What Do We mean By Liberal Arts?

The Liberal Arts

I went to a “liberal arts” college. What about you? Back then the meaning was muddled to me, if it even meant anything at all. Now today the word liberal is almost strictly associated with political parties. But that was not how things always were. There was a time when the word classically meant “wide ranging” or “broad based.”

The liberal arts actually encompass seven branches of knowledge that initiate children into a life of learning. This is one of the things that makes classical education uniquely classical. It is to paint a broad brush stroke and teach children how to think so they can think for themselves. It is to teach children virtue so they will think virtuously and be drawn to virtue. And to teach children wisdom so they will be wise. These things will carry them through wherever life takes them.

When I went to school many children chose to complete high school at an alternative campus. Where they could learn a trade or skill, such as mechanics. The very basics the state required (such as math and english) were covered but the heavy emphasis was on learning a trade. This is what this child was to do and learn and be for the rest of their life. This is in sharp contrast to a liberal arts education.

Some background history on the term “liberal arts” is that it has been taught for thousands of years. This is why it is classical. The classics we learn are God honoring from a Biblical worldview and have stood the test of time.

Still today you will hear the liberal arts being divided into “seven” And within the seven there are two groupings: the trivium and the quadrivium. These concepts date from the Middle Ages.

The Trivium and the Quadrivium

The trivium includes those aspects of the liberal arts that pertain to mind, and the quadrivium, pertains to those aspects of the liberal arts that pertain to matter. Logic, grammar, and rhetoric constitute the trivium; and arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy constitute the quadrivium.


  • Logic is the art of thinking;
  • grammar, the art of inventing symbols and combining them to express thought;
  • and rhetoric, the art of communicating thought from one mind to another, the adaptation of language to circumstance.


  • Arithmetic, the theory of number, and
  • Music, an application of the theory of number (the measurement of discrete quantities in motion), are the arts of discrete quantity or number.
  • Geometry, the theory of space, and
  • Astronomy, an application of the theory of space, are the arts of continuous quantity or extension.

These arts of reading, writing, and reckoning have formed the traditional basis of a liberal education, each constituting both a field of knowledge and the technique to acquire that knowledge.

Perhaps you, like myself, received a BA from the College of Liberal Arts. The degree bachelor of arts is awarded to those who demonstrate the requisite proficiency in these arts, and the degree master of arts, to those who have demonstrated a greater proficiency.


I remember hearing a professor tell me that the best degree to go into law school or medicine was not a specific trade degree (such as one highly specialized in science) but rather a liberal arts degree. Some may argue this but then I heard it again at PE from a Med School Professor. Again, recommending a liberal arts degree. His reasoning was this, “I can teach you science, but I can’t teach you how to properly think.” This is what a liberal arts education prepares you for.

Today, as in centuries past, a mastery of the liberal arts is widely recognized as the best preparation for work in professional schools, such as those of medicine, law, engineering, or theology. Those who first perfect their own mind and way of thinking through a liberal education are thereby better prepared to serve others no matter what capacity they find themselves in.

The utilitarian or servile arts (such as medicine, law, banking, dancing, painting, photography, auto mechanic, etc) enable one to be a servant—of another person, of the state, of a corporation, or of a business—and to earn a living. The liberal arts, in contrast, teach one how to live; they train the faculties and bring them to perfection; they enable a person to rise above his material environment to live an intellectual, a rational, and therefore a free life in gaining truth. Jesus Christ said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). The liberal arts free your mind!

Science and Art

Each of the liberal arts is both a science and an art in the sense that in the essence of each there is something to know (which is science) and something to do (which is an art). An art may be used successfully before one has a formal knowledge of its rules. Take for example, the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric), a child of three may use correct grammar even though the child knows nothing of formal rules of grammar. Similarly, logic and rhetoric may be effectively used by those who have never been trained or schooled in them. It is, however, desirable and beneficial to acquire a clear knowledge of the rules of these and to know why certain forms of expression or thought are right and wrong. We can only become better at what we know and how we think. To some it comes more naturally than others, but we all have room for improvement.

The trivium is the base of all education at all levels because the arts of logic, grammar, and rhetoric are the arts of communication. And all learning and expression is governed by communication– namely, reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Thinking is inherent in these four activities. Reading and listening, for example, although relatively passive,
involve active thinking, for we agree or disagree with what we read or hear.


The trivium is used vitally when it is exercised in reading and composition. It was systematically and intensively exercised in the reading of the Latin classics and in the composition of Latin prose and verse by boys in the grammar schools of England and the continent during the sixteenth century. This was the training that formed the intellectual habits of Shakespeare and other Renaissance writers. If you want to write like Shakespeare or CS Lewis- you need to learn the way they learned! The result of their learning of course appears in their work. The greatest minds of all time were trained by the trivium.

