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THE LIBERAL ARTS:  PART I
FORGOTTEN PATHWAYS TO WISDOM

By Dr. Peter Chojnowski

  One has not much difficulty in understanding where learning fit into the medieval and, therefore, Catholic view of man and his journey through this temporal world, when we consider the royal portals of Chartres Cathedral, which were constructed as entrances at the western side of the church between the years 1145-1170, the beginning of the Gothic architectural period. The symbolism and meaning expressed by the images that surround the portals (there are three, right, left, and center) point to the majesty and omnipotence of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Redeemer, Judge, and Creator. The primary mystery portrayed is that which is displayed on the central tympanum (i.e., the semi-circular space enclosed by a lintel and an arch over a doorway) of the central portal. Christ as King in majesty returning to judge the living and the dead, surrounded by the four beasts symbolic of the four Evangelists. It was to this culminating and eschatological doctrine of Sacred Scripture that the art (in this case, high relief sculpture) at the western entrance of most medieval cathedrals was dedicated. Since early and medieval Christian churches were normally situated towards the east (which is the place for the rising of the sun, symbol of the Resurrection), the west (the place of the setting of the sun) was dedicated to the end of man’s temporal journey, the Last Judgment, the triumphant King coming in glory. Such an end to the earthly path of man can only be believed and "seen" through the faith proclaimed by the 12 Apostles who decorate the lintel beneath this scene of apocalyptic triumph.

  It is on the right tympanum, over the right portal of the western entrance, that we encounter the earthly beginnings of this Divine Master who will come in glory to judge all the scions of Adam. Above scenes portraying His Nativity and His Presentation in the Temple at Jerusalem, we find the Christ Child enthroned at the bosom of His Blessed Mother, she revealing her Divine Son as the eternal object of our faith, hope, and love. It is around such an image, an image extrapolated by the Faith, that we find a portrayal of the Seven Liberal Arts. The Liberal Arts, symbolized by men holding the instruments relevant to each unique form of intellectual "making," appear on the archivolts (i.e., one of a series of concentric moldings over the tympanum) over the right portal (see above). The clear message of such an artistic presentation is that these academic disciplines, the "paths" to philosophical understanding and theological wisdom, are part of the rational foreground of the Apostolic Faith. Such a portrayal, specifically situated as such, is a testament in stone to the abiding presupposition, which holds that the human mind, perfected by intellectual training and discipline, can be led to a fully rational appreciation of the truths of the natural and the supernatural order. The ways of learning are the gateways to what God has revealed, through the Church, to our souls and, through our senses, to our imagination. That such portals of rational awareness should be appreciated and affirmed by even the Gothic architect, indicates the longevity and, in a very real way, the permanence of these "portals" of understanding and intellectual vision.

Education, Discovery, Discipline: What’s the Difference

  "Wisdom hath built herself a house, she hath hewn her out seven pillars" (Prov. 9:1).1 The unique acclaim which the great theorists of education, which include such men as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Cardinal John Henry Newman, give to the Seven Liberal Arts is perfectly and definitively expressed in a quotation from St. Augustine’s text the De Ordine. Concerning the academic practice of the Liberal Arts, their importance, and even necessity, for a youth’s full development of his rational faculties, he states, "Although all these arts are learned, partly for practical purposes, partly for knowledge and understanding, one can encompass them with difficulty, unless he be given from earliest youth to their persevering and acute study....This is the order of learning, or there is none."2

