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2.01 The Beauty and Persuasive Power of Language



The Seven Liberal Arts are composed of the three language arts of the Trivium and the four mathematical arts of the Quadrivium. If, as some have claimed, the universe was “written in the language of mathematics” then the mathematical arts are also a kind of numerical, symbolic, and abstract language art and the liberal arts all together can be described as placing a high priority on language. A commitment to the liberal arts then necessarily prioritizes and appreciates language across the entire classical curriculum. 


Let us consider the Trivium:


A study of grammar, the first language art of the Trivium, begins with a multi-sensory phonics-based approach to reading and spelling that helps students assign meaning (sounds) to letters and syllables, then combine these sounds and syllables to compose words, and these words to form sentences. Sentences then introduce the concept of parts of speech that must relate to one another according to sets of rules.  


As these sentences are used to make arguments and combined to form paragraphs, students enter into a study of logic, the second language art of the Trivium. The construction of arguments, whether they be written or spoken, requires critical thinking, both inductive and deductive reasoning, the formation and defense of theses, and the ability to identify fallacies wherever they may appear.


In order to present these arguments persuasively and with eloquence students must enter into a study of rhetoric, the art of communication and expression. Herein students learn to use all available means to teach, please, and move an audience to a right judgment, action, or belief. Students learn to avoid excessive and ambiguous language in order to achieve clarity and concision yet without compromising the beauty of their style. This is often achieved through the use of similes and metaphors. Beyond words, students also give attention to volume of sound, modulation of pitch, rhythm of voice, and the movement of their bodies.

Finally, as Augustine has argued in De Doctrina Christiana, these methods of persuasion must be tempered by wisdom lest rhetorical eloquence be used as a device for pursuing and promoting the novel and perverse rather than a way of pursuing and defending all that is true, good, and beautiful.


While the best words are surely those spoken with both wisdom and eloquence, it is an exercising of wisdom that must be the priority. Augustine warns, “…we must beware of the man who abounds in eloquent nonsense and so much more if the hearer is pleased with what is not worth listening to, and thinks that because the speaker is eloquent what he says must be true. And this opinion is held even by those who think that the art of rhetoric should be taught; for they confess that ‘though wisdom without eloquence is of little service to states, yet eloquence without wisdom is frequently a positive injury, and is of service never.’” Augustine then offers us this description of Paul as both apostle and rhetorician, that we can and should aspire to: “…wisdom is his guide, eloquence his attendant; he follows the first, the second follows him, and yet he does not spurn it when it comes after him.”


While instruction in rhetoric originally emphasized oratory, the ancient art grew to include and value both spoken and written arguments. 


In his book A Short History of Writing Instruction, author James Murphy notes that Aristotle himself acknowledged a reciprocal relationship between writing and oratory and recognized writing instruction as a potential “system for enhancing more complex patterns of thought and expression” (Murphy, 2012).


Murphy further describes the relationship between rhetoric and writing, “It is clear that writing and oral language go hand in hand in the Roman educational program. If oral eloquence was the desired product of the schools, writing was a major means to that end. ‘In writing are the roots, in writing are the foundations of eloquence.’ This judgment, written in 95 AD by Marcus Fabius Quintilianus in his Institutio Oratoria, was not unique to him, It was an idea already pervasive in Roman culture” (Murphy, 2012).]


Writing instruction eventually grew to include sets of drills and exercises known as the progymnasmata, a term first appearing in Rhetoric for Alexander, a handbook written by Anaximenes of Lampsacus in the third quarter of the fourth century. These writing exercises taught students how to: retell, condense, and expand fables; recount historical events; amplify a well-known saying or scientific principle; disprove or prove a given narrative; cast favor or disfavor upon an established fact; praise virtue and dispraise vice; compose an imaginary monologue; offer a vivid description; defend a position; and argue for or against a law (Kennedy, 2003; Murphy, 2012). Anaximenes claimed that “if students understand the forms and styles of composition as practiced in progymnasmata, they will have a plentiful supply of material for writing and speaking” (Kennedy, 2003).


