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The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric [Paperback]

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Item Specifications...

Pages   292
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 9.2" Width: 6.14" Height: 0.88"
Weight:   1.05 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   May 1, 2002
Publisher   Paul Dry Books
ISBN  0967967503  
EAN  9780967967509  

Availability  0 units.

Item Description...

Who sets language policy today? Who made whom the grammar doctor? Lacking the equivalent of l'Academie francaise, we English speakers must find our own way looking for guidance or vindication in source after source. McGuffey's Readers introduced nineteenth-century students to "correct" English. Strunk and White's Elements of Style and William Safire's column, "On Language," provide help on diction and syntax to contemporary writers and speakers. Sister Miriam Joseph's book, The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric, invites the reader into a deeper understanding--one that includes rules, definitions, and guidelines, but whose ultimate end is to transform the reader into a liberal artist.
A liberal artist seeks the perfection of the human faculties. The liberal artist begins with the language arts, the trivium, which is the basis of all learning because it teaches the tools for reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Thinking underlies all these activities. Many readers will recognize elements of this book: parts of speech, syntax, propositions, syllogisms, enthymemes, logical fallacies, scientific method, figures of speech, rhetorical technique, and poetics. The Trivium, however, presents these elements within a philosophy of language that connects thought, expression, and reality.
"Trivium" means the crossroads where the three branches of language meet. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, students studied and mastered this integrated view of language. Regrettably, modern language teaching keeps the parts without the vision of the whole. Inspired by the possibility of helping students "acquire mastery over the tools of learning" Sister Miriam Joseph and other teachers at Saint Mary's College designed and taught a course on the trivium for all first year students. The Trivium resulted from that noble endeavor.
The liberal artist travels in good company. Sister Miriam Joseph frequently cites passages from William Shakespeare, John Milton, Plato, the Bible, Homer, and other great writers. The Paul Dry Books edition of The Trivium provides new graphics and notes to make the book accessible to today's readers. Sister Miriam Joseph told her first audience that "the function of the trivium is the training of the mind for the study of matter and spirit, which constitute the sum of reality. The fruit of education is culture, which Mathew Arnold defined as 'the knowledge of ourselves and the world.'" May this noble endeavor lead many to that end.

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More About Miriam Joseph & Marguerite McGlinn

Register your artisan biography and upload your photo! Sister Miriam Joseph (1898-1982) earned her doctorate from Columbia University. A member of the Sisters of the Holy Cross, Sister Miriam was professor of English at Saint Mary's College from 1931 to 1960. She was also the author of Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language and many articles on Shakespeare and on the trivium.

Miriam Joseph was born in 1898 and died in 1982.

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Reviews - What do our customers think?
"Mere accumulation of facts does not constitute education"  Sep 19, 2008
Eva Brauns said that "whoever owns this books owns a treasure;" I agree.

Sister Miriam Joseph makes a distinction between the liberal arts, which teach one how to live and allow a human to rise above his or her material environment, and the utilitarian (or servile) arts, which allow one to earn a living.

The liberal arts exist to discipline the mind and perfect the intellect, allowing a person to sort fact from fiction, and conforming his or her mind with truth. This is (or rather, SHOULD BE) the aim of education (and by extension, philosophy). Regrettably, this is not the case.

If high school students studied this book carefully prior to entering college, they would be prepared to tackle any challenge: the study of mathematics, physics, chemistry, philosophy, among other subjects, would be more enjoyable and less burdensome when studied on a firm foundation in the liberal arts of logic, grammar, and rhetoric.

BTW, there is no requirement that you be Catholic or any sort of Christian to study this book. I am an agnostic, and wouldn't think twice about recommending it.
The Trivium  Sep 17, 2008
I reviewed the book, and look forward to reading it. The novel premise of this book intrigues me. It promises to be both definitive and interesting.
Rigorous but enjoyable  May 29, 2008
This excellent work is certainly a challenge, even for someone, like myself, who studied philosophy in college. It is, however, worth the effort. Combining the original 60-year old text with the deft editing (and entirely new material, particularly in the thought-experiment examples) by Marguerite McGlinn, this is a timeless work now available and accessible to new generations of readers.

on a personal note, editor Mrs. McGlinn passed away last week after battling pancreatic cancer. if you love this book as I do, it would be wonderful to honor her memory by donating to research into this terrible disease:

Marguerite Mulligan McGlinn memorial pancreas cancer research fund
c/o Dan Laheru MD
The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
The Sol Goldman Pancreatic Cancer Research Center
The Sidney Kimmel Compreshensive Cancer Center
Bunting-Blaustein CRB Room G89
1650 Orleans Street, Baltimore, MD 21231

Trivium Review  Mar 25, 2008
This is one of my FAVOURITE books indeed. A wonderful and inviting summary of the Classical Education system known as the Trivium, you become aware of your own weaknesses as far as possessing the tools for advanced learning in the most scholarly fiends of learning.

