The Goal of Education Part I: Educating for Mammon?

To the Point

What is the goal of education? Or another way of putting it, What is the touchstone by which we know that the education of a child was successful? The common standard for judging an education is the ability to make money: Can the educated child get a job and make a living? Now perhaps this is a selfless goal on the part of parents; they want a good life for their child. This goal can have selfish motives, “I want him self-sustaining so that he’ll move out,” or really selfish, “I want him to be able to take care of me.” And yet even when the goal of educating for the sake of money is selfless on the parents’ part, this goal has two flaws. First, it treats the child as if he has no soul, as if this body and life are all there is. And second, it pretends that it’s acceptable, and even good, to live for oneself, to amass a pile of Mammon and be satisfied.

In order to understand the flaws with Educating for Mammon we must have a proper opinion of Mammon, and also rightly understand the chief characteristics of the Christian life.

Mammon, the Terrible Master

So first, what is Mammon, and how should we regard it? Mammon is the sum total of money and possessions that exceeds what we need for our daily bread. Rather than trusting that God will provide for all our needs of body and soul as he has promised, much more often we trust Mammon for security. Martin Luther comments on this in his Large Catechism when discussing the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods”:

There are some who think that they have God and everything they need when they have money and property; they trust in them and boast in them so stubbornly and securely that they care for no one else. They, too, have a god – mammon by name, that is, money and property – on which they set their whole heart. This is the most common idol on earth. Those who have money and property feel secure, happy, and fearless, as if they were sitting in the midst of paradise. On the other hand, those who have nothing doubt and despair as if they knew of no god at all. We will find very few who are cheerful, who do not fret and complain, if they do not have mammon. This desire for wealth clings and sticks to our nature all the way to the grave.
(Large Catechism, I.5-9)

And Luther is merely expounding what Jesus himself had to say on the topic: “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” (Lk. 12:15), and, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Mt. 6:24).

The Apostle Paul also comments on Mammon when writing to Timothy: “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us be therewith content. But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (1 Tim. 6:6-10).

From this common testimony we have a very clear Christian perspective: while we acknowledge our need for daily bread, we hold Mammon in great suspicion as a potential idol. Owning Mammon is not in itself a sin, so long as we own it and it doesn’t own us. And that latter possibility is a very real danger. Mammon may take the form of inanimate objects, but Jesus speaks of it as a prospective master with a will of its own that speaks imperiously and makes demands and forcibly compels.

Mammon, the Fallen Angel

John Milton captures this living and willful nature of Mammon very well in his epic poem Paradise Lost. Toward the end of Book I, the demons, having somewhat recovered from the initial shock of being thrown into hell, and spurred on by a rousing speech from Satan, prepare to build their evil city Pandemonium:

…Mammon led them on,
Mammon, the least erected spirit that fell
From heaven: for even in heaven his looks and thoughts
Were always downward bent; admiring more
The riches of heaven’s pavement, trodden gold,
Than aught divine or holy else, enjoy’d
In vision beatific: by him first
Men also, and by his suggestion taught,
Ransack’d the centre, and with impious hands
Rifled the bowels of their mother earth
For treasures better hid. Soon had his crew
Open’d into the hill a spacious wound,
and digg’d out ribs of gold. (Let none admire
That riches grow in hell; that soil may best
Deserve the precious bane.)…
(Book I.678-692)

After the demons have completed the city, they all assemble in the spacious hall in secret conclave. Satan sits on a throne, gives a brief speech, then opens the floor to debate concerning their best course of action. Moloch speaks first, then Belial. Third, Mammon gives his advice: War will result in defeat. Even if God is gracious and receives the demons back to their former posts (on pledge of their obedience), Mammon cannot abide the thought of singing “warbled hymns” and “forc’d hallelujahs.” Let us not war, nor return to subjection, “but rather seek Our own good from ourselves, and from our own Love to ourselves; though in this vast recess, Free, and to none accountable; preferring Hard liberty before the easy yoke Of servile pomp…” (II.252-257).

Mammon deludes himself into thinking that God’s creatures can be independent of God, autonomous, self-sufficient. He teaches all who will listen to him to think this way: to look to their own hands instead of God’s, to live from themselves and to themselves, to prefer a selfish life in hell over a creaturely life in heaven. He points to the burning ground, just as he now points to earth, and says, “This desert soil Wants not her hidden lustre, gems, and gold; Nor want we skill or art, from whence to raise Magnificence; and what can heaven show more?” (II.270-273). The demons didn’t take Mammon’s advice, but human ears are easily persuaded to his blasphemous words.

Mammon, the Fool

Is Educating for Mammon starting to sound foolish, and even dangerous? I really hope it is. And what’s the alternative? Continue reading: The Goal of Education Part II.

Painting: Croesus and Solon by Johann Georg Platzer, 1704-1761

Quotes of Large Catechism are from The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Kolb & Wengert

Scripture quotations are from the King James Version.

Chrysostom Exposes Parental Absurdity

ANTIOCH, SYRIA — After expounding 1 Timothy 2:11-15, Pastor John Chrysostom concluded today’s sermon with an exhortation to parents. During these words the Golden Church echoed with the sound of fathers tearing their clothes, mothers wailing loudly, and dull thuds as people smacked themselves in the forehead.

“We have a great trust given to us in children. Let us take care of them accordingly, and let us do all things that the evil one may not bereave us of them. But now everything is backwards with us! For we manage all things so that our estate will be good, and so that we may entrust it to a faithful man. And we seek after a donkey-driver, and a mule-tender, and an administrator, and a smart accountant. But when it comes to that which is more precious to us than everything else — that we should entrust our son to some person who is able to keep watch on his temperance — we take no consideration. And yet this of all things is the more precious possession, and those other things are for this one. So we take care of our possessions for the sake of our children, but we no longer take care of them. Do you see the absurdity?

“Train the soul of your child, and those possessions will be present besides. For when the soul is not good, he will have no advantage from your riches; but when the soul is set straight, he will have no harm from poverty. Do you want to leave him riches? Teach him to be good. For in this way he will also be able to gather riches; though even if he does not acquire them, he will be no worse off than those who have acquired. But if he should be evil, then even though you leave him myriads of things, you have not left him the guard; rather, you have made him worse than those who go into abject poverty. For when it comes to those among the children who have not been trained well, poverty is better for them than wealth. For poverty constrains them in virtue even though they are unwilling. But wealth does not permit those who are willing to exercise self-control; rather, it leads them away, and causes them catastrophe, and throws them into myriad dangers.”

Chrysostom preached this sermon toward the end of the fourth century AD, yet his words are as applicable now as ever. Consider:

  • What are the true riches that Christian parents should entrust to their children?
  • Why are earthly riches harmful when not accompanied by virtue?
  • Chrysostom speaks of a teacher or educator as one who should “keep watch over [the child’s] temperance,” likely referring to the cardinal virtue called Temperance. Why should parents seek teachers of virtue for their children, and not merely teachers of information or teachers of skills?

Quote from John Chrysostom, Homily IX on 1 Timothy.  Translated by Andrew Richard, 2017.

History: Wells of Wisdom

History and Geography in Classical Education

If a classical education consists of the seven liberal arts and includes the classical languages, one might wonder: what about history and geography? May we simply tack on subjects as we see fit, or must we limit ourselves to the arts?

Neither. First, adding subjects to a classical education is rather like the trend of families adding extracurricular on top of extracurricular until no one enjoys any of them and the members of the family hardly know each other, like so many dissociated roommates who can’t remember what it’s like to think or breathe. In an effort to create well-rounded children (whatever that means), we end up with hamsters who only know life on the wheel. There’s something to be said for doing a few things, doing them well, and enjoying them. This is the attitude that permeates classical education.

