Dialectic: The Second Art of the Trivium

Introduction: What is dialectic? What is logic?

The second liberal art is logic or dialectic. Dialectic typically refers to the practice of precise discussion, using a question and answer format with facts or apparent facts, to explain or get at the truth. It has another, less academic, use I’ll explain later. Logic is a more narrow term, referring to the form of correct argument rather than the whole process. In classical school literature, you’ll see the two words used interchangeably (I will as well), this has classical precedent. For instance, the stoics tended to use the word logic to refer to argument, monologue, persuasion, theory, and several other domains. The best definition for logic/dialectic is the art of reasoning for the purpose of discovering or demonstrating the truth. And so logic involves the study of the forms of argument as well as specific arguments. But why study dialectic? Isn’t it easier to just go with gut feelings or go a long to get along?

Dialectic Protects Us From Pathological Thinking

An alarming trend in education today is the reinforcement of pathological thinking patterns by professors who will not expose students to material that is challenging to their worldview (if the worldview is of a certain sort, anyhow). Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff explain this ugly trend:

There’s a saying common in education circles: Don’t teach students what to think; teach them how to think. The idea goes back at least as far as Socrates. Today, what we call the Socratic method is a way of teaching that fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them. Such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding.


But vindictive protectiveness teaches students to think in a very different way. It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong. The harm may be more immediate, too. A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.

Notice the claim in bold. Our dominate institutions of knowledge and reasoning are training young people to be threatened by claims which contradict their beliefs. Put more simply, people are learning to be offended by disagreement. One of the primary reasons to learn logic is that it can train us to distance ourselves from our beliefs and the claims of others and to ask whether or not they are supported by evidence or at least coherent with one another.

Logic Trains Us in Virtue

Another reason to learn logic is that logic is training in virtue. Dallas Willard explains that:

[Logic] requires the will to be logical, and then certain personal qualities that make it possible and actual: qualities such as freedom from distraction, focused attention on the meanings or ideas involved in talk and thought, devotion to truth, and willingness to follow the truth wherever it leads via logical relations. All of this in turn makes significant demands upon moral character. Not just on points such as resoluteness and courage, though those are required. A practicing hypocrite, for example, will not find a friend in logic, nor will liars, thieves, murderers and adulterers. They will be constantly alert to appearances and inferences that may logically implicate them in their wrong actions. Thus the literary and cinematic genre of mysteries is unthinkable without play on logical relations.


Those devoted to defending certain pet assumptions or practices come what may will also have to protect themselves from logic. All of this i, I believe, commonly recognized by thoughtful people. Less well understood is the fact that one can be logical only if one is committed to being logical as a fundamental value. One is not logical by chance, any more than one just happens to be moral. And, indeed, logical consistency is a significant factor in moral character. That is part of the reason why in an age that attacks morality, as ours does, the logical will also be demoted or set aside–as it now is.

Again, note the bold. Willard claims that since being logical requires that one be devoted to truth, free from distraction, and concerned with meaning, that those who only want to defend pet ideas will find no friend in logic. And we live in a world wherein people seem to have no plan to examine their lives as Socrates recommended. I’ve known Christians, atheists, democrats, republicans, logic professors, men, women, adults, and children who approach life in this unexamined way.

Of course, I’m not quite making an argument here. But I will:

  1. True beliefs are good and false beliefs are bad.
  2. Logic helps us reject false beliefs are discover true ones.
  3. Therefore, logic helps us discover what is good.

The steps in the argument above would be readily accepted by most.

Further Reflections

In short, logic or dialectic is the skill of thinking things through. There are several varieties. Logic can be taught in a symbolic or mathematical form or a propositional (sentence based) form. Similarly, logical reasoning can be divided up in terms of the form taken in the reasoning. One can utilize deductive reasoning or inductive reasoning. These can simplified in this way:

  1. Deductive reasoning is reasoning such that true statements are arranged in such a way as to yield a necessarily (this means it cannot be any other way) true conclusion.
  2. Inductive reasoning is based on probabilities or what may or is likely or unlikely to be the case.

