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McLuhan and the Trivuim

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VERY Christian. You have been warned.



Thinking Trivially About Radical Orthodoxy


Those who tended to organize the trivium in terms of rhetoric–including Cicero, Quintilian, John of Salisbury, Petrarch, and Samuel Johnson, among others–had as their primary concern the cultivation of wisdom and eloquence (64). Perhaps more important in McLuhan’s history than this concern for the primacy of wisdom and eloquence is the idea that wisdom and eloquence were almost synonymous (64). Thus, those devoted to rhetoric were concerned with developing students who could take on the character of the doctus orator: one who demonstrated encyclopedic knowledge and whose knowledge was perfected by eloquence (66). The end towards which these goals were aimed was the practice of political prudence, for the verbal power associated with rhetoric was to be rightly used to pursue justice in the political realm. Though rhetoric is often thought of as merely “how something is said,†McLuhan’s history attempts to show that devotees of rhetoric were concerned with much more than flowery language; they were concerned with organizing a course of education towards the end of achieving wisdom, eloquence, and political prudence.



The way in which the differing concerns motivated intellectuals of the three schools of thought towards varied goals and standards of intellectual achievement led to severe disagreements throughout history, including the disagreement between Nashe and Harvey which McLuhan’s dissertation sought to understand. More important than this disagreement, though, is how the lens of the trivium allowed McLuhan to see historical shifts through history, including the Renaissance. Significantly, in McLuhan’s history the Renaissance is a rebirth not just of classical traditions in general but of grammatical doctrines in particular. When, “after three centuries of doctrinal organization and disputation, the dialecticians had shown themselves unable to advance piety or to instruct the faithful, the grammarians, who had not ceased to provide a hostile opposition, rapidly regained the interest and the attention of the learned world†(133). A prime example of a grammarian whose thought gained attention was Francis Bacon, whose works like The Advancement of Learning and the Novum Organum evidence a firm grammatical commitment to the doctrine of names and the use of the liberal arts towards the exegesis of nature (McLuhan, Classical Trivium 16). Accordingly, McLuhan stresses the continuity of the trivium throughout history in that the dynamics of intellectual developments can be understood in terms of the relations between the three ways of the trivium. In the trivium, McLuhan saw a lens that could be used throughout intellectual history in order to help make sense of the world.


The About page is interesting. Marshall McLuhan's son Eric is a writer for the blog.

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This is fascinating. Thanks for linking this. I've just recently revived my interest in McLuhan. Here is my blog about this.


I just recently received my copy of the dissertation, The Classical Trivium, which he wrote back in the 1930s! Have only just begun it.



I have to finish up another book (Leisure, the Basis of Culture, which has taken me FAR TOO LONG to read (I keep putting it down for something else)) and once that is done, I'll read The Trivium. I can't wait to chat about it.

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