The Trivium and the Empire: John Robert Seeley, Cecil Rhodes and the Birth of the English Trivium Method By Kevin Cole

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(If you are new to the site, it is highly recommended that you first read my last chapter excerpt entitled “The Ideal Arrangement of Rhodes and the Organic Unity of Empire” before continuing. – KC)

The Trivium and the Empire: John Robert Seeley, Cecil Rhodes and the Birth of the English Trivium Method

By Kevin Cole

“Beautiful city! So venerable, so lovely, so unravaged by the fierce intellectual life of our century, so serene!  And yet, steeped in sentiment as she lies, spreading her gardens to the moonlight, and whispering from her towers the last enchantments of the Middle Age, who will deny that Oxford, by her ineffable charm, keeps ever calling us near to the true goal of all of us, to the ideal, to perfection, –to beauty, in a word, which is only truth seen from another side—nearer, perhaps, than all the science of Tubingen.”  [1]

Mathew Arnold, “Essays in Criticism” as read to Cecil Rhodes on his deathbed in South Africa in 1902 [2]

“All the pride and strength of an aristocracy comes from the sense of ancestry, and every member of a historic nation may have something of this sense and something of the pride that springs from it.” [3]

–    John Robert Seeley, “English in Schools” (1868)

In order to fully understand the basis of the “English Speaking Idea” proposed by John Robert Seeley and adapted by Cecil Rhodes in his “ideal arrangement” [4] for his secret society, it is first necessary to analyze Seeley’s essay entitled English in Schools, published in his 1868 book Lectures and Essays.  This influential work was released only two years prior to the mass Education Act of 1870 and anticipated many of its reforms, including the introduction into secondary schools, of “new methods of teaching modern languages.” [5]

This Education Act of 1870 mandated the first state run public education system in England and was intentionally modeled after the education system in Prussia as relayed in the proposals and recommendations of British poet, cultural critic and school inspector Matthew Arnold. [6]  Arnold’s first- hand reports on compulsory education in Prussia led the way and his book Schools and Universities on the Continent, (1868) extolled the potential benefits for industrialists and Victorian society at large of introducing the middle and particularly the “ignorant lower class”, to universal forced schooling. [7]

“But the English friends of compulsory education, in their turn, will do well to inform themselves how far on the Continent compulsory education extends, and the conditions under which alone the working classes, if they respect themselves, can submit to its application. In the view of the English friends of compulsory education, the educated and intelligent middle and upper classes amongst us are to confer the boon of compulsory education upon the ignorant lower class, which needs it while they do not.” [8]

Matthew Arnold, Schools and Universities on the Continent (1868)

In 1869, Arnold followed this effort by publishing his most famous collection of essays, Culture and Anarchy, which claimed to have found a way to rescue society from the decline of religion and what he viewed as a looming anarchy if nothing was done.  He sought to combat this anarchy, by elevating “Culture” to the forefront of the educational curriculum, or “the best which has been thought and said”, a conception in direct lineage from Samuel Taylor Coleridge and what the German Romantics called Bildung.  Arnold’s intentions have been described by historian Terry Eagleton as trying to “convert a sectarian, internally divided and visionless bourgeoisie pragmatically sunk in its own material interests into a cohesive, truly hegemonic class, capable of elaborating in the ideological sphere the predominance it has come to hold in history.”[9]

Eagleton continues that:

“To accomplish this goal the bourgeoisie must be inserted into the organic totality of ‘Culture’, that spiritual absolute which subsumes one-sided class interests in transcendental unity.  More specifically, it must appropriate the civilized aesthetic heritage of the aristocracy in order to equip itself with a world view capable of incorporating the proletariat……”

“For Arnold, the aristocracy is losing political hegemony but its historical successor, the bourgeoisie, is disastrously unprepared to assume it.” [10]