Either of these logical forms requires that you have three things in order to have a complete syllogism (a series of statements leading to a conclusion):

  1. Premises – these are the starting facts of a syllogism.
  2. Inferences – these are statements moving beyond any of the individual premises by relating them to one another or moving beyond them in a way which follows the rules of thought (to be discussed later).
  3. Conclusion – this is the final inference in the series.

An example might look something like this:

  1. The sum of the angle measurements in a triangle is 180 degrees. (Premise: Statement)
  2. Therefore, the sum of the angle measurements of two triangles is 360 degrees. (Premise: Inference from point 1)
  3. All quadrilaterals can be divided into exactly two triangles.
  4. Therefore, the sum of the angles in a quadrilateral is 360 degree. (Conclusion: inference from statements 1, 2, and 3).

Though a comprehensive overview of logical reasoning is not possible in a blog post, I do want to mention arguing by analogy. Argument by analogy is looking at a known relationship, such as that between water and its constituent elements: hydrogen and oxygen and generalizing a principle from this relationship and using it to make a provisional inference concerning an unknown relationship:

  1. Water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. (Original Case)
  2. Other liquids, like alcohol, are similar to water. (Similar Case)
  3. Therefore, they are may be made up of still more simple elements. (Provisional Inference)

Argument by analogy is most commonly used to form conjectures in mathematics and hypothesis in science. It is a very common form of argument in the human sciences and in courtrooms. It is especially handy in automotive repair and medical experiments (mice respond this way, therefore human beings may as well). A good example of religious and philosophical argument by analogy is The Analogy of Religion by Joseph Butler.

Therapeutic Dialectic

I mentioned earlier that dialectic has explicit uses for monologue, namely arguing with emotions, impulses, and impressions so that your intellect can aim your will toward what is good or healthy. Martha Nussbaum quotes Epicurus making this point:

Empty is that philosopher’s argument by which no human suffering is therapeutically treated. For just as there is no use in a medical art that does not cast out the sicknesses of bodies, so too there is no use in philosophy, unless it casts out the suffering of the soul (Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics, 13).

Argument/dialectic was considered to be the primary tool to be used in moral development across the philosophical school of the ancient world. Pierre Hadot saw dialectic and rhetoric as method of discussion and controlling your self-talk:

The means employed are the rhetorical and dialectical techniques of persuasion, the attempts at mastering one’s inner dialogue, and mental concentration. In all philosophical schools, the goal pursued in these exercises is self-realization and improve­ment. (Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucalt, 102-103)

Logic/dialectic is a tool for pursuing moral and personal excellence. It allows you to see which impulses contradict your goals, which controlling thoughts are actually false, and which choices more appropriately set you on the path to goodness, truth, and beauty. 

Summarizing the Benefits of Learning Logic/Dialectic

  1. Logic trains us to have mental resilience.
  2. Learning logic trains us to find the truth in any discipline. It functions as the foundation of everything from jurisprudence and forensic science to chemistry and mathematics.
  3. Learning logic helps us to question authority. This is crucially important in our era, when truth is essentially equated with “what authorities say.”
  4. Logic enables temperance (the virtue of responding rightly to our passions/feelings).
  5. Learning logic can help you to discover small hypocrisies in your life wherein your actions do not match up with the apparent truths you accept.
  6. Learning logic can help you to deal with difficult people.
  7. Learning logic can help you become a more effective writer by helping you to avoid contradiction and to write paragraphs in a sequence which flows from premise to conclusion or from assumptions to application and so-on.

Resources for Learning Logic:

  1. Online Tools:
    1. Lander Logic Page
      Here you’ll find example and exercises to practice.
    2. Khan Academy
      There are free exercises and videos in the critical thinking section to which I’ve linked.
    3. Any number of old logic text books available at books.google.com for free.
  2. Books
    1. Socratic Logic by Peter Kreeft
    2. The Logic of Real Arguments by Alec Fischer
      I’ve used excerpts from this in my logic class. It mostly inspired me to have my students get out of logic textbooks and into actual arguments on subjects of human interest..


