In the Vatican there is a spectacular fresco by Italian Renaissance artist, Raphael, called the School of Athens. Therein are portrayed some of the most notable and learned people of the ancient world. Imagine if we ourselves could receive an education on a par with some of the distinguished figures portrayed in this famous artwork, people such as mathematician and philosopher, Pythagoras of Samos, remembered today for his theorem of that name; or perhaps the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, depicted in the fresco with his pupil Aristotle; or even one of the most learned and esteemed women of the ancient world, Hypatia of Alexandria.
Well, fortunately, we can. All of these people I just mentioned and a host of others, were informed by a life-long commitment to the study and practice of the liberal arts. Consisting of a varied spectrum of different subject areas, a typical spread consisted of the subjects of grammar, logic, rhetoric, astronomy, geometry, arithmetic and music.
THINKING FOR ONESELF
I first came across the liberal arts when I realised my own education had left me short of certain vital skills that I wanted to learn. One such skill was logic. Although my formal education had been eager to teach me what to think, it never really taught me how to think. So, like many people, I set out to learn how to think on my own account.
Fortunately, in doing so, I then learned more about the liberal arts, for which the skills of logic and reason were always central. I also discovered that the liberal arts were a literal treasure trove of ancient wisdom. A treasure trove that we should all have access to. Hence this site, whose main purpose is to point out some of these treasures.
Of course, I am not alone in pointing out the benefits of studying the ancient liberal arts. The author, Dorothy Sayers, was doing this over sixty years ago. In her Oxford University address The Lost Tools of Learning, she lamented the fact that the liberal arts were no longer valued or appreciated. And what she said about this is just as pertinent today.
“Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined? Do you put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?”
How much worse has it become today? Basically, we are awash in such a tide of ‘fake news’ that nobody seems to know what is true or false any more. And what is perhaps alarming, is that nobody seems to care. Naturally, this puts us in a very difficult position. To live out our lives as informed people, we need access to reliable sources of information. Yet, where are they to be found?
In some ways this is good because it forces us to fall back on our own resources. And to do so, we then need to sharpen up our skills of logic and reason. Having done so, the fakery of many of the arguments with which we are presented today will soon become apparent.
PLATO ON THE LIBERAL ARTS
Logic, however, is just one of the delightful treasures of the liberal arts. In addition to logic, there is also a great deal more. To appreciate how, though, we will now need to take a closer look at the liberal arts, beginning first of all, with the spread of subjects associated with them. At one time there were seven of these subjects whose names have already been mentioned.
However, when you hear about subjects such as grammar, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry or astronomy, try not to assume that you know much about them. This is because in every single case, those subject terms referred to something that was radically different to what we would think today. Proof of this can be found in The Republic, a philosophical work written over two thousand years ago by Greek philosopher, Plato.
As you probably know, the Republic basically sets forth Plato’s vision for an ideal world. Now, while you might not necessarily agree with Plato’s particular vision, he did write about the importance of studying some of the subjects that I just mentioned. One such subject was arithmetic — the very thought of which probably takes you back to your schooldays!
We all think we know what arithmetic means. It means doing sums and calculations or perhaps learning multiplication tables by rote. Or, at least, this is the arithmetic that I was taught. But before we dismiss this subject out of hand, why would such a deep thinker recommend the study of arithmetic?
Is it because he wanted the citizens of his ideal world to be skilled at sums? I don’t think so. This is because the arithmetic that Plato refers to in the Republic is not the arithmetic that we know. The proof of this is where Plato states one of the purposes behind the study of arithmetic. It was to enable the student:
“to rise up out of the sea of change and lay hold of true being.”(1)
This, of course, is a curious statement. How does laying hold of true being tally with your understanding of what arithmetic is? Here, Plato is referring to the possibility for an elevation of human consciousness achieved through no more than the study of arithmetic. This is totally fascinating, because whatever Plato is referring to, he is certainly not talking about the arithmetic that I was taught in school.
However, it then gets more interesting. This is where he writes about geometry. Now, I don’t know about you, but even the word itself takes me back to maths classes. Do you remember being asked to work out the area of a circle by multiplying the square of its radius by pi?
However, Plato again says something very provocative about this subject.
