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The “liberal” in “liberal arts” has traditionally and rightly been understood to refer to freedom in several ways. In a classical context the liberal arts rescue us from banal pursuits. In a religious context they deliver us from earthly bonds. And in a modern context they set us free from inherited prejudices…

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally delivered on the Annapolis campus of St. John’s College on August 28, 1992, as the Dean’s Opening Lecture of the academic year.

st. johns eva brannYou have all heard of the book with seven seals. It is spoken of in the Book of the Apocalypse, or, as it is known in English, the Book of Revelation. Its authorship is attributed to St. John the Evangelist, who on Patmos had a vision, which he reports in obedience to a great voice behind him, that said: “What thou seest, write in a book.” He turns and sees many amazing sights, but the climax of his vision is this: “And I saw,” he says, “in the right hand of him that sat on the throne, a book written within and on the back side sealed with seven seals” (5: 1). And because no man in heaven or on earth can open the book, John weeps until he is told that the Lion of Juda, the Root of David, the Lamb of God, will open it. Unsealed, the book releases seven categories of catastrophe, a multitude of figures signifying a swarm of scourges presaging the redemption of the world. Among these figures are the infamous Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, symbolizing conquest, war, famine, and death. There also spill out seven trumpets, and from the sixth falls a little open book that John is bidden to eat, and “it is sweet in his mouth but bitter in his belly.” To my mind John’s big sealed book is the great Book of History as it happens, while the little open book stands for all the books that are written about history and are pleasant to read but hard to digest.

The John who foresees history in the epoch we call the Christian era is also the apostle who wrote the gospel that begins “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God,” the text on which so many sophomores and seniors write their essays. I have been paper advisor for enough students to have a sense of the reason for their choice. They hope that John’s text will bring together for them the meaningful word, called in Greek logos, with the vision of God. (I want to interject here for our freshmen, to whom the first lecture of the year should speak most directly, that logos, a word that signifies both the thought and the speech it fathers, a word you will soon talk about in the language tutorial, is to my understanding the most important word in the tradition you are now setting out to study, the tradition of reason.)

This John who writes, sees, and eats books may, I am sorry to tell you, not be our John, the John of St. John’s. In the last century people thought he was, because they thought our college had been named after St. John’s College in Cambridge, which in turn was named after the Evangelist. In the previous century, however—you should realize that you have come to the third oldest post-Revolutionary school in the country—the students here thought that their John was St. John Chry­sostom. Francis Scott Key, an alumnus of the class of 1796, in whose hall you are sitting and who, as you know, was to write the words to the Star-spangled Banner during the War of 1812, received in January 1807 a letter from another early alumnus. It said in part:

I am in great haste, and in no less of our Saint’s assistance…. O Sancte Chrysostome! ora pro nobis! [O Saint Chrysostomos, pray for us.] I have examined the college library and find many valuable books in it. There is an edition of Chrysostom, in twelve volumes, three of which are wanting… (Fletcher, 43)

This Chrysostom, a Greek nickname that means “the golden­ mouthed,” lived in the fourth century. He was a preacher at Antioch and, very unwillingly, Archbishop of Constantinople. He appears to have been a very nice person who was continually in hot water with the establishment because he tried to get the rich to be more charitable—but his congregations loved him. He was a lively, humorous, humane, clear, and pleasant speaker, as his name betokens. We still have a couple of volumes of a later edition of his homilies. I took out the volume that contains his commentary on the Gospel of St. John, and found in the second homily a wonderful commentary on a current mania. This mania is to explain or expose an author’s opinion by reference to his social origin. John Chrysostom gives this nasty trick a new twist. He begins by chiding those who won’t pay attention to the Evangelist’s social and family origin. This son of Zebedee from Bethesda was an illiterate barbarian, without learning, a man who fished not even the sea but only a small lake, a man poor and rural. How, John Chrysostom asks, could such a man have known why man exists and why the world exists, what vice is and what virtue is, matters about which even Plato and Pythagoras, who were better than other people, said the most ridiculous things? It is necessary, our saint concludes, to know a man’s background to understand just how little it matters if only the spirit be upon him. That’s a new twist to the current preoccupation.

The preacher then begins a line-by-line commentary on the gospel and raises a question none of my advisees ever thought of; nor had I, until now: Why does the evangelist pass over the Father in his opening line and go immediately to the Son, whom he calls the Logos or Word of God? If any students ever ask me again to help them with an essay on the fourth gospel, I shall surely send them to “our” saint, the Goldenmouth.