Why write?

Why write?

One of my favorite writers said this on the why of Christian writing:

John the Baptist was the cousin of Jesus and his whole purpose in life was to point people to Jesus. He summed up his calling when he was questioned about his identity and said, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” What strikes me about John is that he was completely ok with everyone’s attention shifting to Jesus once he arrived on the scene. Of course, that was the way it was supposed to be, but knowing my own heart, I think I would have begrudged Jesus the attention at least a tad. But I want to be like John. I want to go all out in whatever calling the Lord gives me, all the while saying, Look at him. And we can all raise our voices–voices in this wilderness today–saying, look at Jesus; isn’t he great?

The ultimate purpose for Christian action is, of course, to bring attention (mostly your own) to Jesus.

But as far as personality goes, if you’re a writer, you write because you have to. You can’t help it. There are some who don’t write but should. But you write, perhaps even when you shouldn’t. I find myself jotting ideas in a pocket book in line at the grocery store. Jonathan Edwards would write ideas and pin them to his jacket when he went on walks.

You may be one of these individuals. You’re a computer programmer, but you find yourself writing stories for video games you’ll never make. You’re shy, but you have boxes of notebooks filled with what you’ve never said.

Dave Black says that if you’re a teacher or student you should blog to improve your communication skills. I would add, even if nobody reads it.

Trivium 3: Rhetoric

The third art of a true liberal arts education is rhetoric. I’ve written about grammar and logic already. I’ve also written about rhetoric in the ancient world. Obviously, this post is about rhetoric.

Whereas the purpose of grammar is clarity of communication and the emphasis of logic is the discovery of truth and probability through clarity of thought, the purpose of rhetoric is the discovery and use of what is persuasive.

Rhetoric, as a skill set, can be seen from the perspectives of speaking/writing, listening/reading, and debating:

  1. Speaking/Writing
    Rhetoric, in this sense, is related to the forethought given to discovering what could potentially persuade an audience, what they need to be persuaded of, and the actual delivery of the speech or writing of the paper/article.
  2. Listening/Reading
    Listening involves discerning the intent of the speaker or author as well as the intended audience. Are they trying to get you to act, to believe a proposition, or to support a cause? In knowing the author’s cause and audience, one can determine what methods they are employing to persuade and whether or not they are convincing. At this stage, one will want to use logic to determine whether or not the author contradicts accepted principles without good evidence or contradicts other statements made in the discourse.
  3. Debating
    In debating, rhetoric becomes very important because being able to demonstrate or discover the truth is not always helpful in a person-to-person encounter whose outcome can largely be determined by the emotions of the audience. So rhetoric is especially important in debate. Logic is still one’s friend, especially for discrediting an opponent’s claims, but rhetoric is important for defending oneself from claims on incredibility or incompetence. Rhetoric is also important for framing the debate. It is not uncommon in debate for side issues to become the focus due to ideologically driven participants or people unconcerned about civility. Learning to maintain one’s state of mind and the emotional and cognitive frame of the debate for the audience is difficult, but crucial in a debate.

The Modes of Persuasion
Aristotle identified logos, ethos, and pathos as the three phases of persuasion.

