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THE SEVEN LIBERAL ARTS AND SCIENCES
Grand Lodge of Texas
During the Fellowcraft Degree, the candidate is symbolically led up a winding stairway that consists of three, five, and seven steps. In doing so, he is introduced to the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences. It is interesting to note that there is little explanation of this portion of the Fellowcraft Degree and no attempt to bring meaning to these subjects for the candidate. If every part of the Masonic ritual has meaning for the candidate, then one must examine this brief portion of the Fellowcraft Degree to determine its value for the Mason.
The Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences were the curriculum known to ancient Greece and Rome and to Western Europe of medieval times. During their cultural ascent, the Greeks came to see learning as being composed of seven arts: grammar, logic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy. This curriculum was adopted by the Romans and divided into two parts called the trivium and the quadrivium. The word trivium simply means three ways and quadrivium, four ways. Thus the trivium was composed of what the Romans considered the basic of the seven arts: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The quadrivium was composed of the other four arts.
Aristotle believed the liberal arts were those subjects that were suitable for learning by a freeman. He contended that a freeman should not seek practical skills but should strive for moral and intellectual excellence, the goal being theoretical and philosophical knowledge. He further believed if a man was capable of pure thought, he was capable of leadership of those who merely possessed the practical skills.
The educational concepts of these cultures withstood the “dark ages” which enveloped Europe from roughly the Sixth Century until the Eleventh Century. During this period, Western European culture was virtually blotted out and what little education that remained was confined to the church. The reign of Charlemange during the Ninth Century began to see an increase in education, which was extended to the palaces and cathedrals. While still ecclesiastical in organization, the system of education fanned the flame of intellectual curiosity. By the Eleventh Century, Europe had begun to emerge from its darkness into a degree of political and social stability. With this emergence came a renewal of the spirit of learning, which was nurtured for nearly four hundred years until it would burst forth during the Renaissance. Education during these centuries consisted of grammar, logic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy: the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences.
With this background, one now turns to the seven liberal arts to gain an insight into their nature.
Grammar: One must remember that instruction was in Latin during this early period; hence the grammar referred to was Latin grammar. Grammar was not the tedious business of determining the parts of speech, but instead was the art of writing. Cassiodorus defined grammar as the study of great poetry and oratory that would enable one to write with correctness and elegance. Grammar is correct writing and skillful speaking.
Logic: Logic in general is the science and art of right thinking. Unlike physical or social science or philosophy, it is not concerned with the reality about which we are thinking, but only with the operations of thinking itself. Great value was placed upon the ability to carry on a conversation or argue in a wholly rational manner with the thoughts carefully linked together.
Rhetoric: Rhetoric is defined as the art of using language in such a way as to make the desired impression upon the hearer or reader. Generally speaking, rhetoric covered the whole subject of composition, both oral and written. In rhetoric we see the interplay of both grammar and logic.
Arithmetic: Arithmetic was originally the science or theory of numbers. Someone has said that the teaching of arithmetic during medieval times consisted of simple calculations and complex superstitions. This seems too simple a view, although perhaps not a wholly unreasonable one. It seems likely that the arithmetic of the quadrivium probably consisted of four elements. These would have been numeration, the naming of numbers; notation, the writing and reading of numbers; counting, the act of numbering; and computation, the manipulation of numbers. For all this simplicity, years later the mathematician Karl Gauss was able to refer to arithmetic as the “queen of mathematics.”
Geometry: In this day of calculators and computers, mathematics holds little of mystery or romance for any except the most dedicated mathematician. As a result it is difficult for one to relate to Plato’s statement “geometry will draw the soul towards truth, and create the spirit of philosophy.” To understand this, one must remember that the Greeks pursued all mathematics out of intellectual curiosity and a zest for pure thought. They were concerned with teaching men to reason abstractly and preparing them to contemplate the ideal and the beautiful. Their complete absorption with geometry led them to convert mathematical ideas into geometrical ones. Their preference for idealizations and abstractions expressed itself in a mathematical spirit whose ultimate end was philosophy. It is essentially this Greek idealization of geometry that has carried over into Masonry.
Astronomy: Astronomy today is one of the exact sciences and it has long since divested itself of the metaphysics and mysticism which once characterized its studies. In the minds of all peoples, astronomy is the science of the heavens and has been closely connected with religious tradition. It was long thought that in the heavens would be found the supernatural causes of observed phenomena as well as the answers to the future. Masonry has idealized astronomy as it has geometry. The monitorial lecture tells us that, “Astronomy is that divine art, by which we are taught to read the wisdom, strength, and beauty of the Almighty Creator in those sacred pages, the celestial hemisphere.” For Masonry, the value of astronomy is metaphysical rather than physical as indicated by the final sentence of the lecture. “While we are employed in the study of this science, we must perceive unparalleled instances of wisdom and goodness, and through the whole creation, trace the glorious Author by His works.”
Music: Somewhere back in time, man discovered that the sounds from his stringed instrument depended upon their lengths. He further found that putting multiple strings together allowed him to produce a pleasing harmony. His inquiring mind led him to discover that the ratio of the lengths of the strings were simple whole numbers. So from the time of Pythagoras the study of music was regarded as mathematical in nature. It seems strange to think of music as mathematical until one considers the words of the philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Liebniz, “Music is the pleasure the human soul experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting.” It was this essentially mathematical character of music that leads to its being included in the quadrivium.
The Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences, represented by the seven steps in the Fellowcraft Degree, symbolize for the Mason an idealization of education, that intellectual and cultural discipline necessary for man in his quest to obtain perfection and understand his Maker. From a symbolic standpoint, these seven subjects must be considered a single symbol composed of seven parts of equal dignity. While geometry is exalted by Masonry, it is dealt with separately within the Fellowcraft Degree in another context and should not be provided additional significance in the context of the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences.
This seven-part symbol represents education and all its attendant values, not the precise content of education. When one examines each of the parts of this symbol, one discerns not only the nature and content of each part, but also an idealized purpose of education as well. The view provided by the symbol coincides with Plato’s view of education, that education tends to lift the mind above the mundane and routine considerations and enables it to comprehend the final aim of philosophy, an understanding of the Supreme Architect of the Universe, God. This is the ultimate essence of Freemasonry, that man should continually strive to develop his understanding of his own spiritual being and the essence of God. So Masonry’s Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences together symbolize the conscious effort to control the mind and spirit so that reason prevails and man will always strive to obtain a perfect relationship with God.
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Last modified: March 22, 2014