A Liberal Arts Education - Part 2

April 22nd, 2021


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This is the second post in the series, so if you haven’t read the first post, I recommend you read Part 1 first.

In the first post, I made a thorough treatment of the meaning of a classical liberal arts education and showed its importance and benefits throughout history, namely that it has historically cultivated a wise and virtuous people whose resultant happiness produces free and flourishing societies.

In this post, I’m going to demonstrate how to get a liberal arts education by explaining how it works and what we need to be in order to be educated.

Since the liberal arts reached their zenith in the Middle Ages, it will be insightful to turn to one of the most influential educators of that period, John of Salisbury, to get our answers.

John was the secretary and counselor to Thomas Becket, the renowned Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered by the instigation of Henry II. John published an influential treatise on education called Metalogicon, meaning literally, “about logic” (Greek, meta + logia).

Drawing heavily from the “works of classical antiquity” along with “Patristic and Mediaeval Christian writers,” Metalogicon is said to be “the cardinal treatise of mediaeval pedagogy…a classic in the history of educational theory,” and “a landmark in several fields of learning, including philosophy, theology, psychology, and education.”

A Liberal Arts Education is a Harmonized Education

In the first place, John explains that “The one true God, the creative Trinity, has so arranged the parts of the universe that each part requires the help of the others; that is, all things being “members one of another,” and they mutually compensate for their respective deficiencies.

Building on this idea of a harmonized cosmos, John taught that proper education reflected this universe God created, one that has various working parts each with its own purpose and function, so arranged as to be mutually dependent on the help of the other parts where it is deficient, while also offering its strengths in the areas where it is more competent in its function.

This understanding echoes that of the ancient Platonic understanding of the human soul, that it is most virtuous when the noetic, thymotic, and epithymotic natures of the soul are all working together in harmony according to their respective strengths.

Let me unpack this just a little bit.

Three Parts of the Soul

In the first place, the noetic nature is where reason and wisdom resides, but cerebral logic is often weak at the task of accomplishing what it ought to accomplish. Consider how many New Years’ Resolutions you’ve made and then quit, maybe even before February rolled around.

In the second place, the epithymotic, or appetitive nature, the passions, is where we feel and where we desire--usually this is described in antiquity as the bed and the table--The appetitive or epithymotic nature is much stronger than the noetic nature and tends to overpower reason. Think about how hard it is sometimes to resist that extra dessert or about the times we hit that snooze button just one more time. It is often the case in human nature that our passions overpower our reason.

Finally, the thymotic, or spirited nature, where discipline and courage resides, is strongest of all, and it is that part of the soul that must be employed to keep the passions in check with wisdom.

Or, to put it in C.S. Lewis’s words, “The head rules the belly through the chest.”

To summarize this first point, a liberal arts education is a harmonized education, an education that cultivates the soul according to its natural order, where the proclivities of its various natures reflect the created order in that each of the parts are members one of another functioning in a complementary role. Said another way, the kind of education that cultivates this sort of harmony in the soul is a liberal arts education.

A Liberal Arts Education is the Art of Pursuing Wisdom

Next, John makes the observation that the liberal arts are specific to philosophers, and thus draws a line between arts associated with craft and trade, and arts that are for making people free.

He writes, “While there are many sorts of arts, the first to proffer their services to the natural abilities of those who philosophize are the liberal arts.”

In the medieval period, and even today, we distinguish between three basic kinds of arts.

Servile Arts = Trades (i.e., Carpentry, Masonry, and even Medicine, etc.) Fine Arts = Painting, Music, Sculpting, etc. Liberal Arts = Wisdom, Virtue, and Human Achievement.

To be clear then, the liberal arts are to be distinguished from the other arts as the arts by which we philosophize. And by philosophize, John means those who love and therefore love to pursue wisdom.

The word philosophy is a compound word made up of philo (meaning love) and sophia (meaning wisdom) and literally means the love of wisdom, the pursuit of knowledge that makes one wise.

Trivium and Quadrivium

The liberal arts are designated by two Latin names, Trivium and Quadrivium. The word trivium means three paths, or three roads. Quadrivium means four paths, or four roads. Together, the liberal arts, properly speaking, are seven arts bifurcated into two branches.

John asserts that the system of the trivium, the first branch, treats the significance of all words and that the rules of the quadrivium, the second branch, treats the secrets of all nature.

He echoes Hugh of St. Victor, and concludes by asserting that those who master these arts are no longer in need of a teacher. They are capable of teaching themselves from books and reason.

The body of knowledge is known as the great books; the exercise and ordering of the mind via that body of knowledge is known as the life of the mind. So there is a sense in which we also say that a liberal arts education is A BODY OF BOOKS AND A WAY OF LIFE.

This fits exactly with the definition of a liberal arts education we previously established: the pursuit and acquisition of that knowledge which is pleasurable for its own sake, and which frees the mind and prepares the soul to be wise and virtuous.