  1. Logos
    Logos is the appeal to facts and evidence. But in a speech, this is not always the same thing as careful and accurate argument. That is necessary for research and writing to advance the field of knowledge. It is not always best for persuading people to act. Logos, with respect to rhetoric appealing to the facts that the audience would find convincing. This is not always different from careful and painstaking accuracy, but it is not always the same thing. Learning to use the common topics carefully will be very important here because they represent the types of evidence available to a researcher, speaker, and writer. Also, I recommend that no matter what type of logical argument you rely on in a speech, you have a tighter more carefully documented version of the argument elsewhere in case questions are asked.
  2. Ethos
    Ethos is appeal to personal credibility. To bolster your ethos, you must associate yourself with the good (morals, principles, groups, and individuals), take the moral high ground (appeal to the audience’s sense of virtue and morality), and when possible use sources credible to the audience. When thinking of rhetoric in terms of debate, ethos becomes very important. Many debate opponents are comfortable discrediting the other by means of attacking their ethos rather than their arguments. Learning to deal with this and take an acceptable risk of punching back in the same manner (because that is the nature of the game) or taking the moral high ground of non-response is a difficult decision to make. In my opinion, this depends on whether or not the debate is about action or fact. If the debate is over an academic topic, then the high ground of seeking truth must be taken, even if this leads to a perceived “loss” on the part of the more accurate and careful participant. In the case of debates about the proper course of action, the one becomes morally obligated to fight back hard in defense of the audience when attacks are made. This is because, in fact, we are easily persuaded to enjoy ruthless winners over kind losers. In the Bible, Jesus does both, which illustrates how difficult a line it is to walk.
  3. Pathos
    Pathos is the appeal to the passions or deeper emotions of the audience. This includes using techniques such as exaggeration, sarcasm, language of shame/honor, flattery, legitimate compliments, and so-on. Pathos is greatly aided by florid language or simple language. Academic language is almost always a passion killer, although if it is accompanied by strong ethos, academic language can ignite the passion for knowledge. Pathos is appealed to, not simply by florid or simple language, but also by emotional style. An enthusiastic speaker is easier to listen to than somebody who sounds like the topic is boring to them.

When you think of writing a speech, I recommend thinking of these aspects like a group of investment accounts. You need to invest enough in the right one depending upon the audience. For instance, your personal credibility might be very high due to your virtue and research capabilities, but that does not mean that an audience of people who don’t believe in virtue will care. So in that case it might be better to appeal to emotions and logic. Similarly, emotional appeal will not help you in a speech about statistical methods to a group of mathematicians. Similarly, an audience might need a strong emotional hook before they are ready for logic and facts. In other cases, logic and facts must come first, but a rousing fiery call to action can come at the end. These things are to be determined on a case by case basis.

Concluding Thoughts and Extra Tools
I really think that the study of rhetoric, as a skill is crucial to the development of your mind and social skills. People who are naturally good at it often say things like, “Just get it without trying to learn it.” That’s literally stupid. Studying rhetoric can help you learn to defend yourself against charming evil-doers and appealing falsehoods, to win debates, to see through cheesy sales tactics, and even to flirt.

Helpful tools for becoming rhetorically minded include:

  1. Grammar and Logic (of course)
    Without clarity of expression and thought, rhetoric is pointless.
  2. Eloquence
    Eloquence is the art of speaking beautifully. It is context dependent. A good tool for gaining eloquence is having a digital copia and listening to the compelling speeches of others.
  3. The Common Topics (Or the destroyers of writer’s block)
    I’ve written about these here. In coming weeks, I will write about each topic and add a few more to the list. Knowing the common topics is incredibly useful for research, finding the truth, writing, and personal mindset (because debating your inner monolog is best done using evidence that you find convincing).
  4. Learn the Five Canons of Rhetoric (invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery)
    These are the five things one ought to think about in order to improve at public speaking. I will write about these soon, but for now I recommend the articles at AoM here.
  5. And, to keep you from being an charming evil-doer, learn wisdom and virtue
    Rhetoric treated as a mere skill without reference to truth, goodness, and beauty leads to speeches which work like fruit eaten off of a forbidden tree. They sound good, but they are poison to the mind and soul.

Debating your inner monolog

One of the persistent themes of recent psychological literature on success is the inner voice. Thought it has many names, the inner voice describes sort of things we tell ourselves to psych ourselves up, out, or distract ourselves from ourselves. The Christian tradition, especially the Puritan and Greek Orthodox branches of soul care, did not leave these sorts of questions out. For examples of writing about using the inner monolog to grow in virtue I highly recommend the works of Evagrius of Pontus and, Thomas Brooks, and Richard Baxter.

A few days ago, I wrote about the Common Topics in the context of destroying writer’s block. But, because they are meant to help you construct arguments, they are useful tools for your mindset and self-talk. Your mindset is the collection of attitudes and thought processes you use to deal with your experiences.