Every single household should possess a copy of this book. Thank you so much for publishing with work.
flawed and impenetrable  Jan 19, 2008
The Trivium is one of those impenetrable books that one hesitates to condemn, because one suspects that to do so is to make a fool of oneself. Nevertheless I feel that it may be useful to provide a counterpoint to the nearly universally glowing reviews this book has attracted.

Reading The Trivium is an exercise in adversity. Sister Miriam lays down statement after rule after axiom, one after another, like dealing cards, often without support. As a reader you can accept each assertion and continue, or you can consider each postulate critically. I tried the former course for a time, but this caused me to glance off the surface of following material. When I resorted to critical thinking, I fell quickly into a struggle for dominance with the Sister, and bogged down. This book may have some value providing a certain historical insight, but I can't see how anyone with a recent education would approach it hoping to improve his grasp on any of grammar, logic, or rhetoric.


I approached this difficult book by beginning with Chapter 3, why not? Immediately I realized this approach would fail. The Trivium introduces vocabulary, and unusual meanings for words I thought I already knew. While reading it from the middle, I was never quite certain whether I had understood a given statement, or not at all. Yet to begin at the beginning is to be treated little better.

This reviewer is passing familiar with Greek philosophy, though he is no academic. From other reviews I had expected The Trivium to present, well, the subjects of Alcuin's venerable Trivium in a useful way, with a rigorous, old school flavor that classical Greeks might have recognized. With regard to the flavor, I am accustomed to professors approaching such material with a touch of equivocation. You know: "Empedocles is thought to have originated the concept that all matter is composed of the canonical four elements. I'm sure this was very clever in his day, but you should know that our current models are rather more successful." I noticed no such restraint in this book. To be fair, I penetrated only some twenty pages but please, from that short introduction alone I have cause for much dissatisfaction.

Even when properly approached from the beginning, this book is a series of confrontations with unusual uses of recognizable words, frequently followed by opportunities through continued use to hone what one might take to be their meaning in the given context. It's an interesting way to introduce terminology, but unnecessarily difficult, I think. Do these words represent Greek concepts? English words are being tortured into service to describe something, whatever its origin. Are these standard translations of Greek terms? I think that they are not, and in any case I have been led to believe that there is seldom an easy one-to-one correspondence between the vocabulary of Greek philosophy and that of modern English. None of this is evident from the content of (the beginning of) this book. I would like to be treated more gently!


I have other complaints about Sister Miriam's book. One is the ease with which its author reels off questionable claims as if they were unimpeachable. A very typical example of my own struggle with this material may be elucidating. The Trivium opens chapter 2 with stock brazenness:

"The function of language is threefold: to communicate thought, volition, and emotion."

Alright. That's pretty blanket. Is it meant to be taken literally? Is it some classical Greek assertion with which I am unfamiliar, submitted for my amusement? If it is, shouldn't it be identified as such? If not, is it necessarily true? Where are we going with this? Should I just accept it and continue? No, no, I should drop anchor for a moment, and consider ramifications... Very well. The statement feels flawed, but I must admit I can't categorically countermand it with any certainty. However for myself I believe I would not have broken it down quite that way, and I'm not sure that to do so gives us any useful organization. I would expect such a decree to be followed by a citation, or by an authoritative justification. Yet while I've been dallying, the Sister has forged ahead and built on the statement, without giving what I would consider a reason to accept the foundation of her subsequent arguments.

The book appears to be thickly strewn with such curious traps, so expect to spend five unpleasantly thought-provoking minutes reading each page. Struggling with the book feels like playing a card game with the author, and she has all the trumps. Well, not all the trumps. It feels like she thinks she has all the trumps, correspondingly claims each trick played, and brooks no argument about her interpretation of the rules. The game is a variant of Bridge, in case you don't play, but you get my point.

