liberal arts

liberal arts
(seven liberal arts)
   The seven liberal arts were the basis of a general secular education throughout medieval western Europe. Based on a system dating back to classical times, the liberal arts were made up of the trivium—essentially what contemporary educators might call the “humanities,” consisting of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic (i.e., logic)—and the quadrivium—basically the sciences, including arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The history of the liberal arts probably begins with Isocrates, the leading rhetorician and Sophist of Athens in the fourth century B.C.E. He developed a system of education in the arts focusing on rhetoric, arguing that the purpose of the arts was to train good citizens, that an effective citizen must be able to persuade, and that the art of persuasion (or rhetoric) requires a broad educational background. Other Greek thinkers argued for the importance of other disciplines: Plato denigrated the study of rhetoric and emphasized the importance of mathematics, while Aristotle focused on logic as the most important basic study. For all of these classical thinkers, the liberal arts were chiefly preparation for the more advanced study of philosophy. Christian thinkers in Alexandria went further, considering the arts as preparation for philosophy, and the study of philosophy itself as preparation for theology. By the early fifth century, St. AUGUSTINE, himself a one-time rhetoric instructor, saw the arts as direct preparation for a study of the Scriptures. Further into the Middle Ages, it became common to see the seven liberal arts in themselves as encompassing all of philosophy, and therefore as essential for preparing clerics directly for the advanced study of theology. By the 12th century, the Virgin Mary was depicted as the queen of the Seven Liberal Arts, which in themselves embodied all human wisdom and were thought of as the “handmaids” of theology. The definition of the liberal arts core as it came to be known throughout the Middle Ages occurs in the fifth-century Marriage of Philology and Mercury, composed by the Stoic philosopher Martianus Capella. The work of the sixth-century philosopher BOETHIUS also contributed significantly to the development of the liberal arts, as he translated into Latin a number of the most significant texts of Aristotle and of Euclid. Boethius’s study of music was to become the basic textbook in medieval schools for centuries. Still, it was not until the time of ALCUIN (ca. 800), and the development of the system of education sparked by the Carolingian renaissance under CHARLEMAGNE, that the liberal arts were universally accepted as the basis of education throughout the Latin West. The term trivium does not occur until the ninth century, though the arts it refers to had been recognized for more than 1,000 years. Grammar was essentially the study of the basics of the Latin language, for which the grammar texts of Donatus or of Priscian were most often used, but the subject also included the study of literature in Latin, including the Vulgate Bible and texts by the church fathers as well as classical texts. The discipline of rhetoric dealt with the art of persuasion but also included instruction in the composition (in Latin) of poetry and prose as well as, after the 10th century, letter writing. In addition, rhetoric might include some study of the law. Dialectic, the study of formal logic, was inspired chiefly by Aristotle. The quadrivium was intended to follow the trivium in the school curriculum, the implication being that it comprised more difficult subjects, which might be taught only to more advanced students. Boethius first uses the term quadrivium itself in his treatise on arithmetic (a translation of an earlier work by Nicomachus of Gerasa). Boethius, basing his categories on earlier theories of Pythagoras, distinguishes “discrete” quantities (those that can be numbered) as those that can be studied in and of themselves through arithmetic (e.g., square numbers, perfect numbers) and those that can be studied through music (e.g., ratios); and “continuous” quantities (those known through line rather than number) as those that are fixed and studied through geometry, and those in motion that are studied in astronomy. Boethius himself saw these disciplines as useful to train the mind to think of abstract truths, and hence to prepare it for the study of philosophy.
   How this system worked in practice depended, of course, on individual schools and instructors and on developments over time.While the trivium was supposed to be taught to all students, sometimes the only subject universally taught might be grammar (a situation from which we get the term “grammar school” for the primary grades).With the rise of scholasticism in the 12th century and the establishment of universities in the 13th, dialectic became a more important subject than grammar in northern Europe. In the south, rhetoric continued to be emphasized in the curriculum, and contributed to the development of Bologna as an important center for the study of law. In general, a master of arts degree at a medieval university was often the terminal degree in itself, or it was considered the foundation from which a student might go on to study the advanced professional disciplines like law, or medicine, or, most important, theology. However, by the time of Thomas AQUINAS in the later 13th century, the increasingly available variety of texts of Aristotle had become so much a part of the university curriculum that philosophy had come, again, to be seen as a separate discipline in itself, and Aquinas recommended what late classical theorists had felt: That the liberal arts should prepare one for the study of philosophy, and only then was one ready to study theology.
   ■ Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Translated by Willard R. Trask. New York: Pantheon Books, 1953.
   ■ Hunt, Richard W. The History of Grammar in the Middle Ages: Collected Papers. Edited, with an introduction, a select bibliography, and indices by G. L. Bursill-Hall. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1980.
   ■ Masi, Michael, ed. Boethius and the Liberal Arts: A Collection of Essays. Berne: P. Lang, 1981.
   ■ McKeon, Richard. “Rhetoric in the Middle Ages,” Speculum 17 (1942): 1–32.
   ■ Stahl,William Harris, et al.Martianus Capella and the Seven Liberal Arts. 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971–1977.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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