Thus a classical curriculum must include plenty of opportunities for students to practice writing in a variety of forms, ideally including those forms found in the progymnasmata, and most of these opportunities ought to occur prior to formal instruction in rhetoric. 


Here it is worth noting that the composition curriculum titled Writing and Rhetoric, a publication of Classical Academic Press, achieves this quite well.  Our teachers at Covenant Classical School have spent this past spring and several weeks this summer preparing to implement this curriculum with our grades 3-6 students in the fall.


We must not ask students to produce compositions and speeches of their own without also exposing them to eloquent works to be imitated. As Aristotle has noted in his Poetics, “Imitation is natural to man from childhood, one of his advantages over the lower animals being this, that he is the most imitative creature in the world, and learns at first by imitation.” Augustine observes in De Doctrina Christiana that “we know no one who is eloquent without having read and listened to the speeches and debates of eloquent men.”


The works we hope for students to imitate must be chosen carefully because they will shape not only the language of the student but also his/her character.


For this reason the classical curriculum is composed of books that contemplate purpose and meaning; books that soberly portray the sinful nature of man; books that tell stories of sacrificial love and heroic acts of redemption; books that lament pain and suffering; books that celebrate truth, goodness, and beauty; and those Great Books that have shaped western thought and civilization.


Certainly the Bible is the greatest work and the only God-breathed work of literature but it is not the only book worthy of our attention. In addition to a rigorous study of the Holy Scriptures students must also read pagan classics. To answer Tertullian’s famous question, Yes, Athens does indeed have something to do with Jerusalem. 


Louis Markos has argued this point well in his introduction to From Achilles to Christ wherein he writes, “If it is true, as Paul teaches in Acts 17:26-28, that we are all made in his image, that he is not far from us, that in him we live and move and have our being, then it must also be true that those timeless works of ancient Greece and Rome that record the musings of humanity’s greatest seekers and yearners will contain traces, remnants, and intimations of that wisdom which made us.” Markos also believes that literature may be our best tool for bringing cohesion and synthesis to a smattering of discrete facts. In a brief work titled Literature: A Student’s Guidehe writes: “We cannot live in such a vast sea of discrete, unassimilated, often anti-humanistic facts. We must make sense of the facts, must synthesize them somehow with what our race has learned about God, man, and the universe. Aside from the Bible itself – which is, in any case, composed of over a dozen different literary genres, especially poetry – literature is one of our best tools and guides for achieving this grand and humanizing synthesis.”


Augustine calls upon Christians to find in the pagan classics, liberal instruction concerning truth, morality, and even worship in the same way that the Israelites re-appropriated vessels, ornaments, and garments of gold when they plundered the Egyptians. He writes in book two of De Doctrina Christiana, “…if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it. For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves… in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and have burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us… ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they everywhere scattered abroad…” 


Consider Albert Jay Nock’s lecture delivered at the University of Virginia in 1931 later published as a Theory of Education in the United States wherein Nock observes: “The literatures of Greece and Rome comprise the longest and fullest continuous record available to us, of what the human mind has been busy about in practically every department of spiritual and social activity... This record covers twenty-five hundred consecutive years of the human mind’s operations in poetry, drama, law, agriculture, philosophy, architecture, natural history, philology, rhetoric, astronomy, politics, medicine, theology, geography, everything. Hence the mind that has attentively canvassed this record is not only a disciplined mind but an experienced mind; a mind that instinctively views any contemporary phenomenon from the vantage point of an immensely long perspective attained through this profound and weighty experience of the human spirit’s operations.” 


