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The Seven Liberal Arts part 1: tools for learning

The first in a series of articles about a remarkable medieval curriculum which took human freedom as its starting point and truth as its end.

Its tempting to assume that the education of the past consisted of little more than rote learning and the 3Rs, served with a dollop of handed-down religious morality. Critical thinking is widely assumed in education circles to be a “21st century skill”. Yet during the medieval era, the small numbers of children who received a formal education were taught a group of subjects that embodied a living, dynamic and critical relationship with knowledge. These subjects – Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy – were collectively known as the Seven Liberal Arts and formed the basis of education across Western Europe for over half a millennium. How did they evolve and can they tell us anything about the educational problems we face today?

Education and freedom

The notion of a “liberal art” hails from Ancient Greece, where it described the education and pastimes of a free person – which, given the social strictures of the time, meant a free man. Life for most people in the ancient world was anything but free – it consisted of a day-to-day struggle for subsistence. In so far as there was anything we’d call education, it probably went little further than passing on the skills and knowledge necessary for the next generation to survive and to take up their allotted roles in life. But in Athens and other Ancient Greek city-states, civilisation advanced to the point that a small section of society, its male citizens, had choice about how to spend their time and how to educate themselves.

Freedom was made possible in these societies by the efforts of the unfree – the women and slaves who together made up perhaps nine tenths of the populace. And it helps us understand the liberal arts if we know that they were defined in distinction to the ‘mechanical arts’ taught to slaves. Those included: making clothes and weapons, agriculture, hunting, baking, butchery, cooking, navigation and medicine, all of which served a specific purpose and led to a defined result – whether that be the creation of a tunic, a spear, a feast or a successful journey. (1)

The liberal arts by contrast were open-ended, in that they did not lead to a pre-defined, narrow outcome. Rather than producing something external to us, the liberal arts brought about a change in the person, fostering moral and intellectual excellence along with an appreciation of beauty and the finer things in life. H.I. Marou, author of A History of Education in Antiquity, tells us that, “For Hellenistic man the sole aim of human existence was the achievement of the fullest and most perfect development of the personality”. (2)

This was not an ancient version of the modern conceit that we can become the “best version of our self” through therapeutic self-discovery. It involved improving oneself by engaging with the best available knowledge and ideas. (“The best that has been thought and known”, as the 19th century school inspector Matthew Arnold would memorably put it). The liberal arts became part-and-parcel of the remarkable flourishing of human thought that we associate with Ancient Greece.

Aristotle at his writing desk. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Whilst Greek education did encompass practical subjects such as music, drawing and gymnastics, the foundations of the liberal arts were reading and writing since, as the 4th century philosopher Aristotle pointed out, these were “the means of acquiring many other type of knowledge”. (2) And that knowledge was to be found in remarkable works such as the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides, the proto-scientific discoveries of Pythagoras and Hippocrates, not to mention the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle himself.

Aristotle made a further, profound claim and one we still grapple with today – that the liberal arts liberate us by enlarging and expanding our choices. (3). Just as reading and writing opened up access to the liberal arts, so the liberal arts in turn opened up access to ideas and knowledge beyond the familiar and everyday – and presented people with choices about what they might do with that knowledge. In other words, education was no longer dwelling solely in the realm of necessity but had dipped a toe in the realm of possibility.

Whilst the Ancient Greeks’ notions of what was possible reflected the beliefs and material limitations of the time – slavery was part of nature’s order, for example – the liberal arts would go on to play a crucial role in advancing human knowledge and expanding the realm of possibility during the millennia that followed.

Freedom is dangerous

Along with other Greek ideas, the liberal arts were passed on to Rome, becoming a cornerstone of its education system, with the classical canon expanding to encompass Latin works such as the speeches of Cicero and the poetry of Virgil.

The intellectual freedom baked into the liberal arts did not sit easily with the early Christians whose children attended the schools of the Roman Empire. The classical education system was of a piece with its classical content – which consisted, as far as Christians were concerned, of pagan myths and legends. Yet the ability to read Latin was necessary to engage with the Bible, and the Roman school system was the best available (only) method of teaching that at the time.

Church fathers such as Tertullian and Origen did their best to reconcile themselves to the compromise involved in adopting the Roman system, arguing that the Greek and Roman classics had borrowed liberally from sacred writings. (1) And Christian parents expected their children to grit their teeth through the pagan content in their lessons, handling their religious and moral upbringing outside school.

Saint Augustine and the illumination of veritas (truth) depicted in a painting by Philippe de Champaigne (1602-1674). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Some though found it difficult to dismiss the ancient classics. Saint Augustine (354-430), perhaps the greatest Christian philosopher of antiquity, believed they had something important to offer in their own right and could provide a useful intellectual basis for understanding Scripture. (4)

“…all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them.”

Augustine, On Christian Doctrine (397)

While the practically minded Romans had valued the liberal arts because they taught students how to accomplish intellectual tasks, Augustine “elevated the arts from the merely useful to the mystical when he taught that they were born of Reason and lead the mind to God”. (5) This new conception of the liberal arts was no longer about perfecting the individual as a member of society but was concerned with developing and directing their faculties of reason towards a search for truth, in the shape of God.

