Rhetoric in the Classical Liberal Arts

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Rhetoric in the Classical Liberal Arts

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(The text below constitutes the narrative that supports the PowerPoint presentation. Click here for a more exhaustive discussion.)

Learning rhetoric was, according to Aristotle and Plato, learning to speak the truth to fellow human beings in a way that respects their freedom and helps them excel as human beings. Rhetoric is defined by Aristotle as, “The faculty of discovering in any given case the available means of persuasion.” Rhetoric is a study of persuasion that includes logical, ethical and artistic components (pursuit of truth, and its artful presentation to real people with whom one wishes to cultivate and maintain a social bond). Rhetoric was, for much of western history, considered the cornerstone of a liberal arts education.

The Greeks had three divisions of education:

  • the productive arts
  • the industrial arts
  • the liberal arts

The first two were education for slaves, where slaves were taught to make things; to use and maintain their tools. Liberal education was designed for free persons (hence, “liberal,” as in “liberated”). This was education for citizens, in which they learned to be good judges, make good laws, exercise leadership, and, generally, be at home in the realm of ideas. They were equipped to exercise their freedom, and it was felt that, in exercising freedom, they would achieve excellence. For the Greeks, excellence went something like this: Every creature has something it does uniquely and better than any other creature. So, the excellence of the cheetah is its speed, and it realizes its excellence in running. They identified an excellence for each creature: the excellence of the ant is its organization, the excellence of the elephant is its size, and so on. What do you suppose the excellence of the “rational animal” would be? Right! To think, to reason, to analyze and to argue. In short, to be at home in the realm of ideas. But, the enterprise must be approached as an art in order to fully appropriate this benefit. Why?

Because everyone thinks, argues and communicates ideas already. We do it intuitively! We can’t help it; we’re human beings, and that’s how humans are designed. However, there’s a big difference between intuition and art. In order to master any body of knowledge as an art, one must:

  1. Define it
  2. Break it into parts
  3. Study the parts
  4. Practice

Steps 1-3 entail laying a theoretical foundation. There are three questions one must ask while acquiring a theoretical account for a given body of knowledge. “How is this part like that part?” (generra) “How is this part different from that part?” (differentia) Finally, one must integrate the knowledge: “How do the parts work together?” This is the process of systematically acquiring a theoretical account of the making process. It is a systematic approach to learning an art (hence, “discipline”).

There is no substitute for theory when one aims to acquire an art. According to Joseph Dunne, Back to the Rough Ground. University of Notre Dame Press, 1993, art (or, techne) is: “The kind of knowledge possessed by an expert maker; it gives him a clear conception of the why and wherefore, the how and the with what of the making process and enables him, through the capacity to offer a rational account of it, to preside over his activity with secure mastery” (p. 9). *

Secure mastery of such practical arts is the aim of liberal arts education. The liberal arts were, in the Middle Ages, broken into seven “sub-arts”; the Trivium and Quadrivium.

7 Classical Liberal Arts



Trivium Quadrivium
grammar astronomy
dialectic arithmetic
rhetoric geometry

* Techne (art or “craft knowledge”) is one of the “five intellectual virtues” discussed in both Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics and his Nicomachean Ethics, Book VI. Paul Ricoeur calls these the “dianoetic virtues”; the faculties of the well-ordered mind.  They are explained on the Rhetoric Ring [here].

Dorothy L. Sayers’ “The Lost Tools of Learning” teaches a very important point about the difference between the trivium and the quadrivium. She teaches that the trivium were taught as tools, the quadrivium were subjects. The trivium help form, discipline and order the mind; to cultivate the intellectual virtues that equip students to be at home in the realm of ideas, to both learn and discuss them.

The question at the heart of liberal education is, “What knowledge must we have in order to be fully human?” (see Wayne Booth’s “Is There Any Knowledge That a Man Must Have?”). So, the aim of liberal education is human excellence. As one practices the art of rhetoric (and rhetorical reasoning), until it becomes “second nature” or hexis (habit), one realizes human excellence. That is why, in its golden age, rhetoric was considered the “most humane of the humanities.” Click here for an elaboration of this idea.