Perhaps like me you would confess that you have read fewer of the great books of the western world than you ought to have read by now, given that you are a classical educator.  If that is the case then you might be interested in joining me on the latest iteration of my own re-education. A few of my colleagues and I are working through an ambitious reading plan that will have us reading large portions of the Great Books of the Western World series over a period of five years. In just the past few months, my readings have included: Plato’s Apology and The Republic, Aristophanes’ The Clouds and Lysistrata, Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics and Politics, Augustine’s Confessions, Machiavelli’s The Prince, and Locke’s Essay on Civil Government.You can find this reading plan in the appendix of a book titled The Great Conversation: A Reader’s Guide to Great Books of the Western World.



Western civilization’s greatest works are most fully appreciated when they can be read in their original languages. For this reason, a classical curriculum also includes a study of Latin, and sometimes Greek. While Latin serves as the best mechanism for appreciating formal grammar and undoubtedly expands the vocabulary of our students, learning Latin is of greatest value because it enables students to share in the education of the ancients by reading the same books in the same languages and wrestling with the same thoughts and questions upon which Western civilization has been founded and by which human experiences are evaluated.


Christian Kopff, classics professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder since 1973, has been disturbed by how many teachers of the Great Books are unable to read them in their original languages. Kopff argues in his book The Devil Knows Latinthat translating from the original language reveals nuances and intricacies not observable in English translations and the versatility of Latin words invite the reader to consider multiple readings of the text. The translator is forced to make decisions effecting the meaning and interpretation of the text and thereby he/she gains an appreciation for the power of a well-chosen and well-placed word. More importantly, Kopff believes a study of Latin increases the student’s understanding of the impact language can have on shaping culture. Kopff writes, “…the principal goal of all language study must be the command of significant literary works in their native languages and an understanding of those languages’ respective roles in our common culture. Oral and written proficiency have their place, but they must take a back seat to formative knowledge.” 


Admittedly not all students in our classical schools are able to or choose to spend a year or more translating ancient Latin texts. So what do we hope these students will love about the Latin language? Perhaps we can help our students appreciate the precision, efficiency of expression, clever ordering of words that the intricacies of Latin grammar affords in ways that our own language does not. Or, perhaps we can teach them to love Latin words, well composed compound words, and words that have become the roots of our own English language. And more elementary than that, perhaps we can choose to immerse them in clever and sometimes humorous storytelling, as they translate introductory texts such as Orberg’s Lingua Latina.


Thus far we have seen that the language arts equip students with an ability to assess, identify, and respond to propositions appearing in literature. They also enable students to construct arguments modeled off of master works, known most intimately when translated from their original languages. It is now worth remembering that these skills are not only exercised in writing and public speaking but are also honed in conversations of the Socratic kind.


Richard Riesen in his book The Academic Imperative: A Reassessment of Christian Education’s Prioritiesdescribes three virtues of a Socratic method of teaching. First, the method requires the kind of thinking most congruent with a receptive and contemplative attitude; second, participation in Socratic dialogue “inculcates the skills and tempers required for civil discourse; and third, the method affords students the opportunity to exercises Christian charity toward one another (Riesen, 2010). 


Learning to write, speak, and converse with persuasive, eloquent, tempered, gracious and precise language sets a foundation upon which the mathematical arts of the Quadrivium can be built. The language arts of the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) are allexercised in the study of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Numbers are symbols that have meaning. When numbers are combined and related by operations of arithmetic, words and sentences are formed. When characteristics of congruent and similar geometric shapes are compared, hypotheses are proposed and proofs are demanded. Proofs that are persuasive also must be logically sound and when they are eloquent as well, a beautiful kind of mathematical rhetoric emerges. When shape and number are considered over time music is formed and when these same musical intervals appear in the design of the cosmos, we marvel at the incredible ability of mathematics to so accurately describe natural phenomena and we wonder if mathematics is the most universal language of them all. 


For too long mathematics has been pigoneholed into the category of logic and as a result, the roles of the language arts of grammar and rhetoric in the study of mathematics have been neglected. Mathematics is more than a set of logical statements and sequences to be memorized and manipulated.