Yet church leaders remained unconvinced and when the Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century, they repurposed the Roman education system to vocational ends. Their new schools were attached to monasteries and, later, cathedrals and were expected to produce clergy who could both save souls and be intelligent leaders in the increasingly complex societies of Europe. (1)

The intent may not have been liberal but the liberating aspect of education was part of the package and could not easily be extracted and discarded. The Church fathers instinctively realised that knowledge, once in people’s heads, could be put to unexpected and undesirable ends. Teaching Latin was a necessity, yet doing so made illicit pagan writings accessible to the young and impressionable clerics. Even Gregory the Great, whose mission brought the Roman-Christian education system to England in the late 6th century, expressed this concern when he scolded a French bishop for teaching grammar: “…the praise of Christ cannot lie in one mouth with the praise of Jupiter.” (1)

It took another two centuries for Christian education to come to terms, more or less, with the liberal arts. The key figure in that reappraisal was the master of York school, Alcuin (c. 740–804), a lover of knowledge who put in place features of education we now take for granted. Amongst other innovations, he challenged his pupils to think by setting them mathematical and logical puzzles and promoted the use of what are now known as ‘humanist’ writing scripts to facilitate ease of access to written materials.

Charlemagne and Alcuin, from a painting by Victor Schnetz. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Echoing Augustine, Alcuin believed that education should encompass more than Scripture and, at a time when enthusiasm for learning about the accumulated knowledge of the past was at a low ebb, he recognised the intellectual value of the classics of Latin literature. (Many of the Greek classics had fallen into obscurity).

By Alcuin’s time the originally loose structure of a liberal education had been refined into study of the seven arts previously mentioned – we shall learn how that happened shortly – and at York, Alcuin experimented with five of them (not Dialectic or Geometry). (6) Then, as education advisor to the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne – the effective ruler of the West – Alcuin exported the Seven Liberal Arts back to the continent, making them the basis of Charlemagne’s education programme during the Carolingian renaissance that followed. In England and across Europe, the Seven Liberal Arts would be taught in the church’s schools throughout the medieval era and beyond.

Although it had taken several centuries, Augustine’s ideas about the liberal arts prevailed and were now central to Christian thought. Historian John Contreni tells us that “the arts, while still practical guides to learning, came to be viewed as constitutive elements of human nature that sin had long obscured in the souls of humans. Their recovery to human understanding became a profound journey to blessedness and unity with the divine…” (5).

The Magnificent Seven

So how did the educationalists of the past settle on seven liberal arts? Accounts differ, but it seems the number was finally fixed in the 6th century by Boethius and Cassiodorus (1), two Roman senators who attempted to reconcile Greek philosophy with Christian theology and who, like Augustine, considered study of secular subjects an important part of a rounded Christian education.

It is likely that they chose seven arts because that number was associated in Scripture with anything that was entire and complete – think of the seven days of the week, the seven pillars of wisdom or even the Seven Deadly Sins. (4) It should be noted that the Seven Liberal Arts were mirrored by Seven Mechanical Arts.

Lady Philosophy presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius, from a 14th century manuscript copy of the latter’s Consolation of Philosophy.

But the selection of the seven liberal arts was not arbitrary. Each played an important role in developing knowledge and understanding, as we will explore in subsequent posts. Hence their depiction as allegorical figures in many medieval artworks. Marjorie Roth of Nazareth University describes how, in the example presented above, “Each of the Arts carries an appropriate attribute: Grammar (book); Rhetoric (scroll); Logic (patterned wheel representing logical patterns of argument); Music (musical notation); Geometry (square & measure); Arithmetic (scroll with symbols); Astronomy (armillary sphere).”

Furthermore, the Seven had an internal structure. The theologian Isidore of Seville (570-636) divided their study into two phases – loosely associated in later centuries with schools and universities respectively. The first phrase was the Trivium of literary arts – Grammar, Rhetoric and Dialectic. The second was the Quadrivium of scientific arts – Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy. Together the Trivium and Quadrivium provided the basis for studying Theology, the culmination of a Christian education. (1)

Hopefully it is becoming clear to readers of this article that the Seven Liberal Arts did not comprise a curriculum as we would know one today. As a recent book about classical education put it: “The trivium and quadrivium are not discrete subjects. They are modes of learning. Nor are they ends in themselves. They are tools for learning.” (7)

In the next post in this series, we shall find out how the tools of the Trivium were put to use.

Bibliography

  1. History of Education in Great Britain by S. .J. Curtis (University Tutorial Press Ltd, 1963)
  2. A History of Education in Antiquity by H. I. Marrou (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1956)
  3. A History of the Western Educational Experience by Gerald L. Gutek (Random House, 1972)
  4. Alcuin And the Rise of the Christian Schools by A.F. West (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1892)
  5. ‘John Scottus, Nutritor, and the Liberal Arts’ by John Contreni in A Companion to John Scottius Eriugena (edited by Adrian Guiu, Brill, 2019)
  6. A Short History of Education by John William Adamson (Cambridge University Press, 1930)
  7. Classical Education – The Movement Sweeping America by Dr. Gene Edward Veith, Jr and Andrew Kern (Capital Research Center, 2015)

Credit: The illustration at the top of the article, depicting Lady Philosophy, Socrates and Plato encircled by the Seven Liberal Arts, is part of the Hortus Deliciarum, drawn by Herrad of Landsberg in 1180.

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