But second, the liberal arts are not in the least bit limiting. They’re the liberal arts – the arts of the free person. Certainly there’s a place for history and geography: this is part of the content of the Trivium (as are the classical languages). Recall that the three arts of the Trivium are Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. Yet all three of these are taught and learned by examples. Students must hear what good grammar, logic, and rhetoric sound like, and this means drinking deeply from the cup of classical literature.

Now this may sound odd, but some of the best pieces of classical literature are histories. And the reason this might sound odd is because, generally speaking, history class calls to mind the tedious business of memorizing names, dates, and places (likely connected by some event, I think), voiding them onto an exam, and then turning to a completely different and seemingly unrelated set of names, dates, and places. Niña, Pinta, Santa Maria! Fourteen ninety two! Christopher Columbus! America! Native Americans! What do I remember? Facts. And what do those facts mean? I don’t know. No one ever taught me.

What Is the Purpose of History?

This leads to the question: what is the purpose of History? This is as broad as asking, “What is the purpose of life?” And both questions assume that there is some overarching purpose: that there’s not only the historiographer (the writer of histories), but also an Historiokrator – a Lord of History. Now if this is correct, then truthfully written histories will teach us something about history’s Lord. What sorts of actions does the Historiokrator reward? Which does he punish? What sorts of traits or behaviors should we consider virtues? Which are vices? Or, most basically, what is right and what is wrong?

Now one could assume that there is no Lord of History. In that case it’s up to mankind to define right and wrong, whether corporately or individually, provided the plebs or partisans think it’s right to believe in right and wrong. But this is a tricky position to maintain. How does one explain why every proud ruler in the history of the world has been humbled before dying (or met a very wretched end)? How does one explain why those who live by the sword die by the sword? Why do societies that pervert marriage (the union of one man and one woman, permanent and exclusive) always suffer societal collapse? One can believe there’s no such thing as objective right and wrong. One can believe there’s no Historiokrator. One can also believe that the sky is green and grass is blue, as long as one is willing to blind oneself to the facts.

The classical historians held that there is such a thing as objective right and wrong. They did not worship the one true God; nevertheless, the sole fact that they saw themselves as subjects to a moral law that held true for everyone the world over meant that they could rightly interpret the course of human events – insofar as their understanding of the moral law coincided with God’s Law. And even when the ancient historians diverge from a proper understanding of right and wrong, they still report the facts with eloquence, leaving us to draw our own conclusions, and to improve our rhetoric while we’re at it.

Isocrates and Tacitus

But the ancients can tell you themselves how they regard the purpose of History. Isocrates was a famous Athenian orator who wrote to Nicocles, the young king of Salamis, in the early fourth century BC. Isocrates advised Nicocles what he should do in order to be a good king and live up to that high office. Part of Isocrates’ advice was this: “Consider the things that take place and befall both common folk and kings, for should you be mindful of what has been, the better you will plan for what will be” (Isocrates, To Nicocles, 2.35). Or in other words: Pay attention to the outcomes of past deeds. Take them to heart, and do your deeds according to the outcome you desire.

In the early part of the second century AD Tacitus wrote his Annals of Rome. When commenting on some of the actions of the Senate he slips in a wonderful note about the purpose of his writing: “I have by no means taken upon myself to relate decisions except those remarkable for honorable conduct or for notorious shame, because I regard as the principal duty of histories that virtues should not be unspoken, and that against crooked words and deeds should stand the fear of posterity and infamy” (Tacitus, Annals, 3.65). And so Tacitus extols virtue and condemns vice in the course of relating events. Indeed, this is his purpose: to read the past as a moral catechism.

Story Time with Herodotus

But even better than listening to the ancients talk about history is listening to the ancients relate history. We turn to Herodotus, sometimes called the Father of History. Herodotus’ Histories document the rise of the Persian Empire and the war between the Persians and the Greeks. But he’s not spewing propaganda – “Go Greeks!” Rather, he’s teaching mankind by way of a broad sample of mankind’s collected experiences.

Let’s listen to one of his stories, shall we? Ah, but which one? Shall I recount how Cyrus, king of Persia, became angry at the Gyndes River and divided it into 360 streams? Shall I tell of the little coffin that the servant would take around to the dinner guests after supper in Egypt? Shall I speak of Cambyses, who became enraged with the Ethiopians and forthrightly led the army to journey to that country without making any provision for his troops? Or what about Polycrates, who threw a gold ring into the sea and later received it back in the belly of a fish? Or the Psylli, who made war upon the south-wind? What about the time the Athenians fined the dramatist Phrynicus for staging the Capture of Miletus? Or perhaps something that relates to Scripture. Shall I tell you how Cyrus captured the city of Babylon? Or how Sennacherib invaded Egypt? Or shall I give the Egyptian account of Pharaoh Neco’s war with King Josiah, followed by the Battle of Carchemish?

So many stories from which to choose! But I must pick one. Let’s hear about the time King Cyrus of Persia captured the city of Sardis. Sardis was the capital of Lydia, and Croesus was its king (of “rich as Croesus” fame). Croesus had gone to war with the Persians because of an oracle he had been given, which said that if he attacked the Persians he would destroy a mighty empire. And in the end he did destroy a mighty empire by attacking the Persians, just not the one he was hoping to destroy.

The armies of Croesus and Cyrus clashed in a district of Cappadocia called Pteria. Croesus was outnumbered, and though he survived the day’s battle he decided to withdraw to Sardis, take some time to find allies, and resume the war in the spring.

But Cyrus guessed at Croesus’ plan, and decided to pursue his troops back to Sardis and engage them again before they could regroup. There was a second battle on the plains before Sardis, and though the Lydians fought valiantly they were forced to retreat into the city. “Thus the siege began.”

Sieges are a miserable business. The besiegers cut off the flow of food and water into the city, and prevent communication from leaving the city. Then they wait, and wait, and wait until either the city surrenders or they have opportunity to mount a decent attack. Meanwhile the besieged ration food and water and try to sneak a messenger out so that he can go get their allies. The besieged have the advantage of being at home, and the high ground of the walls from which to attack, and the hope that the sojourning enemy will run out of provisions first and have to leave. The scene thus being set, we’ll leave the rest of the story to Herodotus:

“Now Sardis was taken in this way: After Croesus was besieged for fourteen days, Cyrus sent horsemen throughout his army and promised to give a reward to the first man who scaled the wall. After this the army tried without success. Then, once the others had stopped, a Mardian man named Hyroeades attempted to climb up by a certain part of the acropolis where no one had posted a guard. For no one was fearful about that place, thinking it could never be taken; for there the acropolis is sheer and impregnable. And it was the only place where Meles, the former king of Sardis, had not carried around the lion that his concubine had borne, the Telmessians having determined that after carrying the lion around the wall Sardis would be unconquerable. But when Meles carried it around the rest of the wall where the acropolis could be assailed he disregarded this place as it was impregnable and sheer. It is the part of the city that faces Tmolus. Now this Hyroeades, who was a Mardian, having seen the day before a certain man of the Lydians at this place of the acropolis descending after a helmet that had rolled down and picking it up, considered this and took it to heart. Then he himself also climbed up, and after him others of the Persians began climbing. And when many had ascended in this way then Sardis was taken, and the whole town plundered.”

And those are the facts surrounding Cyrus’ capture of Sardis. Ah, but those are more than just facts, aren’t they? Are the Lydians the only ones who are blind to their weakness, who have false security and overconfidence? The story asks: Are you like the Lydians? The moral of the story is very much like the point that St. Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 10:2, “So let he who thinks he stands watch lest he fall.”

Now history like this can be uncomfortable. It makes you take a look at yourself and the society around you, and sometimes you won’t like what you find. But the result of studying history in such a way is a useful introspection that takes the place of our inherent narcissism. History is a trove of wisdom, and its gifts are all good for you. So unless being a better person scares you, there’s nothing to fear.

