A name given in late Roman times to disciplines that were considered preparatory studies for philosophy; they were usually counted seven in number and were grouped as the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). In 20th-century usage, the term has become more general and less precise.
The historical development of the liberal arts tradition, and of its underlying philosophy, is best sketched in terms of its origins in Greek thought, its passage to the West its medieval conception as analyzed by St. Thomas Aquinas, and, finally, its decline in the modern period.
Origins in Greek Thought. From the 8th century b.c., Greek education was based on gymnastics and "music." This latter, eventually called "grammar," included the study of literature and music. These literary studies were expanded during the 5th century by the study of rhetoric, introduced by the sophists as they sought to prepare free citizens who could speak in the public assemblies. The Sophist Protagoras about 400 b.c. introduced as a companion to rhetoric the art of debating called eristics, or dialectics, said to have originated with the philosopher zeno of elea (c. 450).
About the same time another Sophist, Hippias of Elis (see Plato, Protagoras 315C), insisted on the value for public speakers of a broad education in all the arts, including the four mathematical disciplines of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy developed by the Pythagorean philosophers of the previous century.
These seven arts, along with others mentioned from time to time, were called the ἀγκύκλιος παιδεία (general education). This educational practice was explained theoretically in various ways by different schools of philosophy. Thus Isocrates, a leading rhetorician of the 4th century, defends them in his Antidosis and Panathenaicus as the best preparation of a citizen, since a citizen must lead others by the art of persuasion (rhetoric) and this art requires a broad education.
This sophistic position was vigorously opposed by socrates and plato. The latter (especially in Republic bk. 7 and Laws bk. 7) minimizes the value of both poetry and rhetoric, which lead only to opinion, and emphasizes the importance of mathematics as the first step into the realm of science. Such arts are only a preparation for true wisdom, or philosophy, which Plato believed was to be pursued by dialectics, but which was grasped by intuitive wisdom beyond any method.
Aristotle also opposed the Sophists but did not assign to mathematics the same educational significance as Plato. Instead, he gave the fundamental role to logic, a discipline that he himself developed and distinguished from grammar, rhetoric, and dialectics; the latter are methods of probable reasoning, whereas logic is a method of analysis whereby strictly scientific knowledge can be certified.
Other Greek philosophers tended to minimize the value of the liberal arts. This was true of the skeptics, as seen in the attack on these arts by Sextus Empiricus in his Adversus Mathematicos of the 2d century a.d. (see skepticism). It was true The Epicureans reduced logic to their Canonic, which was more an epistemological defense of sense knowledge than a true logic. The Stoics, on the other hand, did make important contributions both to grammar and to logic, and it is in the writings of Martianus Capella, a Latin of Stoic tendencies (5th century a.d.), that the traditional list of the seven arts and the term artes liberales first appear. Martianus apparently derived his list from that of the Roman encyclopedist Varro (1st century b.c.), which, however, also included architecture and medicine. Yet the Stoics generally took the view expressed by seneca: "You see why liberal studies are so called: it is because they are worthy of freeborn men. But there is only one really liberal study—that which gives man his liberty. It is the study of wisdom; and that is lofty, brave and great souled. All other studies are puny and puerile" (Epist. 88).
Passage to the West. Such studies continued as a matter of course in Byzantine Christianity and were passed on eventually to Islamic education; here there was no marked development except for some advances in mathematics by Arabian writers. In Western Christianity their good repute was established by St. augustine, himself a former teacher of rhetoric, who insisted on the importance of these studies as a preparation for the Christian study of the Sacred Scriptures. He began but did not finish an encyclopedia of the arts. From the works De ordine and De musica it is clear that his conception of these disciplines was essentially Platonic: the order that is found in language, music, and mathematics is a reflection of the perfect order that exists in God. The beginner is led by this sensible reflection of God toward a true vision of Him. For St. Augustine, as a Christian, in this life the vision is possessed only by faith in God's Word.