There is yet one more saint who is a candidate for being our name-saint. This is John the Baptist, who was from the Christian point of view the forerunner of Jesus, but from the Jewish point of view the last of the Jewish minor prophets. The Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote in the first century A.D., describes him as a sort of holy hippy, clothed in patches, eating fruits and nuts, and preaching freedom from all authority but that of God (The Jewish War, Appendix after I, 110). Our connection with this John is established through our seal, the one that will appear on your diplomas four years in the future. This seal was adopted in 1793.

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Seal of St. John’s College 1793

Our former librarian, Miss Charlotte Fletcher, has interpreted its symbolism, which had long been identified as a Masonic figure. She did so in an issue of the St. John’s Review devoted to her researches into the prehistory and early history of St. John’s College. And she was able to do so by means of her participation in the St. John’s program. She was preparing for the senior seminar, which opens with that novel of novels, Tolstoy’s War and PeaceShe came on the description of the initiation into the rites and rituals of Masons that Pierre Bezuhov, the hero of the novel, undergoes. Tolstoy gives a description of secrets revealed to Pierre, a description that precisely corresponds to things seen in our seal (Vol. I, Bk. ii, 3).

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Masonic Apron. Jacques Chailley, The Magic Flute, Masonic Opera

You see a mound of stones in seven courses forming steps, leading up to a pillared temple. A person is climbing up the hill, carrying not, as you might think, a cross, but a T square, the symbol of the Masons. The temple is Solomon’s Temple, the temple of wisdom. The steps leading to it represent the seven Masonic virtues, first of which is discretion, the keeping of secrets. You can see the theme in a Masonic apron of the nineteenth century as well. It appears that Tolstoy scorns the first virtue of Masonry, since he is evidently exposing the secret rituals of the order.

How did this college come to have a Masonic seal?

On December 16, 1784, the subscription list, the list of contributions necessary to make a beginning, was filled, and the draft of a plan for founding a college on the Western shore, on our side of Chesapeake Bay, was released. This college, together with Washington College on the Eastern shore, was to be the University of Maryland. So you see that you have actually come to the real University of Maryland. The committee that worked out this draft was headed by three clergymen, a Jesuit-trained priest, John Carroll, from the great Catholic Maryland family after which two of your dorms are named, William Smith, an Episcopalian and a Mason, and Patrick Allison, a Presbyterian.

Forgive me for injecting here an irrelevancy charming only to people who like birthdays. December 16 is a dies mirabilis, a day of wonders. Beethoven was born on December 16, 1770, Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775, and St. John’s was born on December 16, 1784. Make of it what you will.

In any case, Miss Fletcher thinks that the following is what hap­pened. On December 16 the college was ready to go. Toward the end of the month, George Washington was here in Annapolis to negotiate a fairly momentous agreement, the first post-Revolutionary cooperative legislation between two states of the United States, concerning the use of the Potomac. The bill was passed in the State house, across from us, on December 27. A great dinner was given to Washington who had resigned his commission as general before the Continental Congress right in that place a year and four days earlier. (The room in the Statehouse where he performed this, one of the momentous acts of history, when a man chose to be a citizen rather than a king, is still to be seen up on the other hill of Annapolis.) Now December 27 is the feast day of St. John the Evangelist, the patron saint of the Masons. And George Washington, himself a loyal Mason, may have thought of the dinner as a double celebration. When two days later the legislature chartered our school they named it in honor both of the event of having Washington back in town and of the feast day. Add to this circumstance that local freemasons had cooperated with local Catholics—a thing unthinkable in Europe—to establish this, one of the oldest non-sectarian schools in the country. The charter approved that day said:

Youth of all religious denominations shall be freely and liberally admitted…according to their merit… without requiring or enforcing any religious or civil test, or urging their attendance upon any particular worship or service, other than what they have been educated in, or have the consent and approbation of their parents and guardians to attend. (Charter, Article II)

And that is how we got our Masonic seal of 1793. It is an emblem of the spirit of that year of the Treaty of Paris which ended the successful Revolution, an emblem of the spirit of religious pluralism, of the sects making room for each other. If Miss Fletcher’s conjecture is right, the saint of the book of seven seals is ours after all.

To me it seems, as I have said, that this book of seven seals is the book of history and of the terrors time releases. It is a book of catastrophes. This college, however, was founded at a felicitous moment when there was hope that a new order of centuries, one released from the doom of catastrophic history, could begin on this continent. And in its two hundred years (or three hundred if you include its predecessor, the King William School, with whose stock of profes­sors and furniture St. John’s opened) the college has seen many minor miseries but only one enormous catastrophe, the Civil War. This war was the only time when the school was closed and the campus became a military hospital—though even then one lone professor carried on a class, so as not to let the charter lapse.

