In Kate DiCamillo’s Tale of Despereaux, a maidservant, Miggery Sow, usurps the place of Princess Pea. The maidservant, dull, ugly, and cruel, is a mockery of the true lady. In the halls of learning, something similar has happened. Philosophy, and the liberal arts under them were once understood to be the handmaid of Theology, the Queen of all the sciences. But in the modern era, this order has been overturned. The liberal arts have usurped Theology’s place and Theology is treated as just another discipline among many, and a rather odd one at that.
Like Despereaux’s usurper, the Liberal Arts have a proper splendor and goodness of their own, but one which is forfeited in their failure to serve the true Queen. They necessarily become ugly when they turn over the order of things. After all, it is Theology alone who knows what all things are and what they are truly for. Nothing can turn from Truth and remain true.
James V. Schall and David Lyle Jefferies both argue that the ‘liberty’ of the liberal arts is bound up in their relationship to God, theology, and scripture. They remind us that the term ‘liberal arts’ not only has an analogical range of meaning, but that it has undergone a significant semantic shift . The liberal arts may refer to collegiate studies in general, to the study of arts and letters, to a study of the trivium and quadrivium, or to a study ordered toward philosophy and theology. In recent centuries, this range has been narrowed or bastardized in such a manner that the liberal arts refer now only to a series of disciplines, without any reference to the fact they were once considered liberating, or more emphatically, without an understanding of why or how they might liberate. In this respect, there has been a de-liberalization of the liberal arts, perhaps even an evisceration. But to put it more gently, we have wandered from the purpose and roots of our studies without an awareness of our wandering. We are less like Odysseus, pinning for home on Calypso’s Island, and more like those metamorphosed souls who ate from Circe’s table.
The roots of the Quadrivium which go back perhaps at least as far as Pythagoras, are given a significant exposition in Plato’s Republic. There, Socrates argues that these arts are merely preparatory. Arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy are to be studied because they elicit wonder, perplex the mind, train in math, and the habits of thinking. But more importantly, these all serve alongside dialectic as a preparation for natural theology (philosophy). They are periagogic, useful for turning the soul from the changing things of the world to that which is unchanging and real. In that dialogue, Socrates warns that if one were to treat the goal of astronomy merely as the acquirement of a knowledge of the sky and its contemplation, one would be as the many, those who fear to pursue any study except what is useful. Instead, he argues that there is a truly divine pattern which astronomy, and by implication all the quadrivium, is a preparation for.
In the Middle Ages, the west decisively embraced liberal learning as part of Christian learning. But as Jefferey puts it, the liberal arts were recognized as the “pillars of wisdom (cf. Prov. (9:1) rather than wisdom itself” (Jeffery, 2007). All of learning and philosophy was considered merely the handmaiden and preparation for theology, the queen of the sciences. It was recognized that the natural order bore the marks of the Creator, that the world is an image of the Image through which it is made and thus capable of making known something of its Maker.
The image of pillars is a provocative one. Pillars hold something up. If we study them carefully, if we follow where they lead, we shall find ourselves looking up toward the heavens.
Man’s end is not merely to know things made or even that they were made! Christians believed not only that man was made to know the Maker of things through the creature, but by means of special revelation (scripture) to know God in a respect which exceeded all the natural sciences. Man was made for God in a radical sense!
Schall reminds us of the “cities in speech” which the philosophers bequeathed us (Shall, 2006, 26). For these men, “to have no articulated ‘city’ in one’s soul is the essence of an unfree man” (2006, 26). In doing so, they and Schall stand near the scriptural witness in arguing this. “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city” (Prov. 16:32). The possession of that city, argues James (see James 3), is a most desirable but difficult feet, accomplished only by the power of God
For both Schall and Jefferies, a liberal education was a training (both of mind and affections) which tended to the establishment of something firm within the soul, a self-possession made possible through the knowledge of a divine pattern and wisdom which extended beyond the work-a-day world. Such knowledge, which could rightly be called self-knowledge, was most perfectly revealed in Christ (Schall, p.41). The most freeing and liberating truth was the knowledge of God and man made available in Jesus and thus in the scriptures.
We can end with the reminder that the liberal arts need revelation ultimately, not only because they direct us to God but because our tendency is to be directed to ourselves. It is Scripture and grace alone which free us from our inward, self-intending gravity. It is scripture and grace which make possible a sustained and fruitful openness to “something that is not ourselves” (Schall, p.42). In this respect, the liberal arts tradition, as it has come to us from the West and through the Church, is merely that tradition by which men of old sought to become who they truly are, not scholars of various disciplines or readers of books, but lovers of the God.
Jeffery reminds us that the antagonism between scripture and learning is not new. Yet whereas it was once insisted that the true husband of all wisdom was the Word, a reversal has happened, one which has failed to sustain the great promise of the liberal arts. Scripture is now treated merely as one text among many, subject to human interpretation and judgment. There is no Word which stands above us. And without something above us, our yearnings must die with us, for we stand then as the summit of all knowledge and aspiration.
Schall, James, The Life of the Mind, ISI Books, 2006.
Jeffery, David Lyle “The Pearl of Great Wisdom,” The Fellowship of St. James, 2007.