Geography: The Places Where History Happened

Notice also how naturally the study of geography follows the study of classical history. Where is Lydia? How big was that kingdom? Was Sardis centrally located in it? Which direction is Persia from Lydia? How big was Cyrus’ kingdom? Where is Pteria, or Cappadocia? What is the terrain like around Sardis? What makes something an acropolis? One can’t read more than a page or two of a classical history without feeling a strong desire to look at a map.

And then when this sort of student of history looks at a map he actually retains geography, because the places have stories that accompany them. This is how we learn geography in everyday life. If I’m new to an area I don’t sit down and try to memorize where everything is at in town. Instead I’ll visit different establishments and things will happen at them. I will remember those happenings as stories. Then when my friend says, “Hey, do you want to go to Blue’s Diner for lunch?” and I say, “What diner?” my friend can say, “You know? The place where we sat outside and I dropped the ketchup bottle on the cement and it shattered.” And then I know, “Oh, the one over on 2nd Street by the courthouse!”

Look at these two maps. One gives a broad view showing where Asia Minor is located on the globe; the other pinpoints Lydia (which was in Asia Minor), Sardis, and Cappadocia:

Now you know where Sardis was, and you know a story that happened there. Strange as it may seem, even if you had never heard of Sardis before, you very well may be able to find Sardis on a map for the rest of your life – because as human beings when we think of geography we want a story to go with it. We remember geography as The Places Where History Happened.

Multiculturalism: History’s Archnemesis

How does modern education’s approach to history differ from the classical approach to history? First of all, modern education has no “history” class. It has been renamed “Social Studies,” and has a far different purpose and approach. Social Studies divides the world into cultural units. Each cultural unit receives a bit of time: the Egyptians, the Middle East, Japan, Native Americans. However, the units remain largely disconnected from each other, and bare facts receive much more emphasis than morals. Social Studies leaves the student wondering, “Why does someone think I need to know this, and how does it all fit together?” And since the student never receives a big picture that brings the whole world together, he’s eager to clear his mind of the dusty old facts. Frankly, who can blame him?

And yet modern education does have an overarching goal to its Social Studies. The goal is Multiculturalism. Now this word gets thrown around quite a bit, so I suppose I should define the word before using it any more. A dictionary is going to prove useless at this point. A dictionary will tell you that multiculturalism merely means “of or relating to different ethnic groups.” If that’s all it means then Herodotus is more “multicultural” than even the most progressive school.

But that’s not what the word means in modern education. In modern education Multiculturalism means highlighting the unique differences in various cultures and then as a blanket statement saying, “Good for them.” These Egyptians built pyramids and worship Ra. Good for them! These Middle Easterners speak Arabic and are Muslim. Good for them! These people over here had a Shaman. These people believed everyone goes to the same place when they die. These people thought eternal life meant living on in the memory of others. Good for them! These people had multiple husbands. These people held their spouses in common. These people were led by matriarchs. These people had the women do the hunting and the men do the gathering. Good for them!

Multiculturalism fixates particularly on religion and traditional morality (especially as regards sexuality), and espouses, “The only truth is that there is no truth. What’s true for these people is true for them, and what’s true for these people is true for them. Neither has the right to say: This must be true for everyone.”

Except Multiculturalism cheats on itself. It holds the premise, “No one can say: This must be true for everyone,” but in so doing it’s saying, “This must be true for everyone.” Multiculturalism cries, “Tolerance!” and demands it of everyone, yet refuses to exercise even a modicum of tolerance itself. Multiculturalism cries, “Diversity!” and will require students to memorize the five pillars of Islam, but will lynch anyone who thinks the class should also memorize the Ten Commandments.

And so Multiculturalism grabs whatever historical anecdotes fit the progressive agendas of the day, marshals them in support of tolerance and diversity, and silences anyone who so much as whispers anything contrary. To the student, Social Studies may seem like a string of boring facts. Yet history is still being used as a moral catechism, only piecemeal, and with no regard for the outcomes of practices, merely that the practices were.

I’ll note briefly that because Social Studies uses history merely for facts or anecdotes, geography need play no great part. The anecdotes might as well be History That Happened Nowhere. And if geography is taught (as a separate and unrelated class, of course), then the student will study the Places Where Nothing Happened.

And what is the final result of this pseudo-history called Social Studies? In the end Social Studies bestows a vague and perhaps fearful sense of “live and let live,” in which case Multiculturalism has done its work.

The Historical Use of History

I could waste great amounts of ink and expound the harmful effects of Multiculturalism even further. But honestly the best way to defeat evil is to call it a liar to its face and then occupy oneself with something good. So… Multiculturalism, you lie! And now let me sum up Herodotus’ approach to history, which will hopefully come as a breath of fresh air after all the nonsense of Multiculturalism.

Herodotus writes a world history, and not only shows how various nations and peoples functioned among themselves, but documents how they interacted with one another. He is himself a Greek, but does not limit his history to the Greeks, or even to peoples with whom the Greeks had direct dealings. Reading his work one gets the sense that he was simply fascinated with human cultures and customs, their uniqueness and variety, and was eager to learn and report as many of them as he could. He was a philanthropist in the truest sense of the word: a lover of man.

Yet Herodotus does not approve of every practice of every nation, but judges by a standard of right and wrong. He will grant that everyone prefers his homeland’s way of doing things; nevertheless this preference doesn’t make everything right. He is tolerant in the truest sense of the word: enduring that which he knows to be wrong, and recording it, and, out of love for justice and for future generations, recording the wretched end with which wrongdoing meets.

Herodotus doesn’t present only one side of a story when he’s heard two, and when accounts of causes differ he offers all he knows, leaving judgment to the reader. Herodotus tries to base his accounts on the testimony of a nation’s best, preferring eyewitnesses, and understanding that people lie to preserve national pride or the reputation of their gods, yet generally trusting people who would know better than him, and not giving himself over to speculation. He shows by example what a fine time history and humility can have with each other.

And the most significant point: Herodotus does not ultimately show how different nations are from each other, but for all the superficial differences in culture and practice human nature remains a common human nature, given to hubris, envy, anger, ambition, passions, impatience, greed, cowardice, revenge, madness, pride, and rashness. And both our common human experience and the annals of history show how harmful these are.

For Herodotus, as for all the classical historians, history does not merely impart information, but allows us to learn from the mistakes of others, and sit at the feet of wise fathers, and answer questions of right and wrong, and have a rollicking good time while we’re at it. So why not have some fun and open a classical history book? Why not study it with some friends, or begin a little school where the study of ancient history hasn’t become ancient history? You’ll be glad you did.

Painting: An Architectural Capriccio of the Roman Forum with Philosophers and Soldiers among Ancient Ruins…, by Giovanni Paolo Panini, c. 1745-1750

Translations are my own

The Classical Languages: A Tale of Two Cities

Olympia and Bluffton

If there’s one thing that makes classical education “classical,” it is the study of the classical languages: Greek and Latin. Classical education also involves reading the famous literature written in those languages, and studying the times when those authors lived. But a classical education is made classical with the classical languages. Maintaining the Trivium and the Quadrivium without teaching the classical languages can still prove very beneficial, don’t get me wrong. But a liberal arts education loses something when Greek and Latin are wanting. Unfortunately, that “something” can be difficult to identify; nevertheless, I’ll try my best to put my finger on it.

I can give four good reasons why students should study Greek and Latin. Someone more learned could likely come up with several more. I’ll give my four reasons as a comparison of two cities, the English city and the Greek and Latin city; let’s call them Bluffton and Olympia, respectively.

Olympia is easier to navigate, has clearer skies, serves better food, and boasts nobler citizens.