Aristotle’s common topic of definition is used for framing a debate/speech/personal trait so that in a dispute you are in a favorable position in the minds of the audience. Definition is also used for framing a paper or speech so that the readers are not lost. In today’s post I want to show how definition is an important tool for reframing your own thoughts for making progress in sanctification and endeavors of merely human interest. I’ll give examples before I explain fully what I mean. If the examples are helpful, stop there. Learn to redefine your terms and stop your inner critic/naysayer/smooth tongued tempter with simple debate skills.


  1. Thought: I need to have a drink in order to feel happy right now.
    Reframe: Happiness is more than feeling good right now, I’ll hit the gym and go read Scripture in a coffee shop.
  2. Thought: I’m too busy to fix my diet.
    Reframe: I already have a diet (what I eat), I just need to replace one junkfood meal a week and after 21 weeks I’ll be eating healthy meals every time I eat.
  3. Thought: I want to look at pornography because I’m lonely.
    Reframe: Looking at pornography won’t help me improve myself and make friends to cure my loneliness.
  4. Thought: I need this belittle others to feel whole and successful.
    Reframe: The sin of pride disconnects us from God who provides true wholeness and eternal success.
  5. Thought: I’ll fail and have one more failure on my list of achievements.
    Reframe: Failing is the only way to learn that isn’t boring and it’s better than sitting around doing nothing at all.
  6. Thought: If I try to make new friends, maybe they won’t like me.
    Reframe: There are billions of people who don’t like me. If these people don’t nothing will change.

Everybody uses self-talk. It’s just a matter of what kind and what you choose to do based on the self talk you use. If I were to create a model for how things work in my life it’s like this:

  1. Step 1: Inner monolog uses encouraging or discouraging statements to reason my will into acting on some impulse, plan, or request.
  2. Step 2: I evaluate the inner monolog as being true or false without consideration because I over trust my own immediate evaluations of issues.
  3. Step 3: I act and reenforce my self-talk and my self-talk becomes more entrenched in my mindset.

If we utilize good/better definitions in Step 2 to evaluate our self-talk, then we can do a better job of overcoming the voices of Negative Ned, Dr. Jekyll, and Uncle Screwtape.

Always Have Something to Say: On Keeping a Digital Copia

Have you ever said aloud, “Oh, I wish I could remember that special quote!” Or perhaps instead, “Who made that three point argument?” Or perhaps, “What was the last line of that poem I otherwise memorized?” Well, if that’s you, then this post is on me. Or this post is for you.

Copia is not commonly used word, but it comes up in one very specific context: rhetoric.

A copia is essentially a notebook of aphorisms, quotes, poems, paragraphs, etc that you maintain for the express purposes future writing and research. I prefer to organize mine topically. The topics include almost anything. Seriously, things like “the purpose of Paul’s letter to the Romans,” “Misunderstandings of Statistics in Science Journals,” and “Ignorance in the high IQ population.” The quotes can be as complicated or simple as you wish, but the point is that any idea, paragraph, or quip you wish to ponder, utilize for research, or quote is all in one place. I even put the source under each one in Turabian format. It’s like an annotated bibliography for your life. I would even recommend putting your own thoughts about the quote underneath the quote in bold. This way you also have a pithy version of a story for illustrative purposes.

Having a copia document allows you of simply searching for that whatsit or whosit you have in the shadows of books past in the deep caverns of your mind. There are two ways to keep a copia.

