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The Seven Liberal Arts
Conference by Fr. Herve de la Tour given in February 2002


"The Catholic School is a novitiate in Christian living."  We want to form men who will think and act as Catholics. In the present crisis our schools should be like monasteries within which Catholic culture must be preserved in a world where modern barbarism seeks to destroy truth, goodness and beauty in the souls of our children.

The SSPX must be the custodian of these treasures of Catholic wisdom and pass them on to the next generations. How are we to fulfill this mission of education?

Everyone notices that modern students, even in our schools:

  • cannot define adequately a term, make the proper distinctions, or present an argument in a satisfactory manner
  • have difficulty making connections between the different subjects that are being taught (no integration)
  • seem to quickly forget what they have learnt and have little interest in learning more

These defects are partially caused by too much emphasis placed on the absorption of factual information (being measured by tests/grades) instead of the training of the intellect on how to think. The famous essay of Dorothy Sayers on the "Tools of Learning" explains this point very well. In other words, the classroom is viewed as a conference room where the teacher is reading a textbook to the students. The medieval classroom was viewed as a workshop where the students were apprentices learning to craft a work of the mind (e.g. composition in English). These tools, once acquired, enabled one to tackle any subject later on.

The medieval syllabus (inherited from ancient Greece) was before all else centered on the seven liberal arts. Let us read two of the most important texts of St. Thomas Aquinas on this subject:  "The liberal arts are divided into the trivium and quadrivium, since by these, as by certain paths [or viae], the lively mind enters in to the secrets of philosophy." And this also agrees with Aristotle who says that the method of science should be sought before the sciences. And the commentator [Averroes] states in the same place that logic, which teaches the method of all the sciences, should be learned by one before all the sciences. To this pertains the trivium.

He also says that mathematics is able to be known by boys, but not physics, which requires experience. From which one is given to understand that first logic, then mathematics, should be learned. To this (latter) pertains the quadrivium. And thus by these, as though by certain paths, the mind is prepared for the other physical disciplines."  In Boet de Trinitate, q. 5, a. 1, ad 3

The fitting order of learning will therefore be as follow: First boys should be instructed in logical matters, since logic teaches the method of the whole philosophy. Secondly, however, they should be instructed in mathematics, which neither requires experience, nor transcends the imagination. Thirdly, they should be instructed in natural things, which, even though they do not exceed sense and imagination, nevertheless require experience. Fourthly, in moral matter, which require experience and a mind free from its passions, as is stated in Book I. Fifthly, however, in sapiential and divine things, which transcend the imagination and require a strong intellect.  In X Libros Ethicorum, VI, 1. 7, no. 1211

A liberal art is a habitus, i.e., a quality enabling a faculty, e.g., the intellect, to act with promptitude, skill, ease and pleasure. It is the perfection of this faculty, like a "second nature." It is an act because it does not only include knowledge, but also a certain product such as syllogism (logic) or a melody (music). It is called liberal science since the product is a work of the mind, an act of man in the respect in which he is free.

St. Augustine wrote a treatise on the liberal arts as he waited for his baptism in Milan. (See the connection between the natural and the supernatural order – they are distinct, not separated). He points out that the way these tools are fashioned in the minds of students is through the spoken word of the teacher. We must be convinced that the goal of the liberal arts is not primarily to fit some one for the world (career-job) but to enable him to have access to true wisdom. In other words, their purpose is to make the students better persons.

The end of a Catholic school is Catholic intellectual life. Too often we act as if the end was only to preserve the Faith of our children. There is a confusion between intermediate and ultimate ends. We call upon the ultimate end of all Catholic life, the salvation of souls, and attempt to make this do duty as the immediate and specific object of education. We forget that the end of education as such is distinct from the end of apostolic (missionary) activity. To confuse the ultimate end of education with its immediate end introduces a disorder into the Catholic scheme of education. This is serious.

