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The liberal arts are often spoken of as a proper human end, that is, not just as a means (something we use instrumentally) but as something we may enjoy. Thinkers like Josef Pieper and Stratford Caldecott suggest that the liberal arts ought to be pursued for their own sake. But does that conflict with the claims of theology? Can such an education be good in and of itself?
I will leave aside the existential response because that can be known by experience alone, by those who have engaged in the liberal arts themselves. Such individuals might proclaim that enjoyment truly is found in such a life, but one could receive this on their authority alone. Perhaps, this answer alone is ultimately sufficient, but what can we say definitionally?
By the Liberal arts, one may mean the quadrivium and trivium. Or, one may mean, more broadly, a university education, particularly an education of the theological university (the medieval model). Can we consider this a proper end? Does this conflict with Augustine’s claim that God alone is our true end, that he alone is properly to be enjoyed?
A principle of analogy holds here. One thing is our Final End–God. Some things share in that end in special way. These things are not properly things but persons.
Knowledge is itself a personal good. And, insofar as a person is good, so too are the perfections of a person as such (the realization of the potentialities and proper perfections of a man), so too are these good. Insofar as man’s very powers and objects are good, so any personal good is itself good.
The liberal arts are in this manner an end, worthy of enjoyment. This is only because a person truly is an end in himself (even if not a wholly self-subsistent or independent end). A person is a true good, even while and only because he is perfected by being ordered to a something which surpasses him–to that which is True and Good simply.
We can recall that man is ordered to a grasp of that which is good and true simply, and finally to the Truth itself, a supra-personal or divine good. The good of man and human perfection is therefore inseparable that which is true and good, and ultimately from a True Good which surpasses him.
The liberal arts are therefore good, not merely as a special subject matter or information. Rather, they are part of the perfection of a person insofar as a person is spirit—a creature capable of love and knowledge, open to all being. Man has interiority. Truth, Love, Goodness can live inside man. God can dwell in man. Man is a temple made to be filled. An orange, a rock, an atom cannot be filled because they do not have an inside in this sense, they only have parts next to one another, some which surround other parts.
Education is in this related to our essential perfection. For this reason, education is analogically related to our essential happiness. This is because our happiness is to “rejoice in the truth” (Augustine)—our happiness is a loving knowledge of the good and true. This is what makes contemplation a personal good. Insofar as we contemplate any truth, we engage in a truly personal act. Insofar, as we contemplate God, we engage the preeminent personal end.
This is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent (John 17:3).
This follows the structure of Augustine’s own thinking in On Christian Doctrine, where he explores use, enjoyment, and love. He posits that while God alone is to be enjoyed simply, human beings can be enjoyed in God. This should not be read merely instrumentally. In doing so, we would commit ourselves to nonsense. That would of course be sheer instrumentality.
I cannot enjoy someone for someone else (that is if they are unenjoyable and as if merely doing God honor), but I can enjoy someone in someone else, that is, insofar as they have some share and likeness, some participation in that Good. But of course, it would then be important to enjoy them precisely in this manner!
This is why the liberal arts were never intended to be just the quadrivium and trivium in isolation from the higher sciences (philosophy and theology). When Pieper or Caldecott discuss the liberal arts, they often speak (following Plato and Aristotle) with a kind of metonymy, describing the intellectual life as a whole, an enterprise open to all truth and ultimately (if it is authentic) ever tending to God who is very Truth.
At its roots, true human education must be theological. That is why the servile arts are not truly human in this sense, even while they are true instrumental good. The servile arts, as such, do not tend to God. They can be put to the service of God.
Now, whether theology is the whole of all education or only the Queen of the sciences, we can say that knowledge of God is the ultimate end and perfection of the person. Such knowledge is the final tendency of all knowing, when followed authentically. Keep in mind, then, that to say that not every science is theology is not the same as to say that those sciences are wholly independent of him.
Liberal arts which do not reach into philosophy (theology) fail to be fully human, fail to be truly liberal or liberating. Thus, men like Pieper and Caldecott, recognize that the liberal arts relate integrally to a greater whole, even while, at the same time, they possess a real share and likeness of finality and goodness. To engage in the liberal arts, even just the seven preparatory arts, is already to engage in something uniquely personal and human, that is if one engages in them apart from an attitude of total use or servility. This is because, in doing so, one begins know and love truth as such, as something good in itself. Such an end is truly proper to man—to a creature who is in some manner spirit. As Simone Weil would say, such an act is implicitly sacramental.
In all knowing, in all contemplation, as Pieper suggests in Happiness and Contemplation, we grasp that all things at bottom reach to God, that all of the creation is an incomprehensible gift which reaches to the roots of Being. Thus whenever we touch upon any truth as truth, we implicitly touch upon something of God and like God. We train ourselves in the hope and desire for Truth.
Still, let us admit, the university life is not a necessary life, not even for a Christian. It is a special vocation, albeit one that is concerned with a specifically human good. Human life and society can exist without the university. The university (or its essential ideal and reality) is a special providence and gift. It exists only under certain social conditions of freedom and stability. But even as it is in some sense a lateral, auxiliary, or ancillary good, it remains in irreplaceable outworking of human nature in light of the fact that God is both Creator and Savior.
In a truly human society, where real human culture flourishes, both religion and the life of the mind will be present and will inform one another, each according to their proper mode.
Religion directs us to attend to the world in a certain way. The intellectual life ultimately directs us back to God by way of attention to all that exists. Thus, they exist in a kind of mutual dialectic. The life of the mind clarifies and defends faith; faith directs us to the perfection and fulfillment of all the promises of the intellectual life.
Thus from long before Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, or the University, such a life has always at root been religious. In every act of knowing, man undergoes something like a homecoming, something of the eternal sabbath; he touches upon or approaches a source of unfathomable Good. And he intuits in this that he has indeed been made for that Good–that is, our end is to rejoice in Truth.
*This essay follows Josef Pieper’s work in Leisure the Basis of Culture; The Philosophic Act, and Happiness and Contemplation; Augustine’s de Doctrina; Stratford Caledecott’s Beauty for Truth’s Sake