  When referring to the Liberal Arts as the classical and time-honored road of education in the Western World, we must be clear as to which form of "education" relates to and is advanced by the practice of the Liberal Arts. Of course, in this regard, we can speak of experience of the limitations of the world "educating" a young man or the reading of an exotic novel being an "education in itself." In order to "place" the liberal arts in the whole scheme of human mental development, we must make a distinction between three different forms of "education." The distinction depends upon the various ways in which the mind can be moved towards the attainment of truth and the character towards the attainment of a regularity of goodness or, in other words, virtue. The first term that St. Thomas Aquinas puts forward in this regard, in his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, is that of educatio. This term, very rarely used in the writings of St. Thomas, was, however, defined in the Commentary as, "the advancement of the child to the state of specifically human excellence, that is to say, to the state of virtue." 3 Obviously, "education," in this sense, would be primarily the responsibility and work of parents and, only secondarily, of the school. Such an "education" is non-academic and occurs through the example set for the young person by the actions and behavior of adults and through the influence of his cultural environment upon the development of his habits of mind, will, passions, and body. This type of education, even though it has its most critical phase in the early and adolescent years of a child’s life, is, nevertheless, never "over," insofar as there can always be an increased habituation towards the true good by voluntary actions towards that same good. It is this type of education that "never ends" and it is this habituation in virtue, which husband and wife agree to provide their children when they enter into their marriage contract. On one occasion, when speaking about this type of "education," St. Thomas used the verb assuescere rather than the verb for "to teach" docere. By this usage, he was implying that the best that one can do is to "accustom" young people to acting virtuously so that they may develop good habits through the exercise of their own free action.4

  The second form of "education" or learning is a more specific one and relates to man’s acquisition of an understanding of the nature of the world of men and of material creation. Of this form of education, St. Thomas distinguishes two types. The first type, he refers to as inventio or, translated roughly, "learning by oneself." St. Thomas states that this particular process of learning is the best, since it involves the active mind directly encountering the realities of nature and man through his own initiative and skill. Thus, a prodigy could pick up a musical instrument and begin to teach himself how to play it. It is a "learning" without "teaching." 5 This learning that is really an example of self-discovery is normally, because of the limitations and temporality of the human intellect, restricted to knowledge of very obvious or readily observable things or is the domain of genius.

  The type of "education" to which the Liberal Arts relate is a type referred to by St. Thomas as disciplina. The term disciplina appears somewhat more often in the writings of St. Thomas and can be awkwardly translated as "learning by being taught." Such a process of learning, necessarily involves a teacher. It is on account of this employment of an intermediary, in this case the " of a teacher’s words, between the natural thing or human artifact and the young mind, that this form of learning, although understood to be eminently necessary, is viewed as a less perfect form of knowing.6 It is through this process of disciplina, that a teacher teaches a student a "science" like mathematics, physics, or logic. This "science" or scientia is the intellectual ability, passed on from a teacher who has it already to a student who does not have it yet, to "demonstrate conclusions from principles." It is the ability to relate all relevant phenomena back to its proximate and ultimate causes.

Arts of Old: The History

HOMERIC MAN

  If the Liberal Arts relate to the form of "education" in which a teacher through the instrumentality of the magisterial word teaches a pupil arts and sciences and, this, within the context of an entire ordered program of study and exercises, we can say that such a program of studies was not offered, in even a basic form, until the 5th century B.C. In this century, often called the Golden Age of Athens, we find liberal education emerge for the first time in the form in which we have become accustomed to know it.7 Prior to the formalized instruction, introduced by the Sophists (i.e., itinerate teachers who traveled the Mediterranean world instructing young men in the art of rhetoric), there existed either the craftsman’s shop with father and son or an aristocratic, highly personal kind of apprenticeship between a mentor and a young noble. Whereas the craftsman was taught the essentials of his manual trade, his mentor imbued the Homeric noble with the ideal that he must excel over all others in military valor, speech, and action and that he must seek personal glory and renown. This was the young noble’s duty in life, which must be pursued until death.8 Where this type of training was not experiential, it was literary. Homer’s epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey were the central texts invested with the office of forming the young mind of Greece to noble thoughts and bold deeds. To be read in Homer soon became the education of the gentleman. As the Athenian literary and dramatic corpus expanded, the poems and tragedies of Hesiod, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were associated with Homer in the work of education.9

THE SOPHISTS

  With the coming to Athens from Syracuse of such Sophists as Gorgias, the instruction of aristocratic Athenian youth became more highly formalized and primarily directed towards the achievement of excellence and cultivation in speech. Rhetoric, or the art of speaking well so as to convince, was on its way to becoming the most prominent, in the Classical world, of the three arts which came to be known as the Trivium (i.e., grammar, logic or dialectic, and rhetoric). The objective of such instruction was the formation of what the Romans referred to as the vir bonus dicendi peritus, the good man and able speaker.10

