Published in A Student’s Guide to Liberal Arts, ed. William T, Stancil (Kansas City: Rockhurst University Press, 2003), Chapter I, “What Are the Liberal Arts?” pp. 1-19.
James V. Schall, S. J.
Georgetown University, DC, 20057-1200
ARTES LIBERALES – THE LIBERAL ARTS
“‘Because,’ I said, ‘the free man ought not to learn any study slavishly. Forced labors performed by the body don’t make the body any worse, but no forced study abides in a soul.’”
– Plato, The Republic, 536e.
“That there is to be education in music in such a way that they will participate in the works [of music], therefore, is evident.... What is appropriate and inappropriate for different ages is not difficult to define and resolve, in response to those who assert that the concern is a vulgar one. In the first place, since one should share in the works for the sake of judging, on this account they should practice the works when they are young, and when they become older leave off the works, and be able to judge the noble things and to enjoy [them] in correct fashion through the learning that occurred in their youth.”
– Aristotle, Politics, 1340b31-38.
“But in an orator ... we demand the acuteness of a logician, the profundity of a philosopher, the diction virtually of a poet, the memory of a lawyer, the voice of a performer in tragic drama, the gestures, you might almost say, of an actor at the very top of his profession.”
– Cicero, On the Orator.1
I. THE CLASSICAL TRADITIONS.
In the Crito of Plato, during the month in jail awaiting the return of the sacrificial ship that would occasion Socrates’ execution, Crito indicated that, from his personal wealth, he could easily provide a bribe to enable Socrates to escape. No one, even those who found him guilty as charged, really wanted Socrates to die. Besides, Crito, a rich friend of Socrates, would seem cheap in the eyes of the city if he did not come forth with bribe money to free Socrates. A convenient place to which Socrates might go in exile, Crito informs him, is Thessaly, famous for its barbarian ways. Socrates had already rejected the alternative of going to Thebes, a civilized city.
Nor would Socrates, contrary to his vocation, cease to philosophize so that he could remain in Athens, the cultured city that Pericles had called the freest. Socrates rejected going to Thessaly because, in such a society, he would have no one with whom to talk. The barbarian king would, of course, know of the big-city fame of Socrates, the philosopher. He would have asked him to his court to perform some amazing feat to impress his retainers. Kings often found hapless philosophers amusing, while philosophers were known to have conversed with kings..
Yet, for Socrates to be Socrates, the philosopher, he would need to engage in conversation, in dialectic. Such dialectic required someone genuinely interested in the higher things. Socrates preferred audiences that contain souls with some deep desire to know. Socrates only undertakes to give monologues before some corrupt, smooth politician like Callicles in the Gorgias. Callicles refused further to engage Socrates in conversation lest he (Callicles) have to question his own political life and its supposedly unlimited freedom to do whatever the politician wanted. Though, as he tells us, he had gone to college in his youth, the young tyrant, by his own admission, rejected the principles of liberal educated. He ceased all that academic nonsense when he went into the active life of politics. Nor was the barbarian king liberally educated. The former lacked virtue, the latter culture.
The barbarians in Thessaly, then, though worthy enough in their own ways, were not prepared systematically to examine their daily lives, the civic purpose that Socrates appointed to himself in The Apology. The barbarians would not have understood the point of such an “examined life.” They were not “free” to know that they did not know. Socrates, who knew that he did not know, had to remain a private citizen even in Athens, lest he be eliminated sooner. Still his whole life was engaged in conversations that could only take place in a city, albeit a disordered city. In this city, philosophers and fools were not easily separated because no principle of distinction was allowed. But in Athens, nevertheless, philosophic eros might have some chance of attracting the souls of the potential philosophers, those who had not yet decided how they would live their lives. Though philosophy was not necessarily or fully at home in any existing city, including Athens, still philosophers had to live in some place where they would not be killed, however much their killing might confirm their philosophic vocations before the world. The cities in speech that they left us were designed to free us from actual cities even while living in them. To have no articulated “city” in one’s soul is the essence of an unfree man. To have one, placed there by argument, is to be liberally educated.2
Likewise, in the New Testament, we read that Pilate, Christ’s Roman judge, hears that Christ is from Galilee, a place outside of Pilate’s immediate jurisdiction. In Galilee, the Romans had set up Herod, a puppet king. Pilate, who knew this whole business of executing Christ was messy, was delighted with the jurisdictional excuse to put Christ outside of his legal authority. So he packs Him off to Herod’s court for further judgment. Herod was shrewd. He had, of course, heard of this Jesus and was anxious to look him over. Like the barbarian king in Thessaly, Herod too wanted Christ to be on stage. We can imagine the scene when Christ is brought before Herod’s court. Everyone is there, expecting some feat, perhaps some miracle, about which many had heard Christ to perform.
