The Liberal Arts: The Continuing Foundation for Learning in Our Society by means of the Trivium and Quadrivium

The Liberal Arts are based in the historical trivium and quadrivium. The Trivium is Latin, literally “a place where three roads meet”. Quadrivium is Latin for where four roads meet.

The Liberal Arts of today derive from the meeting of three to four historical roads: the ideas of human expression and knowledge of the Ancient Greeks and Romans; the Medieval striving to preserve the humanistic ideas of the ancient world; the rebirth of ancient learning that occurs during the Renaissance and Enlightenment; and the rebirth of mathematics and science during the Scientific Revolution of the Renaissance and Enlightenment.

The liberal arts involve the study of those subjects that open the mind and help bring about a free people.  Liberal is Latin for “suitable for a free person.” Arts is “skill as a result of learning or practice.”

Hence Liberal Arts means the study of subjects to gain an expertise so to acquire the habits and personality of a person who lives a free life, that is, lives in such a way to be free from outside influences, to know precisely what one’s personal beliefs, derived from personal experience, are.

The Ancient Greeks provided the foundation for the Trivium and Quadrivium, as they were defined later in the Middle Ages, because of their focus on philosophy, literature, rhetoric, history, art and architecture, mathematics, the life and physical sciences. The Roman Empire encompassed the learning of the ancient Greeks, and brought such learning forward into the centuries after the birth of Christ. But the Roman Empire went through a political and cultural decline—the liberal arts of the ancient Greeks declined as well. In the resulting period subsequently called the Dark or Middle Ages (Medieval Europe), there were some isolated centers of learning that continued to preserve ancient Graeco-Roman (typically called Classical) learning. These centers of learning were usually connected to Roman Catholic monasteries. It was during this time that the terms Trivium, for logic, grammar, and rhetoric, and Quadrivium, for arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, were coined. European society, culture, and economy went through a resurgence beginning in the 12th century, which led to the European Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution.


The Trivium: the arts of thought and communication

  1. Logic: logic refers to philosophy, to human thought, the fact that humans are thinkers, able to conceptualize ideas, to try to achieve a sense of what exists, or “is,” that is being, which is not subject to time. Example: Humans like all animals feel. When a human feels a sense of warmth toward another being, a sense of attachment, of not wanting to be separated, they conceptualize this feeling as Love. Love is not material or physical; it is simply an idea based on conceptualized feelings.
  2. Grammar: grammar refers to symbols that humans have invented to symbolize the concepts and ideas that they have conceptualized. These symbols can be learned and shared, which form the basis of communication. So, for example, the concept of Love can be designated by four symbols, L, O, V, E, joined together.
  3. Rhetoric: rhetoric are all of the arts of communication that humans use to share their ideas and concepts by means of symbols. Humans can therefore share an idea or concept, such as Love, by means of symbols that are expressed through writing or speaking.


Quadrivium: the arts of temporal and spatial reasoning

  1. Arithmetic: because humans live in time and space, they keep track of movement in time and space by counting and measurement. The Counting function is arithmetic, and the Spatial function is geometry. Arithmetic is the way to make sense of the multitude of things (quantities) and movement in our environment over time.
  2. Geometry: Geometry is the way humans make sense of the multitude of things and movement in our environment that take up space. We observe various things at particular moments in time and can make sense of how they relate to us in terms of distance, volume, and dimension.
  3. Music: Music is using arithmetic, counting things and movement in time, as it applies to sounds and harmony. Special notes are created to keep track of these sounds moving through time. Music symbolizes human creativity in different cultures.
  4. Astronomy: Astronomy is measuring space and its vast dimensions over time. We observe various things over time and can make sense of how they relate to us in terms of distance, volume, and dimension. Astronomy symbolizes the hard sciences, examining movement (physics), material substances (chemistry, geology), and organic substances (biology).

The Liberal Arts continue to form the basis for thought, expression, and reasoning in our culture, from the past to the present and into the future.

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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