ISOCRATES AND THE PHILOSOPHERS

  A prime example of this type of rhetorical education, was that given by a student of the most prominent Sophists of the time, Isocrates (436-338 B.C.). In the year 392 B.C., Isocrates opened his own school in Athens, which he directed for the next 50 years of his life. In his desire to produce suitable leaders in the various fields of civic endeavor, especially the political, Isocrates created his own curriculum, giving pre-eminence to the study of rhetoric, in order to cultivate the inner qualities of a young man, qualities which would reveal themselves in fine speech encouraging all to acts of virtue. In Isocrates’ program for the cultivation of expression, reason, feeling, and imagination so that a man may lead a truly civilized life, we see the essence of the program that was to attract so many students in the Greco-Roman world. Such a program of oratorical training, coupled with studies in such things as history (Isocrates was one of the first known academics to incorporate history into his curriculum of study), was set in contrast to the whole regimen of disciplines which formed the course of the seven Liberal Arts.

  The program of the seven Liberal Arts, as it has come down to us from Antiquity, and which has been seen as the model for all traditional curricula since that time, was a philosopher’s curriculum.11 The intent of the liberal arts, with a literary and a mathematical, "scientific" component, was to lead the young mind to higher and higher levels of abstraction and universality, until finally, there would be the attainment of a wisdom that would understand, with increasing degrees of certainty, the connections that existed between all things and their first and most universal causes. Here we must mention a point that needs to be remembered if we are to understand the essence of a Liberal Arts education. The Liberal Arts were intended to provide the young mind with the tools and basic insights needed to engage in philosophical reasoning. The Liberal Arts and, consequently, the entire educational program we inherit from our ancestors, are meant to provoke and facilitate philosophical reasoning. It is not meant to convey "information." It is meant to provide the tools and initiate the movements of mind necessary for a reasoning concerning the relationship between what a man encounters amidst the toil of life and the ultimate reasons for and purpose of those things. This is critical. Education, as classically understood, was meant to engender a dynamic and on-going process of intellectually connecting contingent and "practical" facts, with necessary and eternal truths and causes. That was it. Everything else was "crafts." It is this engendered universality of outlook, which gave the name "liberal" to the Liberal Arts.

THE STOICS AND ST. AUGUSTINE

  Even though Plato and Aristotle articulated curricula that provided for the gradual engagement of the young mind in literary, mathematical/scientific, and philosophical studies (expressed in their works the Republic and the Politics respectively and implemented in their schools the Academy and the Lyceum), it was not until the time of the Stoics, in the Hellenistic and the Roman epochs, that we find a systematic connection between the full program of the literary arts and the mathematical disciplines. What, also, emerges with the Stoics, along with this connection between what would become the Trivium and Quadrivium (i.e., between the literary and mathematic disciplines), was the ordering of all these individual studies towards the highest and most encompassing of the sciences, philosophy.12

  Indicating the antiquity of the coherent program of the Liberal Arts, we find clear evidence of their existence amidst the stability, prosperity, and leisure of the ancient pagan Romanitas. The historical development of Roman education is fairly clear. Prior to the Punic Wars (264-146 BC), the mentor/apprenticeship form of education dominated, each trained in his own occupation and way of life by those who had trod the same path before them. It was only after the Punic Wars, that the Romans began to adopt the "academic" approach of the Greeks to education. Initially, conducted by Greek tutors in the Greek language, the first century BC saw the emergence of a movement to establish a "national literature" and a "national education." This period marks the beginning of the production of textbooks in Latin, meant for a secondary school education. The leaders of this "Latinization" movement were Caesar, Varro, and Cicero.13 The lines of and subject matter of this Latin curriculum are attested to in Cicero’s work De Oratore, in which he enumerates the following subjects considered in the textbooks of his time, "in music, numbers, sounds, and measures; in geometry, lines, figures, spaces, magnitudes; in astronomy, the revolution of the heavens, the rising, setting, and other motions of the stars; in grammar, the peculiar tone of pronunciation, and, finally, in this very art of oratory, invention, arrangement, memory, delivery." 14 Here we find a clear outline of what would become the Medieval Trivium and Quadrivium (i.e., Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric and Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, and Music). Rather than trying to form a scientific mind by this regimen of studies, Cicero and Quintilian, the two main educational theorists of the Roman period, considered the Liberal Arts to be the foundation of the ideal orator’s education. The encyclios paideia (the Classical Greek term used for what we would know as the Liberal Arts or a liberal education) was understood to be, also, in a general way, the necessary preparation for all forms of higher culture, technical, scientific, as well as philosophical.15