But, before Herod, Christ remains in complete silence. He will not “perform.” He found nothing genuine in Herod, no place to reach his soul. Herod evidently was sensitive enough to get the point, so he returned Christ to Pilate. The Gospel notes that up till that time, Herod and Pilate, neither of whom was the absolute worst of men, were not on intimate terms, but now they became “friends.” They both experienced this Christ, silent before them, refusing to respond to unauthentic politicians. Theirs was a friendship of complicity, of responsible men mutually rejecting their responsibilities, to find pleasant consolation in their, to them, rather amusing, if lethal, jurisdictional game. If we be liberally educated, we cannot help but see this “friendship” against the classical background of the friendship discussed by Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero.
We have here, to recall a phrase that Leo Strauss has made famous, from Tertullian, both “Jerusalem and Athens.”3 That is, we have the two origins of our culture, the Greek heritage and the revelational response to its brooding questions to itself. And these origins belong together, however different each is. What is known as patristic and medieval thought is designed to explain how this relationship is possible, how the best in Athens can be seen as related to revelation and its unique terms. This seeing of this relationship is what Chesterton once called “the keenest of intellectual pleasures.”4 What is known as “modern” thought is largely the attempt to solve the classical human questions without recourse to either tradition.5 Any adequate concept of “liberal arts” and “liberal education” would, at the risk of intellectual incompleteness or honesty, require attention to the Greek and Roman classical traditions, to the Hebrew and Christian revelation, to the patristic and medieval experience, and finally to modern claims, especially those arising from science and politics, even when they claim to be “autonomous.” Students who read Plato, Aristotle, St. Paul, and St. Augustine often are struck to find themselves more up-to-date, more knowledgeable about what is going on about them by reading these sources, than when they read The New York Times, or the latest textbook. The former possess a freedom and an intelligence that the latter somehow lack.
II. THE CONTRAST OF SLAVERY AND LEISURE.
We are familiar with colleges that describe themselves as “liberal arts” colleges. We are also familiar with the distinction between things liberal and things servile. Work is sometimes designated, even in the Church, as “servile,” something to avoid on Sundays. Certain disciplines, particularly what is known from Aristotle as “metaphysics,” are called freeing subjects. Such a “liberal” discipline is undertaken “for its own sake,” that is, the purpose of the knowledge gained is not to “do” anything with it. Just to “know” something is itself a pleasure, though often something we must learn to enjoy. The “useful” crafts and disciplines, even medicine and in its way art and law, are designed to “produce” or “make” something. The work, though worthy in itself, is “for” something else. The hammer, though it could be in itself an artifact with ornate carvings, is first intended to pound nails.
The notion of “slavery,” in which someone was designated to perform “servile” work or labor, did not initially refer to something wrong with the slave, but something wrong with the work he was forced to perform because it had to be done. No one was willing voluntarily to do it. In the Book of Exodus, we read: (the Israelites) were made to work in gangs with officers set over them, to break their spirit with heavy labor.... So they (the Egyptians) treated their Israelite slaves with ruthless severity...” (1:11-14). In short they made use of them as slaves in every kind of hard labor. Such slavery caused by conquest or other political means did not imply anything about the slave himself. Roman professors were sometimes Greek slaves.
