Jacob Klein on the Liberal Arts

“Arts Libéraux,” Hortus deliciarum (c. 1180)†

Jacob Klein (1899–1978)*

The quaternity of the original liberal arts — Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, Astronomy [the Quadrivium] — is characterized by the immensely fascinating fact that their content can be understood and therefore learned and therefore known. The Greek word that embodies these three meanings is mathēma, the learnable. Thus the traditional liberal arts are originally “mathematical,” that is, understandable, learnable, and knowable….

And we know that Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic [the Trivium] were added to the list, the emphasis shifting gradually from the quaternity of the mathematical arts to these trivial supplements. Why this shift? The answer is: The ultimate foundations of the original four … liberal arts remained doubtful, becoming the concern of a deeper investigation, the subject matter of philosophical reflection. The pursuit of truth in these arts, through which the freedom of man was meant to find its integrity, seemed to become truncated and encroached upon by definitions and hypotheses which lacked certainty and persuasiveness and put limits to our understanding. This could not be said of the trivial arts. It can be said, however, that integral knowledge was not achievable in any of the seven arts. That is why it is proper that they preserved the name of “arts” (technai) in contradistinction to “knowledges” (scientiae, epistēmai). Philosophical wisdom was meant to supply what they were lacking. And, whatever else may be said about liberal education, we are justified in setting down as a first rule that liberal education requires — for the learner as well as for the teacher — the practice of philosophical reflection and the awareness of its guiding role.


* “On Liberal Education” (1965), Lectures and Essays (St. John’s College Press).
† See full image and explanatory details.

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