The “Noble” Art of Learning

Today’s blog was guest written by CPLS Rhetoric School Faculty, Trent Leach.

The term “liberal arts” is often mischaracterized, misunderstood, and misapplied in our culture. This is unfortunate for various reasons, not the least of which is that a “liberal arts” education was once considered the height of learning. Today the liberal arts are associated with a vast array of electives studying useless topics that leave the student without any marketable skills. And given what many “liberal arts” schools teach, this reputation is not undeserved. But it has not always been this way and when schools like CPLS use the “liberal arts” it is in a much older, deeper sense.

To understand why, we must first begin with the notion of an “art” itself, since “liberal arts” implies there are different kinds. Broadly speaking, an art is “a carefully reasoned out knowledge of how to produce something.” It involves both the theoretical knowledge of the process and the experiential knowledge of how to produce the art. So the “art of ship-building” produces ships; the “art of shepherding” produces healthy sheep; the “art of governing” produces a just society, etc. This can also be understood when compared with a “science” which is “a body of knowledge reasoned out from self-evident first principles.” An art aims at producing something, a science aims at knowledge as such.

From this, we can also distinguish three kinds of “arts” defined by the different kinds of things they aim to produce. First, we have what are called the “servile arts” or sometimes the “mechanical arts.” These arts are defined as those activities which produce some “useful.” So, for example, carpentry is a “servile art” because it producing furniture – things used for sitting, sleeping, storing, etc. in a home. So too would medicine fall into this category. The “art of medicine” aims at producing a healthy (useful) body. Many parents, teachers, students, and schools will reduce all education to this category: “How will the student be able to use this?” Such a question assumes that all education falls into the category of “servile” arts and, as we see below, ignores the fundamental nature of what it means to be human.

The second category of arts are called the “fine arts.” These arts, by definition, do not producing anything “useful.” Rather, the fine arts aim at the pleasant. They produce things (paintings, symphonies, films, etc.) that aim at our encounter with beauty. They are not useful in any strict sense, but appeal to our intellectual nature as objects of contemplation and joy. These are the arts that make life worth living. If all we had were the servile arts, our lives would be deprived of beauty and joy; instead, living lives of mere animals. Consider the difference between an office building and a gothic cathedral. Which would you rather spend time in?

This leaves us with the third kind of art, the “liberal art.” If servile arts aim at the useful, and fine arts aim at the pleasant, to what do the liberal arts aim? They aim at that which is noble; that which is related to human dignity. These arts do not produce any object outside the artisan (like a painting or a chair), but rather produce persons. Human beings are creatures who have the unique ability to think and to reason, and so these arts aim at cultivating our very humanity. They are what enable us to know. They are not meant to make us good citizens, or help us get a job, or help us learn a trade. Their primary purpose is to make us more fully human, more fully attentive to God and the things of God. They are called “liberal” because they liberate a person to direct his own mind and self, thus “freeing” us to know for ourselves and from unthinkingly following opinion. A person who cannot know and think for themselves, is at the mercy of those who can.

Thus, when we speak of the “noble art of learning,” we are hearkening back to a time when education was seen as the deep cultivation of the human mind. The human mind that is directed towards knowledge. The highest object of knowledge, the highest thing that can be known, is God Himself. Thus, all classical learning is ultimately aimed at knowing God. This is the true end of all education and should, therefore, be the true object of all “liberal arts” schools.