The so-called “natural” slave, strictly speaking, was, unlike the captive slave, rather someone who was not causa sui. Such a person had some real and objective defect in body or mind that could not be remedied. He could not rule himself; he had to be ruled for his own good by another, be it family or state. Aristotle had already said, however, that if we could invent certain moving statues, perhaps it would be possible some day to make machines that would do much of this servile work that had to be done, like weaving or pounding. Such invention is indeed what eventually did happen in what came to be called the industrial revolution.
Much of the freedom from toil in the modern world is based on mechanical or technological “slaves” who do the work that is degrading for human beings to perform. Anyone who spends his time engaged in deadening or purposeless work, whether by coercion or by choice, would be considered, by the Greeks, to be a slave, however much we dislike that word. Moreover, as Yves Simon once remarked, if we contracted to pay a man a very high wage to dig a ditch six-by-six-by-six then fill it up again only to begin again and again, the man would soon go mad for being purposeless.
The main Christian commentary about this situation was first, not to deny that there was back-breaking work, but, secondly, to affirm that the one who did it could nevertheless save his soul, that is, reach the highest things. Likewise, if a work needed to be done, even if it be drudgery, it usually had a worthy purpose, no matter how difficult or boring. It had the connotation of service to the poor, or to those who needed it, without which life could not go on. Even with adequate machinery, as modern totalitarian regimes have proved, without these two latter notions of personal salvation and objective service, legal slavery might never have been eliminated. Without them, slavery will no doubt return in some form or other. The worker has his dignity; the work has its purpose, but still there are things “for their own sake” that are not drudgery nor directly the Beatific Vision. The order of things to be known and done in the world remains a worthy project even if we may, on occasion, save our souls without them. This too is part of revelation..
What is surprising about the sundry machines and devices from water wheels to computers that have been invented to do so many of the tasks that were otherwise considered inhuman and toilsome is that we end up, as even Hobbes suspected, with what is called “free time” and the problem of what to do with it. We have designed machines and techniques so that we do not have to do many necessary things that keep us alive and prosperous, things from sanitation systems to satellites . Is this time we now have left over merely “pastime?” Or are there things to be done that are not merely “useful?” This is the issue that Plato and Aristotle in ancient times and Josef Pieper in modern times have made famous under the notion of skole, or leisure.6 Ancient cities were criticized because they used slaves to do the servile work so at least a few could be free enough to pursue other, more noble things. Modern cities are often criticized because they are full of people with free time that is frittered away on frivolous things.
In a famous passage in The Republic, in the city he is building in speech, Socrates first sketches a city with a sufficiency of worldly goods and indeed with an abundance of luxurious goods, all of which came forth because of a demand caused by unlimited desire. Glaucon bitingly called this abundant economy “a city of pigs”; that is, it was a city with nothing higher in it than keeping alive and content. Glaucon’s famous phrase was not a compliment, however worthy an accomplishment it might be to have both needed and luxurious things in existing cities. He was aware that what was most important about human life had not yet even been discussed in the city in speech. In the classical sense of the term, the “liberal arts” have to do with these things that exist in the midst of or beyond abundance. This does not deny that the intellectual and productive efforts to make this abundance come to pass – the free market, the rules of justice and law, the value of work – were also, in their own ways, freeing and noble ones.
III. THE LIBERAL ARTS TRADITION AS HANDED DOWN.
“Liberal arts” have a history. The Greek and Roman experiences are and remain in some sense normative. To be free, we must carefully continue to study them. That is, the attentive reading of the Greek and Roman philosophical, literary, historical, and political traditions begins and continues a reflection into the heart of things that cannot be duplicated as easily or as elegantly by any other tradition. This is, in large part, because this tradition did not think, however proud it was to be Greek or Roman, that it was not addressing mankind as such. Metaphysics was not “Greek” metaphysics, but “metaphysics.” The principles of “oratory” were not Roman, but universal.
