Seven liberal arts, One long tradition

So, I’ve spent a few weeks looking at all the liberal arts separately, but I can’t move on in the discussion without saying a few words about their integrated nature. I’m reminded again (not by The Liberal Arts Tradition, but by my own convictions) that the words trivium and quadrivium represent a three- or four-way crossroads—those words were the words the Romans used to name their intersections in the famous system of Roman roads. The words were applied so early to the liberal arts, I don’t think the concept of integration had yet faded from the general understanding of the terms.

I make no pretense of being a master of the liberal arts, especially of the quadrivium, but I am continually drawn to the hints I encounter about the relationships that make the seven liberal arts part of a whole.

Since Isaac Newton demonstrated that the heavenly and earthly realms obey the same laws, the previous distinctions between the liberal arts of music and astronomy have faded and their interdependence as the joint method for natural science has prevailed.

And yet, in most of the arts, there continues to be a tension between observable data and deeper meaning. My instinctive feeling is that being conversant with the liberal arts as arts would give every individual the best chance for reconciling things in his own mind. And this is the need that prevails.

While the daunting volume of data and information today seems to dwarf the search for meaning and truth, there has never been a time when the hunger to make sense of the big picture was greater.

I quite agree that our culture is starved for a taste of meaning and truth, and that is why the liberal arts shouldn’t be viewed in isolation, as separate from other knowledge, or worse, a set of seven discrete subjects. They are arts, and their practice has a greater purpose than mere learning of information.

Never has the need for the liberal art of music as a prelude to philosophy and theology been more crucial.

I think “music” here stands for both the specific liberal art of music, which is the culmination of the seven, and also the “musical” foundation that underpins the study of all the liberal arts. Musical education hints at harmony and integration, but also beauty and wonder. In Charlotte Mason’s words, “education is the science of relations.”

And it matters because, as Clark and Jain tell us:

Each art, when treated traditionally, contributes to the human formation of the students and the cultivation of wisdom.

I like their caveat here: “when treated traditionally.” So much time has elapsed, and so many experimental educational efforts have gone astray, that one has to look into the past to appreciate the way these arts were approached. I don’t pretend to have all the answers—far from it—but I am continually reminded that if we ask the right questions, our chances of at least being on the right path as we pursue answers are increased. I think delving into the traditional approach to the liberal arts is a very good question, especially when “why?” is asked before “how?”

Clark and Jain are asking good questions and giving us some excellent hints toward the pursuit of the liberal arts. They use words like “narrative” and “telos” and “synchronicities” as they urge us to practice the liberal arts as a matter of wonder, wisdom, and even worship. Even the smallest taste of the “real thing” will go a long way toward grounding our students in Truth (found in the philosophy and theology which come next in the discussion), for which they hunger.

Their pleas to understand these relationships remind me of Charlotte Mason’s similar plea over 100 years ago. First, she reminded her readers of how the fresco she admired so much revealed the relationship of the liberal arts to God.

Below the prophets and apostles are a series of pictured niches, those to the right being occupied by the captain figures, the ideal representations, of the seven Liberal Arts, figures of singular grace and beauty, representing such familiar matters as grammar, rhetoric, logic, music, astronomy, geometry, and arithmetic, all of them under the outpouring of the Spirit of God. … But here all are represented as under the same divine outpouring which illuminated the disciples in the upper chamber. (School Education, p. 153-54)

And a little later she makes her plea:

Let us set ourselves to labour with purpose and passion to restore to the world, enriched by the additions of later knowledge, that great scheme of unity of life which produced great men and great work in the past. (SE, p. 156)

It isn’t just the study of the seven liberal arts that is liberating; it’s also, and perhaps more importantly, understanding how they fit into a broader understanding of knowledge.

Your comments welcome!

Copyright 2018 Karen Glass


Link to all the posts in the Liberal Arts Tradition discussion.