The Spiral Curriculum. The liberal arts, of course, are not everything. They were not the whole of ancient education either. For Plato a rounded education would begin with “gymnastics”, meaning physical education and training in various kinds of skills, and “music”, meaning all kinds of mental and artistic training. In the Laws (795e) he describes these as physical training for the body (including dance and wrestling or martial arts), and cultural training for the personality (including sacred music), so that young people spend practically their whole lives at “play”(sacrificing, singing, dancing: 803e) in order to win the favour of the gods.
The range of studies that were later codified as the liberal arts are to be built on this double foundation, and they in turn are for the sake of our growth in true inner freedom, in preparation for the highest studies – the contemplation of God, in philosophy and theology. In the Laws, Plato calls the liberal arts studies for “gentlemen”, although he specifies that even the “man in the street” and “tiny tots” should be taught the rudiments. In this place he divides them into three, in addition to the music and dance discussed earlier: “(1) computation and the study of numbers; (2) measurements of lines, surfaces and solids; (3) the mutual relationship of the heavenly bodies as they revolve in their courses” (817e).
An education devised along these lines (not too slavishly, because Plato’s proposed legislation can be rather oppressive) could be said to be based upon a spiral curriculum, since each of the essential elements are returned to again and again, each time at a higher level of development, until the gaze of man is entirely on God, through the ascending path of a dialectic that leads beyond argumentation towards contemplation.
The liberal arts are not for the sake of anything else; they are not vocational in any narrow sense. They contain their aim within themselves. Even the study of numbers and ability to measure is not strictly for the sake of the many practical applications to which these skills lend themselves. In themselves, taught in the right way and studied in the right spirit, they are really about harmony, proportion, and beauty, and therefore they lead the mind to the source of all beauty.
These notes are intended to help readers engage with the text of Beauty in the Word.
Books related to the topic of this article may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Published here by the gracious permission of the author, this post originally appeared in Beauty in Education.