Free Thinking in the Proper Key: on the liberal arts and the humanities I

One of the great problems that besets we moderns is the proliferation of media which amplify the cacophony that is the age of information. The problem is discernment. How is one to tell the virtuous from the vicious, the good from the evil, the refined from the decadent? What is that sure steady canon that allows us to measure all other things, especially when we are talking about items that pertain to the culture? On the one hand, we can certainly see that Holy Church has provided a whole host of means whereby we can judge of these matters. But it must also be admitted that the Church has been in retreat from some of the most vital areas of culture. True, it was not that long ago that we could look to such great Catholic cultural critics as Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, or even in more recent times, Walker Percy. For the Orthodox, however, this problem is rather acute in that we have had no real cultural presence in the West. Let’s face it, when our most well-known Orthodox are George Stephanopoulos, Olympia Snowe, and George Blagojevich,  we’re in deep trouble. Thankfully, however, there are canons of criticism available, though largely indirectly, namely the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. But however relevant Dostoyevsky may be, it is now approaching 150 years since his repose, and much has happened since.

A critical problem, especially here in America, is that the culture at large has left the trail of what was termed the liberal arts, or sometimes thought of as the humanities. They are not synonymous, even though it is a truism that a humanist is one trained in the liberal arts. I first must say that what I mean by a humanist is not some modern secularist who likes to read Bertrand Russell or Isaac Asimov (though I really don’t even know that many moderns who read them). Instead a humanist is someone trained in the liberal arts (to be defined momentarily), who sees it a duty to be versed in the great literature and thought of the past, and who uses these as the means whereby to test what is now proffered as literature, philosophy, and cultured opinion.

I have given this some more thought in the last few days in that a former student stopped by my office the other day to ask me some questions with regard to a project for his Master’s degree. We will call this student Dan. Dan is an arduous fellow, now married with his first child just arrived. I can see the change in him (for the good) already. His questions revolved around the whole idea of the value of a liberal arts education, an education in the humanities.

Now, to cut to the chase on the difference between the liberal arts and the humanities: someone studies the liberal arts so that they can take up the whole field of the humanities (art, literature, music, history, ethics, philosophy, mathematics, philology). In the liberal arts one acquires a set of aptitudes or skills. The basic and most fundamental of these is study in how language functions and works, namely the study of grammar, i.e., learning to read and write. The second of these, logic, in brief, is the study of the use of evidence, the structure of reality, and the relationship of categories of thought to the constitution of the universe. Lastly is the study of rhetoric. Rhetoric, in its trite definition and use today, is linked to political propaganda (e.g., Republican or Democrat rhetoric), and as such is completely devoid of any of its earlier significance and would actually be closer to what the Greeks would have called sophistry. Rhetoric for Plato’s Athens, or Cicero’s Rome, or Leonardo Bruni’s Florence was the proper arrangement of facts, graced by eloquence, that moved individuals to the good. As such, it is more than the fruit of grammar and logic, but, if you would, the grammar of moral discourse.

The father of Renaissance humanism, the fourteenth-century literary vagabond Petrarch, complained about the status that Aristotle had obtained in his day. His criticism of Aristotle is a telling matter. All too often the Renaissance has been seen as a break with its medieval, scholastic past, the past of St. Thomas and St. Francis. This state of thought has arisen from the enormous influence of both Jakob Burckhardt (who thought it a great thing) and Johan Huizinga (who thought it not so good). Both scholars had a point, and it is not mine to argue with them here, but to note instead that for Petrarch, his disdain of Aristotle really had nothing to do with The Philosopher’s influence on St. Thomas, or the use of his logic or categories. Far from slighting Aristotle’s thought, or his use by St. Thomas, et al., Petrarch’s sought instead to revive a literary eloquence he saw lost to his world. Indeed, it was Petrarch who coined the term “middle age” for that ere that separated him from the world of classical eloquence, the world of Cicero and St. Augustine.  No, his grievance with Aristotle, as stated in his wonderful treatise On my own Ignorance and that of Others, is that Aristotle’s works are unadorned. Petrarch preferred Cicero, and not really because he preferred the Roman orator’s philosophy (a mix of Stoicism and the skepticism of the later Academy), but because Cicero’s works moved us to the good, while Aristotle’s works’ lack of eloquence could only tell us what it is.

And this gets to the rub of why the liberal arts, and why study the humanities. The liberal arts, as their name implies, are those skills befitting the free mind, the proper domain and arete of the free citizen within a free polity. This was for years the basic underlying notion of what it was to live in a republic, however constituted: that the citizen needed the tools for self-government. The skills of the guilds, whether masonry, weaving, or those of the cobbler, were necessary for the preservation of the body, and were as such designated the servile arts, for these served specific, defined ends, and these definitions bound them to specific mundane purposes. The free or liberal arts, however, liberated the mind for the great and necessary work of contemplation. A tyranny needs but the servile arts from its subjects to exist; it needs to quash the liberal arts, however.

Without the grounding of the liberal arts we are left without a moral compass, bereft of the tools that can lead us out of the tripe that passes among we moderns for either literature or art, and leaves us wholly unprepared for the sophistry of those who assert their right and prerogative to think for us, since we cannot (or better put, will not) think for ourselves.

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About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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3 Responses to Free Thinking in the Proper Key: on the liberal arts and the humanities I

  1. Fr Tim says:

    Bravo! Sadly, the liberal arts are being quashed and sophistry is now the tyranny which rules the majority.

  2. I applaud you for speaking the truth. At the college where I teach there are fewer humanities courses offered every year. Students are prepared for professions such as equestrian management, business, nursing and education, but they cannot think critically and have no metaphysical grounding whereby to intergrate learning. Have you read Dorothy Sayer’s Lost Tools of Learning? She predicted this deterioration in education in 1947.

  3. Cyril says:

    Dear Dr. Linsley, thank you for your comments. I first read Sayer’s essay some 25 years ago, and while i have not reread it in some time (and I indeed should), it has stuck with me. There are times I feel myself in empathy with Boethius and Cassiodorus: I think that our modern barbarians, however, are neither as cultural aspiring nor really as civilized, ironically, as Theodoric the Goth.

    And I applaud you as well on your work on Genesis. Have you read much of the late Arthur Custance? There is much in him with which I would disagree, but he first got me thinking in different categories.

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