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Liberāles Artes

The origin of the liberal arts is to be sought in the school education of the Greeks. As early as the time of Solon, the distinction between γυμναστική, the training of the body, and μουσική, the training of the soul, is to be met with. Out of μουσική was gradually developed the body of studies which embraced as its chief content the so-called liberal arts. By the time of Aristotle (B.C. 384-322) the educational doctrine of the Greeks reached its highest development, and his references to the liberal arts may be taken as exhibiting this doctrine in a representative and authoritative manner. He defines the liberal arts (Politics, viii. 1) as the proper studies for freemen who seek intellectual and moral excellence in general rather than what is immediately practical as the end of their education, thus drawing a distinction between liberal and technical education, and perhaps foreshadowing in his identification of liberal with general culture the contrast between a general and a specialized training.

No exclusive list of seven or any other definite number of arts is to be found in any Greek writer, nor any reference to seven as the proper number of the liberal arts. However, it is plain that grammar was the inevitable first study in the list, and that it was followed by instruction in rhetoric and dialectics (logic). After these came the study of one or more of the following subjects: Arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy. Yet besides these seven, which long afterwards came to be known as the seven liberal arts, we find mention of medicine as a liberal art and of architecture as a liberal art, while philosophy, which was the goal and completion of all the arts, is sometimes styled the liberal art par excellence (Aristot. Met. i. 2).

By the time of Varro (B.C. 116-27) and Cicero (B.C. 106-43), the liberal arts of the Greeks had become the recognized ground-work for the education of the Roman liber homo, or gentleman, and were commonly known as artes liberales, studia liberalia, liberales disciplinae, or liberales scientiae— terms which are not always identical in meaning, but which were used loosely to indicate the school studies of the Greeks. Of these expressions, artes liberales is the chief. The repository of information for the Romans regarding the Greek studies was Varro's monumental work, now lost, entitled Libri Novem Disciplinarum. According to Ritschl (Opusc. iii. 371), Varro's nine “disciplines” were grammar, dialectics, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astrology, music, medicine, and architecture. Astrology, of course, answers to astronomy, and Varro's list accordingly embraces medicine and architecture in addition to the seven arts previously enumerated.

Passing on to the time of the early Empire, the course of the liberal arts may be traced with considerable clearness in the writings of the younger Seneca (B.C. 4-A.D. 65) and Quintilian (A.D. 35-95), and in Philo Iudaeus. By this time the liberal arts had become closely coördinated as a body of school instruction known as ἐγκύκλιος παιδεία, or “encyclical education;” and although we have no evidence that their number was then consciously limited to seven, it is quite possible that Alexandrian influences were beginning to operate towards such a limitation.

With the promulgation of Christianity the history of the liberal arts entered on a new phase. In the Western Church particularly there was a strong spirit of antagonism at the first, which gradually passed into qualified tolerance, and finally changed to active encouragement of the liberal arts on the ground that they ministered to higher spiritual truth. This transition is to be clearly seen in the writings of Augustine (A.D. 354-430), and it is also interesting to notice that although Varro is Augustine's great authority in all matters pertaining to the history of the liberal arts, he does not adhere to Varro's number of “disciplines.” Instead of Varro's nine, we find that Augustine's enumeration embraces only seven and yet without expressly limiting the arts to that number. In the famous treatise of Martianus Capella of Carthage, written before A.D. 439 and entitled De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, we find for the first time an express limitation of the arts to seven, though without attaching any significance to that number. The book of Martianus was a popularized account of Varro's nine disciplines, and from this list of nine Martianus explicitly excludes medicine and architecture on the ground that they were not liberal but utilitarian studies (Eyssenhardt's edition, pp. 332, 336). No mention of the number of the arts is to be found in Boethius (A.D. 480-525), although the name quadrivium for the four later studies of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy appears in his writings, and it is possible that the word trivium as the name for the three earlier studies—grammar, rhetoric, and dialectics—dates back to his time. Cassiodor(i)us (A.D. 480-575), in his work De Artibus ac Disciplinis Liberalium Litterarum, not only follows Martianus in limiting the arts to seven, but finds a mystical hint of their excellence in the text, “Wisdom hath builded her house; she hath hewn out her seven pillars” ( Prov. ix. 1). The liberal arts thus became the seven supports of Sapientia, the higher spiritual philosophy. Isidore of Seville (died A.D. 636) copies after Cassiodor(i)us and expressly recognizes the arts as seven. Alcuin (A.D. 735-804), in the preface to his Grammatica, presses the interpretation of the text suggested by Cassiodor(i)us and finds the liberal arts in the Scriptures as a matter of direct interpretation. Alcuin's pupil, Rabanus Maurus, in his book De Clericorum Institutione (iii. 27), written in the year 819, after a full description of each of the seven arts, calls them septem artes liberales, apparently the first instance in history of the use of this term. The septem artes liberales are thus the ancient artes liberales Christianized, and to the end of the Middle Ages they remained the substance of school instruction, not being disturbed until the Renaissance.

Grammar, rhetoric, and dialectics, which composed the trivium, were also named “arts” as distinguished from the four “disciplines” which made up the quadrivium. The term artes sermocinales, or the arts pertaining to expression, is another name for the trivium, and artes reales, or the substantial sciences, another name for the quadrivium. Still another name for the quadrivium is “mathematics.” Moreover, inasmuch as the seven arts culminated in the higher study of philosophy, it is clear that the ancient and mediæval world not only entertained the distinction between literary studies, on the one side, and sciences, on the other, as well as the notion that both find their goal and completion in philosophical studies, but that in so doing they likewise laid down the lines upon which European university education was to be subsequently modelled.

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