Easier Navigation

First, Olympia is easier to navigate, because Greek and Latin are inflected languages. This is in contrast to English, which is an analytic language. In analytic languages meaning depends greatly on word order. Take, for example, the simple sentence, Theagenes threw the javelin. If I change the subject and the object then we have, The javelin threw Theagenes, which – while good for a laugh – no longer communicates what I was trying to say. Or consider this arrangement: The javelin Theagenes threw. Is it saying something about a certain javelin that Theagenes threw? Is it saying that a javelin named Theagenes threw something? Is it saying that Theagenes threw the javelin? Using some common sense we could probably narrow it down to this last one, but I think I’ve sufficiently illustrated what an imprecise language English can be.

While an analytic language like English relies on word order to determine meaning, inflected languages (like Greek and Latin) have a different way of arranging words into meaningful sentences. I suppose the easiest way to introduce an inflected language is to point out the remnants of inflection that we have in English. See if you can identify what’s wrong with the following sentences: ‘Theagenes threw him javelin into the air over he head. The javelin fell back down on his.’

The pronouns are wrong! It should read, ‘his javelin,’ ‘his head,’ and ‘down on him.’ Thus we see in English that the masculine singular pronoun is inflected, meaning it changes its ending based on its role in the sentence: ‘he’ is the subject, ‘his’ shows possession, ‘him’ indicates direct object and pairs with prepositions (e.g. ‘to him,’ ‘from him,’ ‘through him’).

In inflected languages every noun, pronoun, and adjective works this way. They have separate endings for subject, possessive, indirect object, direct object. One almost cannot be imprecise without being flat out wrong.

An Example

Consider this sentence from Cicero’s De Divinatione: Quod enim munus rei publicae adferre maius meliusve possumus quam si docemus atque erudimus iuventutem? Here’s a word-for-word translation that keeps the word order: What for gift thing public bring greater better or can we than if we teach and instruct youth? If we read that sentence a couple of times we might get the gist of it, though as the translation stands we can hardly call it communication.

I’ll go through Cicero’s sentence word by word and demonstrate how the mind works through an inflected language. I glance at the first few words: Quod enim munus. Enim means ‘for,’ and is used in continuing and explaining a prior statement. Enim is also what’s called ‘post positive,’ meaning that even though it sets the tone for the sentence, it appears as the second or sometimes third word. In English, then, it would make sense to translate ‘for’ as the first word. While English has some words that can function as post positives (see the placement of the word ‘then’ in the previous sentence), the word ‘for’ is not one of them.

Next I see that Quod is a relative pronoun – ‘who, which, what.’ It is neuter in gender (nouns, pronouns, etc. in Latin can be masculine, feminine, or neuter). It is singular in number. It is in either the nominative or accusative case, and therefore I know that the ‘what’ is either going to be the subject of the verb or the direct object.

Since the relative pronoun Quod must refer to a noun, I go looking for a neuter, singular, nominative/accusative noun. And there’s munus! Munus can refer to a position, office, or duty. It can also mean ‘gift.’

But I need to figure out what role this munus plays in the sentence, and that means I need to find the verb. Possumus! There it is. Possumus is first person plural, present tense, from the verb possum, ‘be able.’ Here it means ‘we are able’ or ‘we can.’ This leads to the question ‘able to… do what?’ We need an infinitive: to read? to sing? to sculpt? There’s adferre, which means ‘to bring’ or ‘to offer.’ Now if ‘we’ is the subject then munus can’t be. It must be the direct object. I can begin translating, ‘For what gift can we offer…’

Next I notice that maius and meliusve are both neuter, singular, and nominative/accusative (I’ve narrowed it down to accusative, the direct object). Maius and melius are both comparative adjectives and describe the noun munus. The –ve on the end of melius is called ‘enclitic,’ meaning it sticks on the end of the word, but will get translated in English as if it comes before the word. Maius means ‘greater,’ melius means ‘better,’ and –ve means ‘or.’ Cicero writes about a gift that is ‘greater or better.’ I fit this into my translation, ‘For what greater or better gift can we offer…’

Offer to what, or to whom? There’s rei publicae. Rei is a noun that means ‘thing’ or ‘matter.’ Publicae is an adjective that means ‘public.’ Rei and publicae are both feminine, singular, and in the dative case (which marks indirect object, or in this sentence the beneficiary of the gift). The translation ‘public thing’ doesn’t make much sense, but I note that the two Latin words together give us the English word ‘republic.’ I add this to the translation, ‘For what greater or better gift can we offer to the republic…’ (Latin has neither the definite article ‘the’ nor the indefinite article ‘a, an,’ and therefore we can supply them where needed in translation).

Now we come to the second part of the sentence. Quam translates in a comparative sense, especially given that we had comparative adjectives in the first part. I’ll translate it ‘than.’ Si usually means ‘if,’ though here with quam I’ll translate it ‘than that.’

I look at docemus atque erudimus. Atque is easy: it means ‘and.’ Docemus and erudimus are both first person, plural, present tense from the verbs doceo and erudio. Docemus means ‘we teach,’ Erudimus means ‘we instruct.’ So: ‘…than that we teach and instruct…’ Iuventutem. This is a feminine noun, singular, and accusative, from iuventus. It’s the direct object of the verbs. It’s also the word from which we get the English ‘juvenile,’ and it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that in Latin the word means ‘youth.’

And now I can understand the whole sentence, ‘For what greater or better gift can we offer to the republic than that we teach and instruct the youth?’ Once someone is proficient in Latin or Greek he can fly through this whole process rather quickly and naturally.

The Roads of Bluffton and Olympia

You see how hard the mind must strain to read a language as foreign and inflected as Latin. It gets even more fun with Greek when there’s an entirely different alphabet. These languages form the mind, and we might think of it like designing a roads system for a city.

The roads system in the English city of Bluffton is the work of several different contractors: Sir Anglo Saxon, Monsieur French, a Germanic gentleman. The contractors did not collaborate. Each did his work having inherited one thing from his predecessor and handing on something more or less altered to his successor – when there weren’t two different contractors trying to do the work at the same time.

English had been an inflected language. Through the years reliance on word order has mostly replaced case endings, though, as noted, we still have inflected pronouns. English usually conjugates verbs by adding words to the beginning of the verb rather than changing the ending of the verb itself, e.g. I walked, you walked, he walked, we walked, you walked, they walked. Yet in the present tense we get, I walk, you walk, he walks. And good luck telling if ‘you’ means ‘you’ singular or ‘y’all’ plural.

The centuries of construction and reform have left the Bluffton roads system with a good deal of internal inconsistency, which in turn offers great opportunity for confusion. Randomly a lane becomes right-turn-only, some streets suddenly strike a dead end, the roads angle and curve and meander about – so much concrete and so difficult to get where I want to go! Theagenes used to go with his friends to the stadiums with the javelins in order to throw them. Whether he threw the javelins, the stadiums, or his friends, no one knows.

Olympia has a far better roads system. The case endings form an elegant series of parallel north-south streets. The verb declensions form a complementary set of east-west streets. The intersections follow orderly syntax. Overall the roads of Olympia are predictable and consistent. As foreign as they may seem they are simpler to navigate because they make sense as a cohesive whole.

The student’s understanding of language – and I don’t mean a specific language, but the very essence of language – the student’s understanding of language will become more and more precise and orderly the longer he spends navigating the streets of Olympia. Or in other words, the Greek and Latin languages form the mind of the student in their image: they are straightforward to navigate, and they train the mind to navigate language in a straightforward manner. They are orderly and precise and they train the mind to be orderly and precise. This formative benefit of Greek and Latin is their chief benefit.

Clearer Skies

The second advantage of Olympia over Bluffton is that Olympia has clearer skies, that is, a more lucid vocabulary. I’m going to list a few English words. As you look at each ask yourself, ‘How would I define this word if someone asked me to do so?’ 1) Reconciliation, 2) Ostentatious, 3) Metamorphosis, 4) Catastrophe.

In Olympia this is an easy business:

1) Reconciliation, from the Latin verb conciliare, which means ‘to bring together.’ The prefix re– means ‘back, again.’ Put the prefix on the verb, and reconciliation means ‘bringing back together.’