Liberal Arts Education

Education is the highest of arts in the sense that it imposes forms (ideas and ideals) not on matter, as do other arts (for instance carpentry imposes its ideas into wood or sculpture onto clay or stone), but rather on the mind. These forms are received by the student not passively, but through active cooperation. In true liberal education the essential activity of the student is to relate the facts learned into a unified, organic whole, to assimilate them as the body assimilates food and to increase in size, vitality, and beauty.

A learner must use mental hooks and eyes to join the facts together to form a significant whole. This makes learning easier, more interesting, and much more valuable. Some think learning is merely being a parrot and learning facts. Not so. The accumulation of facts is mere information and is not worthy to be called education since it burdens the mind and causes stagnation instead of developing, enlightening, and perfecting it. Even if one forgets many of the facts once learned and related, the mind retains the vigor and perfection gained by its exercise upon them. It can do this, however, only by grappling with facts and ideas. (And here’s a tip: it is much easier to remember related ideas than unrelated ideas).

And this is why the trivium is so genius, grammar, logic, and rhetoric are related subjects. The trivium, in itself a tool or a skill, has become associated with its most appropriate subject matter—the languages, oratory, literature, history, philosophy.

When we speak of the quadrivium we are talking about the not only mathematics but many branches of science. The theory of number includes not merely arithmetic but also algebra, calculus, the theory of equations, and other branches of higher mathematics. The applications of the theory of number include not only music (here understood as musical principles, which involve notes ant math, for example harmony, these of which constitute the liberal art of music and must be distinguished from applied instrumental music, which is a fine art) but also physics, much of chemistry, and other forms of scientific measurement of discrete quantities. The theory of space includes analytic geometry and trigonometry. Applications of the theory of space include principles of architecture, geography, surveying, and engineering.

The Language Arts and Reality

The three language arts can be defined as they relate to reality and to each other. Metaphysics or ontology (the science of being), is concerned with reality, with the thing-as-it-exists. Logic, grammar, and rhetoric have the following relation to reality.


And….now Pluto has ceased to exist as a planet at all (poor Pluto!)

Some would say that rhetoric is the master art of the trivium, for it functions by making use of grammar and logic. Rhetoric is the art of communicating through, through grammar and logics, ideas about reality. Have you ever listened to a speaker and just been persuaded and riveted at the same time? That is rhetoric at work. Through all of life we are communicating. Whether to our families, or to our children, in sales, or in work, or our faith. The ability to move other to action, to persuade, to speak and be understood, begins with logic and grammar and is summed up in the art of communicating–which is rhetoric.

Comparison of Materials, Functions, and Norms of the Language Arts

The language arts guide the speaker, writer, listener, and reader in the correct and effective use of language. Phonetics and spelling, which are part of the art of grammar, are included here to show their relationship to the other language arts in materials, functions, and norms.


Because rhetoric aims for effectiveness rather than correctness, it deals not only with the paragraph and the whole composition but also with the word and the sentence, for it prescribes that diction be clear and appropriate and that sentences be varied in structure and rhythm. It recognizes various levels of discourse, such as the literary (maiden or damsel, steed), the common (girl, horse), the illiterate (gal, hoss), the slang (skirt, plug), the technical (homo sapiens, equus caballus), each with its appropriate use. The adaptation of language to circumstance, which is a function of rhetoric, requires the choice of a certain style and diction in speaking to adults, of a different style in presenting scientific ideas to the general public, and of another in presenting them to a group of scientists. Since rhetoric is the master art of the trivium, it may even enjoin the use of bad grammar or bad logic, as in the portrayal of an illiterate or stupid character in a story.

Just as rhetoric is the master art of the trivium, so logic is the art of arts because it directs the very act of reason, which directs all other human acts to their proper end through the means it determines. This is what makes a true speaker and a false speaker. One who persuades with lies and one who persuades with truth. Rhetoric needs sound logic.

In the preface to his Art of Logic, the poet Milton remarks:

The general matter of the general arts is either reason or speech. They are employed either in perfecting reason for the sake of proper thinking, as in logic, or in perfecting speech, and that either for the sake of the correct use of words, as in grammar, or the effective use of words, as in rhetoric. Of all the arts the first and most general is logic, then grammar, and last of all rhetoric, since there can be much use of reason without speech, but no use of speech without reason. We gave the second place to grammar because correct speech can be unadorned; but it can hardly be adorned before it is correct.

So now you have an introduction to the seven liberal arts. And not that skills and trade don’t have a place in our society. Not that we don’t need doctors and bankers, because we do. But is that all we need? Could many of the problems of our society be caused because we are turning out children who are ready to “fall in line” and serve the system? They do not think critically or freely for themselves? And if they do, they are stifled by their lack of ability to convey their thoughts and passions for lack of rhetoric? We can do better. We can teach them. Let them be doctors, but let them be thinking doctors. Let them be bankers, but let them be fully free bankers. Fully free in their mind. This is a true education, a gift of truth. The best we can give our children so that they bring out the best of themselves.


Memoria Press Logic

Memoria Press Rhetoric

Memoria Press Composition (based on the progymnasmata, the way all the greatest writers learned to write for over a thousand years).

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