Matthew Arnold’s lasting influence on the creation of a national and compulsory education system in England cannot be understated and the Education Act of 1870 became the catalyst for many of his reforms, the implementation of future compulsory education laws and the importation of the organic system from Prussia that integrated primary, secondary and higher education.  For university education, Arnold wanted it to be centered on “the great works of English literature in the final Examination for Honours in Litera Humaniores.” [11]  For Arnold, “literature was the privileged means by which the culture of a ruling elite was to trickle downward through the class structure to secure the hegemony of the values of that elite.” [12]

English in Schools to Fortify the New National Culture

In the years leading up to the extension of the educational franchise to the masses in the form of universal public education under state control, there was also concern that not only were the middle and lower classes woefully underprepared and uneducated, but also that the private secondary education system was not adequately maintaining the aristocratic classes either.  John Robert Seeley proposed in 1866 to the Taunton Commission, who had been discussing new reforms, that English literature and the English language should be substituted for the standard classical Latin grammar in secondary school.

This was the “English-speaking idea” and it was greatly expanded upon in his 1868 essay, “English in Schools” where Seeley explained that in order for England to create a new national culture using the model of Prussian romantic nationalism, it would first be necessary to create universal standards for shoring up the English language and that doing so would ensure conformity of comprehension under the definitions of English terms and the original intent of the authorities.

“I think that an exact knowledge of the meanings of English words is not very common even among highly educated people, which is natural enough, since their attention has been so much diverted to Latin and Greek ones.  But the ignorance in his department of the class I have most in view, those who leave school at fourteen or sixteen, is deplorable.  It is far more than a mere want of precision in the notions attached to words.   It is far more also than a mere ignorance of uncommon and philosophical words.  There is a large class of words in the language, originally perhaps philosophical but which have passed so completely into the common parlance of well-educated people, that they cannot now be called philosophical, but which remain to the class I speak of perfectly obscure.  The consequence is that such people, in reading not merely abstruse books but books in the smallest degree speculative or generalizing, constantly mistake the meaning of what they read.  It is not that they understand their author imperfectly; they totally misunderstand him, and suppose him to say something which he does not say.  It is no wonder that such persons have no turn for reading; in fact, it is scarcely to be wished that they should.  But all this is plainly owing to the fact that they have never been taught English.” [13]

While Seeley was in agreement with the classicists that the study of language is one of the most important areas of a curriculum, he disagreed with them on the way that it should be taught and stated that “what I would make the universal basis of instruction in language they omit altogether.” [14] He believed that with democracy expanding, education must extend its area and influence, because it now had “to cultivate not only a new class, but a rude class.”[15]   Much like Matthew Arnold, J.R. Seeley gave voice to the general Victorian era contempt for the masses who were mostly viewed as unredeemable, while also seeing it his duty to undertake “to educate a whole nation” to be made safe and acceptable to the refined culture. [16]

“We have to educate a class who have none of these domestic traditions, no inherited refinement, no common stock of literature forming an intellectual atmosphere around every child.  If we teach this class what we have hitherto taught the other class, the result will not be the same.  For them the schoolmaster must do much more, because the parents and the home have done much less.  To them he must become a kind of priest of missionary of culture.” [17]

He concludes that if the “present classical system is inadequate already as the instrument of education to a class, much more will it be found inadequate to the civilizing of a nation”. [18]   Seeley takes on the classicist argument that Latin and Greek should be the base languages of education, not because he didn’t feel that Latin and Greek were not valuable studies, but he thought they should be part of an advanced education outside of secondary schooling.  He saw learning Latin or Greek as “admirable mental exercises, but only to “minds in a certain state and after a certain preparation,” and he posits that most students who obtain a classical education, either learn it too early in life, or abandon it before it can be beneficial.  Seeley not only believed that Latin Grammar was too advanced to be placed early in the education process, but also that “it presupposes a certain preparation of the mind” [19] that the higher classes gained from a cultured upbringing at home that the masses had not been exposed to.