Another example from the same page may be useful:

"Pure spirits, such as angels, communicate thought, but their communication is not properly called language because it does not employ a physical medium."

Okey-doke. Will this important-sounding distinction be developed into some critical discovery as the book progresses? Interestingly this announcement was graced with a reference, though the content of that reference would seem to have little bearing on the subject of the claim. I suspect that I am not alone in wanting to see such doctrinal arrogance qualified, in a book that purports to be a learning tool.

Vocabulary and argument

Particularly distressing to me was Sister Miriam's cavalier treatment of the terms "species" and "genus." She spends considerable effort developing (somewhat) precise definitions for each. To what profit, I was never certain. I am aware of several working definitions for the term "species" as a biologist would understand it, and I believe that difficulties with definitions for such terms predated Sister Miriam's career. Yet the Sister seems quite at ease, swooping low and declaring her own simplified scheme by fiat, and then sweeping on to her next contentious declaration with little pause.

Of course I understand that the Sister is not interested in describing a working Linnaean classification system, suitable for biology research. She would be interested in a purely logical categorization hierarchy. In my opinion she would have served her readers better by choosing less overloaded terms. This example goes to my earlier point of vocabulary. While reading The Trivium, I found myself juggling up a mental dictionary of terms special-purposed to this book, to be kept in warm storage as I progressed. At the rate I was adding entries to this dictionary, I fear it would take a brain larger than mine to finish this book with any understanding.

I believe the game is not Bridge, but Fizzbin, a diversion that Star Trek fans will recognize as one in which the rules change to suit the dealer. Nominally Fizzbin is a card game, but in fact the object is to start a short fist fight with a sucker punch. Perhaps I do Sister Miriam a disservice in saying so, but I feel certain that she was one of those fabled nuns who met timid but reasonable dissent with a fierce yardstick to the knuckles.


Sister Miriam's Catholic chauvinism shines through repeatedly. On page 12 she claims that only human beings are capable of the sort of mental processes that make possible such a thing as language. This claim is followed quickly enough by another: that sign language is not a real language like a spoken tongue. (Between the two claims were a couple of pages of more typical brow-furrowing, lower-level commentary, but these two were high points for me.) Sister Miriam uncharacteristically supports the first of these two claims with a reference. I would commend her for this. Nevertheless I believe that we now have good evidence to counter the pretension of that first statement, which seems irrelevant to a study of the book's purported subject matter, anyway. The second statement is simply ignorant, or merely careless if we are inclined to be charitable.

I gather that both claims were slated for development. Nevertheless, perhaps none of this is important to the book's operating thesis, and a reader would find it possible to extract useful content from the work by overlooking immaterial assertions. But how comfortable can one be in identifying and accepting the salient points, knowing that the book is laden with such coarse overburden?

Greek Giants

This reviewer has a more than passing interest in all three of the topics of logic, grammar, and rhetoric, but he soon became bored with this book, and concerned about the quality of the information being presented. I began skipping ahead, as well as I was able. Before I set the book down I began to notice a distinct flavor of what I believe was Aristotelianism. I'm certain it was intentional, though its applicability to a current treatment of the subjects of Alcuin's Trivium would seem to be a matter for historians before grammarians.

I have great respect for the man who by all accounts was a rare genius; a gargantuan polymath. Europe allowed Aristotle's dead hand to steer its course for centuries. Frankly I doubt he would have approved of all the adaptations that were made of his ideas. After a long false start, the West has made some good progress since his much extended day. A modern book that wishes to be relevant would do well to keep Aristotle's philosophy in perspective, however brilliant it was at the time.

Is Sister Miriam's book simply an Aristotelian homage? Is it a work of history? Is it an exploration of grammar and what-not as they are used today (or relatively recently)? Does it express a longing for the good and simpler days of yore? Whose yore? Is it a treatise for instilling a sympathetic understanding of our forefathers' fear and loathing of English class? Is it forensic evidence of some long-ago party I was never invited to? I don't think so. Maybe. I don't know. I do know that I don't want to learn logic from a teacher who is so cavalier with her premises. The Trivium is some mighty thick reading, and I think unwarrantably so. Perhaps I am a fool after all, but I'm certain the book deserves one dismissive review.

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