On this continent history has, then, not been incessantly apocalyptic. But whether the great book of John of the Apocalypse has one or seven seals, it is not a book for reading. It is, as I said, the Book of History, of events, to be lived through, endured. It contains history before the fact. There are, of course, also books of history written after the fact, ex post facto history, the little open books. Those books are for reading and for study, but we do not read or study many of them here.

This little school that has endured through much great history, that has inspired four little books of its own, that bears witness to the past above ground, in its Colonial and post-Revolutionary buildings, and below, in its artifact-laden land (of which we may soon be doing an archeological survey)—this historical college harbors a program that excludes the study of history. I hope to tell you—I mean our freshmen­—why we do not study history by telling you what we do study.

Underfoot, let into the same ground that probably contains pieces of pipes smoked by the gentlemen and “mechanicks” who made the Revolution and buttons of the tunics of Union soldiers wounded in the Civil War, there is a seal. You walk over it every day, when you descend the steps from the hill of McDowell Hall to the Francis Scott Key building. It is the reverse of the Johannine book of seven seals. It is a seal of seven books, seven books round about a scale.

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Seal of St. John’s College, 1937

This seal is not the historical and legal seal of your college chartered in Maryland, but a new design, which appears in the earliest catalogue of the present Program to which eventually two campuses would play host. It is the catalogue of 1937. (Incidentally, many of you will in time give some thought to the differences between this college as it appears in Annapolis and the same college as it appears in Santa Fe. Well, one difference to consider is that in Annapolis the Program was fitted into the place while in Santa Fe the place was made for the Program.) The seal has a nice jingly saying in Latin: Facio Liberos ex Liberis Libris Libraque. No one seems to know what inspired punster made it up. It plays on the Latin root for “free,” as in liberty, or in “liberal arts.” On the seal the college announces that “I make freemen of children by books and a balance.” You have come to a school of the liberal arts. You will, if all goes well, participate in a liberal education. But to be a school that offers a liberal education is not at all the same as to be a school of the liberal arts. The difference is indicated by this fact: If you ask “What is a liberal education?” the answers lie on a continuous field whose axes are not easy to articulate. But if you ask “What are the liberal arts?” the answer is discrete and definite: There are traditionally seven in number and they are divided into two groups.

I should say that by tradition, a word that will occur often here, I mean that aspect of the past which is actively effective in the present. I also want to make a marginal remark here. In this school the Dean gets to talk to the whole college five times. This will be my third and middle time. I think of it as the central moment. On this occasion I really ought to talk about the arts that guide our curriculum.

The lower group is called the trivium, a Latin word meaning “three-way.” These arts are traditionally: Grammar, Dialectic or Logic, Rhetoric.

The upper group is called the quadrivium, or the four-way. These arts are traditionally: Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, Music.

They are all traditionally studied from books. The first set of books is concerned with the arts by which human beings order and express their minds and hearts, that is, with language. The second set has to do with the arts by which people approach the learnable structures, abstracted or sensuous, of the world. A school that wanted to institute learning by means of the trivium and the quadrivium might well turn out to have a language class and a mathematics class.

But not all that is to be learned is studied through written books. Just as history may be thought of—I don’t know whether rightly—as a book that precedes the written history books, so the people, such as Galileo, who discovered what we now call science—the mathematical study of nature—thought that there was a book of nature whose decipherment preceded the writing of books of physics or biology. To read that material book, that book of reality, one had to look hard at the appearances, or, as the Greeks say, the phenomena. One has to engage in disciplined observation. Now the property that most consis­tently distinguishes the things of nature from the things of the mind is weight, heaviness—and all weighing involves a pair of scales reaching an equilibrium position. Therefore, we have a scale, in Latin called libra, in our seal; unlike the scale of justice it is a scale in equilibrium. A school of the liberal arts should add an eighth, not so traditional, activity: science as done in the laboratory, by means of observation and measurement. The state of equilibrium, which a scale must reach if it is to measure anything precisely, and which is a crucial phenom­enon in nature, will consequently occupy a large part of your first-year laboratory.

Let me expound, as succinctly as I am able, the subject matter of the seven old arts. But first let me say what is meant by calling them arts: They are skills, forms of know-how we get good at by practice, by doing problems, proofs, translations, analyses, regularly, several times a week. Consequently, one understanding of the Latin word for arts, artes, was that it came from arete, the Greek word for excellence. Another understanding comes from the fact that the compendia of the liberal arts from late antiquity on were collections—rather dreary ones, incidentally—of terms and rules. Hence the principal medieval writer on the trivium, John of Salisbury in his Metalogicon (I, 12); suggests that the word artes comes from artan; meaning “they bind,” because the arts delimit, constrain, discipline us through their rules. These are both fanciful etymologies.