“My conclusion, then, is that when the classicists recommend Latin and Greek as being an admirable discipline for the mind, they are right indeed, but only if they speak of a mind considerably advanced.” [20]

Seeley’s proposal was to shift the traditional means of imparting the Latin language and the classics, known as the Trivium of Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic, into higher or professional education.  He advocated a common education for boys up until the age of 14, after which Latin language learning would then begin.  For those that left school before 14, they would learn no Latin at all.  For those that went on, Seeley argued that they would be much better prepared to appreciate and comprehend the Latin Trivium, after first undertaking to learn their own language and reflecting upon their own culture.  The classicist ideal up until this point that Seeley disagreed with was that the English language should continue to be learned indirectly through the study of Latin and Greek.

 “I do not quarrel with the principles of the classicists, but with their means.  I would reach their goal, but by a different way.  I think they are right in the importance they attach to words, but I would substitute English words for Latin ones.   I think they are right in introducing boys to great works of genius, but I would substitute modern genius for ancient.  In a word, I advocate a comprehensive and elaborate English education.” [21]

Seeley expresses his empathy for any teacher who might be embarrassed to apply to English, the “methods he has been accustomed to use in teaching Latin.”  He contends that the “two languages do not stand in the same relation to the pupils mind” and because of this, a native language cannot be taught in the same manner as a foreign one.  This has to do with the orientation of the student to the rules of a foreign language where if a student “does not know a rule, he breaks it; but in his native language he observes it from habit,” regardless of if he is aware of it.  He points out that if one does not know a word in a foreign language, he seeks it out; however “in his own language he rarely perceives his own ignorance, and attaches some idea, right or wrong or half-right, to almost every word he meets with.”  Whereas with a foreign language the student “has a definite problem to solve, he has to find out the meaning of the foreign words before him, and to represent them in their English equivalents.”  When operating in his native language “he perceives meaning at a glance, and he has no other language in which to represent it.”  For Seeley, these observations were enough for him to proclaim that “it is impossible to teach English in the way in which you teach Latin, but it does not prove that you cannot teach English some other way.” [22]

The Creation of the English Trivium Method for the English-Speaking People

“Let us introduce our native language as such, and not in the disguise of a foreign language.  Let us give it a method of its own, as well as a place of its own, and find new bottles for the new wine.” [23]

Over the next several pages, Seeley proceeds to lay out the curricular framework for the English Trivium Method of Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic.

“The first part of this of course will be grammar.  I would teach it carefully, and with perpetual examples from English authors, but I would not make mere grammar a very prominent part of the course.  In the learning of a foreign language we know that when the grammar is mastered there remains a higher and a more difficult acquirement, upon which, however, depends all fineness and niceness of scholarship, the exact determination of the meanings of words, and the distinguishing of synonyms.  Now in the study of one’s native language this may fairly be put much earlier, because the syntax, having been already practically taught in the nursery, requires much less attention.” [24]

Seeley concedes that “grammar systematizes a knowledge which the child already possesses” and that every boy comes to school a “talking” and “reasoning creature.”  The teacher is then responsible for turning “implicit knowledge into explicit”. [25]   Staying consistent to the medieval trivium, Seeley’s grammar for the English language (even as a native language) was to be imparted through poetry, elocution, learning the metres of English poets and through the examples of English authors.   In the medieval curriculum these were known as the Auctores, (which goes back to the root of the concept of authority itself) or the Authors, who established “the founding rules and principles” of each discipline and ultimately impart “the moral and political authority” as a model for the early analogical reasoning of the student body. [26]

Next, he introduces Rhetoric, but not meaning strictly the art of persuasion or oratory, but “all those arts and contrivances by which a limited number of words are made to express a practically unlimited number of conceivable things.  Of these, principal is metaphor; and I think it important that the pupil’s attention should be fixed on this subject long enough to make him perceive clearly what a large portion of language is metaphorical, and also to make him distinctly aware of the presence of metaphor when he meets with it in reading, and conscious of it when he uses it himself.” [27]