“The knowledge of which geometry aims is a knowledge of the eternal” (2)
Here, Plato seems to be implying that through the study of geometry it is possible to gain a glimpse of eternal knowledge. What, I am caused to ask, does geometry have to do with eternal knowledge? Clearly, whatever Plato is talking about, he is certainly NOT talking about the geometry that I was taught in school. He also talks about astronomy. Here, he also says something remarkable:
“In every person there is an eye of the soul, which, when by other pursuits is lost and dimmed, is by these purified and reillumined; and is more precious far than ten thousand bodily eyes, for by it alone is truth seen!” (3)
This, again, is a very mysterious and enigmatic statement. What does Plato mean by eye of the soul? Presumably, he is referring to the power of the human imagination. It is, after all, our imagination that gives us that faculty of inner lucidity that then enables us to be able to conceive of new ideas, new possibilities and new ways of looking at things. There is also a hint in what he is saying of the pineal gland, which the seventeenth century philosopher, Descartes later took to be the very seat of the human soul. Here, it is notable that in the East, the pineal gland is associated with the third eye, a spiritual faculty that, when activated, is, indeed, said to produce a profound state of inner lucidity.
However we care to interpret what Plato is saying, I think I have made my point. When thinking about the various subjects of the liberal arts, we cannot just assume that we know what those subjects are actually about. This is because, in absolutely every single case, they meant something totally different to what we think today. And when we discover what they do mean, we can be absolutely stunned.
I certainly was, when I learned about the ancient liberal arts. What really amazed me, was finding out that these subjects weren’t just taught to educate and inform. Their true purpose was to illuminate the mind, to light it up like a great shining lamp. And, whatever anybody else might say of this, I say yes to that.
THE FIRST LIBERAL ART: GRAMMAR
Well, having whetted your appetite, we’ll now look more closely at the liberal arts. And, by doing this, let’s begin the study of grammar as a liberal art. But wait… again…. We cannot just assume that we know what this word is referring to! This is because as a liberal art, grammar refers to something that is totally different to what we might suspect.
As a liberal art, grammar provides the very key to the human mind. It can open up the portals of true understanding. And, in the end, the study of grammar can lead to a deep and powerful transformation of our mind and consciousness. This is for the simple reason that grammar is founded upon the tremendous power of the word. A power that is so incredible that it is difficult not to get excited about it. Providing, of course, that we do not conflate the liberal art of grammar, with the schoolroom subject of grammar that we learned as children.
There is a great deal of difference between them. Such a difference, in fact, that like the other subjects of the liberal arts, we are then left wondering. Why did nobody ever tell us this? Why were we not taught this vital information? Bearing this in mind, let us now remedy this. And delve in to the tremendous power of the word.
As a gateway into this, think back to all of the great creation myths of the world. Is it any coincidence that many of these attribute the creation of the world to the utterance of a certain word or words? A brilliant example of this is the ancient Egyptian deity, Thoth, scribe of the gods, who was believed to have uttered the words that brought the world into being. Another good example is the intriguing Eastern concept of Nada Brahma, the divine sound, associated with the vocable OM, whose vibrations, it was believed, provided the underlying substratum for the world and everything in it. And then, of course, there is the concept of the logos, the divine reason as expressed by a certain word or words. ‘In the beginning was the word, and the word was with god and the word was god.’ So begins the epic gospel of St John.
Today, we have been taught to take these accounts literally. And, as a result, to either believe or not believe them, as the case may be. However, we have now forgotten that all of these ancient accounts were composed to function upon numerous levels, of which the literal is merely one such level. As such, there is often a lot more to them than meets the eye.
To discover this for ourselves, however, we need to learn how to read through the lines, as it were. This is done, not by taking them literally, but by looking for their deeper levels of meaning. When we do this, we realise that they are not just telling us how it was thought the world was created. They are also offering an insight into the tremendous power of the word.
They are implying that words can function as powerful creative agencies, through the use of which, each one of us can acquire a great deal of power. And, logically speaking, it is not difficult to see how or why. We can use words in order to create and express completely new ideas, concepts, understandings and, in the end, we can even begin to create completely new worlds – all through the effective use of words. So, for the moment at least, let’s put all of our received ideas of the subject of grammar to one side. Let’s forget about nouns, verbs, adjectives and prepositions. Although a part of the subject of grammar, these are nothing but the tip of a massive iceberg,, most of which is hidden from our view.
Now one of the first points to be made when studying grammar as a liberal art is this: do not take the meaning of any word or term for granted. Find out exactly what words mean. In doing so, there is the dictionary definition of a word as a first port of call. Yet, for the liberal art of grammar this is just the beginning. We also need to find out exactly what those words or terms mean for ourselves and our own lives.
