Seven Liberal Arts

After discussing piety, gymnastic, and music, Clark and Jain finally get to the topic of the liberal arts. They acknowledge what anyone wanting to discuss classical education or the The Liberal Arts Tradition really has to acknowledge: “Today people use the term liberal arts with a great variety of meanings.”


So you have to define your terms, and they do, focusing at first on the distinction between an art and a science. The seven liberal arts are arts and not sciences because

An art could only be attained from an extensive foundation in action and imitation forming cultivated habits.

Basically, an art is something that you do—that must be practiced—while a science is a body of knowledge that produces nothing on its own. The liberal arts do produce something!

This leaves the question, “What is it then that the liberal arts are producing?” Aquinas gives us the answer: the liberal arts are used to produce the works of reason.

I think that bears mulling over for a good long while, and I have been doing that. It seems to me very, very easy to either embrace the idea of the Trivium and Quadrivium and leap into action to implement the liberal arts as “subjects” (which they are not), or else to dismiss them if you have decided classical education is irrelevant or undesirable.

Clark and Jain remind us that the trivium and quadrivium are paths (that’s what “vium” means) that are meant to lead somewhere. In formal medieval studies, that was to philosophy and theology. But, as I learned, “trivium” doesn’t just mean “three paths”—it is the word the Romans used to refer to an intersection of three roads, and a “quadrivium” was a four-way intersection. The trivium is the intersection of grammar, logic, and rhetoric—language—and the quadrivium is the intersection of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy—mathematics.

What makes these seven arts the most vital? What will mastering them give us that will prepare us for the higher contemplation that is to follow? I feel that those questions have to be asked before we get to “how do I teach these things?”

Clark and Jain take a fair amount of time with each of the seven arts, and I think that’s what I’ll do, too. One thing to bear in mind is that these arts are not intended for six-year-olds, not historically. This was a university education. I visited the museum portion of a medieval university in my home town (the Jagiellonian University in Krakow—over 750 years old), and the tour guide told us that the original course of study was…grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. And the next words out of his mouth were, “Copernicus came here when he was 18 years old and was introduced to astronomy for the first time.”

I don’t think we need wait until university today, but I do think that a full recognition of what it means to practice the liberal arts means acknowledging that it is meant to come after a lovely poetic foundation of music and gymnastics, underpinned with piety which will place a learner in the best frame of mind for true learning.

I have a feeling Charlotte Mason would appreciate the way that Jain and Clark place the liberal arts into a larger picture. She saw them that way, too—literally—as they appear in the fresco that she was so fond of.

She considered that the liberal arts were knowledge given to the world directly from the Holy Spirit. That was what she called “the medieval view” and that is the understanding that Clark and Jain have as well. And so, if this is right—if the liberal arts are part of a grand scheme of knowledge that belongs to the world and are a gift from God—they merit our attention and consideration.

If you want some bonus content from one of the authors, Kevin Clark, about what you do with the liberal arts, check out his guest post at Afterthoughts.

Copyright 2018 Karen Glass

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