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By Dr. Peter Chojnowski

St. Thomas Aquinas and Medieval Learning

  That what has come to be called the "Liberal Arts" was the standard and normative program for education throughout the early Christian Ages, reaching its apogee of influence during the High Middle Ages, cannot be doubted in light of the constant references to it recorded in countless medieval manuscripts, along with visual testimony in works of art and literature throughout these epochs of time. Inheriting the concept of the Liberal Arts from the ancient Roman academicians and theorists, Cicero and Quintilian, while inheriting the practice from the ancient philosophical academies and schools, we find references to the theory and practice of the Liberal Arts in the writings of the Christian writer Cassiodorus in the 6th century, in that of Isidore of Seville in the 7th century, and ultimately, in the writings of the early Scholastic writers and educators, Alcuin and Rabanus Maurus.1 The etymological roots of the word "liberal," used in regard to education, are found in the Latin word liberalis, an adjective applied for centuries to various words regarding education: disciplinae liberales, studia liberalia, and artes liberales. 2

  There were, however, two very interesting developments in the theory behind the Liberal Arts, which only emerged within the High Christian civilization of the Medieval Period. One relates to the number 7 itself and one relates to the idea of the "arts" as a form of "craft." Of course, the number 7 was a number mysterious above all others for the Fathers of the Church. It was the result of the addition of 3, which stood for the Holy Trinity and for the human soul made in the Image of the Holy Trinity, and 4, which stood for the earthly, especially the human body, on account of the ancient physics which identified 4 elements (i.e., earth, air, fire, and water) as constituting the ultimate composition of the material universe. Since man is a union of spiritual soul and physical body, referred to as a hylomorphic union by St. Thomas Aquinas, the symbolic number that stood for everything human was the number 7. Therefore, a reflection of the Divine Wisdom in the world was the fact that all things human, tending towards human perfection, were grouped in sevens. There are 7 Sacraments of the New Law by which man is saved; there are 7 Gifts of the Holy Ghost by which God moves all the Elect to salvation; there are 7 Virtues, 3 theological and 4 cardinal, by which man is perfected as a man and as a child of God; there are 7 Petitions of the Pater Noster by which man makes his needs know to his Heavenly Father; there were 7 Deadly Sins by which man fell away from the Divine Perfection; moreover, man sings the praises of God seven times a day in the Divine Office. Besides these, there were considered to be 7 mechanical arts and 7 skills which a squire needed to master before becoming a knight (i.e., riding, tilting, fencing, wrestling, running, leaping, spear-throwing).3 The Liberal Arts fit into this symbolic reading of the number. The 7 Liberal Arts, made up of 3 arts dealing with man, grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and 4 arts dealing with material quantities, their shape, number, motion, and harmonies, were the way in which man ascends to a rational understanding of the Created Order through philosophical reasoning and contemplation. Such a form of reasoning, the fruit of which was a gaze into the very structure of being, was something utterly unique to man. The brutes were not capable of it. The angels do not need it.

  There is another way in which the Christian Middle Ages transformed the very concept of the Liberal Arts. Here, we might say that the Scholastic doctors, most specifically St. Thomas Aquinas, took seriously what antiquity had, seemingly, avoided, specifically the idea that the "arts" were a form of work and that these arts were noble precisely because they involved work. This is an idea that the ancients, unaware that God-made-Man amongst them had given Himself first to a life of physical labor, could not perfectly reconcile themselves to, due to their general contempt for all forms of manual labor. If "labor" was somewhat disgraceful, even the intellectual kind, how can we coherently glorify as an educational ideal the "arts," no matter how "liberal" they were? In his work De opere manuali, "On Manual Work," St. Thomas states that not only is manual work not "disgraceful" and "ungentlemanly," but that it is actually "connatural" to man as such, dismissing the idea that it is simply a penalty for Original Sin. The very inner spiritual and moral constitution of man, along with his bodily form, orders him towards the performance of labor. In this regard, he states,

  As is clear from the very structure of his body, man has a natural orientation to manual work. For this reason it is said in Job 5:7: "Man was born to labor and the bird was born to fly." Nature has adequately provided all the other animals with whatever they require in the way of food, weapons, and covering for the maintenance of life. Man is not thus equipped because he is gifted with intelligence wherewith to supply himself with these things. Consequently, in their place, man has hands which are adapted to fashioning all sorts of products answering to his mental conceptions.4