  It is with a contemporary of Cicero, Varro, that we encounter the first systematic treatment of the Liberal Arts as such. Under the name of disciplinarum libri novem, Varro compiled an encyclopedic text in which the subjects of grammar, logic (also known as "dialectic), rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music were treated, along with the additional subjects of architecture and medicine. By the 4th century A.D., the age of Constantine and later St. Augustine, the curriculum of the pagan schools in the Roman Empire had assumed the fixed character of a course in the seven Liberal Arts. Moreover, it is, precisely, during this century that members of the Church, anxious to find aids to their study of Theology, frequently resorted to the "treasures of the Egyptians" (i.e., that which was good, true, and beautiful in Classical culture), the literature, rhetoric, and dialectic cultivated now for centuries in the pagan academies.16

  "Such studies are the way to the highest things, the way of reason which chooses for itself ordered steps lest it fall from the height. The steps are the various liberal arts." 17 So says the most eminent man of the age committed to making off with the "treasures of the Egyptians," St. Augustine, a man so taken with the efficacy of the Liberal Arts, that he spent his days writing seven individual treatises on each of the disciplines as he waited for baptism in the city of Milan.18 That these two, apparently, unrelated realities, an academic program and a spiritual rebirth, should be both very much present to the mind of St. Augustine at the very same moment in his life, should not be a surprise for those who understand the nature of academic and, hence, philosophical pursuit as this existed in the Classical Age. Here, the objective of a "program" of education, of the constant intellectual exchange between master and disciple, was not merely to convey information, no matter how useful or profound. Rather, it was to engender in the soul of the disciple a "perfected" way of living, so as to achieve the ultimate object of human desire, true and unadulterated happiness. Instruction on how to live the "intelligent" life was no more than instruction as to how to live the good life. Ultimately, as St. Augustine constantly reiterated, only by attaining to the goal of the supernatural life as first received in baptism, could man bring his "restless heart" to the only good which could bring to rest that which knows no end and desires not the partial.19 What is, perhaps, surprising to some is that St. Augustine said education, most particularly the seven Liberal Arts (in which he substituted the study of philosophy for the study of astronomy), is a vital part of that movement of the soul to higher levels of spirituality and understanding. What St. Augustine saw the philosophical schools that practiced the Liberal Arts providing, were the "tools" necessary to guide the seeker after wisdom to the horizon of his desired goal. As Pierre Hadot states, referring to the academic milieu of which St. Augustine was very much a part, "every school practices exercises designed to ensure spiritual progress toward the ideal state of wisdom, exercises of reason that will be, for the soul, analogous to the athletes training or to the application of a medical cure." 20

  St. Augustine himself was such an educator. Besides his obvious interest in the seven Liberal Arts (The number "7" became officially and irrevocably attached to the Liberal Arts from the fourth century), his most commonly read work, the Confessions, was supposed to be received as a specific form of oral "medicine." I intentionally use the word "oral" here. What is quite often forgotten in our "turn to page 543 and do examples 1-50" textbook system, or our "read silently at your desks while I go to the teachers’ lounge to have a cigarette" literature classes, is that "texts," at least the ancient "great" texts, were meant to be read aloud and not to be read silently. This was such a commonplace in St. Augustine’s own time, that he records finding it somewhat peculiar that he should have once walked in on St. Ambrose when he was reading silently.21 Such was, obviously, outside the norm. Here we come in sight of another critical fact, necessary for understanding the nature and the function of the Liberal Arts. These studies, so advocated by St. Augustine, are "liberal," primarily because they relate to the mind. The mind is free, meaning that it is determined to no one object of experience. Because only the fullness of God’s being would "fix" and rivet the human mind, it is free to range over the field of intelligible being and cull the fruits of truth and goodness that it may. This basic ontological and epistemological fact is at the basis of the universal reach of the mind. It is, also, the ontological and epistemological cause of boredom. Old Bessie the cow does not get bored. She, quite happily, chews the same cud.