The “liberal” in “liberal arts” was, on the contrary, traditionally and rightly understood to refer to freedom in several ways. In a classical context the liberal arts rescue us from banal pursuits. In a religious context they deliver us from earthly bonds. And in a modern context they set us free from inherited prejudices. What appeals to me as revealing is John of Salisbury’s implication that the liberal arts free us by binding us. For that is the nature of education in a nutshell: Education forges the bonds of freedom. I won’t leave that paradoxical epigram just hanging there; I’ll return to it at the end, and we can talk about it in the important part of this evening, the question period.

To get back to the contents of the seven bookish arts. As I said, these arts were handed down in compendia that served both as the depositories of all knowledge and as course outlines. Cassiodorus, who wrote in the sixth century A.D. and seems to have been first to use the phrase “the seven liberal arts” (Kimball, 23), wrote one such handbook, which was in use for a millenium. Here is a sketch of the contents of the arts adapted and expanded from his pamphlet:

Grammar includes the kinds of subjects of which your Greek manual is full: the parts of speech and their syntactical features. Every modern language manual derives its terms and topics from this tradition.

Rhetoric includes everything having to do with verbal composition: the parts of a whole, the poetic figures that enhance it, the informal arguments that make it persuasive. These are matters you will take up often in the language tutorial. I might tell you that very recently rhetoric has again become a lively university subject.

Logic includes the study of the categories of knowledge and the types of inference, such as the various sorts of syllogism. These subjects too will turn up in the language tutorial.

Arithmetic deals with the nature of unity and the kinds of numbers and their ratio relations. You will get a taste of what is traditionally meant by arithmetic in the freshman mathematics tutorial when you study the seventh book of Euclid and when you read a book called Introduction to Arithmetic by Nicomachus. Nicomachus agreed with Plato that arithmetic is the root of all the sciences.

Geometry is the mathematics you will study more extensively here than any other liberal art whatsoever, and I’ll come back to it in a moment.

Astronomy, which is, as we study it, geometry adapted to show the intelligibility of phenomenal motions in the heavens, is a liberal art you will study here through three years, and in various combinations of versions: geocentric and heliocentric, mathematical and dynamical.

Music, which is sometimes listed at the top of the liberal arts, is put by Cassiodorus right after number. For, taken as a liberal rather than a fine art, it begins with the study of the natural consonances and dissonances associated with numerical ratios, and with the modes and scales arising from the composition of these ratios. In your sophomore year you will study these rudimentary facts and much more: rhythm, melody, and harmony, using modem examples complex beyond anything the ancient tradition imagined.

Each of the three trivial arts, grammar, logic, and rhetoric, has been in turn the leader. (Incidentally, the term “trivial,” used as a contemp­tuous reference to the trivium first as trite and soon as paltry, appears late in the sixteenth century.) In the days of early imperial Rome, rhetoric, oratory, public persuasion, was the all-encompassing art, for which the quadrivium was the preparation. This is what Quintilian says in his work on the Education of an Orator (I , 10), one of the great texts on education. In the earlier Middle Ages grammar, then interpreted as the reading of great literary texts, was valued above all (Paetow, 33). But with the rise of the universities and scholastic philosophy in the thirteenth century, dialectic drowned out all literary studies. They returned with the advent in the fifteenth century of the scholars who called themselves humanists because they studied the antique poets who cared about men rather than the medieval theologians who wrote of God. The trivium then became what we now call the “humanities,” just as the quadrivium, on the whole neglected in the middle ages, returned as “science.” In our day, rhetoric is making a serious bid not to replace but to be philosophy, as the art of the construal of texts. I want to warn you that this kind of flamboyant historical gesture drawing I have been engaging in is too crude to do events justice. In the age unjustly suspended by historians between antiquity and modernity many renascences and returns took place, learning was preserved, and discoveries were made that set the stage for the great Renaissance. All I mean to do is to point out that, just as the learning of language is not an orderly linear progress but the simultaneous acquisition of various skills, so the trivium is not naturally ordered.

It is otherwise with the quadrivium, a much more ancient, and, moreover, an intrinsically ordered, set of studies. The word itself was a translation, made by Boethius in the early sixth century (I, i), of Nicomachus’s term tessares methodoi, meaning the “four ways.” The word trivium was a much later derivative. It is first known in the ninth century (Lutz 76). Both groupings of the arts are of course much older than their names.

The quadrivial studies will become known to the freshman as a course of education through the Republic of Plato, where the higher liberal arts curriculum of the West was first expounded. It is the higher learning because what we call literature, namely, poetry and drama (novels hadn’t been invented yet), are used in the Republic for the moral and civil training of children. But it is also not the highest, because for Plato dialectic is not mere logic but philosophy. And so dialectical inquiry is set above all mathematics, pure or physical.

