What do you think of when you hear the term ‘liberal art’?
Today, the liberal arts are viewed through varying lenses and presuppositions. However, from antiquity and into Medieval times there was a more particular way in which the liberal arts were viewed.
To begin, I want to take a step back and take a brief look at the liberal arts as a whole. As I have continued to contemplate the liberal arts I have thought a lot about the sciences as well. Especially the simple fact that the liberal arts precede the sciences in the classical curriculum, in doing so the liberal arts speak for themselves and tell us quite a bit about their nature and purpose. Consider the following quote.
“On the other hand, a science can be in the mind alone and does not require any practice or the production of anything. It is particularly an art that joins imitation with reason in order to produce something. An art is the nexus between imitation and science, the former being only in the body and the latter being only in the mind. An art must be the well-ingrained imitative habit honed by its accompanying science.” —Clark & Jain, The Liberal Arts Tradition
By contrasting the liberal arts against the sciences we see more clearly the purpose, power, and nature of the liberal arts. Whereas myth, gymnastic, and a musical education tunes the heart and the body of the student to reality, the liberal arts make right action possible. David Hicks discusses this idea throughout his book Norms & Nobility. He writes about the idea that the proper end of education is right action, also referred to, in many classical circles, as the cultivation of wisdom and virtue. If this is true then the arts give us the means by which we can act. I love how Clark and Jain explain it in their book, the Liberal Arts Tradition.
“The liberal arts are the tools of learning through which arguments, poems, and proofs are uncovered. They provide the tools through which science is demonstrated and reality is encountered. They offer the justification for why a cause is sufficient reason for its effect.”
This reminded me of a book I read by Mortimer Adler called ‘How to Speak, How to Listen’. In it he discusses the nature of communication and what it takes to truly speak and be heard as well as how to truly listen and understand. If you consider his ideas with what Clark and Jain are saying in their book we can infer that words and numbers are the means by which the abstract ideas that make up reality become comprehensible to the listener or beholder. Likewise, words and numbers serve as a portal or vehicle each of us can use to communicate clearly with others. The liberal arts make us masters in perceiving and communicating, both in words and numbers. It is true that each liberal art cannot be used to justify or embody every piece of knowledge, yet every piece of knowledge can be justified or embodied through some liberal art. This, of course, tells us why the classical student must study each liberal art, each is required in judging and justifying the vast and various knowledge of our universe. We were created for this kind of education. From the beginning, there has been a special calling given to man by God. We are called, each of us, in our own way, to name, judge, and give purpose to the things around us. It is part of the dominion mandate. The liberal arts tradition is the only kind of education I know of that intentionally trains up men and women in this way of relating to creation and reality.
“We believe that each art is an irreducible, well-worn path (vium) which will allow students not only to acquire the skill and content, but to be initiated into the Western tradition.” —Clark & Jain, The Liberal Arts Tradition
I do not know about you, but that makes my heart sing. The more I study the liberal arts and observe my children, the more I see our need for them. So what are the liberal arts, practically speaking? Within the liberal art you will find the trivium, which are the language arts of the tradition, these are called grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Next you will find the quadrivium, which are the mathematical arts of the tradition, these are called arithmetic, geometry, harmonics, and astronomy.
What then is the first step in engaging with the liberal arts tradition? I think there are two things we each must attend to. First and foremost, the principles. Charlotte Mason discusses these as the atmosphere, a discipline, and a life. These are good divisions for the principles that govern the tradition. Secondly, the particulars. The particulars are all the specific things to do that extend from the very heart of the principles. In order to discern the particulars accurately, we must know something of the principles and preferably have some wise mentors that have gone before us to help light the way. The principles also help to guard us against the treacherous temptation of becoming obsessed with the what and how rather than being led by the why. For our purposes here in this series, we will acknowledge the need for attending to both and as we move forward, I will attempt to weave the principles and particulars together throughout our discussion. Our next post will focus on the liberal art of grammar. In addition, if you have Clark & Jain’s book, read along! I would love to hear what you glean from the reading. Learning in community is the best.
What about you? What are you learning about the liberal arts lately? Join the conversation here.
Expanding wisdom, extending grace,