  Not only are the Liberal Arts related to the free mind, they, also, are meant to be "arts," meaning that the primary purpose of them is to "produce" something, in their case, acts of the mind. The various arts may use material aids to act as instrumental causes in the production of these acts of the mind. We think here of an abacus, a compass and drawn circles, charts of the constellations of the heavens, musical notation, the syllogism, written compositions and, even, tables of verb endings. These are only tools, again, only instrumental causes, meant to produce certain acts of the mind (e.g., deduction, abstraction, analysis, synthesis, comparison, and calculation). It was precisely these acts of the mind which were known to be the preparatory stage for philosophical reasoning and argumentation. One had to first be hoisted up to the proper level in order to understand general concepts, especially the notion of "being as such," and, then, one needed to be taught how to operate at that level, how to reason about all things from the standpoint of universal being. The Liberal Arts were not an end in themselves. They were steps that allowed the mind to mount, tools that allowed it to act.

  What St. Augustine clearly discerned, and what the ancient philosophers and tragedians took for granted, was that the way these "tools" were to be fashioned in the minds of the young, the way the initial acts of understanding and analysis were to be provoked, was through the oral word of the teacher. Here we must remember, especially those who are attracted to a "great books" Liberal Arts program, that, for the most part, the "great books" were not books at all. For example, the works we have of Aristotle are not the books that he actually wrote, but rather, compilations of students’ notes taken during his lectures. The present day dusty tomes of Plato’s Dialogues were meant to be acted and recited, not to sit on shelves. In English literature, we get a sense of the artificiality of the written text when in Act 3 of Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, after the line "Et tu, Brute? – Then fall Caesar!" we read [Dies]. What has died when this scripting is encountered, Caesar or Shakespearean drama? The master who can fashion his words such that they are heard and lived. Such is the art of arts.

FOOTNOTES

  1. The application of this passage from Proverbs was made by Cassiodorus in the 6th century in the preface to his De Artibus ac Disciplinis Liberalium Artium (Migne, P.L., LXX, col. 1149). Cf. R.A.B. Mynors, Cassiodori Senatoris Institutiones (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1937), p.89.

  2. St. Augustine, De Ordine, II, 16, 44, and II, 17, 46.

  3. St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Sentences, Bk. IV, dist. 26, q. I, a, I.

  4. St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Ethics, b. II, lect. 1.

  5. Ibid.

  6. St. Thomas Aquinas, Quaestiones Disputatae de Veritate , Q. 11, Art. 1 and 2, ad 4; also, Summa Theologica, I, Q. 117, Art. 1 and ST, III, Q. 12, Art. 3, ad 2.

  7. Paul Nash, Andreas Kazamias, Henry Perkinson, The Educated Man: Studies in the History of Educational Thought (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1965), p.1.

  8. Kazamias, p.3.

  9. Taken from Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University as found in The Idea of a Liberal Education: A Selection from the Works of Newman, ed. Henry Tristan (Toronto: George G. Herras & Co., 1952), p.52.

  10. For a discussion of rhetoric as a central component of the Liberal Arts in both the Classical Period and the Middle Ages, cf. Richard Mckeon, "Rhetoric in the Middle Ages," in Speculum, XVII, January, 1942, pp.1-32.

  11. William Harris Stahl, Martianus Capella and the Seven Liberal Arts, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971), p.91.

  12. Nash, p.99.

  13. Paul Abelson, The Seven Liberal Arts (New York: Teachers College Columbia University, 1906), pp.4-5.

  14. Ibid., p.50, n. 46. Cf. Cicero, De Oratore, I, 2, 8 – 3, 12.

  15. Stahl, p.91.

  16. Abelson, p.7.

  17. St. Augustine, De Ordine, I, 8, 24. Cf. Abelson, p.74.

  18. Cf. St. Augustine, Retractationes I, c. 6, Migne XXXII, col.591.

  19. Kim Paffenroth and Kevin L. Hughes, eds., Augustine and Liberal Education (Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing, 2000), p.26. Cf. Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, ed Arnold Davidson; trans. Michael Chase (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), p.57.

  20. Hadot, p.27.

  21. St. Augustine, Confessions, VI, 3, 3.