The question now is, How does this happen? That is, how does one exercise his mind on this knowledge that is pleasurable for its own sake, this knowledge that cultivates harmony in the soul, in order to free the mind and prepare the soul to be wise and virtuous?

A Liberal Arts Education Cultivates the Life of the Mind

An Eminently Teachable Disposition

First, in the words of the late John Schall, it requires one to be “eminently teachable”—that is an eager, but humble learner. It means one has a desire to know, a desire that extends beyond mere curiosity, although it is at least that.

A person who is eminently teachable recognizes there is a vast body of knowledge that has existed outside his being and before he ever was, a body of knowledge he knows will teach him things about himself he did not even know that he did not know.

Artificial Faculty of the Mind

In the second place, we have to grasp John’s treatment of the liberal arts’ not only as a body of knowledge on which to exercise the mind, but also as a skillset of the mind.

In this way, he distinguishes the liberal arts from the other arts previously mentioned, in a very specific way.

John explains that liberal arts are not only knowledge that liberates, in the sense that they are a body of literature discussing the nature of the cosmos and all that is in it, but they are also “a system that reason has devised in order to expedite, by its own shortcut, our ability to do things within our natural capabilities.”

John suggests that all people have been endowed with natural abilities, and that through study—“the diligent and vigorous application of one’s mind to the determined accomplishment of something”—and “assiduous practice” of those natural abilities, one can make progress toward the mastery of that ability to the degree that the ability itself becomes a skillset of the mind.

In John’s words, an art is

“a faculty of accomplishing what is difficult… an efficient plan which avoids nature’s wastefulness, and straightens out her circuitous wanderings, so that we may more correctly and easily accomplish what we are to do.”

To use a modern illustration, let’s think of driving as an art. In the beginning, a driver is clumsy, trying to get the hang of checking mirrors, watching for pedestrians, and trying to keep the vehicle between the lines, all while remembering to use a blinker and follow traffic signs. Initially, it’s overwhelming, but with practice it becomes easier, until one day, someone who has practiced driving properly, uses their blinker, changes lanes and follows the traffic signs seamlessly and often unaware of their habits. This is also the difference between a new and skilled carpenter and a new and skilled surgeon.

Perhaps at this point we introduce a good neologistic expression to explain what we’re talking about. For the sake of this lesson, let’s refer to this concept as an “artificial faculty.”

In this sense, the liberal arts are not only a field of knowledge per se, but they also become a skillset, an artificial faculty of the mind in the same way that surgeons, carpenters, and drivers become skilled at their trades, masters of their craft if you will.

The idea of liberal arts in this sense is remarkable because they are more than a field of study, and more than a craft or trade exercised for the benefit of others. In this sense, they create a set of tools in the mind that are exercised toward wisdom, and exercised for the benefit of acquiring that knowledge that makes people free to create meaningful and purposeful lives.

An Intrinsic Value

The servile and the fine artists produce for the good of others. Whether a carpenter, a cook, or a smith, the skill and craftsmanship the servile artist attains by study and practice directly benefits others. The servile artist’s work transmits from his own head and hands to other people or to material objects.

He planes a board, cooks a meal, or crafts a horseshoe. Similarly, the fine artist writes a song, crafts a poem, or paints a picture for others to enjoy.

The imagination of the fine artist is transmitted through his hands, his pen, or his instrument out into the world as ‘a thing of beauty and a joy forever,’ to quote Keats.

The liberal artist, on the other hand, also develops his skill and craftsmanship by study and practice, but what he produces returns upon him—at least initially. Unlike the fine or servile artists, the liberal artist’s activity is intransitive, and its benefit, intrinsic.

Like a rose, the liberal artist blooms. Like a rose that absorbs the nutrients, the water, and the light, and grows thereby, and is ultimately perfected by blooming, is also perfected by the enlargement and blossoming of his soul and imagination via the assimilation and cultivation of wisdom and virtue.

Additionally, recognizing that the primary benefit of the art of the servile or fine artist is produced for others, one must also recognize there is, secondarily, some intrinsic benefit to their work as well. There is typically some great personal joy and satisfaction in the completion of one’s work.

Inversely, while the primary benefit of the liberal arts is intrinsic, there is a secondary benefit in that the pleasure and wisdom gained from one’s study and practice generally has a positive effect on others in contact with the liberal artist. Said another way, if oneself is blooming with the wisdom of the ages, the opulent fragrances of truth and wisdom will be readily enjoyed by all who stop to smell the roses.

The Value of A Liberal Arts Education Obtained

Given what has been established thus far, it doesn’t seem unrealistic, then, to refine our definition of a liberal arts education just a bit to say it is a body of knowledge and the proper exercise and ordering of the mind via that knowledge to be free enough to know the truth of things.

This refined definition not only clarifies what it is, but also implies how it is to be obtained. Stated another way, a liberal arts education is to be obtained through a body of knowledge by exercising and ordering the mind in that body of knowledge to the end one might know the truth of things so he or she can be virtuous by thinking, speaking, and acting wisely.