2) Ostentatious, again Latin, from the verb tendo, which means ‘stretch,’ plus the preposition ob, ‘in front of.’ Put them together and you have ‘stretching in front of,’ or more simply, ‘displaying.’ An ostentatious person is showy, stretching and craning (sometimes literally) to get within sight of others.

3) Metamorphosis, this time from Greek: the preposition μετά (meta) ‘change,’ plus the noun μορφή (morphe) ‘shape, form.’ Hence metamorphosis means ‘a change in form.’ The Greek verb μεταμορφόομαι (metamorphoomai) comes up in Matthew at the Transfiguration of Jesus. (Interestingly ‘transfiguration’ is the same combination of ‘change’ + ‘form,’ except from Latin instead of Greek).

4) Catastrophe, which we know means something bad that happens. In the Greek, catastrophe comes from the preposition κατά (kata) ‘down, against,’ plus στροφή (strophe) ‘turning,’ hence a ‘turning against,’ or a ‘downturn.’

This practice of analyzing English words according to their original language roots is called etymology. Most dictionaries include a brief etymology of each word. If you want to have some real fun go to The benefit of knowing Greek and Latin is that etymology becomes second nature. One sees an abstract word and can put some form to it by recalling Greek and Latin roots. These roots give concrete imagery to otherwise unclear words (consider again ‘ostentatious’). Therefore Olympia has this advantage over Bluffton: there are fewer clouds and clearer skies.

Better Food

The third benefit of Olympia is that the city serves better food. There is a great feast: the best literature that has ever been written. This feast is not consumed with the mouth, but with the eyes and ears and mind and heart. Nor is this feast gone once it has been consumed. Contrast this with most of our modern English literature (if we can call it that): electronically delivered, only ever half-digested, written with the assumption that it will quickly be forgotten and replaced with more salty, sugary, deep-fried mind-fat. Not so with classical literature. Reading Homer’s Odyssey once is like eating a salad at a seventy-five course meal. This literature is meant to be read, and re-read, then read again, without ever being exhausted.

Allow me to list some of the types and names of dishes served daily in Olympia. Broadly speaking, this is the best political, philosophical, moral, historical, poetical, theatrical, and all around beautiful literature the world has ever known. More specifically, here are Aesop’s Fables and Plutarch’s Lives, Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Herodotus’ Histories and Tacitus’ Annals of Imperial Rome, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Aeschylus’ Orestia Trilogy. And here are the accounts of the Holy Gospel, and the Epistles of St. Paul, a wonderfully nuanced board: in many ways simple compared with classical Greek literature, yet with such depth and flavor that they are always new, like freshly baked bread. And this list doesn’t represent a tenth of the hearty fare of Olympia.

The food is rich, and vastly different from the pseudo-romantic, emotionally-manipulative, and sex-crazed word salad that characterizes our day. At first we might not know what to do with the literature of Olympia. “What? Odysseus’ wife Penelope waited how many years for her husband to return from the war, she has a house full of eager suitors, and she doesn’t take up with any of them?” But then we realize that Olympia doesn’t know what to do with us. “Seriously? ‘Follow your heart’? ‘Live, laugh, love’? These are the great philosophical and ethical teachings of your day? What about duty, friendship, self-sacrifice, good, evil, right, wrong, the depravity of man, mastering the appetites, contemplating the afterlife, and the million other things that human beings were made to learn about and ponder?” So yes, the food is rich, it fills to the full, and Cicero is ordering for you. But most of us could use just such a mind-diet.

Nobler Citizens

Finally, Olympia has an extraordinarily illustrious populace, nearly the greatest of any city that ever was, second only to that of the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven (and many are citizens of that city too). The citizenry have all learned at least something of the classical languages, many have mastered them, and they are all well-versed in classical literature. Olympia has such people as St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, Gregory the Great, Dante, Geoffrey Chaucer, Martin Luther, John Milton, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton.

They are all part of the same community and conversation. They reference great classical works and expect everyone else to know what they’re talking about. They have inherited a rich tradition, been formed by it, and have added to it. Some call this the Great Conversation: great for its temporal length, great for its subject matter, great for its esteemed participants.

In this conversation it seems that every deep question has received thorough treatment, every hard matter concerning human nature and relations has been asked and debated. Much has been answered, much remains a mystery. But you can bring up anything you like, so long as you come with an open mind and leave the thought police of your day outside the city gates. The population of Olympia is wise, not politically correct.

Olympia, or Atlantis?

So there stands Olympia with her orderly roads, clear skies, delicious food, and noble citizens. Participating in the life of this city forms one’s mind, clarifies thought, and sharpens expression. This mental formation is Olympia’s chief benefit, though also the most difficult thing to prove by argument.

The world used to be full of trustworthy people who could vouch for the great benefits of studying the classical languages. But those eloquent voices have faded. Parents and teachers used to urge at least Latin on their children in the same way they made them eat their vegetables: “It’s good for you.” And the parents and teachers were right. I could extol Greek and Latin until my breath would blow no longer, but the fact remains: no argument can convince someone to take up the classical languages. And that’s because, as with any city, you can never realize how wonderful it is until you go there and see it for yourself. The benefits of Greek and Latin are only grasped when those benefits are yours.

One generation used to pass down the classical languages to the next, knowing children and grandchildren would thank them later. Yet Olympia has become the lost city of Atlantis. How do we recover this city? Learn the classical languages. Walk up and down the conjugations and go back and forth along the declensions. Breathe the clean air and bask in the clear daylight. Nourish your mind with ancient nectar. Pull up a stool and rub elbows with giants. Study Greek and Latin. Become a citizen. And bring your children with you.


The book “Climbing Parnassus” by Tracy Lee Simmons was a great inspiration for this article, particularly his emphasis on the formative value of the classical languages. You can learn more about the book and purchase it at this link: Climbing Parnassus. I highly recommend it.

Painting: “Reconstruction of the Acropolis and Areus Pagus in Athens” by Leo von Klenze, 1846

The Quadrivium: Harmonies of the World

The Numerical Arts

The Trivium and Quadrivium together make the seven liberal arts. We’ve looked briefly at the Trivium of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. Let us take a glance at the Quadrivium.

The four arts of the Quadrivium are Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy. At first this may seem an odd group. We’re more used to seeing something like Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, and Calculus. But the Quadrivium does make sense. A man named Boethius (480-524 AD) put it in these terms: Arithmetic is number. Geometry is number in space. Music is number in time. Astronomy is number in space and time. “Well, I understand Arithmetic and Geometry,” someone might say. “But Music and Astronomy? Those are hobbies. How do those latter two prepare a child for a STEM career?” I should explain what math has become and what it used to be.

The Modern Mathematician

If we were to personify the current view of math, we might picture a tall, awkward, and straggly young man. He has slicked hair, a white button down shirt, a pocket protector. His skin is pasty white for want of sun. Under fluorescent lights in a room with no windows at a cold metal desk he calculates. Or rather, a computer calculates. He minds the computer and ponders its calculations. The bridge will fail at a load of eighty tons. The curvature of the plane fuselage is less conducive to flight and more conducive to fiery death. Change the frequency of the radio receiver, unless you want to hear the neighbor’s baby crying over the monitor. The mathematician works with the numbers and finds the solutions. He goes home with some sense of satisfaction in his work – sometimes – but will be very happy if he doesn’t have to think about numbers again until he clocks in the next day. It’s also worth noting that this mathematician does not believe in God. He holds that scientists, using numbers in some fabulous way, have disproven the existence of anything more almighty than the mathematician.

Now this man is a useful man. We want him, or at least we want what he does. But this little caricature identifies four problems with the current state of math. First, in large part math has been removed from the human mind and relegated to computers. Second, math has become limited to the realm of work. Third, math has been brought inside and locked in a sterile room, with the result that we think of numbers as something manufactured by man. And fourth, math has been set in false opposition to a Creator.