Why those three and those four arts? Even if we grant that it makes sense that there be two kinds of study, those of sayable thoughts and those of learnable objects, yet why just seven and why just these? The tradition, which loves number magic, saw seven as the virgin number, called Minerva, the Latin name for Athena, because within the decad it is the only prime number that does not “beget,” that is, act as a factor of, another number in the first ten. It is the sum of three, the male, and four, the female number, as Athena is a man-like woman. There are seven phases of the moon, seven planets, seven days of the week, and many more sevens including the seven openings of the human head (Stahl, 152-54). It was Martianus Capella who first fixed the number at seven (Lutz, 74). This is wild and woolly stuff, but perhaps we can do better.

The arts of speech are three because speech has three aspects. There are rational and empirical rules of language in general and of language in particular, of Language itself in the singular and of languages in the plural, such as English, Greek, and French, and these constitute grammar. Then there are formal structures of reason—of concepts, propositions, and rules of inference and these make up logic. And finally there are the precepts of persuasion, by which words grow—as Homer so beautifully says—wings. Winged words, epea pteroenta, are words that reach the hearer. Rhetoric is the art of making words fly. I think with a little trimming and shoving all language study (as distinct from studying languages) does fit under these headings.

The four arts of learnable objects, however, are ordered not as were the three aspects of one thing, speech, but as a dimensional develop­ment, as a genetic sequence leading to a complete object. At least that is how Socrates presents the quadrivium, or perhaps I should say the quintuvium, since he wants his philosopher kings to learn not about four but five mathematical subjects. I should say something here for the freshmen who have not yet read Plato’s Republic, the book to which I am referring. It appears to be about the best political commu­nity, but turns out, at its center, to be a book about education, the program of philosophical learning that will educate those who might be fit to rule this polity.

These four or five studies are called mathemata, which might be translated as “learnables.” Mathematical studies are those which are by their nature learnable. What is so learnable about mathematics? Well, partly it must be the fact that it is unlike language learning, which has no given natural order (which doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done in an orderly fashion, though the order will be conventional). Mathe­matical learning builds up systematically, just as mathematical objects can be ordered genetically. There are, of course, several other features that makes mathematics more learnable—and more teachable—than language, among them the clarity and distinctness of its objects. The truth of this claim will probably become clear when you compare your language and your mathematics tutorials.

Socrates begins with arithmetic (522c). Arithmetic is the study of the unit, the collection of units called arithmoi, numbers, and the study of calculation, the Greek word for which denotes the use of the reasoning power, logistike (525b).

The unit is zero-dimensional; you will in fact find it defined as a point without position. Next the philosopher-kings-to-be are to study geometry, not only plane geometry, which deals with one-dimensional lines and two-dimensional surfaces, but also solid geometry, which rises to the third dimension, the dimension of depth. Next these geometrical solids are put in motion, and studied especially in the circular revolutions of the heavens. That is astronomy. Besides the visible geometrical figures of heavenly motion, there are also the audible progressions of numerical ratios. And that is harmonics or theoretical music. For Plato it is the crowning study of the quadrivium, especially insofar as the tones produced belong to the octave sounded by the heavenly spheres (617b). It is qualitative number moving in figures, or, you might say, rational bliss.

I should tell you that in accordance with the Platonic scheme, in the early days of our program books on physics such as you will be studying in your junior year, for instance books on the motions that produce light and sound, were to be found in the King William Room of our library under the heading “music.” Those were the days!

You might well ask: With the enormous burgeoning of the sciences in the past two centuries, and particularly in the past half-century, does the quadrivial ordering still make sense or is it purely antiquarian? Of course there have always been subjects regarded either as too technical or as too advanced to fit in the quadrivium, such [as] architecture, medicine, and jurisprudence. But though the number of descended specialties is now enough to swamp the originals, I can think of two ways in which the “four-way” still makes sense.

First, the ordering of mathematical and natural objects by dimension still yields a plausible progression. As you know, the basic quantities of science are called dimensions, meaning magnitudes that give scope to measurement. The fundamental physical quantities are the three dimensions of Space, which give the configurations of bodies, and then Time, which is the measure of bodies in motion, and finally Mass, to which bodies owe their sensory effects and which is in fact the magnitude measurable by the scale at the center of our seal. So we can still say that dimensiorial progression is an ordering principle of science, especially of physics. I should add here that there are other ways of organizing the quadrivium, by the discontinuous or continuous, for example, or the absolute or relative, the unmoved or moved character of the objects (Merlan, 89-91).

Second, you should realize that we carry on our studies in a way that makes the liberal arts especially fit for our use. This is our way: We do not present you with fields and subjects that we try to cover in an introductory sort of way. Our tutorials and laboratories are not introductory but elementary.