  Thus, we find, that as in so many other things, it took the Catholic Mind to bring to light the richness of truth contained in the "discoveries" of others. Examples of this abound. We could think of the Hebrew failure to fully appreciated the statement of God to Moses that His Name was "I AM WHO AM," understood later by St. Thomas to signify God’s Nature as Ipsum Esse Subsistens, or Self-Subsistent Existence. So too, with regard to the Liberal Arts, the "labor" entailed by the term "art" is part and parcel of the learning process and, in fact, points to the actual manner in which such learning must take place. The teacher, putting forward the evocative "signs" of his words, attempts to move the pupil to perform mental operations that mirror those which occur in the professor’s own mind. It is the student himself who must perform the mental actions requisite to the objective of understanding. The teacher can provoke such actions, the student must perform them. Moreover, the goal is for the student to be so habituated to these actions, that he easily activates these mental techniques and processes in the course of his life as a thinker and as a man of practical affairs. If the Liberal Arts are the arts fit for a gentleman, as Cardinal Newman so often repeats, then we must recall that the first gentlemen were warriors of the sword. First the weapon must be fashioned at the anvil, and then the weapon must be used to draw blood. And, "cursed be he that withholdeth his sword from blood." 5

Cardinal Newman and the Learning of a Gentleman

  It was always assumed and, indeed, taken to be a mark of nobility, that the "fashioning" demanded by the practice of the Liberal Arts was distinct from any type of fashioning which may characterize the servile arts (i.e., the arts which produce objects or devices used to facilitate some practical end outside of itself). The knowledge that was to be attained by the techniques and "tools" conveyed by the teacher in Liberal Arts study was to be something worth having for its own sake. Something which did not just touch man as a "professional," but something which touched the existence of man as man. The knowledge that is gained situates man intellectually within his place in the universe, the whole of the Created Order. It addresses the concerns of man as man. Thus, we find that the training in the Liberal Arts has always been directed, no matter the time period or the cultural or religious milieu in which they were conveyed, towards some occupation or knowledge content that relates to the "whole." For the ancients, the whole was either the whole of the political order or the whole of the universal order of being, understood as such by the science of philosophy. In the Medieval Period, the whole was the natural order as complimented by, and fulfilled in, the supernatural order of man as participant in the Divine Order of Grace, such as was studied in the science of theology. Such is the goal of liberal learning. To present a human "field" to the mind, in which it may dwell, to open up the whole world of created being for communion with the educated mind. As Cardinal Newman states in his Idea of a University, which includes as a main element the lecture he gave to a mere 15 students at the opening of the Catholic University of Ireland in November 1854, the liberally educated man "has the world to converse with." Indeed, as he said, "You cannot learn to converse till you have the world to converse with." 6

  It is this "conversation with the world," the world of created being, which is both the goal and the most tangible product of the Liberal Arts. It is not without meaning or significance that the liberally educated man, the gentleman, "gentle" not because he could not fight but because he reserved himself for the fight against that which threatened "the whole," bore his learning in his very form that he "cut" before society. When considering the attributes of the gentleman produced by the mental cultivation achieved by the Liberal Arts, and the moral and philosophical "positioning" which this education ultimately produced, as these were delineated by Cardinal Newman, we can hardly but see the visible form of a man who fears nothing but the Living God, who embodies the truthful and honest engagement with every challenge and exigency that a man may encounter. The gentleman is "honest" in his bearing, in his speech, and in his own judgment of things. One thing such an educated man would not fear is the presumptuous claim by men of empirical science to account for the works of Nature without reference to the Fashioner and Sustainer of Nature. The man of the Liberal Arts would know the subject matter, the range, and, most importantly, the limitations of each science that is studied and, consequently, of the claims made by the men of the respective sciences. For example, the geometrician could know everything about his own discipline, which relates to the surfaces of quantifiable beings, and, yet, not have any right to speak to the questions that arise from the very existence of quantifiable beings. The same can be said of the physicist and his study of the movement of material beings. What the presumptuous physicist must remember is that his study of and discoveries concerning the movement of physical beings is perfectly justified, as long as he does not begin to think it in his domain to speak about beings as such. In fact, the physicist cannot even justifiably speak about what makes a material being material. He can analyze the specifics of materiality, but he cannot present conclusions on materiality as such. That is for the philosopher, or for the physicist insofar as he knows also the principles of philosophy.