Finally, Seeley explains that there is another “most important subject which may conveniently be coupled with English—I mean Logic.”  He says that the principles of logic are not too difficult for young boys “provided they are not presented to them in too technical a form.” [28]

“As every boy comes to your school a talking creature, so he comes to it a reasoning creature.  The teacher has only, as I said before, to turn implicit knowledge into explicit.  It will not be hard for him to show the pupil that when he makes general inferences he uses induction, and that when he draws particular conclusions he uses a syllogism.  I would go no further than this to bring out distinctly the notion of induction and deduction, and to make the pupil familiar with the syllogistic formula. But why connect this with English?  For this reason: I am presuming throughout that a series of English classical writers is being read in class, and the problem is to draw as much instruction as possible from them.  I have suggested, first, that the reading itself shall be accompanied with an explanation of the laws of elocution; next, that the syntax of each sentence shall be investigated; next, that the words shall be carefully explained, and their shades of meaning brought out; next, that the rhetorical contrivances, particularly the metaphors, shall be pointed out.  But the analysis will evidently be incomplete unless we examine the writer’s reasoning.  For this purpose we require logic.”  [29]

Seeley proposes that the auctores to be selected for each discipline should be those that are “most attractive to young boys…” that would then lead up to “older poets and the philosophical writers.” He also wished to make universal “in the middle of the course, Plutarch’s Lives, Pope’s Iliad, and Worsley’s Odyssey” as English translations.  [30]  These were intended to substitute for the loss of the classics at this stage of learning and provide some basic and uniform knowledge of antiquity.

Seeley’s conception of the English Trivium as a general education for the secondary schools was developed “for a class which have no intellectual atmosphere around them; in the conversation to which they listen there is no light or air for the soul’s growth; it is a uniform gloomy element of joyless labour, bewildering detail, broken with scarcely a gleam of purpose or principle.”  He believed that without this education that one would be left “in total ignorance of the literature of his own country…..not merely uncultivated, but absolutely uncivilized.  He can have no link whatever with the past, he can have no citizenship, no country.” [31]

“Classical studies may make a man intellectual, but the study of the native literature has a moral effect as well.  It is the true ground and foundation of patriotism.  Now that the American, the Germans, the Italians, are almost drunk with the sense of their national greatness, it would surely be well if our own population could be brought to think of England otherwise than as a country where wages are low, manners very cold, the struggle for life intolerably severe.” [32]

The essay concludes with Seeley reflecting on this curriculum as perhaps seeming to some to be “a most utopian dream”.

“if we judge of what can be done by what has hitherto been done, we should pronounce it impossible that the lower half of our population could ever receive either cultivation or civilization; we should conclude that things must remain always as they have so long continued, and that a small number of cultivated men will always live in England in the midst of a vast half-barbarous population.  We should think ourselves happy that this half-barbarous multitude belongs to the better class of barbarians, that it is hard-working, tolerably honest and good-natured, and that its worse faults are narrowness and dullness.”[33]

These revelations may cause some confusion for those who have been led to believe that the English Trivium Method was a lost tool of learning or the prerequisite (as opposed to an analogy) of the human reasoning process, that it has been purposely withheld from modern schooling nefariously in order to maintain control over society, that it is classical instead of medieval, or claims that it has been taken out of its “proper order” so one can continue to justify its use as an empty vessel and cudgel from which truth, certainty, absolute principles or a total education are alleged to be objectively derived.  As I will illustrate, these claims rely on sophistry and a syncretic amalgamation of this very lineage of John Robert Seeley, Cecil Rhodes, Matthew Arnold and the educational perennialism of the late Victorian period through the mid-20th century.

