McKeon’s 1935 Trivium essay (the trivial debate)

McKeon’s 1935 essay set out a general theory in which the complex interrelations of the arts of the trivium are held to be fundamental to human consciousness, aka, what McKeon termed “verbal expression in general”. He named this field and its investigation ‘philosophy’.1 He then looked at the changes from the middle ages to the renaissance, and in particular at the work in those periods of Abelaird, Erasmus and Luther, as illustrating the proposed theory.

The general theory:

the history of the dispute of the grammarian, the rhetorician and the dialectician was chosen as the subject of this (…) exercise, since it is not difficult (…) to show how any historical work involves an attitude toward — and a solution of — that dispute.2  (108)

the manner in which discoveries [concerning]3 nature, God and man depend on grammar, rhetoric and dialectic has been shown sufficiently to make obvious the necessity of distinctions [within and between them] at each step [of the proposed investigation]. (110)

grammar differs as it is used by the grammarian, the rhetorician and the dialectician [just as dialectic and rhetoric differ between them in comparable ways]. (109)

The change in the relation of the three arts [to each other] (…) has the curious result of transforming the natures of the arts as they [themselves] are conceived (…) and consequently changing the significance of works that are read [on the basis of these conceptions] (82)4

shift in the emphasis in the [relations of the] three arts [to one another](…) is in itself sufficient to account for the changes [in history and particularly in intellectual history] (87)

positions [assigned to the trivial arts relative to one another] may be considered the corners of a three-sided debate in which men (…) have [always] engaged (55)

the controversies are persistent, since [the trivial arts are deeper than facts such that] no fact can dislodge the historian from any of the three positions…5  (111)

the successive persons [recorded in history] (…) take their complexions from the grammarians, the rhetoricians and the occasional dialecticians who have written about them (111)

The picture of the transformation which knowledge and action have undergone as a result of the shifting places of grammar, rhetoric and dialectic is not complete with the statement of the uses to which the dialectician has put grammar and rhetoric and the changes which the grammarian has introduced by submitting dialectic and rhetoric to his art. The rhetorician had long been at work, too, since the times of Isocrates and Quintillian, and by his approach grammar and dialectic are the tools of rhetoric, with resulting profound mutation of both arts and a particular degradation of dialectic. (105)

letters do not savor as they are but of that which is brought to them. (79)

The design (…) [of this essay] (…) turned upon the trick of restating a historical sequence of views in terms simply of the ideas they expressed [as shaped by the trivial arts] and in thus translating history into a [“persistent”]6 debate.  (114)

The middle ages and renaissance:

For two hundred years [roughly 900-1100?] the problems of philosophy were discussed [in the west] largely in the ordered terms derived from the study of two works attributed to Saint Augustine, the Ten Categories and the Dialectica, and from the sections on grammar, rhetoric and dialectic in the poem of Martianus Capella. The many commentaries on these works produced in the period are testimony of the central place they occupied in the scheme of education [and in] the organization of knowledge in general.7 (50-51)

[the middle ages may be seen as a] grammatical preparation for the dialectical developments of theology in the thirteenth century.8 (70)

What became of grammar, rhetoric and dialectic in the renaissance9? (71)

That shift in the emphasis in the three arts, that subversion of dialectic to grammar, is in itself sufficient to account for the changes which the Renaissance is reputed to have made. (87) 

There is a third form (…) in the hands of rhetoricians who submit grammar and dialectic to the needs of their art (83)  

Abailard, Erasmus and Luther:

Of the three, grammar, rhetoric and dialectic, it is grammar that Abailard finds particularly dangerous. (62)