Let us ask ourselves a few questions: What kind of graduates do our schools actually produce? What do they not produce? What should they produce? In other words what do we want them to produce? These are major questions because they are questions about ends. Remember the axiom "finis est prima in intentione."  In the practical order, the end is to the means what the principle is to the conclusion in the speculative order. If we are wrong on the end of our schools, we are wrong big time. It seems that because we do not have the correct vision, we often are not even attaining the end we had in view, namely the preservation of the Faith. How many of our students are able to keep a strong living faith after they leave school? Can they reply to objections from non-Catholic friends in college? Do they have missionary zeal to spread the Faith? How many teachers have we produced among our graduates? Maybe when we honestly reflect on these questions, we have to acknowledge that too often we have not formed Catholic minds but only Catholic feelings.

This is why it is important to consider the seven liberal arts as part of our curriculum.


Poetics includes grammar and literature. Literature is imaginative (not persuasive such as a sermon or speech) when its purpose is to delight us by telling a story (poem, novel, play, epic, essay, etc…). Its purpose is recreational, but superior to games or sports. A poem stirs up our soul and then brings it to rest by lifting up our mind and emotions above the strains and frustrations of everyday life. It is not an escape from life, but rather a vision of the goal ahead which encourages us and inspires us to live more perfectly.

The plot is the soul of the story. The characters are also important. A beautiful book must lead us to appreciate some truth about life which is expressed in this work of art. This is why the books we study are important (we are trying to compile a literature curriculum with four books per year for each grade). The power of a story to arouse the emotions and then bring them to rest is called catharsis (purification). Through philosophy we can have the vision of the goal but it comes late in life, through poetry we can already have a similar experience when we are young.

Our English curriculum must include grammar, spelling, composition and especially appreciation of good literature. We need to develop comprehension skills. The teacher needs to read out loud and talk about the books they are studying and make the students talk to make sure they understand. This is fundamental! If this requires more than the five standard periods a week to do the job thoroughly, then let our curriculum make room for more English periods and suppress some science. Let us avoid cluttering the mind of our students with meaningless lists of facts. To be able to read and write well is the first tool of knowledge. We need to give our students this first liberal art. We need to work hard towards this goal. (In Jesuit schools, students were from ages 10 to 15 in the humanities class, from age 16 to 18 in the mathematics and philosophy classes). Let us be clear: The man who has not mastered his native tongue cannot claim to be an educated man.


It is the art of correct thinking. The students must know the basic rules of logic. They should be able, when reading a text, to disengage the essential from the accidental, to see what the author is trying to prove. They should also learn how to draw conclusions from principles and refute false reasoning. We must restore the disputatio in our schools. We have sports tournaments. Why not intellectual jousting? This exercise was a common feature of Jesuit schools. It is excellent to sharpen the mind. This quote from the famous Ratio studiorum will make it clear:

The concertatio, which is usually conducted by the questions of the master or the corrections of rivals or by the rivals questioning each other in turn, must be held in high esteem and used whenever time permits so that honorable rivalry, which is a great incentive to studies, may be fostered. Some may be sent individually or in groups from each side especially the officers; or one may attack several; let a private seek a private, let an officer seek an officer; or even let a private attack an officer, and, if he conquers, let him secure his honor or some other award or sign of victory as the dignity of the class and the custom of the place demand.


It is the art of persuasion. It is a very practical art, which appeals to emotions, like poetics, unlike dialectics. What is the difference between poetics and rhetoric? The poet is concerned with telling a good story which excites our emotions and then brings us to rest in the enjoyment of beauty. It leads us to appreciate what is noble in human life. (Poetry is also one of the fine arts, unlike rhetoric).

The rhetorician is concerned with convincing the audience to act. They will put into practice what he has urged them to do. (This is what a football coach does when he gives a pep talk to his players at half time, especially when the team is losing) Religious sermons, political speeches, advertising, talks, etc… all this is the domain of rhetoric. Ancient education was giving a lot of time to oral expression. We have to restore this in our schools.


