What are the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences?
“Many years after, the good clerk Euclid
Taught the craft of geometry full wonder wide,
So he did that other time also,
Of divers crafts many more.
Through high grace of Christ in heaven,
He commenced in the sciences seven;
Grammar is the first science I know,
Dialect the second, so I have bliss,
Rhetoric the third without doubt,
Music the fourth, as I you say,
Astronomy is the fifth, by my snout,
Arithmetic the sixth, without doubt,
Geometry the seventh maketh an end,
For he is both meek and courteous,
Grammar forsooth is the root,
Whoever will learn on the book;
But art passeth in his degree,
As the fruit doth the root of the tree;
Rhetoric measureth with ornate speech among,
And music it is a sweet song;
Astronomy numbereth, my dear brother,
Arithmetic sheweth one thing that is another,
Geometry the seventh science is,
That can separate falsehood from truth, I know
These be sciences seven,
Who useth them well he may have heaven.”
– Regius Manuscript poem, A.D. 13902
(British Museum / London)
What are the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences?
The starting point in our search will be to review what these seven arts are and what they teach. The seven arts are composed of two families containing three and, respectively, four arts – this “3+4” structure is critical to understand how these arts complement each other. We will establish the reasons for this division shortly, but first let‟s review the seven classical arts and sciences.
The first family is composed of:
Grammar – defines the rules used to construct phrases, sentences, words, and connects these elements to communicate ideas in a given language. An understanding of this first art is necessary for all others to be learned.
Rhetoric – is the art of using language as a means to persuade. Once a student learns how to read and write properly, s/he is now prepared to manipulate words and sentences to express complex ideas. Mastering Rhetoric is an intermediate step before delving into the more complex domain of Logic.
Dialectic/Logic – is the reasoning which seeks to confront and contrast ideas, identify which is correct and which is not, remove ambiguity, and measure, compare, analyze, prove, and demonstrate facts with clarity. The word derives from the Greek logiké, feminine of logikos, “possessed of reason, intellectual, dialectical, argumentative”, and from logos, “word, thought, idea, argument, account, reason, or principle”. Grammar is the mechanics of a language; rhetoric is the use of language to instruct and persuade; logic is the “mechanics” of thinking clearly, of comparison and analysis. Sister Miriam Joseph, PhD (1898-1982), a member of the Sisters of the Holy Cross and an author specialized in medieval education, described them as:
Logic is the art of thinking; grammar, the art of inventing symbols and combining them to express thought; and rhetoric, the art of communicating thought from one mind to another, the adaptation of language to circumstance.
Now we can proceed to second family that is composed of these four arts:
Arithmetic – (from the Greek word for “number”) is the oldest and most elementary branch of mathematics, used for tasks ranging from simple day-to-day counting to advanced science and business calculations.
Geometry – (Ancient Greek geo, “earth”, and metria, “measure”) is a part of mathematics concerned with questions of size, shape, and relative position of figures and with properties of space.
Harmony / Music – (from the Greek mousike, “(art) of the Muses”) is an art form whose medium is sound organized in time. Music theory also relies considerably on mathematics, number theory and the laws of arithmetic.
Astronomy – (from the Greek words astron, “star”, and nomos, “law”) is the scientific study of celestial objects. Historically, astronomy has included disciplines as diverse as meteorology (study the weather), the motion of celestial objects, celestial navigation (in oceanic trade and exploration), the making of calendars and documenting historical facts, and even divining the future (astrology). In ancient thinking, it was considered to be the discipline of the motion of all objects through space and time. Astronomy/astrology was also critical to the study of philosophy and theology, as everything divine or spiritual came down from the heavens – without it what was left was considered as “earthly” and profane.
Why Three + Four Arts?
The first three arts (Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic) form the “three ancient arts of discourse”, or Trivium (Latin for “Three Ways” or “Three Roads”). From ancient Greece to the late 19th Century, the Trivium was a fundamental path of education, used to train public speakers and writers to direct audiences to action with their arguments. Philosophers, lawyers, public servants, leaders, military officers and teachers relied on the mastery of the Trivium to perform their duties and influence people, the knowledge of discourse and persuasion coming originally from the schools of Aristotle, Plato and Socrates in ancient Greece3. As Napoleon Bonaparte said, “By our words we rule the world”.
Later in medieval times the study of logic, grammar and rhetoric was considered a prerequisite for the Quadrivium (Latin for “Four Ways” or “Four Roads”), which was made up of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The Trivium was the beginning of the Liberal Arts, and at many medieval universities this would have been the principal undergraduate course. The Quadrivium would complete the student‟s formal education.
The Trivium does not address any specific subject, instead it teaches the student to read and write, debate, compare, analyze and make conclusions about subjects. The teaching of the Quadrivium assumes that the Trivium has been fully mastered – now the student is properly prepared to explore other sciences.
Considering the rise in complexity from basic grammar to measuring the motion of planets, it is natural to conclude that the learning process must follow:
Or, “3 simple arts that enable you to master 4 complex sciences”, or still “3 arts to express, communicate and compare, which shall serve you as tools, plus 4 sciences that shall open the universe to be measured and understood”.
About the Quadrivium, Proclus Diadochus said in In primum Euclidis elementorum librum commentarii:
Arithmetic is the Discrete at Rest
Astronomy is the Discrete in Motion
Geometry is the Continuous at Rest
Music is the Continuous in Motion
At many medieval universities, this would have been the course leading to the degree of Master of Arts (after the BA). After the MA the student could enter for Bachelor’s degrees of the higher faculties, such as Music. To this day some of the postgraduate degree courses lead to the degree of Bachelor (the B.Phil and B.Litt. degrees are examples in the field of philosophy, and the B.Mus. remains a postgraduate qualification at Oxford and Cambridge universities).
To ignore this order would be the same as teaching advanced calculus before the student is familiar with basic arithmetic or knows how to read. This is the only way the student would receive formal education in ancient and medieval times, and this system has reflections echoed in our modern education system today. Once the seven arts and sciences were mastered, he would have completed his education path and would be a full or free man, able to better understand God‟s creation and its mysteries.
Those who were slaves or not completely free would never receive full education, therefore the curriculum was named the “Free” arts and sciences – Liber meaning free in Latin (same root used in the word Liberty). Alternatively, we could also consider that once one achieves such level of education he would be free from the chains of ignorance and allow a person to govern his own life („know thyself‟ being a critical part of the learning process) instead of being governed by mere circumstance. In fact, Zosimo of Panopolis, a 4th century Egyptian philosopher operating from Alexandria writes that the spiritual and intellectual enlightenment could allow us to become free from fatalism (e.g. our fate is already written and there is nothing we can do about it); and from the power of the stars over the fate of men (astrological or zodiacal influences, accepted as a fact at that time).
The learned man is a free man, liberated by the sciences.
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