The Liberal Arts
The liberal arts are often said to be essential to the cultivation of critical judgment and independence of mind. They are widely considered to be indispensable in a “well-rounded” education. But just what are they? Are they the humanities? The classics?
Today, the term “liberal arts” has come to signify something general, such as “humane studies” or “general education.” But in the educational tradition of the West, the liberal arts are seven introductory disciplines which prepare the student for the more profound subjects, those that constitute the heart of a liberal education. They are the trivium and the quadrivium — “the three ways” and “the four ways” — by which the mind acquires the qualities needed to pursue well the highest matters.
The Trivium: Grammar • Logic • Rhetoric
The Quadrivium: Geometry • Arithmetic • Astronomy • Music
The liberal arts are not the only or even the most important part of liberal education, but they are fundamental to it. Only thinking which is disciplined, vigorous, and animated by wonder produces knowledge and wisdom.
The liberal arts are, therefore, first in the order of learning at Thomas Aquinas College. The curriculum begins with the study of logic and grammar; astronomy and music are year-long tutorials. Daily practice in reading, translation, mathematical demonstration, and argument helps students form habits of critical thought, analysis, and discourse which prepares them to engage in higher studies and will stay with them throughout their lives.
Although the term “science” is often thought to apply narrowly to the natural sciences, it pertains, in its broader sense, to any systematically arranged branch of knowledge. The Thomas Aquinas College curriculum therefore rightly regards philosophy and theology as sciences — indeed, the greatest of the sciences, with theology as the queen — because they systematically arrange the highest sorts of knowledge, those of wisdom and of God Himself.
Philosophy is divided broadly into speculative and practical or moral philosophy. Speculative philosophy is interested in nature and its causes. Moral philosophy, on the other hand, is concerned with right reason as it applies to our active life, that is, as it regulates the life of the passions and appetites which move us. With the liberal arts as their tools and with Aristotle — “The Philosopher,” as St. Thomas called him — as their guide, students at Thomas Aquinas College study philosophy in all four years of the program.
The highest philosophy is the study of being itself and of the Supreme Being; in this science reason explores, among other things, what can be known naturally about God. As St. Thomas observed, “almost all of philosophy is directed toward the knowledge of God, and that is why metaphysics, which deals with divine things, is the last part of philosophy to be learned.” This “natural theology” leads, in turn, to the science of theology, which proceeds in a rational way from revealed principles and illuminates the mind about the truths of Faith. Thus, the entire curriculum at Thomas Aquinas College is ordered to theology, and in a special way to the works of the Church’s “Universal Doctor," St. Thomas Aquinas. Similarly, all of St. Thomas’ theology aims ultimately at the highest object of contemplation, the Holy Trinity, the study of which is among the last to be taken up by students at the College.