The detailed transmission of the Greek achievement in these arts came to the West not through Augustine but through boethius, who attempted, and in part succeeded, in translating into Latin the fundamental Greek works of Aristotle and Euclid. During the Dark Ages these translations, along with various much-abbreviated manuals of the arts, formed the preparation for the study of the Scriptures in the monastic schools (see the Institutiones of cassiodorus and the Etymologiae of St. isidore of seville). With alcuin and the Carolingian renaissance some real development of these arts began to take place, but it was only in the 12th-century renaissance, with abelard and the writers of the School of Chartres, that notable progress was made. The most important works of this period are the Didascalion of hugh of saint-victor and the Metalogicon of john of salisbury, both of which, however, still remained within the Augustinian framework.
In the new universities of the 13th century the study of the arts leading to the master of arts degree was the basic faculty that prepared students to go on to law, medicine, or theology or constituted a terminal education. The Augustinian and Platonic view was long dominant and found its finest expression in the De reductione artium ad theologiam of St. bonaventure. The introduction of the full Aristotelian corpus, however, gave to the Middle Ages a new conception of philosophy as something distinct from the liberal arts and intermediate between them and the study of theology. It is this view that is found in St. albert the great, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the later Aristotelian scholastics.
Thomistic Analysis. In his commentary on the De Trinitate of Boethius, St. thomas aquinas attempted to harmonize the complex tradition outlined above and to explain it along Aristotelian lines. Occasional remarks in other works and especially in his commentary on Aristotle's Posterior Analytics fill out this theory.
Status as Arts. According to Aquinas the liberal arts are arts only in an analogical sense. [see art (philosophy)]. An art in the strict sense is recta ratio factibilium, i.e., good judgment about making something, where "making" means the production of a physical work. Such a definition applies only to the servile arts; it does not apply to the liberal arts, since these make nothing physical but only a certain "work in the mind," an arrangement of ideas—although, of course, these ideas may be externally expressed by physical symbols. They are called "liberal" precisely because they pertain to the contemplative (speculative) rather than to the active or productive life of man. Many of them, if not all, are true sciences as well as arts because they not only produce a mental work but demonstrate the truth value of this work. As liberal arts, however, they are not studied for their own truth content but as instruments of other sciences.
Conception of Logic. The clearest example of such a speculative art is logic, which does not deal with any real object but purely with the mental order the mind produces within itself by forming mental relations between one object of thought and another. As Aristotle had seen, however, logic is not a single discipline but a group of related disciplines: (1) demonstrative logic, which analyzes scientific arguments of the strictest type (demonstration), wherein the factual evidence is sufficent to yield certitude; (2) dialectical logic, which analyzes less rigorous types of reasoning such as those involved in discussion, debate, and scientific research, and where only probability and opinion can be obtained; (3) rhetoric, which is similar to dialectics but which also takes into consideration the interests and motives of a particular audience, and which aims at persuasion to action rather than at scientific conviction; and (4) poetics, which also deals only with probabilities conveyed through stories imitative of human life, whose purpose is the quieting of human passions through the delight felt in contemplating the beautiful. The first two of these logics are instruments for the sciences; the last two, since they deal more with the passions and imagination, are valuable for expressing the truths attained by science or by experience in a way that is ethically effective or pleasing. Although in some respects a very difficult study, logic in its entirety should be taught before the other sciences as the instrument necessary to their perfect functioning.
Grammar, according to Aquinas, is only an auxiliary to these arts and deals with the external expression of thought by verbal symbols. What were later called the fine arts are for him similar to the liberal arts in that they resemble poetics, although they use nonverbal symbols. Those that are purely compositive (the composing of literature or of music) he classified as liberal arts in the strict sense. Those that involve the external execution of a work (such as acting, playing a musical instrument, and the plastic arts) he considered servile disciplines, although the works they produce are liberal in function.
