The tra­di­tional division of the liberal arts in seven, implies an internal division in two branches, called respec­tively trivium and quadrivium, the way of three, and the way of four. A much quoted old distich of hexa­m­eters gives the fol­lowing formula:

Gram loquitur; Dia vera docet; Rhet verba colorat;

Mus canit; Ar numerat; Ge pon­derat; Ast colit astra.

[Grammar speaks; Dialectic teaches truth; Rhetoric colors words; / Music sings; Arith­metics numbers; Geometry weighs; Astrology cul­ti­vates the stars.]⁠ [1]

The list of liberal arts may vary. But ulti­mately, what seems to be less inter­esting is whether the list is com­plete or not, whether these are the arts or whether there are other pos­sible arts. What is really important here is the verbs, the actions that the arts imply, and that half of those actions are tran­sitive, and the other half plus one are not: speak (intran­sitive), teach truth (a tran­sitive action), color words (tran­sitive), sing (intran­sitive), weigh (intran­sitive), cul­tivate the stars, or perhaps even a better trans­lation would be “to harvest stars”, a tran­sitive action at any rate.


At the center of the trivium, you find the clause Dia vera docet, that Andrew Hicks (and most everybody) trans­lated as “Dia(lectic) teaches truth.” Of course this is not incorrect, but I would prefer a slightly dif­ferent trans­lation: Dialectic shows, or even teaches, true things (vera being a plural adjective in the neuter encom­passes nec­essary the things that are mod­ified by the adjective, therefore it cannot be trans­lated unprob­lem­at­i­cally with the noun truth). This is dif­ferent than teaching truth (which would fall on the field of action of a totally dif­ferent dis­ci­pline). With true things (facts, for instance) you can teach truth or not, an entirely dif­ferent question alto­gether that seems to be all too timely; but dialectic, or logic, allows you to for­mulate true propo­si­tions of dif­ferent kinds. Or false ones, at any rate, in the under­standing that it is logic the one that teaches you that false state­ments are false, which is a true statement.

Dialectic falls between the two arts of lan­guage —grammar and rhetoric. Grammar was the ars artium, or the tech­nique for all other tech­niques of knowledge. As Martin Irvine demon­strated in a book pub­lished in 1994, this claim is not very new —it is perhaps as old as grammar, and as old as the greek concept of τέχνη. [2] Grammar is, and must be con­sidered, not only art, but also meta-art, archi-art. Let me tell a tiny anecdote: Martin Irvine promised a second installment of his book, with the purpose of cov­ering the Late Middle Ages, but, instead, he became a per­son­ality in the world of con­tem­porary art in Wash­ington D.C. From Medieval Grammar scholar to con­tem­porary art gal­lerist, mul­ti­media expert, and new media researcher and pro­fessor there is, I would argue, not a big leap. His book demon­strated the extent to which grammar had become a full system of cog­nitive analyses and syn­thesis using all the new media pos­si­bil­ities in codices and codex-creativity. Grammar, thus, is not simply ‑and not essentially- a par­ticular set of rules useful to learn a lan­guage. Grammar is the whole uni­verse, the mul­ti­media research of codex-making, colors, glosses, the semantics and the prag­matics of the present examples, the cal­cu­lated ways by means one grammar handbook refers to itself and to other grammar hand­books in the met­ro­politan lan­guages and, hence, cul­tures. For instance ‑and of this we will see an example a bit later- there is no Western medieval grammar of Arabic lan­guage that does not refer to the foun­da­tional cul­tural machine of the Grammar of Latin, be it Aelius Donatus, Varrus, Priscian or Nebrija’s Intro­duc­tiones Latinae. Latin grammar was also the tech­no­logical appa­ratus through which Fran­ciscan mis­sion­aries taught indigenous lan­guages, like the Yucatec. [3]⁠ The clause Gram loquitur is therefore much more pow­erful than it appears to be in the first place: the deponent verb (loquor) indi­cates a sym­pa­thetic movement, a special interests, a deep impli­cation of the art of discourse.