Moreover, not only is this tradition worthy in itself; but it becomes doubly worthy because of the subsequent traditions that themselves read this initial source and commented on it, rewrote it, even objected to it. It was not an accident that Cicero, as he tells us in his De Officiis. sent his son, however unworthy, to Athens to study. Nor was it an accident that Augustine, as he tells us in The Confessions, decided, as a brash young man, to become a philosopher because of a now lost Ciceronian dialogue. Likewise it is not surprising that Augustine’s major work is entitled The City of God, both because two Psalms speak of such a city (#46, #87) and because Plato wrote The Republic. We cannot read Augustine without, at the same time, reading the Greeks, the Romans, the Hebrews, and the Christians. Augustine was a man of “liberal learning,” who even wrote a dialogue featuring his own son entitled, De Magistro, “On the Teacher.” Augustine still teaches us, if we but let him.
One of the men most responsible for what is known in the United States as “great books programs,” themselves designed as efforts to “save” liberal education, was Mortimer Adler.7 “Liberal arts are traditionally intended to develop the faculties of the human mind, those powers of intelligence and imagination without which no intellectual work can be accomplished,” Adler has written..
Liberal education is not tied to certain academic subjects, such as philosophy, history, literature, music, art and other so-called “humanities.” In the liberal-arts tradition, scientific disciplines, such as mathematics and physics, are considered equally liberal, that is, equally able to develop the powers of the mind. The liberal-arts tradition goes back to the medieval curriculum. It consisted in two parts. The first part, trivium, comprised grammar, rhetoric, and logic. It taught the arts of reading and writing, of listening and speaking, and of sound thinking. The other part, the quadrivium, consisted of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music (not audible music, but music conceived as a mathematical science). It taught the arts of observation, calculation, and measurement, how to apprehend the quantitative aspect of things. Nowadays, of course, we would add many more sciences, natural and social. This is just what has been done in the various modern attempts to renew liberal education.8
These medieval programs were called “trivium” and “quadrivium,” that is, they indicated the place where three (tres viae) ways or roads or four (quatro viae) roads of knowledge preparation crossed in the same person. The quadrivium, in particular, had to do with numbers – arithmetic meant “number in itself,” geometry met “number in space,” music meant “number in time,” and astronomy meant “number in space and time.”9 Without preparation in such disciplines, we lack the intellectual tools to understand the world. They were each worthy of study in itself, but once acquired, the student was “free” to stand before all things as a whole, both to know and to act. Hence the notion associated with “liberal arts” was “universal” or “general.”
IV. THE PLEASURE OF LEARNING. AND THE UNEDUCATED MAN.
In order to be a complete human being, there were things worth doing and knowing. Man was an animal who freely needed to complete himself to be what he was intended to be. But this “self-completion” was not considered to be, though it could be, an act of pride or autonomy, that is, an act that made man the cause of the distinction in things. The fact that man had to “complete” himself to be what he was intended to be was itself a challenge in one’s own soul. It was a deference to one’s own initiative and freedom.
Education, moreover, was itself not a “thing.” The word educere meant to bring forth, or to complete something already begun by the very fact that one is a human being. We do not “make ourselves” to be human beings, as Aristotle constantly affirmed, though we do make ourselves to be good or bad human beings, complete or incomplete human beings. Yet, the freedom to become bad or evil is itself a kind of slavery since it deflects us from our proper end. This is why the path to freedom has in this classical tradition always been pictured as one of acquiring virtues and avoiding corresponding vices.
But the human mind itself had its own proper functioning. It was something capax omnium, something capable of knowing all the things it did not itself make or create. Aristotle had remarked that there is a proper pleasure attached to every human activity, including the activity of thinking, of knowing, as well as of willing, doing, and making. It would not be wrong, thus, to describe “liberal education” as the effort to experience the proper pleasure due to knowing, according to what they are, all the things that are – seeing, tasting, listening, touching, smelling, remembering, imagining, knowing, thinking, believing. “To be learning something is the greatest of pleasures,” Aristotle remarked in a surprisingly open phrase, “not only to the philosopher but to the rest of mankind, however small their capacity” (148b13-15). But since we can choose disorder, since we can reject the kind of being we ought to be, it is quite possible to be illiberally educated; indeed it is possible to acquire vices instead of virtues while knowing what both are. What would someone who does not acquire the proper formation of his soul look like?
