Seven Liberal ArtsConference 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
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,
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
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
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:
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
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
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
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.
all the knowledge in the world
like a vision of greatness, and nothing can take its place.