The west­bound coun­terpart of dialectic

Aristotle’s Rhetoric begins with the statement, somehow dark, that Rhetoric is an ἀντιστροφή of Dialectics. This is a metaphor, that has been some­times trans­lated as “coun­terpart” or “cor­relate”. These are good trans­la­tions. But they miss the key point that anti­strophé is a the­atrical tech­nical term that refers to a very par­ticular kind of moment within the per­for­mance —the moment in which the chorus changes direction after having sung the strophe, and sings a response or a second stanza while heading east­wards on stage. It is a ritual movement of response that implies the return to the origin and to the point from which the sun rises (notice that orient, origin, have the same lexical root), the point where the chorus had begun to sign. This is why coun­terpart or cor­relate seem like weak trans­la­tions, a bit under­whelming, even if they are correct. Some trans­lators left the word anti­strophe, but, really, that does not solve any­thing because it does not take a risk. What matters here is that rhetoric is a return to the origins of dialectic or logic. It comes back to the point where logic started to think while giving a response, while reacting to what dialectic just stated. For some reason, I enjoy thinking this per­for­mative moment, this tragedy involving, as part of the chorus, Rhetoric and Dialectic. In sum, they, if you wish, think together, but they do it from the per­spective of the chorus, from this very special role they play in the tragedy of knowledge.

Thinking with Aris­totle meant thinking with and within this tragedy of knowledge. Persian, Baghdadi, Yemeni, and other neigh­boring thinkers were, from the ninth century onwards, reading the works of Aris­totle, as they were being trans­lated into Syriac and into Arabic (that is, nor­mally from Greek to Syriac, and from Syriac to Arabic) by Muslim and by non-Muslim intel­lec­tuals, like the Nestorian ibn Hunayn, or Hunayn ibn Ishaq, known in Latin as Iohan­nitius. The genealogical lines of this tragedy cross the Mediter­ranean to the Iberian Peninsula, to al-Andalus, where the corpus aris­totelicum was heavily com­mented, espe­cially, but not only, by Ibn Rushd che il gran com­mento feo, and from there every­where else in Europe. These are part of the filosofica famiglia.⁠ [4] The corpus was then trans­lated from Arabic into Latin, with the com­men­taries of Ibn Sina, Averroes, al-Ghazali, and so many others. A complex corpus, a real philo­sophical jungle, known, in toto, some years later, as the Aris­toteles Latinus.

The tragedy is that this Eastern com­mentary was only a west­bound strophe, and then it became nec­essary an east­bound anti­strophe —a new set of com­men­taries and interpretations.


  1. I am using the quo­tation and trans­lation pre­sented by Andrew Hicks. “Mar­tianus Capella and the Liberal Arts.” Hexter, Ralph J, and David Townsend. The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Latin Lit­er­ature. Oxford: OUP, 2016. 307–334 [307].[]
  2. Irvine, Martin. The Making of Textual Culture: ’ Gram­matica and Lit­erary Theory, 350–100. Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­versity Press, 1994. []
  3. Hanks, William F. Con­verting Words: Maya in the Age of the Cross. Berkeley: Uni­versity of Cal­i­fornia Press, 2010.[]
  4. Poi ch’in­nalzai un poco più le ciglia,

    vidi ‘l maestro di color che sanno

    seder tra filosofica famiglia.

    Tutti lo miran, tutti onor li fanno:

    quivi vid’ ïo Socrate e Platone,

    che ‘nnanzi a li altri più presso li stanno;

    Dem­ocrito che ‘l mondo a caso pone,

    Dïo­genès, Anas­sagora e Tale,

    Empe­doclès, Era­clito e Zenone;

    e vidi il buono accoglitor del quale,

    Dïas­coride dico; e vidi Orfeo,

    Tulïo e Lino e Seneca morale;

    Euclide geomètra e Tolomeo,

    Ipocràte, Avi­cenna e Galïeno,

    Averoìs, che ‘l gran comento feo. (Dante, Inferno. 4.130–144).[]