Here is what that distinction means. Introductions are overviews of extensive fields of information in which high points are presented in a cursory way with some explanations to hold things together. Introductions are of necessity superficial, but they are not necessarily elemen­tary. On the other hand, Euclid’s book on geometry, the one that you have begun to study, is called the Elements. Elements are that on which, and also out of which, learning is built. The elementary studies are usually both simple and profound, and they are not extensive bodies of information, but basic skills and practices. Dwelling on elements is different from getting on with it. Studying beginnings is different from being at the cutting edge. Advanced studies and breakthrough work are wonderful activities, good for graduate study. We, however, dwell on and in origins.

It is a wonder of human learning that these beginnings often have a special perfection and elegance. It could well be that first things are nondescript and insignificant and that only through progress does quality arise. For example, in the evolution of mammals, the scurrying eohippus, which means the “dawn-horse,” is a little ugly thing and the galloping modern horse a large and noble being. But it is not so for the dawn of learning. First discoveries are often well-shaped and grand and make good paradigms and exemplars. And that is what we have decided to do: not to cover the field but to choose fine elementary examples for study in our tutorials and laboratories. For that is what the liberal arts are: the basic skills of learning taught through the elementary but grand discoveries of the human intellect.

To return for one more minute to the Republic. We found laid out there the quadrivium in a plausible development. Can we find the trivium there as well? Yes, but divided and wrapped, so to speak, round about the quadrivium. The children’s character is trained by means of poetry, by the same works, epic, tragedy, and odes, that will later afford the material for the trivial studies of grammar and rhetoric. Logic, called dialectic in the Republic, is not, however, a study for children. It is rather the high point of study for the young philosopher-kings-to-be. They take it up in their early thirties. Dialectic teaches the way of rational argument, not however as a formal science of the schemata of reason, but as a road to final knowledge, up to the highest structures of being and even beyond. Dialectic is for Socrates what we call philosophy.

I might say here that the project of tracing the uses and exchanges of the terms logic and dialectic, their fate in connoting the highest or meanest, the richest or driest of studies, is almost coextensive with the project of following the vicissitudes of learning and thinking in the West. You might want to write your senior essay on it. Let me just say here that dialectic is soon demoted to a mere counterpart of rhetoric­ Cassiodorus, the author of the sixth century I mentioned before as writing one of the best known handbooks on the liberal arts tradition, says, borrowing from the Stoic Zeno (Stahl 95): “Dialectic and rhetoric are as with respect to a hand the contracted fist and the extended palm-the former completes its arguments in brief speech, the latter roams the fields of eloquence with abundant talk; the one abridges words, the other stretches them out” (Ch. III). Yet even when dialectic loses its grand sense, the liberal arts tradition steadfastly preserves the notion that the culmination of the liberal arts is philosophy: Cassiodorus says: Philosophy is homoiosis theoi kata dynaton anthropoi, “the assimilation to God as far as is possible for a human being” (1168).

One of my favorite writers on liberal learning is a monk of the twelfth century, Hugo of St. Victor, the director of his monastery’s school, who wrote a book called “Manual on Learning Through Reading” (Didascalicon de studio legendi). I like him especially because he tells me, with modest clarity, things I have discovered and lived by over the years: That to study books you have to know which texts to read and in what order and how. That diligent study from books is quite different from meditation, which is careful and repeated thinking through, and that meditation in turn differs from contemplation, which is a kind of collecting, comprehensive insight—and you have to do all three. That searching for wisdom is not the same as having it, wherefore we are to be called not sapientes, sophai, “wise people,” but amatores sapientiae, which is the Latin rendition of the Greek words philoi sophiae, philosophers, “lovers of wisdom.” That pursuing empty stuff strenuously is worse than plying good things negligently. That reading has three stages: the letter, or construing the grammar, the sense, or getting the first meaning, and the significance, or penetrating deeply. That the wisdom for which the soul burns is not in the first instance technical and good for accomplishing things in the world, but theoret­ical and good for illumining and bringing us back to ourselves. What gives me pleasure is that this experienced teacher can himself reach back over a millennium and a half, and say old truths with unselfcon­scious freshness.

Hugo holds that the seven arts are “indeed the best tools and beginnings by which to prepare the way for the mind to a full appreciation of philosophical truth” (III, 3).

It is in our seminar that we realize Hugo’s way. We read for the seminar and our trivial studies have prepared us to construe the sentences, to follow the logic, to appreciate the style, and to understand mathematical and scientific references. Together we try to work out the simple sense of the text, and to prepare for the deep interpretation that we search for later in meditative privacy. Sometimes we have sudden and encompassing insights right in the seminar room. Some­times such insights come when we have withdrawn into ourselves. (I recall a sophomore who saw the One walking along College Creek.) We waste no study time on piffling books, since we have chosen to read only works that repay our efforts. We try to do it in the right order, keeping abreast of our authors. We try to have read some of the same books that have gone into the making of each book we come to.

