The New International Encyclopædia/Arts, Liberal

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Edition of 1905.  See also Liberal arts on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

ARTS, Liberal, or Seven Liberal. The distinction between the liberal arts and the practical arts on the one hand, and philosophy on the other, originates in Greek education and philosophy. In the Republic (Bk. xi.) of Plato, and the Politics (viii. 1) of Aristotle, the ‘liberal arts’ are those subjects that are suitable for the development of intellectual and moral excellence, as distinguished from those that are merely useful or practical. The distinction was always made, by the Greek theorists, between music, literature in the form of grammar and rhetoric, and the mathematical studies, and that higher aspect of the liberal discipline termed philosophy. Philosophy was sometimes called the liberal art par excellence. Philo of Judæa, in his attempt to harmonize Hebrew religious literature and Greek philosophy by allegorical interpretation, takes this relationship of the arts and philosophy as the meaning of the union of Abraham with Hagar and Sarah, the former typifying the liberal arts, the latter typifying philosophy. No definite number was ever assigned to the liberal arts by the Greeks, though the distinction later indicated by the terms trivium and quadrivium is clearly drawn in the Republic of Plato. Varro (B.C. 116-28) reproduces the distinction and the substance of the various ‘liberal arts’ for the Romans, though he includes medicine and architecture, both practical subjects, excluded alike by Greek and by Mediæval thought. Quintilian (A.D. 35-95) discusses five arts, grammar, rhetoric, music, geometry, and astronomy; but with the subdivision of the first and fourth, there would be added dialectic and arithmetic. By the Fifth Century the number of arts is definitely recognized as seven, both by the churchman Augustine and the pagan Martianus Capella. Cassiodorus, in the Sixth Century, applies the term quadrivium to arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy; probably before that time the term trivium had been applied to grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, to indicate the trinity of the subject rather than simply their elementary character. By the time of Alcuin, in the Eighth Century, a sacred significance is attached to the number seven, and the Church appropriates this organization of human or pagan learning, to which at first it had been extremely hostile. Throughout the Middle Ages the ‘seven arts,’ as combined into the trivium and quadrivium, represent the sum of human learning. Dante, in his Il convito (Bk. II.), identifies them with the seven planetary circles of the heavens, and discovers in each planet the characteristic excellence of the appropriate study. The ‘Seven Liberal Arts’ formed the curriculum of the early universities, and their mastery entitled one to the degree of bachelor, or master ‘in arts.’ For the greater portion of the Middle Ages philosophy had simply been the inclusive term, but with the development of the universities it was recognized as a higher discipline. The Renaissance broke down even this limitation, and hereafter knowledge was no longer confined to these definite and narrow limits. For a survey of the significance of the term liberal arts, consult: Aristotle and Ancient Educational Ideals (New York, 1807); and also an article on which this is based, by A. F. West, Princeton College Bulletin (1890). See Degree; Diploma; University; Philosophy.