From around 500BC, Liberal Arts education began to take shape in Ancient Greece. To begin with, Pythagoras argued that there was a mathematical and geometrical harmony to the cosmos or the universe (Pythagoras spent many years in Egypt, and may have got many of his ideas from Egyptian mathematics, cosmology and philosophy).
Pythagoras argued that mathematics and the beauty of number, ratio and proportion were the first principles of everything in existence. His followers linked the four arts of astronomy, mathematics, geometry and music into one are of study called the Quadrivium. The study of number in particular was thought to purify the soul by putting it in mathematical harmony with the universe. Here the microcosm – the human soul – was at one with the macrocosm – the cosmos. Plato put the mathematical sciences at the heart of his design for the new Republic.
In 4th century Athens, the government of the polis, or city-state, respected the ability of rhetoric or public speaking above almost everything else. The Sophists claimed to be able to teach rhetorical skills to those who could pay them, and a science of oratory began to develop. Success required knowledge of grammar and dialectic; grammar in order to produce eloquence, and dialectic in order to make one’s arguments powerful enough to win debates. In time, rhetoric, grammar and dialectic became the educational programme of the Trivium. Until the European Renaissance, the trivium and the quadrivium were the foundation of Western education.
Hugh of St. Victor said (c. 1130s), ‘grammar is the knowledge of how to speak without error; dialectic is the clear-sighted argument which separates the true from the false; rhetoric is the discipline of persuading to every suitable thing.’
In this mnemonic about the seven liberal arts, grammar has priority over the others:
Gram loquitur; Dia vera docet; Rhet verba colorat;
Mus canit; Ar numerat; Ge ponderat; Asti colit astra.
Grammar speaks; dialectic teaches truth; rhetoric adorns words;
Music sings; arithmetic counts; geometry measures; astronomy studies stars.
The picture (left) (Hortus deliciarum [Garden of Delights] of Herrad von Landsberg) is part of a 12th century illustrated manuscript showing the seven liberal arts of the Trivium and Quadrivium circled around Socrates and Plato and Philosophy. This shows that the seven liberal arts were bound together by a philosophical approach to discovering the first principles of the universe and mankind. This philosophical approach is at the heart of our own programme of Modern Liberal Arts.
In the Middle Ages Liberal Arts became the melting pot for Pagan, Judaic, Christian and Islamic intellectual tolerance in the centuries before the European Renaissance. But by the 14th century the spirit of Liberal Arts had been lost to the letter of the prescriptive instrumentalism of Scholastic compendia. These were opposed in the Renaissance by Petrarch and others, and a new humanistic form of Liberal Arts emerged which included the whole range of the arts. The Trivium and Quadrivium became less central to Liberal Arts over the next few hundred years, to be replaced by different models of Liberal Arts education.