Hugo would probably have been surprised at the capture of his monastic studium legendi, which might be translated as “book learn­ing,” by the modes of participatory democracy in our seminar: by the relegation of the teachers to questioners-in-chief and by the encour­agement of tentative offerings and trial balloons from all participants. I think he was the sort of man who, having seen us at work, might have been tempted to turn the monastery school at St. Victor in Paris into an early St. John’s. Of course, he might then have ended up in the monastery scullery, for our questioning is almost routinely more radical than his community could have countenanced.

Our seminar, I am implying, is devoted to philosophy, and the tutorials, including the laboratory, are the preparation that should make the seminar conversation progressively at once more allusive and more coherent. In the seminar we follow wisdom more than technique. Some books are in fact quite directly concerned with the wisdom which Hugo calls vivax mens et sola rerum primaeva ratio: “living mind and the only primal principle of things.” Proceeding through direct argument, these books are the ones usually called philosophical or theological. Others present their wisdom in more oblique ways, clothed in the many-colored coat of fiction. They have a relation to the philosophical books something like that of the open palm to the clenched fist. Recall that Cassiodorus had used that figure to distinguish rhetoric from dialectic. Those books, usually referred to as literature, are easier to read but often more demanding in discussion.

One of the beauties of our order of reading is that we do not preordain which is which, what books must be called philosophy and what books must be called fiction. For all our seminar list knows, Homer’s Iliad is a work of philosophical theology and Newton’s Principia a word of cosmological myth.

All the distinction we ever make is to assign some readings to the tutorials and others to the seminar. In the tutorials we use manuals, compendia, textbooks for guiding our demonstrations, and the prose selections and poems we read are chosen to be worked over—translated and analyzed. Euclid’s Elements, for example, is a textbook, meant specifically to introduce students into the sciences of space and number in the most succinct and systematic way. And when we do a logical and rhetorical analysis we might use a question from Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. I would sum up the work of tutorials and laboratories as dealing with the seven liberal arts. Here we use the best examples available and apply to them the terms and techniques of the basic skills for learning about words and things. And these terms and techniques are in turn taken from the best teaching texts we can find. Some know-how may even be best acquired in a form abstracted from all context and then compressed and reconstructed, like processed food. Sometimes manuals are just the thing.

In the seminar, on the other hand, we read books, whole books as much as possible, or carefully—and reluctantly—selected parts. Here it is not arts and textbooks but authors and texts that we attend to. Here we do not engage in exercises for acquiring the skills of learning, but we engage in liberal learning itself. We reflect on everything that we are and that the world holds, including the arts of learning themselves. The reason that the seminar is the place for integral texts by named authors is this. Since we use the seminar books above all to help our own thought, it is of the essence that we should be addressed by an original human voice and that we should hear it out.

Screen Shot 2016-06-13 at 1.44.25 PMI said earlier that whereas the liberal arts were quite definable, liberal education could mean practically anything. There is a book that tries to organize the chaos. It is with books as it is with children: We tend to have a special affection for other people’s offspring if we have gotten to diaper them as babies, and we have a special esteem for books that we have been asked to read in manuscript. The book I am thinking of is by Bruce A. Kimball, and it is called Orators and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education. It offers a typology, that is to say, a conceptual coordinate system, of the kinds of liberal education that the author has discerned. I have adapted it for this lecture. You will see by looking at the axes on your sheets what the most telling characteristics of the types are. The right-hand horizontal or major axis shows the spirit of liberal education prevalent in the best of secular American schools: “epistemological skepticism,” that is to say, com­prehensive questioning and tolerance of all views. The left side shows a diametrically opposed idea, that good citizens must be trained in a common set of virtues, which are often set out in great texts. You will find this spirit alive especially in the great Catholic schools. The minor axis opposes mathematics and sciences, the hard disciplines, at the bottom, to classical texts, the soft readings, at the top. I do think with a little patting and pushing, most colleges in this country fit into this coordinate system.

And now comes your own college, St. John’s. Where does it go on the grid? Well, we study classical texts, many of them, and the best we can find, of all periods. Do we confine ourselves to one of the so-called “Two Cultures,” the sciences or the humanities, at opposite ends of the vertical axis? No, everyone studies mathematics for four years and science for three, simple but real science, elementary but real mathe­matics. Yet, looking to the left of the horizontal axis, we certainly also think that our studies should make us better human beings, and we are deeply concerned with the civic effect of our education. Moreover we choose the texts we read because we think they contain worthy truths about moral and civic matters. And looking to the opposite right, we are inveterate askers of questions. Tolerating others’ opinion isn’t quite a sufficient description of the spirit of our classrooms: We try truly to hear what others say and, if we can, to appreciate their opinion rather than just to tolerate it. To us the verb “to question” does not mean “to attack” but “to elicit.”