In reality this trivium framework has consistently been employed as a system for imparting solidarity of language and culture and providing a uniform initiation into higher learning and the expanding forms of the body politic, from the monastic traditions and medieval universities through state controlled compulsory education.  As explained by Seeley, the new English Trivium Method was to employ the English language and claims of a superior logic, history and tradition to justify the creation of a cultural unity for the British people and later for the English-Speaking people within the empire.  It is an enculturation process that leads individuals to be subservient to arbitrarily defined rules, collectives and authorities who seek universal dominion for their mediums by subordinating the particularity and intrinsic value of outsider cultures and perspectives.  This is accomplished through the management of language, oratory and thought, which like sense, perception and judgment are all inherent faculties of the human mind and our innate and instinctive predisposition to universal grammar and local language creation.  Historically  we see that the “uncivilized” are cast as “barbarians” because they refuse to be brought under the rules and propaganda of the dominant monoculture and would instead fight to retain their own independent systems of value no matter how “dull” or “narrow” they are deemed to be.

In my next chapter excerpt I will further explore how Cecil Rhodes and his followers helped to proliferate this new English-speaking Idea, which became the foundation for the Seeley Lectureships out of Cambridge, the Rhodes Scholarships at Oxford and many affiliated programs introduced into the United States, where the trivium had been steadfastly rejected as a curricular guide after the American Revolution.

[1] Arnold, Matthew, “Essays in Criticism”, Macmillan and Co., 1865, pg. xxviii

[2] Williams, Basil, “Cecil Rhodes”, Henry Holt and Co., New York, pg. 43

[3] Seeley, John Robert, “English in Schools”, Lectures and Essays, Macmillan Co. 1886, pg. 241

[4] Quigley, Carroll, “The Anglo-American Establishment”, 1981, GSG & Associates, pg. 39

[5] Watson, Foster, “The Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Education, Vol. II”, Pitman & Sons, Ltd. England, pg. 695

[6] Ibid, pg. 695

[7] Arnold, Matthew, “Schools and Universities on the Continent”, MacMillan Co. 1868, preface, XVU

[8] Ibid, pg. XVU

[9] Eagleton, Terry “Ideology and Literary Form”, New Left Review I/90,, March-April 1975

[10] Ibid

[11] Arnold, Matthew,  “Letters from Matthew Arnold to John Churton Collins”

[12] Burgin, Victor, “In/Different Spaces: Place and Memory in Visual Culture”, University of California Press, Ltd., 1996, pg. 3

[13] Seeley, John Robert, “English in Schools”, Lectures and Essays, Macmillan Co. 1886, pg. 232

[14] Ibid, pg. 218

[15] Ibid, pg. 218

[16] Ibid, pg. 218

[17] Ibid, pg. 219

[18] Ibid, pg. 219

[19] Ibid, pg. 218

[20] Ibid, pg. 224

[21] Ibid, pg. 228

[22] Ibid, pg. 230

[23] Ibid, pg. 231

[24] Ibid, pg. 232

[25] Ibid, pg. 235

[26] Lentrichhia, Frank & McLaughlin, Thomas “Critical Terms for Literary Study” Second Edition. University of Chicago Press. 1990, pg. 106

[27] Seeley, op cit. pg. 235

[28] Seeley, op cit. pg. 235

[29] Seeley, op cit. pg. 236

[30] Seeley, op cit. pg. 236

[31] Seeley, op cit. pg. 238

[32] Seeley, op cit. pg. 238

[33] Seeley, op cit. pg. 240

(If you appreciate the time and the effort that I have invested in the following article/chapter, please consider supporting my ongoing research  for my forthcoming book.  You may also do so at the Donate link on the homepage.  Thank you for your interest and support.)

About the author:

Kevin Cole is the founder of Unity of the Polis Research @  He is a co-producer of “The Ultimate History Lesson: A Weekend with John Taylor Gatto” (2012) and co-writer of the film “State of Mind: The Psychology of Control” (2013)  He is also a member and content provider for the Tragedy and Hope online research community and can be reached at or