Allow me to introduce the four arts of the Quadrivium and paint a different picture of the mathematician. First comes Arithmetic. Arithmetic is the foundation of the Quadrivium, just as Grammar is the foundation of the Trivium. In Arithmetic the student learns to equate numbers with symbols, learns how to count, learns how to add, subtract, multiply, divide. There is much rote memorization: addition tables, multiplication tables, order of operations. It doesn’t take long and Arithmetic can be put to good use. One can count back change, balance a checkbook, calculate cost per ounce and determine which bottle of ketchup gives the better bargain. This is Arithmetic at work.

But Arithmetic also likes to play. “How high can you count?” one of my daughters asked me. “Why, I can count so high,” I replied, “that I could spend the whole rest of my life counting!” Now how did I know that? From experience? No, but because counting is orderly and predictable and follows a set pattern. One could learn to count to a centillion in a fraction of the time it would actually take to do so. And because numbers follow patterns they can be extraordinarily fun.

Consider, for example, the Fibonacci sequence. Can you identify the pattern to these numbers: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144? Each number is the sum of the two previous numbers in the sequence. How many numbers must there be in the sequence in order to pass one million? How can one calculate that without writing out the whole sequence? Do prime numbers come up in the sequence with any predictable regularity? Do odd numbers or even numbers occur more frequently? Why? You see that Arithmetic captivates the mind in a way that can hardly be called work.


On to Geometry! As noted, Geometry takes the numbers from Arithmetic and puts them in space: plotting points in two dimensions on a graph, calculating the surface area or volume of a three-dimensional object, figuring the acreage of a field. Geometry proves itself useful, as did its younger sibling Arithmetic. Say you’re building a garden, 4’ x 8’ x 1’. How many 8’ lengths of 2×6 lumber do you need to construct the walls? You must square the sides as you put them together. How can you use the Pythagorean Theorem (a2 + b2 = c2) to ensure that the corners form right angles? How many cubic feet of soil do you need in order to fill your garden? Or how many gallons of paint do you need to cover the walls of your living room? Or how many gallons of water will it take to fill your swimming pool? Beyond these household applications, Geometry also gives us the architect, the engineer, the packaging specialist, and many other useful vocations.

But why should Geometry limit itself to mere utility when it can also give enjoyment and wonder? Geometry points out the fractal patterns of snowflakes, the order of spots on a leopard’s coat, the scales on fish, the pleasing repetition of the veins and edges of leaves. And try this: Pick up a pineapple. Look at the pattern of the patches on it. Start at the top of the pineapple and trace a curve of patches down and to the right until you get to the bottom. You could go all the way around the pineapple like this and count the number of curves that sweep down and to the right until you arrive back at where you started. And you know what? More often than not the number of curves will be a number from the Fibonacci sequence! You might do it again, tracing the curves down and to the left all the way around the pineapple. The number of those curves is also likely to be a number from the Fibonacci sequence.

You can do the same thing with pinecones, or artichokes. Suddenly the student of Geometry realizes that the Fibonacci sequence isn’t a pattern invented by man as a mathematical curiosity – it is built into the world! Man might be smart enough to notice it, but someone more intelligent made it. Far from being a cold science invented by man in a laboratory, Geometry is an art observed in and learned from the harmonious order of nature.


We continue with Music. Now if an education is merely about learning skills that make money, then many would exclude Music. Very few people make money from it, and those who make the most money from it don’t even understand it. But what if, in addition to the rather simple goal of preparing people for STEM careers, the Quadrivium has a loftier goal? What if the purpose of the Quadrivium is to show the order of the world, to delight mankind with numbers and inspire him to wonder? What if, rather than manufacturing hunched mathematicians and placing them at desks in dim rooms, the Quadrivium purposes to bring its disciples outside, orient their faces toward the heavens, and place on their lips doxologies to the Most High? If that should be the case, then Music and Astronomy are not useless appendages or electives, take them or leave them. Rather, Music and Astronomy are the higher arts that take aim not at money, but at teaching human creatures to love their created-ness.

Music hardly ever goes to work, and when she does she hardly considers it work. She loves to play, and we retain this in our language of Music. We don’t “work” instruments, like scientists in a lab. We play instruments, and in our playing we testify that there is much more to life than money and a job. There’s beauty and delight. But don’t get the wrong idea about Music. She doesn’t play in a chaotic way, like a careless child crashing around the den. She plays in an orderly manner. It’s more fun that way.

Consider a piano. From C to C there are 13 keys, 8 white keys and 5 black keys. The black keys come in sets of 2 or 3, and between the back keys are either 1 or 2 white keys. If you start on C and count up 8 keys (with C as the first key), that’s called a 5th. If you start on C and count 5 keys, that’s a 3rd. If you count 13 keys that’s an octave, from the Latin word octo, 8. Have you noticed the pattern yet? The layout of a piano keyboard can be explained by ratios of numbers from the Fibonacci sequence! These ratios also explain the Circle of Fifths: if you multiply a frequency by 3/2 you get the respective 5th. While much of the Quadrivium shows the beautiful order of the world to the eyes, Music shows that beautiful order to the ears.


Now we come to the highest art of the Quadrivium: Astronomy. Astronomy pulls us from our man-made dwellings and brings us outside into a dwelling made by no man. Astronomy puts a gentle and strong hand under our chins and lifts up our heads. Astronomy turns us from marveling at the work of our hands to marveling at the works of another.

In a way Astronomy makes us uncomfortable. It is supposed to. We tend to think we’re really something. We’re given to puffing ourselves up, whether by worshiping what we’ve made or letting others inflate us with vainglory. Astronomy shows where you really stand in the cosmos. There is a God who perfectly orchestrates the movements of Jupiter and Saturn. What can you do that compares with that?

The Lord questioned Job, “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion? Can you lead forth the Mazzaroth in their season, or can you guide the Bear with its children? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on earth?” (Job 38:31-33). Astronomy asks you the same questions. And we must answer with Job, “Behold, I am of small account” (Job 40:4).

The greatest astronomers have been Christians, perhaps because they’re not afraid to face the grandeur of God or their own smallness. They know from the Scriptures that while we are of no account by ourselves, we have been made in the image of God and the Son of God has shown us such favor that he died for us. The Christian, therefore, does not have to hide from Almighty God, but is free to marvel at the work of his hands.

This marveling is awfully fun, too. The astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630 AD) is a good example. In his book Harmonies of the World he shows how geometric shapes inscribed in one another come close to the spatial arrangement of planetary orbits. He observes that one can represent the paths of the heavenly bodies with numerical ratios (the fact that the ratio 3/2 factors heavily in this really shouldn’t surprise us by this point).

Kepler also takes the ratios of the planets and converts them to musical ratios. He then uses musical notation to write out the harmonies that the planets “sing”: Saturn and Jupiter sing bass, Mars sings tenor, Earth and Venus sing alto, Mercury sings soprano. He portrays the heavens as a choir singing four-part harmony in praise of their Creator.

In doing this Kepler is not projecting man’s music into the heavens. It’s rather the opposite. Kepler writes:

Accordingly, you won’t wonder any more that a very excellent order of sounds or pitches in a musical system or scale has been set up by men, since you see that they are doing nothing else in this business except to play the apes [i.e. imitators] of God the Creator and to act out, as it were, a certain drama of the ordination of the celestial movements (Harmonies of the World, Chapter 5).

The Classical Mathematician

Having covered the four arts of the Quadrivium, let us conclude with this question: what kind of mathematician does the Quadrivium make? First of all, the Quadrivium makes all of its students mathematicians, and for no other reason than the pure joy of numbers. If some go on to make money with these numbers, fine, but the Quadrivium is not concerned about forming money-makers.