We are fortunate to have three classical descriptions, without citing, in addiction, Horace’s famous description of the bore. Let me cite two portrayals – one from Plato, one from the English novelist Evelyn Waugh. In each of these description, we find pictured a man who can certainly read and write, who is active in public, and who, no doubt, thinks he is properly educated. But in each description, it is clear that the person so described lacks the very order of soul and mind that would enable us to call him “free” and judicious in his relation to the highest things.
In the eighth book of The Republic, Plato describes the soul of the democratic man, the man who is “free,” that is, the man with no order of principle in his soul. What is his day like? And why? How does he appear before others? This is Plato’s description.
“And he doesn’t admit any word of truth into the guardhouse (of his soul), for if someone tells him that some pleasures belong to the fine and good desires and others to evil ones and that he must pursue and value the former and restrain and enslave the latter, he denies all this and declares that all pleasures are equal and must be valued equally.”
(Adeimantus) “That is just what someone in that condition would say.”
“And so he lives on, yielding day by day to the desire at hand. Sometimes he drinks heavily while listening to the flute; at other times, he drinks only water and is on a diet; sometimes he goes in for physical training; at other times, he’s idle and neglects everything; and sometimes he even occupies himself with what he takes to be philosophy. He often engages in politics, leaping up from his seat and saying and doing whatever comes into his mind. If he happens to admire soldiers, he’s carried in that direction, if money-making, in that one. There’s neither order nor necessity in his life, but he calls it pleasant, free, and blessedly happy, and he follows it for as long as he lives” (561b-d).
It would be difficult to find a more blunt description of what a liberal education is not. Such is the man who thinks his life to be pleasant and free when it is, by any objective evaluation, just the opposite.
Each point of the young man’s disordered soul needs emphasizing: on occasion he jogs to keep in shape. Next, however, he is found with a beer lounging around mostly watching TV. One day, after seeing or hearing one, he desires to be a banker, the following day a soldier, the day after even a philosopher. He drinks heavily, then goes on a diet and drinks only water. He denies himself no pleasure, considers all pleasures equal whether they follow good or bad actions. In short, the man has no principle of order in his soul, no way to distinguish worthy and unworthy ways of life. Such a person is very dangerous both to himself and to his polity precisely because his soul is disordered by a lack of discipline and knowledge about what human life is about. Plato never tired of reminding the potential philosopher that the condition of his city ultimately depended on the condition of his soul. No political reform could ever be successful without personal reform. No one who did not understand this relationship could be “liberally” educated.
Aristotle has a similar description in the Politics (1323a26-34) of a man whom no one would want to be if he could help it. One of the prime purposes of good literature is to enable us to encounter vicariously what disordered souls might look like before we ever decide to put them into our own lives, when it is too late. Again, because of lack of virtue, the man in Aristotle’s graphic description is unable to do what he ought. And while Aristotle does not think virtue is a question of knowledge alone, still there is a knowledge component to virtue. That component is called prudence. Without this virtue, without the examination of the possible ends to which it might possibly be employed to examine the means to achieve it, the soul is continually engaged in pursuing false definitions of its own happiness and taking the wrong means to achieve it.
The man with a faulty understanding of what a liberally educated man is, is not free to do what he ought to do because, like Plato’s democratic youth, he does what he wants, whatever it is. He denies himself no pleasure and refuses to acknowledge any distinction between good and bad not of his own making. Thereby he is “free” even to do what is wrong and call it virtuous. This position already anticipates the “freedom” of Machiavelli’s prince, the apparently exhilarating but corrupting freedom to do wrong, when “necessary,” the freedom to reject Socrates’ principle that “it is never right to do wrong.”
The second passage I should like to cite in this consideration of what no one would want to be, of how one’s faulty education will not really free him or teach him the truth of things, including human things, comes from Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited. In the early part of World War II, Waugh had occasion to comment on the type of modern young man who comes into the army. He is clearly a young man of modern education and taste, a worthy successor to the men described by Plato and Aristotle. This young man’s name is Hooper.