At this school we read classical texts but think that these include works of mathematics and science. We assume that moral, civic, and intellectual virtue may be acquired through attending to the teaching of our authors, but we think that there is no authority other than each thinking student. In short, we use classics to teach us science, and great books to help us reflect on large questions.

The founders and sustainers of this school, the generations of tutors and the fifty-one classes of students that have devised and confirmed this program since 1937, seem to have done a remarkable thing. Without much conscious reference to the historically discernible types of liberal education, they seem to have brought about a school that encompasses and reconciles all the major good purposes that the grand tradition of liberal education has over time included.

How have we done that? The St. John’s program is materially exclusive and intellectually inclusive. By “materially exclusive” I mean that there are many subjects well worth knowing and many objects well worth accomplishing that we have excluded so as to able to require ourselves to study what we think is best and so as to study it together. By “intellectually inclusive” I mean that there is no mode of learning, knowing, and believing that we fail to acknowledge as worthy of serious attention. By “serious attention” I mean that in studying a book or listening to a person we hold open, somewhere in our thought, the possibility that what they say might be true and that we might want to live by it.

And what are we consequently? We are a college where learning is well-defined and question-asking unlimited, where study is selective and thought receptive, where opinions may be definite and minds yet open.

That is what our seal of seven book betokens. At the center of St. John’s are the liberal arts and the books and instruments through which we study them. These arts are encompassed by an understanding of liberal education that the seal articulates in the surrounding work: “By books and a balance I make humanly free adults of legally free children.” On the seal the college speaks to us and promises: “I forge for you the bonds of freedom.”

Books by Eva Brann may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from the St. John’s Review (Volume 41, No. 2, 1992). 


Boethius, Anicius Manlius Torquatus Severinus. De institutione arithmetica libri duo. Edited by G. Friedlein. Leipzig, 1869.

Cassiodorus, M. Aurelius. De Artibus ac Disciplinis Liberalium Litterarum. Opera Omnia, II, 1848.

Fletcher, Charlotte. “St. John’s ‘For Ever’: Five Essays on the History of King William’s School and St. John’s College.” The St. John’s Review, XL, 2 (1990-91).

Hugo of St. Victor. Didascalicon de Studio Legendi, Geschichte und Dokumente der abendlaendischen Paedagogik. Vol. I, edited by Eugene Garin. Hamburg, Rowohlt, 1964.

John Chrysostom. Commentary on Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist: Homilies 1-47. Translated by Sister Thomas Aquinas Goggin. New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1959.

Josephus, Flavius. History of the Jewish War. Translated by H. St.J. Thackeray. Vol. II, Appendix, 644. Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, 1976.

John of Salisbury. The Metalogicon: A Twelfth-Century Defense of the Verbal and Logical Arts of the Trivium. Translated by Daniel D. McGarry. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962.

Kimball, Bruce A. Orators and Philosophers. New York: Teachers College Press, 1986.

Lutz, Cora E. “Remigius’ Ideas on the Classification of the Seven Liberal Arts.” Traditio, XII, 65-86 (1956).

Marrou, H. I. A History of Education in Antiquity. New York: Mentor Books, 1956.

Merlan, Philip. “The Origin of the Quadrivium.” From Platonism to Neoplatonism, Ch. 4. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1975.

Nicomachus of Gerasa. Introduction to Arithmetic. Annapolis: The St. John’s College Press, 1955.

Paetow, John L. The Arts Course at Medieval Universities with Special Reference to Grammar and Rhetoric. Dubuque: Reprint Library (from 1910).

Quintilian. Institutio Oratoria. Translated by H. E. Butler. Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, 1963.

Stahl, William H. Martianus Capella and the Seven Liberal Arts. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971.

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1 reply to this post
  1. “We waste no study time on piffling books, since we have chosen to read only works that repay our efforts.” As an engineer our paths have been different but decidedly near parallel.
    “Tolerating others’ opinion isn’t quite a sufficient description of the spirit of our classrooms: We try truly to hear what others say and, if we can, to appreciate their opinion rather than just to tolerate it. To us the verb “to question” does not mean “to attack” but “to elicit.”” Indeed there is no other viable way to truly learn throughout one’s life.
    Unfortunately, tolerance (much less any appreciation of the opinions or thoughts of others) by students and faculty appears to be disappearing on campusses and life in general.

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