Mathematician J. Bronowski has argued in his book Science and Human Values(1964) that “mathematics is in the first place a language in which we discuss those parts of the real world which can be described by numbers or by similar relations of order. But with the workaday business of translating the facts into this language there naturally goes, in those who are good at it, a pleasure in the activity itself. They find the language richer than its bare content; what is translated comes to mean less to them than the logic and the style of saying it; and from these overtones grows mathematics as a literature in its own right. Mathematics in this sense is a form of poetry…” 


Markos has described the great poets of the western canon, poets such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, and Keats, as “[using] figurative language not to make their poems more fuzzy and indistinct but to make them more concrete and precise.” He further explains, “Poetry…is the most condensed type of language known to man. Through its subtle use of figurative language, allusion, and connotation, poetry empowers the poet to say and suggest the most in the shortest amount of words” (Markos, 2012).


The language of mathematics is no doubt concrete and precise but it is also figurative and connotative and attentive to the economy of words. This is best realized by students through a consideration of beautiful mathematical proofs, those proofs that have shaped and inspired the history of mathematical thinking. Mathematician G. H. Hardy has described the proof of the infinitude of primes and the proof of the irrationality of the square root of two as two of the most beautiful proofs ever composed. He writes, “[These proofs] that I have given are test cases, and a reader who cannot appreciate them is unlikely to appreciate anything in mathematics. I said that a mathematician was a maker of patterns of ideas, and that beauty and seriousness were the criteria by which his patterns should be judged. I can hardly believe that anyone who has understood the two theorems will dispute that they pass these tests… What purely aesthetic qualities can we distinguish in such theorems as Euclid’s and Pythagoras’s? …In both theorems there is a very high degree of unexpectedness, combined with inevitability and economy. The arguments take so odd and surprising of a form; the weapons used seem so childishly simple when compared with the far-reaching results; but there is no escape from their conclusions.” 


This precise but also poetic language of mathematics is so well-suited for the description, investigation, and exploration of geometry, music, and astronomy and more broadly, the natural phenomena we see throughout the cosmos that it once caused Nobel prizewinner Eugene Wigner to title an essay The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematicsin which he writes: “It is difficult to avoid the impression that a miracle confronts us here, quite comparable to the… miracles of the existence of laws of nature and of the human mind’s capacity to discern them. The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve (Wigner, 1960)”.


Through precise, logical, colorful, gracious, compelling, wise, and eloquent words we are able to move others and be moved. We are even remarkably able to describe and contemplate the workings of our universe. Like Wigner, we must conclude that language is indeed “a wonderful gift, which we neither understand nor deserve.” Let us maintain a commitment to stewarding this gift unto the glory of the gift-giver as we teach students to appreciate the beauty of eloquent and wise words, well written and spoken.


In summary, formal instruction in the language arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric (the Trivium) enables students to discern meaning, think and reason clearly, and persuade eloquently. These skills can and should be refined through writing exercises across the entire curriculum. Students are able to produce more excellent compositions when they are given examples of masterful works to be imitated. These works include the Holy Scriptures but also a canvas of the pagan classics, those “timeless works” that “record the musings of humanity’s greatest seekers and yearners.” Whenever possible, these masterful works are best encountered through a translation of their original language so that the student is able to understand the nuances, intricacies, and flexibility of words, the value of a particular word well-placed and well-chosen, and most importantly, the impact that particular words can have in the shaping of a culture. The ability to write and speak well can further be honed by participation in conversations of the Socratic kind. Learning to write, speak, and converse with both wisdom and eloquence sets a foundation upon which the mathematical arts of the Quadrivium can be built. Mathematics itself is a kind of language with a capacity for both precision and beauty. It is the language of our investigation of shapes, music, and the cosmos – a language incredibly able to describe the intricacies of our universe. Language is a gift whose beauty and persuasive power is to be prioritized and appreciated across the classical Christian curriculum.


  1. How do your students come to understand and value a well-chosen, well-timed, and well-spoken word?

  2. How do you exemplify / how to students experience the “plundering of the Egyptians” in your classroom?

  3. How you do your students appreciate the language of mathematics?



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