Abailard conceived the task of philosophy to be precisely to disclose the meanings of various statements he quotes, how the reasons are related, what the arguments demonstrate. This is the task of the three arts. Grammar is used for the explication of the meaning of words, by examining the variation of their significances with the variation of context, speaker, auditor, time and place. The Sic et Non [of Abailard] is thus a vast grammatical exercise.10 (67)

the task [of Abailard] is dialectical: the meanings having been expounded, their agreements and disagreements are set forth, and where the arguments are fallacious they are refuted. Rhetoric falls into a subordinate place to be invoked only when figurative expressions and developments are involved. But herein lies the whole task of philosophy: the examination by reason of the various theories that have been advanced concerning the nature of things. By his approach Abailard discovered greater accord among the philosophers than has been found by other approaches, for his concern is to discover that aspect of reality which the philosopher was attempting to express.(68-69)

Both Abailard and Erasmus (…) bring the arts of grammar, rhetoric and dialectic prominently into the discussion. (72)

Though they differed from Abailard in the relative emphases they would give the arts, Petrarch or Erasmus would not condemn the liberal arts, not even logic, since they are the necessary preparations, the instruments to be used to penetrate to philosophy.11 (71) 

But whereas Abailard is fearful lest one be led by grammar and rhetoric from the true understanding which dialectic alone can procure, the hope of Erasmus centers on the art of grammar, and his suspicions fall on rhetoric and,to a much greater degree, on dialectic. (75)

The difference between the method of Erasmus and that of Abailard may therefore be stated as that between a use of the three arts oriented to an understanding of a passage (that is, the three arts arranged in accordance with the needs of grammar) [versus]12 the use of the three arts oriented to a comparative estimation of a variety of arguments (that is, the three arts arranged under the dominance of dialectic). (81) 

theology [according to Luther] uses the same grammatical terms entirely differently from dialectic. (98)

Between these two foes of dialectic, these two grammarians of the word of Christ, [namely, Erasmus and Luther,] there is a sharp difference concerning the nature of grammar… (103)13


  1. See McKeon’s 1935 Trivium essay (what is philosophy?).
  2. The dashes here have been added here for clarity. As regards McKeon’s ‘persistent dispute’ of the arts of the trivium, McLuhan usually used the words ‘ancient quarrel’. Hence his 1946 article: ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America”.
  3. McKeon: ‘of’
  4. Reading = interpretation = experience = “expression in general” = consciousness.
  5. Facts do not underlie the trivial categories; instead the trivial categories underlie the understanding of fact. Some solution of the trivial debate is implicated in any relation we take up to fact.
  6. McKeon: ‘philosophic’.
  7. McLuhan made a couple minor references to Martianus Capella in his Nashe thesis. Three decades later, however, in his 1974 Bacon essay, he cited Ernst Robert Curtius (European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, 1953, 38) as follows: “The description of the liberal arts which remained authoritative throughout the Middle Ages had been produced by Martianus Capella, who wrote between 410 and 439. Notker Labeo (d. 1022) translated it into Old High German; the young Hugo Grotius won his spurs with a new edition (1599); and Leibniz, even in his day, planned another. Traces of Martianus are still to be found in the pageantry of the late sixteenth century.” This was old news to Gilson and McKeon, but perhaps not to McLuhan. In any case, it would seem that the notion of working from the trivium in intellectual history did not come to McLuhan from Martianus Capella or any other original source, but from Gilson and McKeon. Indeed, McLuhan was well aware that his PhD thesis was predominantly a review of secondary literature and represented few new findings.
  8. The thirteenth century — and fourteenth? So another 200 years?
  9. A further 200 years of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries?
  10. McKeon’s differing descriptions of Abailard in regard to dialectic and grammar may be taken to signify that the three are seldom or never found in pure form. Instead, most work, and all good work, is, as McKeon writes here, “the task of the three arts” together. See the citation from p 72: “Both Abailard and Erasmus (…) bring (all of) the arts of grammar, rhetoric and dialectic prominently into the discussion.”
  11. “Relative emphases” implicates structuralism!
  12. McKeon: ‘and’.
  13. Erasmus used grammar to consolidate the tradition: “the grammar which he praises, however, is that practiced by the old theologians, Origen, Basil, Chrysostom, Jerome” (76); Luther in fundamental contrast  to undermine it — or, at least, to appeal to another tradition.