Although we were probably not taught this in school, there is a very good reason for this. When we study the liberal arts, we do so as the very centre of our own cosmos. This is because the general aim of the liberal arts is to unfold and develop our highest possibilities as a human being. And what is the key to those possibilities? It is, of course, ourselves.
For the liberal arts, this mysterious quality of self that shines out through our eyes, is never, ever dismissed. In fact, the liberal arts fully recognise that it is, in fact, our greatest treasure and therefore, something to be cherished, prized and above all, cultivated. As such, the liberal arts recognise that the self, is actually our true source of wealth as a human being.
In this way, the liberal arts affirm a fundamental truth that we all know and experience every day of our lives. As human beings, each one of us stands at the very centre of our own circle of mind and consciousness. As such, when studying the liberal arts, we need to get used to the fact that we and our own unique possibilities are the whole point of those arts.
They were created in the first place to help us achieve the true wonders that we know that we are actually capable of achieving. This is why the meaning of words for us is so vitally important. Through the study of those words, we can open up new pathways of understanding, reconnect with the inspiring brilliance of the universe and all that is, and learn how to think for ourselves in productive, inspiring and illuminating ways. And, this all begins, surprising as it may seem, with the study of the humble subject of grammar.
WHAT IS A LIBERAL ART?
Having said this, let us now see why they were called liberal arts in the first place. First, what does the word liberal actually mean? The Online Etymology Dictionary says, ‘befitting free people, noble, generous, willing’. It also points out that the word liberal comes from the Latin, liberalis, which refers to ‘noble, gracious, munificent, generous people’. So, in effect, the word liberal was not being applied to the art itself. It was applied to the person who studies and practises that art. It basically states, that whoever is studying the liberal arts is doing so as a free and independent person in their own right.
We can understand the reasons for this when we bring in a historical context to the study of the liberal arts. In the distant past, when the liberal arts were taught in the great institutions of learning, three levels or types of art were recognised. There were the liberal arts, the fine arts and the servile arts.
The fine arts we all know about, among which seven were considered particularly important. These were architecture, literature, music, drama, dance, painting and sculpture. The servile arts we know less about. Certainly, their name provides a good indicator as to why we know so little about them. Today, the very idea of a servile art rankles us because it reminds us of the unfairness of a society which consisted of the haves on the one hand and the have-nots on the other. It is, of course, the have-nots who would enter into the practice of the servile arts. Curiously, at one time there were also considered to be seven categories of servile art, which were agriculture, warfare, cooking, tailoring, masonry, trade and smithing.
The liberal arts, as such, were intended for the haves: the people of independent means who were counted as being free citizens. It was they who received the benefits of the liberal arts and it was they who then became enlightened by them. This is why they were called liberal, because it was the free people of society that studied them.
Today, of course, we recognise the unfairness of this, because it meant that only the fortunate few could gain the benefits of a liberal education. However, consider this. As we are now all basically counted as free citizens, it means that we are all now free to study the liberal arts. We are also, therefore, free to enjoy for ourselves the benefit of the study of those arts.
However, this prospect does raise an important question. Is it realistic to think of ourselves as being free? Do we feel free in our own person? Is our behaviour bound by conventions and social mores? Is our thinking free? Do we think for ourselves as free and independent persons? Do we even know how to think for ourselves?
Again, these are all very difficult questions to answer. They also raise some important issues. This is because there is a great deal at play in the study of the liberal arts. What is at play is ourselves and our own highest potential. Very clearly, we will never be able to fulfil that potential unless we at least begin to think of ourselves as being free. In doing so, we are fortunate for the fact that our minds are still essentially private spaces. As such, we are free to think whatever we like. This, then, puts us in a prime position to study the liberal arts.
ART AND SCIENCE IN THE LIBERAL ARTS
Having considered the word liberal and what that means, let us now consider the word art and what that means in the context of the liberal arts. A good way to do this is to contrast the word art with the word science. For the ancient liberal arts, science boils down to a very simple dialectic principle. There is the knower, which is ourselves, and there is that which can be known. Consequently, if there is something to be known, whatever it is, it will then fall under the mantle of a certain science. Therefore, to come to a knowledge of, say, arithmetic, is at the same time, to acquire an understanding of the science of arithmetic.
Because of this, the liberal arts embrace a much broader view of science than we are used to. They also accept as valid, subjects that modern science might easily be tempted to dismiss. A brilliant example of this is herbalism, the knowledge of herbs and their medicinal qualities.