The Quadrivium forms a person who is so conversant in the language of numbers that he can figure even complex equations without the aid of a calculator. The Quadrivium forms a person who finds so much wonder and fun in the numbers and ratios and harmonies of the world that he can’t think of it as work. The Quadrivium forms a person who understands that numbers are received from the created world, and are not manufactured by men in their closets. Most importantly the Quadrivium forms a person who understands the whole universe in mathematical terms, and rather than misusing his knowledge to explain God away, he breaks forth in high doxology.

The mathematician formed by the Quadrivium may still be tall, awkward, and straggly. He may still have slicked hair, a white button down shirt, and a pocket protector. He certainly still uses his knowledge of numbers in service to others. But his sleeves are rolled up, his skin knows the light of the sun, his face inclines toward the heavens, and he praises God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:

Great is our Lord and great His virtue and of His wisdom there is no number: praise Him, ye heavens, praise Him, ye sun, moon, and planets, use every sense for perceiving, every tongue for declaring your Creator. Praise Him, ye celestial harmonies, praise Him, ye judges of the harmonies uncovered…: and thou my soul, praise the Lord thy Creator, as long as I shall be: for out of Him and through Him and in Him are all things, both the sensible and the intelligible; for both those whereof we are utterly ignorant and those which we know are the least part of them; because there is still more beyond. To Him be praise, honour, and glory, world without end. Amen. (Harmonies of the World, Chapter 10).

Harmonies of the World by Johannes Kepler, 1619
Translated by Charles Glenn Wallis, 1939

Woodcut: The Seventh Day of Creation by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872
Image provided courtesy of the Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.

The Trivium: The Architecture of Language

The Seven Liberal Arts

The framework of a classical education is the liberal arts. The word “liberal” is from the Latin word liberalis, relating to a free person. At another time we’ll look at what it meant to be a free person in the classical world, and what a liberal arts education frees one from. At this time we’ll look at what the liberal arts are. There are seven liberal arts: Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy. The seven liberal arts are distinguished by two subcategories: the trivium (tri – three) and the quadrivium (quad – four). To explain the distinction in the simplest way possible we might say that the trivium focuses on letters and the quadrivium focuses on numbers. In this article I’ll explain the trivium.

The Trivium: Grammar

We can think of the trivium in terms of architecture. First the architect must understand his building materials and tools. In language this involves learning the alphabet, learning how to combine letters into phonenes and phonemes into words and words into sentences. Vocabulary is the lumberyard and quarry. Syntax is the mortar, the nails. The first art of the trivium is Grammar, which teaches one to select the proper pieces of wood, pick up a hammer, and stick a few boards together in a useful and orderly fashion.

Learning grammar inevitably includes whacking thumbs and dropping bricks and prying out bent nails. There are important distinctions to make, and mastering them takes time and frustration and fortitude. Pronouns have different declensions depending on their role in a sentence: I, he, she for subject; my, his her for possessive; me, him, her for direct object. Verbs sometimes conjugate predictably: walk, walking, walked. Sometime verbs conjugate quite unpredictably: be, were/was, been, am, is, are; go, goes, went, going, gone. There are transitive verbs and intransitive verbs, and many of us still bruise our fingers with lay (transitive) and lie (intransitive) – “he lays the baby in the crib and then lies in bed.” There’s punctuation and spelling and learning to count syllables. When is it “less” and when is it “fewer”? When “your” and when “you’re”?

The teacher mercilessly drills the basics. Each question has its set answer that is not up for discussion or debate. It is not that the teacher devalues self-expression. The teacher simply recognizes that without basic grammar the students cannot adequately express themselves. So in love for the students and desiring to impart a great gift the teacher says, “Shut your mouths and open your ears. This is how it is.” Drill, drill, drill, drill, drill.

This is exhausting work, but when the junior architect builds his first little wooden bridge or stone wall, when he spells every word in a sentence correctly and properly aligns persons and numbers and tenses of the nouns and verbs, when the bricks are level and the studs equally spaced – well! there is great satisfaction, and a healthy pride, and hope for this great undertaking of language.


The second art of the trivium is Logic, also called Dialectic. This art has to do with reason and argumentation. In Logic the student learns to make sound arguments and analyze the arguments of others. A key tool for this process is the syllogism, which consists of a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion. To give an oft-used example: All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore Socrates is mortal. That syllogism is both valid and sound: valid because the conclusion flows logically from the premises, and sound because, in addition to being valid, the premises are also true.

I could say: All cats can fly. I have a cat. Therefore my cat can fly. It is a valid argument, but neither of the premises are true, and therefore the argument is not sound. It would be like building a staircase out of balsa wood. Yes, it’s a staircase. But it’s going to collapse under me if I try to climb it. Or I could say: All people who eat at Olive Garden are happy (see how they smile in this commercial?). You want to be happy. You should eat at Olive Garden or you will never be happy. The logic behind a syllogism like this is the equivalent of cutting a hole in the upper story of a house and calling it a staircase. More frequently it goes by the name “advertising.”

In Logic the junior architect learns how to join walls and dovetail beams, to pattern trusses and support ceilings. While in Grammar he learned to make window frames and lay floorboards, in Logic he combines these elements to make rooms, and creates passages between the rooms and the various floors. The solid structure of a house results. The teacher drills the forms of syllogisms and gives many examples of good and bad arguments. When the students are not reciting forms and logical fallacies they’re debating.

And they’re not stuck in childish debates, like whether pepperoni or pineapple makes a better pizza topping. No, they can go beyond mere subjective preferences. They’ve been instructed in Grammar and Logic, and moreover have studied these arts through good literature that has instilled good moral virtue. They can argue about right and wrong, better and worse, without having to rely on their personal opinions. Never will they say, “That might be true for you, but it’s not for me.” They have become acquainted with the real world, the world of absolutes, the world where a statement can be objectively true or false. They have learned to navigate this world and speak its language. The strength of their architecture shows it.


The third art of the trivium is Rhetoric, perhaps most simply defined as the art of persuasion. In tandem with sound arguments, Rhetoric moves an audience toward what is good and true. Bare Logic might say, “Here’s a bedroom, and bathroom, a kitchen, a living room, and a laundry room. You have everything you need. Move in.” Logic isn’t wrong in thinking that people should believe its arguments on the basis of soundness and truth. Logic can be something of a pragmatist if we leave it alone. “You need a table? Ok, here’s a barrel with a scrap of plywood on it. A table.”

But Rhetoric says, “No, friend Logic, not like that. I agree with your design. A flat surface on a support, that’s good. That’s sound. But use this mahogany for the table top. Let’s cut it into a circle, bevel the edges, stain it, and varnish it. And let’s use a thinner support. I’ll spin something on the lathe. Ah, yes, see how it complements the top! It’s much more pleasing, and now you don’t bash your knees on the support when you sit down.”

That’s what Rhetoric does. It weaves thoughts and arguments into a cohesive whole, it removes unnecessary stumbling blocks, it beautifies Logic and pleases the audience. Rhetoric runs through the house and puts arches over doors and exotic wood on the floors. It dresses stones for the exterior walls, landscapes the yard, builds columns with Corinthian capitals for the porch. And when the junior architect has been trained in Rhetoric, he’s no longer a junior architect. He has what he needs to be a master. The student can choose the one right word out of a million and put it in service of sound logic and adorn truth with the beauty that truth deserves. The student can analyze, respond, express, and convince. When lies come calling in their pretty disguises he can spot them instantly, strip back their sequined cloaks, and show them for what they are. And meanwhile, from his mouth and his pen the student sends goodness and truth and beauty into the world.

Restore the Trivium

This sort of student, this sort of architect, has become a rare creature. Many who have some small command of rhetoric put it in service of invalid and unsound arguments. Many more don’t understand enough logic to tell truth from lie. What happened? Two main things. First, in many schools objective truth was told, “It’s a nice day outside. Why don’t you take a walk and, uh, don’t come back.” The history and consequences of this deserve several articles, and we needn’t delve into these details as we near the end of this one.