Mathematics. Mathematics, in Aquinas's view, is a science of reality, not merely of mental being. Hence it is markedly distinct from logic; it is deserving of the name of philosophy since it gives insight into the nature of being. Nevertheless, the object with which it deals is abstract quantity; quantity in itself has little dignity because it is a mere accident of things and because it is understood in abstraction rather than in its existence. For this reason mathematics is least among the purely scientific studies. As an instrument, however, it is of great importance for two reasons: (1) since its factual content is slight and its logical rigor great, it is the ideal exemplification of demonstrative logic for the young student whose factual knowledge is limited but who must master the difficult art of demonstrative logic; (2) because it deals with quantities abstracted from their concrete conditions, it is very useful in the natural sciences, which require a study of the quantitative properties of things. Can mathematics then be called a liberal art? Yes, for although it does not make its object (which is real quantity), it does know this object by mental construction, since it studies ideal quantities constructed in the imagination by processes of measurement or counting.
Instruments of Higher Sciences. All these arts are instruments for the higher sciences, which differ from logic in that they deal with real objects, and from mathematics in that they deal with realities considered in their existent condition and not ideally. These real sciences are enumerated by Aquinas as natural science, the moral sciences, and theology, the last of which is divided into natural theology, or metaphysics, and sacred theology. [see science (scientia); sciences, classification of.]
Decline in the Modern Period. This ideal of a liberal arts education was never actually realized in the medieval universities, where logic and dialectics tended to dominate to the neglect of the other arts. In the 14th century, nominalism brought this logicism to its ultimate extreme. In strong reaction to this, the Renaissance humanists under the influence of Quintilian and Cicero returned to the emphasis on grammar and rhetoric; they thus developed the so-called "traditional classic education," which dominated lower education but did not succeed in destroying Aristotle in the universities. This movement culminated in the work of Rudolphus Agricola and Peter ramus, who attempted to replace Aristotelian logic by a new dialectic, which was actually a pedagogical rhetoric, a tool by which received knowledge could be organized simply for memorization.
The really major change began with advances in mathematics in the 16th and 17th centuries, culminating with the proposal of René descartes to adopt the mathematical deductive method as the universal method of all knowledge. This approach, because of its Platonic tendency, came into sharp conflict with the remains of the Aristotelian inductive tradition as proposed by thinkers such as Francis bacon. A kind of reconciliation was effected by Isaac Newton in the form of what has come to be called the "scientific method," wherein a deductive mathematical theory is grounded in observation and experiment.
Such a method, however, proved not very suitable in the "humanities"—the fine arts, philosophy, theology, history, morals, and politics. As a result, as Jacob Klein has pointed out, a second method, the "historical method," was evolved. Having its roots in the development of critical historiography during the religious controversies of the post-Reformation period, this method was developed by philosophers in the romantic and idealistic traditions such as G. vico, G. W. F. hegel, W. dilthey, and R. G. Collingwood (1889–1943). Vico emphasized the logic of historical evidence, but added to this the interpretation of the data by a dialectic based on the power of human sympathy; through this dialectic, man is able to see the events of history as an evolution and expression of his own inner tendencies as a man, in contrast to the impersonal and objective approach of the "scientific method." Later this opposition of method was to be reflected in Western culture as a deep division between those trained in science and those trained in the humanities, between an objective and a subjective point of view, and between the two dominant philosophical tendencies, positivism and existentialism.
Bibliography: p. h. conway and b. m. ashley, The Liberal Arts in St. Thomas Aquinas (Washington 1959). p. abelson, The Seven Liberal Arts (New York 1906). h. i. marrou, Saint Augustin et la fin de la culture antique (Paris 1958); A History of Education in Antiquity, tr. g. lamb (New York 1956). r. p. mckeon, "Rhetoric in the Middle Ages," Speculum 17 (1942) 1–32. w. j. ong, Ramus: Method and the Decay of Dialogue (Cambridge, MA 1958). r. m. martin, Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques, ed. a. baudrillart et al. (Paris 1912—) 4: 827–843. j. koch, ed., Artes liberales: Von der antiken Bildung zur Wissenschaft des Mittelalters (Leiden 1959).
[b. m. ashley]