For the liberal arts, herbalism counts as a beautiful, ancient and noble science. After all, herbalism was around for thousands of years before modern science ever began. And characteristic of it, were two fundamental positions which, even today, nobody in their right mind could actually deny. The first is that herbs do have medicinal qualities. The second is that there are ways of coming to a sound knowledge of those qualities. For the ancient liberal arts, this qualifies herbalism as being a valid science.
Let me say, though, I’m not ‘dissing’ modern science – as founded upon today’s more rigorous scientific method. Science is fantastic. I am just pointing out that for the liberal arts, there was a different take on science. This is because, for the liberal arts, the mind and consciousness of the knower were always central. However, for modern science, mind and consciousness are often dismissed as being nothing but epi-phenomenon generated by our bodily chemistry.
This brings us back to our original question – use of the word art, in contrast to the word science. While in the liberal arts, science concerns that which can be known, art concerns that which can be done. This view also leads to a much broader idea of art than is typical of our modern society. From a liberal arts standpoint, anything that can feasibly be done can count as an art in its own right. This includes cooking, gardening, writing, speaking, meditating, exercising, thinking and, of course, herbalism, which we just mentioned.
In this way, if we take the ancient liberal arts on board, they pose a profound and beautiful challenge to us all. They invite us to reconnect with the very fountain of our own creative inspiration. In doing so, they then encourage us to participate in the world, not just as passive consumers, but as inspired co-creators, working towards the creation of a new and a better world for all, a world enhanced, enriched and transformed by the use of art at every possible level.
Who among us would not want that? After all, if we were all able to fulfil our creative potential we would then be able to create a world of such beauty, inspiration and uplifting that it would be enough to make the mind fairly boggle. And, seeing that in the near future, there is the very real possibility that artificial intelligence might take over most of our jobs, this idea, I think, might soon see its day again. As our jobs disappear, rather than feeling redundant, dejected or useless in the face of a new technologically driven world, we can, instead, use it as an opportunity to study the liberal arts. And, in the process, we could then help to lift the world to heights that, in the present, we only dream of.
Yet, for some of the people I have met, this is not good enough for them. They point out to me that not everybody is actually creative. However, is this actually true? As far as I can see, creativity is the very essence of our species. It is just that many essential types of creativity have been ignored and sidelined by modern society. This, in turn, has led to a stereotypical view of creativity as being the exclusive province of professional artists.
However, the liberal arts show us that we can all be artists in our own right and that we all have a tremendous capacity for true artistry. To create a home is a wonderful expression of creativity. To cook a nourishing meal is also a creative act. To grow flowers in order to create a beautiful garden is also very creative. To compose a letter or an email is an act of creativity. Of course, viewed in this way, our whole lives can become one continual expression of inspired creativity. And, if anything, this is one of the most important lessons that the study of the liberal arts can teach us.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN LIBERAL AND FINE ARTS
Now that we understand this, let us now consider how a liberal art is different from, say, a fine art? Imagine a sculptor chipping away at a block of stone in order to reveal a form of exquisite beauty lying dormant, therein. There are, basically, three things involved in this process. First, there is the artist working with their tools i.e. a hammer and a chisel. Second, there is the medium through which the artist is working i.e. stone. Third, there is the final revelation of the artwork itself.
The liberal arts work in exactly the same way, except for one crucial difference. The artist and the final artwork are one and the same. Now of course, we might find it strange to start thinking of ourselves as artworks in our own right. For this purpose, we clearly need a radical rethink of what and who we are and how we actually become the way that we are.
The liberal arts show us that we are not necessarily the powerless victims of our circumstances. They show us that we need not be slaves to external forces. They show that each one of us is a unique center of mind and consciousness that literally resonates with the most tremendous creative power. This is the power to be self-determined. It is the power to direct our own destiny. It is the power to contribute to the creation of a new and inspiring world. It is the power to bring our highest aspirations into actuality.
As such, we can all be practitioners of the liberal arts. The difference is that we do not work upon blocks of stone. We work, instead, upon ourselves and our own abilities. And, by doing so, as individuals in our own right, we can then each become world movers, world shakers, world changers and world transformers.
And, the great thing about the liberal arts, is that they show us that these changes do not begin by trying to change and alter others. They begin with us, as free individuals, and our own tremendous power to transform ourselves into the very picture of the enlightened person that we could all very easily become. As the famous mythologist, Joseph Campbell, once said:
“We are not here to save the world, we are here to save ourselves, but in doing so, we then save the world.”
Download this beautifully illustrated article in pdf format, to read at your leisure.