  1. A physical copy
    You see this in George Herbert when he gave advice to pastors. I’ll give the quote in a moment. But this can be used is lots of ways, you could have several topical note books or even one mega binder (so that making things alphabetical is easier). The problem with this method is that it loses its searchability. The nice thing is that writing things helps one commit them to memory. If I were keeping a copia by writing, I would keep a large binder of several topics, but for large writing projects or for specific courses I teach I would keep a separate binder for each. Here’s the quote from Herbert on keeping a copia in the form of a systematic theology:

    THe Countrey Parson hath read the Fathers also, and  the Schoolmen, and the later Writers, or a good proition of all, out of all which he hath compiled a book, and body of Divinity, which is the storehouse of his Sermons, and which he preacheth all his Life; but diversly clothed, illustrated, and inlarged. For though the world is full of such composures, yet every mans own is fittest, readyest, and most savory to him. Besides, this being to be done in his younger and preparatory times, it is an honest joy ever after to looke upon his well spent houres. This Body he made by way of expounding the Church Catechisme, to which all divinity may easily be reduced. For it being indifferent in it selfe to choose any Method, that is best to be chosen, of which there is likelyest to be most use. George Herbert, The Country Parson: The Parson and His Accessory Knowledge

  2. A digital copy
    There are several ways to do this and it works nicely with the obscene quantity of digital books out there. Seriously, for the purposes of saving money by using sales I have books on kindle, pdf, real life books (that smell like tobacco, mildew, glue, and paper!), Logos Bible software, Bible Works, Google Books, and a collection of journal articles that I’ve saved from Ebsco! Keeping track of it all isn’t what’s hard, but remembering a quote in a pinch can be difficult if I don’t immediately remember which version of the book I possess.

Here are some protips:

    1. Keep a persistent document
      Title the document Copia or Interesting thoughts and quotes.
    2. Save this file locally and in the cloud
      It’s useful to be able to can add to it from anywhere on a phone, tablet, or local computer.
    3. Memorize the best stuff
      Memory is still the most useful tool for keeping important information in a usable format. Having data in your mind makes it far more useful to you than having it in a computer. This is especially true of inspirational quotes or poetry if you’re a romantic.
    4. Utilize a service like Onenote or Evernote
      These tools can help you you can snip things from websites with very little effort then you can later paste them into your copia. With these you can even utilize pictures and diagrams. Here’s somebody showing how to get kindle highlights into Evernote.
    5. Utilize Zotero or some bibliographic manager
      Zotero and tools like it keep track of all of the bibliographic data ever. Adding one to your browser is an excellent idea. It’s even better if you force it to save everything on your computer rather than in their database, this way any journal article you save is put into a file on your computer. But then any highlights you do, just remember you copy into your copia.
    6. Transfer hard copy resources to the copia
      Make the effort to type your underlines and highlights into your copia as this will help you to etch them into the wax tablet of your memory (though not as well as with writing).
    7. Remember to keep things simple
      If you get to the point that you have a copia, some note files, and annotated bibliographies for different projects you’re probably fine. If you get to the point that you’re using Evernote, Onenote, keeping a copia, utilizing annotated bibliographies, and writing notes in zotero (which is a useful function if you’re not doing it elsewhere), then you’re over complicating things and not spending enough time actually writing and thinking. You’re a collector but not a thinker or producer at that point.

Concluding Remarks:
If you’re in high school or just starting college, I highly recommend you start a copia and an annotated bibliography. Keeping this type of useful information in two places (copia and annotated bibliography) will help you for the rest of your life but at least for the rest of your academic career. If you’re a preacher this is incredibly useful, take note of Charles Spurgeon’s thought’s on knowing things from the sciences and put it to practice for all things you study:

It seems to me that every student for the Christian ministry ought to know at least something of every science; he should intermeddle with every form of knowledge that may be useful in his life’s work. God has made all things that are in the world to be our teachers, and there is something to be learned from every one of them; and as he would never be a thorough student who did not attend all classes at which he was expected to be present, so he who does not learn from all things that God has made will never gather all the food that his soul needs, nor will he be likely to attain to that perfection of mental manhood which will enable him to be a fully-equipped teacher of others.C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students: The Art of Illustration; Addresses Delivered to the Students of the Pastors’ College, Metropolitan Tabernacle, vol. 3 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1905), 144.

Though human memory can be greatly perfected with use and attention to treating it as a skill, not all things can be treasured up in your heart. Therefore, you would do well to store them up externally, like a tool shed of ideas and thoughts.