Arithmetic is the science of numbers (concrete quantity). Mathematics is a valuable tool since it is a good exercise in logical thinking. Young boys can gain proficiency in algebra, which, in the Thomistic order of learning, comes before physical science. Math has a greater degree of certitude and clearness than some other sciences. For this reason it is enjoyable to the mind.

But we have to be careful. Modern math is turning into a formal system where problems can be solved automatically, almost without thinking. Of course we need a method of calculating. This is an instrument of the science of maths whose business is not the working of problems but the demonstration of truths. Algebraic problems can be solved by a computer, but the computer cannot see why the results are true. Only the human intellect can see this.

So when we are teaching math, we must make sure our students seek to understand why an answer is true. This means that they must trace it back to axioms and postulates. Only then do they have scientific knowledge. If they cannot base a conclusion on principles known to be true, it is not real science but mechanical skill, in the manner of an automatic reflex. Some of our teachers seem to have found problems with the Saxon textbooks which do not concentrate on one concept per chapter but aim at "programming" the student without understanding the principles. Maybe some alternatives can be found.


Geometry is the science of magnitudes (discrete quantity). When Plato opened his school, the famous "Academy", he engraved over its portal the famous inscription: "Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here."  It is Euclid who brought geometry to the level of a science. In his "elements", concepts are carefully built up in a logical way so that we can see the proper reasons for the conclusions.

Euclid is moving in a synthetic order from the simpler problems to the more complex. He begins with the simplest truths (definitions) and works in the direction of more and more complicated theorems. On the other hand, many of his proofs are analytical. They begin with the conclusion and work back to the principle on which it is based. The student then practices syllogistic reasoning (e.g., reductio and absurdum).

A geometry book based on Elements of Euclid is more difficult than other textbooks, because it requires more thinking, but it is better for the formation of the mind.


It is applied maths. When a stretched string vibrates, the shorter the part is, the more rapid is the vibration and the higher the tone it emits. The scale is therefore composed of mathematical proportions. Aristotle includes music in a liberal education. He advocated learning to play an instrument in youth in order to be a better judge later.

Music is also a fine art. Its purpose is to give us a contemplative recreation. When we listen to a flute concerto of Haydn, it makes us enjoy the beautiful. There is a sense of wonder. (Plato says that education ends in wisdom, but starts in wonder.) The vocation of the Catholic student is the contemplation of the truth. It requires effort, so we need rest. The work of fine art recreates us (we experience pleasure when looking at a painting by Fra Angelico) but it is, so to speak, a continuation of contemplation. It elevates the soul. We need to teach our parents to have good music in the home.


It is another branch of applied maths. St. Thomas says that it is a prerequisite to metaphysics. It is the last of the seven liberal arts and is also a natural science. It seems that the quadrivium has a "transitional" status. In other words, the study of mathematics (whether pure or applied) begins as the study of a practical art and ends as a speculative science. Astronomy is a good way to have the students apply their knowledge of geometry to physical reality (the movement of celestial bodies). The observation of stars and planets with a telescope is also a great way to awaken wonder in their minds and leads them to appreciate the beauty of God’s creation.


  Pius XII said (September 5, 1957): "A liberal arts education remains unequalled for the exercise and development of the most valuable qualities of the mind: penetration of thought, broadmindedness, fineness of analysis, gifts of expression."  Not all of our students will be able to reach this level. Maybe not even all our teachers. But we have to work with those who are able to. Let us bear in mind this: To learn six subjects per year without remembering how they were learnt does nothing to ease the approach to a seventh. To have learnt and remembered the art of learning (especially through the trivium) makes the approach to every subject an open door.

Let us conclude with a quote from Sir Richard Livingstone about classical education which, mainly through great literature, brings the mind into contact with beauty, truth and goodness:

The first principle is that certain subjects must be studied so thoroughly that the pupil gets some idea of what knowledge is. That lesson cannot be learnt by studying a large number of things; it demands time and concentration. The second principle is that these subjects should bring the pupil face to face with something great. Nothing not all the knowledge in the world educates like a vision of greatness, and nothing can take its place.