Classical Liberal Arts

Among the intellectual habits by which humans express truth, we find art.  While St. Thomas Aquinas describes the arts in general as “right reason of things to be made”, he distinguishes some, like the mechanical arts, which “pass over into exterior matter around which they work some effect”, and others, including the action of the intellect, which remain “in the agent as its perfection”.  Aquinas identifies these latter intellectual habits as the liberal arts:

Hence whatever habits are ordained to such like works of the speculative reason, are, by a kind of comparison, called arts indeed, but ‘liberal’ arts, in order to distinguish them from those arts that are ordained to works done by the body, which arts are, in a fashion, servile, inasmuch as the body is in servile subjection to the soul, and man, as regards his soul, is free (liber).

These liberal arts divide into two groups: Trivium, or ‘three ways’, which includes Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, and Quadrivium, or ‘four ways’, which includes Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, and Astronomy.  While the names of the individual arts sound familiar, it is good to recognize that the actual liberal arts have specific content that rightly forms the intellect, and by merely studying a course called “Latin Grammar” or “Arithmetic”, students will not necessarily receive a true liberal arts formation.  For example, the classical art Arithmetic does not suggest the study of the four operations that children learn today in their math books.  Rather it is a philosophical investigation of the nature of discrete quantity, as it follows after the identification of a unified substance. While Metaphysics alone is the study of “being as being”, each of the arts possesses its own vestigium of God’s order, and consequently, each art provides a study of order within its own realm, and collectively, the order studied in the liberal arts provides students a sound preparation for what Boethius calls “philosophizing rightly”.

For more information, consider reading “Brief Introduction to the Classical Liberal Arts” or On the Nature of the Classical Liberal Arts , by Christopher Ruckdeschel 


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