Hooper was no romantic. He had not as a child ridden with Rupert’s horse or sat among the camp fires at Xanthus-side; at the age when my eyes were dry to all save poetry – that stoic, red-skin interlude which our schools introduce between the fast flowing tears of the child and the man – Hooper had wept often, but never for Henry’s speech on St. Crispin’s Day, nor for the epitaph at Thermopylae. The history they taught him had had few battles in it but, instead, a profusion of detail about humane legislation and recent industrial change. Gallipoli, Balaclava, Quebec, Lepanto, Bannockburn, Roncevales, and Marathon – these, and the Battle of the West where Arthur fell, and a hundred such names whose trumpet-notes, even now in my sere and lawless state, called to me irresistibly across the intervening years with all the clarity and strength of boyhood, sounded in vain to Hooper.10
Hooper evidently had a social science education, heavy on statistics and “facts.” He did not know of the great events of history that ought to have filled his boyhood imagination. He was not liberally educated. He was not free.
In book four of Aristotle’s Ethics, the word “liberal” initially had to do with material possessions. Aristotle saw that man, to be virtuous, needed a certain amount of material goods. He also understood that we reveal our souls by how we deal with the material goods, large or small, that we do have. The Greek word elutheria referred to that virtue by which we rule our material goods so that we can achieve our higher purposes by their proper use. The word is sometimes translated as “generosity” or “liberality.” It has two aspects, the person with ordinary wealth and the person with immense wealth. Aristotle was not particularly worried that some people had more wealth than others. Rather he was concerned with how our wealth, whether little or great, was used. Liberality or generosity is a virtue precisely because it is designed to free us from ourselves to see that what we possess is also related to others not just for their good but for their enjoyment.
“Freedom to welcome truth, without hindrance on the part of our mind, certainly is a rare privilege,” Yves Simon has written in a perceptive essay entitled, “Freedom from the Self.”
That human freedom should be restricted in this high order of the mind’s relation to truth is a moral and metaphysical disaster of the first magnitude. Knowing is the creature’s best chance to overcome the law of nonbeing, the wretchedness inflicted upon it by the real diversity of “that which is” and “to be.” A thing which is not God cannot be except at the cost of not being what it is not. It cannot be except by being deprived of indefinitely many forms and perfections. To this situation, knowledge, according to St. Thomas’ words, is a remedy, inasmuch as every knowing subjected is able to have, over and above its own form, the forms of other things. This remedy is, so to say, complete in the case of intellectual knowledge, for intelligent beings can have the forms of all things and be all things spiritually, intentionally, transsubjectively, objectively,11
Freedom from the self is first required that we might have a freedom for others, a freedom to know what is.
We cannot be the kind of being we are unless we are not other things. Thus, it is all right to be what we are. Yet, what we are contains this mind with its capax omnium, with its capacity to know all that is. It is this exciting freedom to take into our souls what we are not, to take it in without changing or destroying what we take in, that constitutes the purpose of liberal arts which are designed to teach us how to be open to the various levels of being.12
V. THE WAYS OF UNDERSTANDING LIBERAL ARTS.
Robert Kagan has traced the various understandings given to the term liberal arts or a liberal education. Generally, the term included the ideas 1) that knowledge was its own purpose, an end in itself, that it was good to know, 2) that liberty meant having the virtues whereby we could rule ourselves, 3) that knowledge included something useful, some worthy way of making one’s way in the world, and 4) that this liberal learning had a political component, the ideal of living in a free society, of participating in ruling and being ruled.13 The Roman notion of education was more practically oriented than the Greek classical view. The Romans stressed the capacity of speech, of eloquence. Aristotle had said in his Rhetoric that a man should be as able to defend himself with his speech as with his arms.
