Celebrating 300 years

The Seven Liberal Arts

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Clement Salaman Reveals How They Were Devised As A Path To Truth

Liberal Arts was a term coined in the Middle Ages: ‘liberal’ from the Latin liber, meaning ‘free’. The name is apt; these arts are intended to bring freedom to the mind. We need to be reminded of the source of freedom now, with the world threatened by the grossest forms of mental oppression and spiritual intolerance.

The Liberal Arts go back over 2,500 years, to classical times. They were practised over Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, being disseminated through the empires of Alexander and Rome; they are part of our heritage. 
The most important influence on education in classical times was that of Plato (427-347 BC). His concept of education – which he attributes to the earlier philosopher Socrates – was based on ‘excellence’: every individual had his own particular excellence, but the excellence of the human being, in general, resided in the soul; the excellence of the soul being expressed by justice. Thus, the main aim of education was the cultivation of justice. 
For Plato, the source of creation is the "Good", the Light of pure spirit; all physical creation being just a shadow or reflection of this. He refers to the "Good" also as the "One" or as "God": for him, all education must be designed to bring about a recognition of this "One", a recognition not just in theory, but in experience. For once experienced, he believed, the pure Light of the Good would become the basis for every decision and action that a man or woman might take. And where the principle of justice guided the rulers, there one would find a happy state. 

Instruction in the Virtues

To Plato, reason meant far more that it does today, it meant the knowledge of what is truly good for man. Through adhering to reason, the human being could attain the virtue of wisdom, and where wisdom prevailed, just actions would inevitably follow.

When the passions of the soul came under the control of reason, a man would know what to fear and what not to fear. Plato had no doubt that one need not fear any harm to, or death of , the temporary and shadowy body; but one should fear harm to the real and immortal soul. And with the mind and the passionate part of the soul in accord, the appetites of the senses would be controlled; the individual would then be close to the joy of the Supreme Good.

Learning of Divine Things

Even before Plato, many of the basics of education had already been established among the ancient Greeks. It was the practice for children, before the age of seven, to be given music to develop their soul and gymnastics to develop their body. Much more of Plato’s programme – particularly that designed for ages ten to seventeen – had been accepted from at least the time of Pythagoras (6th century BC). But we have only Plato’s explanations as to why these subjects were so important.

Plato argues that geometry and arithmetic have their origins in realities which are the abode of the Good itself. Through contemplating the importance of geometrical figures and arithmetical mysteries, the soul is easily led back to this Divine realm which it once knew before being locked into a body on earth. Plato writes in his Republic:

"the knowledge at which geometry aims is knowledge of the eternal, and not of anything perishing and transient".

Creation and the Mean

Of all the aspects of arithmetic, Plato was particularly interested in the concept of the ‘mean’ because it connected directly with the central tenet of his philosophy, that the universe was One.

Plato states that creation proceeded in accordance with the ‘mean’. He gives three kinds of mean: the first and most simple is represented by the series 2,4,8 – four being the mean. The second is the series 1,2,3 – two being the mean. The third is a series 3,4,6 – four being the mean since it is a third more than three, and a third less than six. In each case the first term bears the same relationship to the middle term, as the middle term does to the last.

This equality of proportion was how Plato considered that the unity of the One is carried into the multiplicity of Creation. In other words, the multiplicity of Creation is harmonised by an equality of proportion.

These proportions are also those of the musical scale and hence the importance of music: the soul recognises the beauty of music because the soul and music resonate to the same proportion. And astronomy was directly linked to music and mathematics, thus also to the One. However, according to Plato music in the educational curriculum must only be such as to inspire courage or temperance.

Astronomy was all important because Plato associated the heavenly bodies with the ‘World Soul’ – he did not mean that their physical characteristics were substance of soul but that this was the inner intelligence which moved them.

It would be wrong to believe that Plato did not attach any value to the study of literature. He is certainly severe on occasion: in his Republic he bans poets and playwrights on the grounds that they reflect that worldly life which is only a reflection of reality. But elsewhere, after remarking that poets and storytellers were wrong to present unjust men as happy, and just men as wretched, he adds that we should "require their poems and stories to have quite the opposite moral".

The inclusion of grammar, rhetoric and logic in the ancient curriculum was mainly due to the work of Isocrates, who had founded his academy in Athens in 393 BC, six years before Plato founded his which uniquely, for the times, was open to both men and women.

These two masters, Plato and Isocrates, shaped the course of education for millennia. In Roman times the study of Rhetoric and Grammar continued, and in the Middle Ages, while education became Christianised, the subjects remained.

The Italian Renaissance reintroduced the ancient concept that education concerned the whole man – body, mind and spirit – and this idea passed into the English educational system through the early Public Schools.

The Liberal Arts need to be reconnected with their origins. The quadrivium is essentially the search for abstract truth and the trivium the rediscovery of the essential being of every man and woman which has been reflected in literature through the great writings of the past. The main purpose of the latter was to present noble characters (or heroes) as models whose virtues men and women could imitate thus fulfilling their full, and true, potential.

Clement Salaman is a translator, writer and lecturer on Renaissance subjects, particularly the Neoplatonic and Hermetic ideas which found expression at that time. He is the leader of the team which has translated the five volumes of letters of Marsilio Ficino and also the Hermetic Texts (reviewed in Freemasonry Today, Issue No. 17).

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