  The whole purpose of the Liberal Arts was to present disciplines relating to subject matter that could not be completely and adequately accounted for without reference to a higher science, namely the science of philosophy, which depended upon the lower sciences for its intelligibility but which encompassed within its subject matter all the content discussed and analyzed in the various disciplines. Therefore, a physicist who claims to discuss the evolution of the human species or the generation of the universe would be told clearly by the truly educated man that such a discussion transcended the boundaries of his science and, in fact, any empirical science, since the events spoken of have never been observed and, most importantly, are not repeatable even if they should have happened. True science can only deal with events and phenomena that are repeatable. That is why history cannot, strictly speaking, be referred to as a "science," but only as a "discipline."

  That the complete man, with respective emphasis on both the words "complete" and "man," can order all ideas that come to him, each into its own category, each with its own particular value and justification, is one of the reasons why the gentleman, produced by liberal studies, has a certain grace about him; he is fundamentally unperturbed by all that comes from man and which relates to man. The Liberal Arts have taught him to be "at ease" in the world of being, primarily, because that world has become familiar to him. If his education has been truly universal in scope, there is nothing in the world that he cannot account for. This "ease" in the world (–here I mean "the world" as the whole of the Created Order, rather than "the world" as in "the world, the flesh, and the devil–), takes on an aesthetic aspect and is reported in many historical accounts of the universally perceived goal of the classical education process, the gentleman. In all of these, what is important to see is that even the outward bearing, social discourse, and internal understanding of self was a manifestation of education’s relating of man to the world and to the Creator of both himself and the world. His education calls him to be a man, to ask and discover the answers for those questions that are of a concern to all men insofar as they are men. As Cardinal Newman states, in reference to a liberal education fostered by a study of the Liberal Arts,

  It is an education which made the man; it does not make physician, surgeons, or engineers...but it makes men...and this is the education for which you especially come to the University –it is to be made men. 7

  The polished product of a classical education can, also, understand what it means to relate to other men not as "clients," or "employers," or "workmates," but as men, each occupying a specific place in both the Social, Political, and Divine Orders. His honesty, for he knows what the truth is, comes from the heart, since he has not been trained to manipulate, but rather, to "present" both himself and reality as they are, as both reveal their contingent dependence on the unlimited creative power of God. As Cardinal Newman would have it:

  All that goes to constitute a gentleman, the carriage, gait, address, voice; the ease, the self-possession, the courtesy, the power of conversing, the talent of not offending; the lofty principle, the delicacy of thought, the happiness of expression, the taste and propriety, the generosity and forbearance, the candor and consideration, the openness of hand, etc.

  ...all are characteristics of one who, through education, has penetrated the universal in all the particular exigencies of life. His books, his lectures, his papers, and even his sketches, have allowed his mind to penetrate the structure and limitations of human nature, not as lived by one man, namely himself, but as it is lived by all men. Whereas the "professional" must stoop down, both mentally and, often, physically, to a work that is "artificial," at least in the sense that he works with artifacts thought up by man, the classically educated stands erect to the full height of his human nature, the cultivation of which has been the pursuit of his academic life.


  1. Paul Abelson, The Seven Liberal Arts (New York: Teachers College Columbia University, 1906), p.9.

  2. John Dobson, Ancient Education and Its Meaning to Us (New York: Longmans, Green, 1932), p.127.

  3. Emile Male, The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century, trans. Dora Nussey (New York: Harper & Row, 1936), pp. 10-12. Cf. Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol.1 (New York: The Encyclopedia Press, Inc., 1913), p.762.

  4. St. Thomas Aquinas, Quodlibet VII, A. 17. Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, Q.95, Art.1.

  5. Jeremiah, 48:10.

  6. The Idea of a Liberal Education: A Selection from the Works of Newman, ed. Henry Tristan (Toronto: George G. Harras & Co., 1952), p.59.

  7. Tristan, p. 32.