The medieval university, having newly discovered Aristotle and being familiar with revelation and the classic heritage through the Fathers of the Church, considered that a liberal education dealt with already discovered things. The source of truth was God, both as known by reason and by revelation. Logic and dialectic studies seemed the best way to prepare oneself for grasping what is known. The medieval summae and curricula, while not neglecting practical things, attempted to organize all of what men knew into one orderly, interrelated whole.14 The Renaissance notion of a liberal education was in part an effort to return to the classics minus the addenda of revelation while minimizing the Greek notion of the contemplative life. There was a revival of the notion of the primacy of the city and its demands. The focus again became “this worldly.” More particularly modern education was interested in what was not yet known. The “scientific methods” stressed not what was revealed or what was previously learned or even what was useful for the city, but “new things.” With the spread of “scientific method” into all disciplines, including the liberal ones, with its implication of “progress,” it was again proposed that the secret to general education was at hand.
The modern university is “liberal” in the sense that it does not have any principle of priority. No department or branch of knowledge seems to have any priority over the other. Each discipline has in common only what each discipline maintains about itself. In this context, it becomes almost impossible to have a “liberal education” in the classical sense. Not merely do the great books seem to contradict each other, but so do the “truths” that are found in the disciplines.15 The primacy of relativism as the ground for democratic education seems to flow from the condition of modern knowledge, as it flowed from Aristotle’s notion that “democracy” was based on that understanding of liberty that had no order other than that of its own choosing. Universities are perhaps useful as a place for preparation especially of elite students who will, by a kind of aristocratic heritage, gain control of certain professions and offices in the economy and in politics. But whether there is in fact a genuine place of “liberal education” can be doubted in the present context. Not merely are the classics and revelation considered to be inadmissable as norms or canons for the education of all, but the sciences themselves never know what they might be in the future. The conclusion of this observation is not that there is no place for liberal learning, but that its place may not always, or even usually, be found in usual academic institutions.16
VI. THE PLACE OF ERROR IN LIBERAL EDUCATION.
We are, of course, reluctant to admit that the case for “liberal education,” for “liberal arts,” for the things that free us from slavery to the self, from contentment with merely the useful is hopeless. Liberal education is not a “speciality.” It is not what is called a “major.” Rather it is rooted in the kind of intellectual eros that we find in Plato, in the “wonder” that begins all thought in Aristotle, in the drive to know what reoriented the life of the young Augustine when he read Cicero. This eros lies behind all we do, since all things are worth knowing. “There is no such thing as an uninteresting subject,” Chesterton once remarked, “but only uninterested people.” Jacques Maritain put the issue bluntly: “Great poets and thinkers are the foster-fathers of intelligence. Cut off from them, we are simply barbarians.”17 That we be not barbarians, that we be not cut off from great poets and thinkers is what we mean by being “free” because we know the things that are. The liberal arts have something to do both with solitude and with the city. Cicero began the third part of his famous De Officiis (On Duties), with these memorable words: “Publius Cornelius Scipio, the first of the family to be called Africanus, used to remark that he was never less idle tan when he had nothing to do, and never less lonely than when he was by himself.”18 We can likewise almost feel the draw of the city in this passage from Boswell. He and Samuel Johnson had stayed overnight at St. Albans. The following day, March 29, 1776, Boswell writes, “I enjoyed the luxury of our approach to London, that metropolis which we both loved so much, for the high and varied intellectual pleasure which it furnishes.”19 Again here we have that classic theme that there are genuine intellectual pleasures, that they are to be found in cities, without forgetting the fact that cities also kill philosophers and others of its own. One might almost say, in this context, that the reading
and rereading of Cicero and of Boswell’s Life of Johnson can by itself be considered a liberal education. There is more, but these are good beginnings, indeed good endings of such an enterprise. Great thinkers, no doubt, can be and have been in error. Aristotle, who knew Plato’s worry that the poets could corrupt us, understood that the knowledge of error, even great error, is not something that we should reject knowing. It is part of being free. “We must, however, not only state the true view,” Aristotle observed, “but also explain the false views, since an explanation of that promotes confidence. For when we have an apparently reasonable explanation of why a false view appears true, that makes us more confident of the true view.” (Ethics, 1154a23-26). The history of error, the history of heresy, (I think of Chesterton’s Heretics), is as much a part of liberal education as the insight into truth. A considerable part of being intelligent and being virtuous consists in knowing what it is to be unintelligent and un-virtuous, especially knowing in the graphic terms we see these in our literature.