The second reason why logicians and rhetoricians are rare is that in many schools self-expression has become the starting point of education and not one of its ends. “After all,” educators argue, “who wants to diagram sentences and learn about glottal stops? Here’s a piece of paper and a pencil. Write a story. Tell me about your favorite color.” This is like giving a man a clarinet and saying, “Play this instrument. Express yourself.” All that follows is squeaking from the clarinet, frustration from the man, and a desire for earplugs from everyone who must listen to him. But because this has been going on for so long, we don’t even desire the earplugs anymore. “Hey, not bad,” we say. “You sound like the rest of the clarinet players.”

But where has this left us? We can’t engage in an argument without taking it personally. We lack the logic necessary to make a case or critique one. Civil discourse seems to exist in name only. And it’s not that persuasion has stopped. It’s that persuasion has fallen to the level of base manipulation. Without good logic or rhetoric we are forsaken to the winds, blustered about by slogans and soundbites. We’re subject to pithy statements whose conclusions have no premises. These slogans tickle the ears and achieve some emotional effect. Men with wrecking balls point at a cardboard box and say, “Look at this mansion! It has everything you need. It’s a lovely place. You should move in.” And to their own harm many do.

Our children deserve better. We owe them better. So let’s give them the trivium. Let’s teach them to hew stones and plane boards. Let’s teach them to build houses and town halls and cathedrals. Let’s make them reasonable and eloquent in matters of home and state and Church. And while we’re at it, let’s abandon our own shabby boxes and aspire to something better.

Painting: “St. Paul Preaching in Athens” by Raphael, 1515



A man who knows how to work, knows how to enjoy leisure, and who doesn’t confuse the two.

A man who is neither idle nor overcommitted.
A man who would rather be content with little than ambitious for much.
A man who is faithful in all he does.

A man who lives to serve others and does not selfishly use others to serve himself.
A man who is compassionate and merciful, who neither passes by on the other side of the road nor promises to do what he cannot.
A man who is generous with his money and possessions, but not prodigal.
A man who is not oblivious to others.

A man who is brave, who fears God and nothing else, who does not shrink back from a challenge nor run headlong into destruction.
A man on whom others depend in their distress and need, and who is not ashamed to look to others in his need.
A man who is fit to lead and whom others are glad to follow.
A man marked by integrity.
A man who never betrays his friends.
A man who is not shaken by the tiny gusts of hardship nor the puny quakes of slander.
A man who would rather be insulted or fired than break one of God’s commandments.
A man who doesn’t care what troubles or words come his way so long as he can go to bed at night with a clear conscience.
A man who is courteous and well-mannered.
A man who respects his elders and seeks advice from those who know better than him.
A man who looks up to noble men and wants to be one.
A man who is respectable and trustworthy, regardless of whether anyone respects and trusts him or not.

A man who is quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.
A man who is articulate, precise, and brief in his speech.
A man who keeps his word.
A man who is honest, even if he receives nothing but pain for it.
A man who silences the foolish talk of gossipers and false teachers.
A man who does not judge by appearances.
A man who neither slanders the civil authorities nor worships them.

A man who seems to know the future, because he knows well the past.
A man who will humbly admit his ignorance and humbly share his knowledge.
A man who understands that faith, science, and reason are in harmony, not opposition.
A man who can distinguish fact, theory, and wild speculation.
A man who knows that goodness, beauty, and truth are objective, and not a matter of opinion.
A man whose head inclines up to the stars rather than down to a screen.
A man who enjoys the created world.
A man who loves to learn.

A man who understands the nature of mankind.
A man who is not enslaved to his passions, but masters them.
A man who makes his mammon serve him instead of him serving it.
A man who ignores the siren cries of sexual immorality.
A man who is not swayed by desire for power or fame.
A man who knows his faults and takes precautions against habitual sins.
A man who confesses when he is wrong, tries to make the wrong right, and knows that only Christ can atone for his transgressions.

A man who makes time for his family, and would rather be with them than with anyone else.
A man whose arms are a haven for his household, and whose own haven is his home and his Lord.
A man who loves his wife, gives himself for her, is content with her, and keeps his eyes and thoughts from other women.
A man who can praise the beauty of his wife without resorting to clichés.
A man who would rather have a mute tongue than speak an ill word against his wife.
A man who would rather have peace than win an argument.
A man who can change a diaper, rock a baby, sing a lullaby, and be confident that he’s more a man for it.
A man who by word and example brings up his children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
A man who knows how to fast and how to feast.
A man who will get dirty or get cleaned up as needed.

A man who is serviceable to the family, the community, and the congregation.
A man who is a true laborer: who earns what he eats, gets what he wears, owes no man hate, envies no man’s happiness, is glad of other men’s good, is content with his harm, and whose greatest pride is to see his children grow and his infants nurse.


A woman who adorns herself with a humble spirit and good works, and who laughs at the world’s attempts to be attractive.
A woman who cares to be beautiful in the eyes of God and of her husband, and who is modest and chaste in the eyes of everyone else.
A woman who would rather turn away the attention of other men than attract it.

A woman who neither listens to gossip nor repeats it.
A woman whose ears are open and whose lips are tight.
A woman whom other women trust and ask for advice.
A woman who cares enough to tell you so, and is gracious enough not to say, “I told you so.”
A woman who listens to both sides of a matter before drawing conclusions.
A woman who does not hesitate to ask for help when she needs it.

A woman who knows the good stories of old, and can tell the perfect tale for each time and place.
A woman who has been everywhere through good literature, and whose favorite place is the arms of her husband.
A woman who has seen the whole world through the eyes of history, and whose favorite sight is her newborn child.
A woman who has heard the poetry and songs of ages past, and whose favorite sound is the harmonious family voice saying grace before supper.
A woman who is prudent and knows the end of things.
A woman who reads well, writes well, and speaks well.
A woman who is more interested in governing her home than bothering herself with national politics; but who nevertheless could tell the qualities of a good leader and the temptations that accompany offices of civil authority.
A woman who loves to learn.

A woman who wants to be a wife and mother and believes these to be high callings of God.
A woman who is frugal and content.
A woman who makes a bowl a thin broth seem like a feast.
A woman who recognizes the bondage of feminists and the freedom of submitting to her husband.
A woman who is crafty.
A woman who practices justice and equity.
A woman who prays fervently, catechizes her children faithfully, and has no desire to be a clergyman.
A woman who embraces chivalry.
A woman who is hospitable.
A woman who brings joy to those around her.
A woman who turns a house into a home.

A woman who bears hardship patiently.
A woman who resists the allure of passing fads.
A woman who is not a slave to wine, nor to her possessions, nor to the opinion of others.
A woman who has confidence, but not pride.
A woman whom the world mocks in envy.

A woman who upholds the authority that God has given her over her children: who gives consequences for disobedience, who meets repentance with forgiveness, and who shows mercy without affirming wickedness.
A woman who takes seriously the violation of God’s commandments, but overlooks the violation of her own convenience.
A woman who goes to church and gladly hears God’s Word, who acknowledges her sins and believes they are forgiven for the sake of Christ.

A woman who feels compassion when she sees need and has mercy whenever she can be of help.
A woman who is pure, faithful, long-suffering, meek, gentle, graceful, and kind.

Who will build such men and women?

Sir Family and Lady Church, with Christ at their head. Stone goes upon stone and they build a tower whose head is supposed to reach the heavens. Will Education be a faithful maidservant: add her mortar and overlay the edifice with gold? Or will she come with pick and bar and, like Titus and Vespasian sacking Jerusalem, not leave one stone upon another?

Inspired by Rev. Dr. Frank Crane’s essay “Boy Wanted”
Painting: “The Wedding Feast at Cana” by Paolo Veronese, 1563