The Catholic Classical Vision pt. 7: The Liberal Arts

This series outlines the purpose, structure, curricular content, and communal origins of a Catholic classical education, for the sake of establishing a School dedicated to such an education in the Diocese of Wichita (Kansas). It discusses both the general principles of Catholic classical education as well as some particular points regarding that School. We begin by explaining the purpose and educational vision of the School, then consider the reasons for the order and structure of its curriculum, before discussing each class in the curriculum. Lastly, we describe the community required to achieve the goals of Catholic classical education.

Before things can be known in a philosophical way, one must develop the skills of thinking well and discerning the truth. These skills are the seven liberal arts, the necessary precursors to the intellectual virtues. They are called arts because they are a knowledge about how to make or produce a certain result, which they have in common with other arts or technical skills. However, unlike the more physical or mechanical arts, these are called liberal or free because their work is a product of reason itself, an accomplishment or flourishing of the intellectual soul by which we are free.[1] The liberal arts are split into two groups: the Trivium—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—and the Quadrivium—arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The arts of the Trivium are about human language, while the arts of the Quadrivium concern the human measurement of quantity.

Grammar is the art concerned with language as a tool of meaning. That is, the emphasis is not upon the form of thinking (as in logic) or speaking well for the sake of ends of action or persuasion (as in rhetoric), but upon language itself. Just as the violin-maker’s art aids the violinist’s art, so also the art of grammar aids the novelist, poet, logician, and rhetorician. So the good it seeks is an instrumental good, that of well-ordered speech.

Logic is the art of right reasoning, the art by which we can determine the truth of what is said or written. Its emphasis is upon the universal forms of thought insofar as these are manifested in human language. As an art, it aims at the making of true definitions, statements, and sound arguments. This art thus trains the mind in its noblest good, knowing the truth.

Rhetoric is the art concerned with human language as a means of persuading one of the truth, especially with an eye towards action insofar as this involves ordering our will and emotions to action. Its product, speech of various sorts, is a good we pursue as a useful good. Poetry or literature shares in some of these aspects, but the products of the poetic and literary arts seem principally to be aimed at what is pleasant and beautiful, not merely useful. 

Johannes Vermeer, The Astronomer

The arts of the Quadrivium are arts insofar as they aim at teaching a knowledge of making or producing—in this case, the various ways of measuring and thus knowing quantity. The Greeks were inspired to devise these arts because of the harmonies observed in the natural order of things, and the medievals carried on this tradition, knowing as well that “thou hast ordered all things in measure, and number, and weight” (Wisdom 11:21). Arithmetic is the art of number, or discrete quantity, and geometry is the art of magnitude, or continuous quantity. These two aim at knowing quantity in itself, and the arts are thus preparatory for the theoretical study of the mathematical disciplines. For the ancients, quantity as known in the things of nature, especially in things that move or change, was exemplified in astronomy and music. Astronomy is the art of observing the heavens, measuring and thereby knowing the geometric order in the cosmos. Music is the art of harmony, measuring and thereby knowing number in things.[2]

Once a student possesses these seven liberal arts, he is able to discern the truth and is free to seek knowledge and wisdom. As St. Thomas states, “by these as if by certain ways the mind is prepared for the other philosophical disciplines.”[3] These arts so “excel all the rest in usefulness that anyone who had been thoroughly schooled in them might afterward come to a knowledge of the others by his own inquiry and effort rather than by listening to a teacher.”[4]

[1] See St. Thomas, Super Boetium de Trinitate, q. 5, a. 1, ad 3: “These among the other sciences are called arts because they not only consist in inquiry but have a certain work that is immediate to reason itself: such as the construction of a syllogism or composing a speech, numbering, measuring, forming melodies, or reckoning the course of the stars. However, the other sciences either do not have a work (but knowledge alone, as divine and natural science). Thus, they cannot take the name ‘art,’ since an art is ‘making reason,’ as Metaphysics, Book VI, says [1025b22]. Or they have a corporeal work, as medicine, alchemy, and others of the sort. Whence they are unable to be called liberal arts, because they are human actions on the part of that by which he is not free, namely on the part of the body.”

[2] In a later section, we will discuss the difference between these liberal arts and the contemporary sciences so as to clarify how the liberal arts are preparatory for the intellectual virtues like those involved in higher mathematics or the natural sciences.

[3] St. Thomas, Super Boetium de Trinitate, q. 5, a. 1, ad 3. See also Hugh of St. Victor, Didascalicon, Book III, ch. 3.

[4] Hugh of St. Victor, Didascalicon, Book III, ch. 3.

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