Unless we can understand the arguments against truth, we do not fully understand it. And the arguments against truth can be very persuasive. Part of any liberal education is to know these arguments, and to know the truths to which they point. Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, himself a man of genteel and liberal leaning, gave a good example of this awareness of how it is a part of being free to know where ideas lead. “The central problem of our time,” he observed on October 6, 2001, at the Synod of Bishops in Rome, “is the emptying-out of the historical figure of Jesus. It begins with denying the virgin birth, then the resurrection becomes a spiritual event, then Christ’s awareness of being the Son of God is denied, leaving Him only the words of a rabbi. Then the Eucharist falls, and becomes just a farewell dinner.” We are reassured to see the connection of ideas and things, itself the result of our being free, being open to what is..
John Henry Newman, whose book The Idea of a University stands at the heart of any modern discussion of this topic, made this point about the difference between liberal education and salvation.20 Newman held that no matter how valuable natural virtues are, they do not, significant in themselves though they be, guarantee supernatural excellence. The gentleman, while perhaps being exquisitely refined, can still lose is soul.21 This is just another way of saying that man has a destiny higher than perfection in this world. Indeed, it implies that perfection even in this world is not complete without attention to his ultimate purpose. Any education can stop short of this higher purpose, but it does so at the cost of what is true at any level wherein something, in being itself, always points us higher.
Aristotle had indeed given many hints that something more was “due” to human nature than seemed given to it, though he was not quite sure what it was. “Such a (contemplative) life would be superior to the human level. For someone will live it not in so far as he is a human being, but in so far as he has some divine element in him.” (Ethics, 1177b27-28). This passage suggests why it may be “illiberal” not to include all that we can know of man in our “freeing” education of him. The best “natural” explanations of our condition as human beings seems to be aware that we are lacking something, not merely because of a certain “wickedness” of which even Aristotle was aware, but because nothing we find in our ordinary ways seems to satisfy us (Politics, 1267b1). This again is Augustine’s realism.22
Education that does not include explanations and understandings of what we are will rely on an education that lacks the necessary intellectual tools and information fully to explain man to himself. To explain man to himself is the central purpose of any liberal understanding of man. It is also, as John Paul II often says, the purpose of Christianity. Christian literature presupposes certain unanswered, often brilliant questions that had already occurred to the human mind before Christianity itself came into being. The liberally educated man knows these classic questions as they arise in any soul, including his own. A liberally educated Christian cannot understand his own revelation if he too does not know the force of these classic questions.
In conclusion, liberal arts include the intellectual eros that is unsettled by not knowing what is true. If we read descriptions of this philosophic eros along side the revelational proposition that homo non proprie humanus sed superhumanus est, we can at least suspect that this unsettlement that we find in human history is itself something put there from the beginning.23 To be free, that is, to be “liberally educated,” to practice the truly “liberal arts” is to be open to something that is not ourselves, or not made by ourselves. Mankind is more a drama of receptivity than it is of its own creativity in cities and in arts.
The final word, I think, should be that of Aristotle, the man who made us most aware that there is an order in things. “For self-sufficiency and action do not depend on excess,” he wrote in the Ethics, “and we can do fine actions even if we do not rule earth and sea; for even from moderate circumstances we can do the actions expressing virtue.” (Ethics, 1179a2-6). We do not have to rule the land and the sea to do fine actions. Ordinary people can do actions that express virtue, they can know what is. The revelational side of this same principle is simply that everyone, king or pauper, can, with grace, save his own soul. If we combine these two principles, we have the essence of what it is to be free, free both to know what the world is like and what is our destiny. We can, to be sure, choose to be “illiberal,” to be “slaves” to ourselves, mindlessly to say whatever it is that comes into our heads. What it is to be “illiberal,” in short, points us to “liberal arts,” to what it is to be free enough to know the truth of things and to find pleasure in this truth.
17Jacques Maritain, “Education and the Humanities,” The Education of Man: The Educational Philosophy of Jacques Maritain, Edited by Donald and Idella Gallagher (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1962), 85.