe and reflect on the created world and draw from it a knowledge of God and the things God had made. However, since man is a “political animal”, communication and concern for the common good are necessary to human happiness. In the Trivium, man learns to cultivate the faculties, or natural powers, created in him, and use them to fulfill the end for which they were given him. In this article, we learned of the three arts of the Trivium–Grammar, Reasoning and Rhetoric–and the sources for their study. It is these sources that we study in the Trivium courses in the Classical Liberal Arts Academy (below).

Click here for course recommendations for all ages and grade levels.

Not enrolled? Get started today for free!
The Classical Liberal Arts Academy works to research, restore, publish and teach the classical Catholic curriculum that has been enjoyed by wise men and saints through history. We invite you to study in our self-paced online courses and enjoy the benefits of online quizzes, written assignments, progress records and more. Get started for free.

Showing 1–16 of 23 results