The Theosophical Society in America

From the Editor's Desk

Printed in the Spring 2014 issue of Quest magazine. 
SmoleyRichard. "From the Editor's Desk" Quest  102. 2 (Spring  2014): pg. 42

Richard_SmoleyIt seems that the more general your topic, the more likely you are to write in platitudes. Thus for this issue, I won't try to discuss education as a whole, but will limit myself to one finite arena: the state of the liberal arts, which, it is widely said, is in crisis.

The percentage of students majoring in such traditional subjects as English and history continues to decline, and others, such as classics, seem destined to evaporate entirely. There is, of course, the usual amount of lamenting about this sorry situation. Rather than add to it, I would like to step back and look at what liberal arts education is and was meant to be.

What is so "liberal" about the liberal arts? They have nothing to do with political affiliation or social mores. In fact the term is derived from the Latin liber, "free." The liberal arts curriculum was traditionally that of the free man—free not only in a political but in an economic sense. It was the education of those who did not have to work for a living and could devote their studies to improving themselves. Unlike the technical or mechanical arts, which worked on materials such as stone or wood, with the liberal arts, the material upon which one worked was oneself.

There is an esoteric component to this idea. In the original schema, which goes back at least to the Roman author Martianus Capella in the fifth century A.D., there are seven liberal arts, and they have a specific order. Moreover, each of these arts corresponds to one of the planets and luminaries known in antiquity. In ascending order, they are:
The Moon   grammar
Mercury   logic
Venus   rhetoric
The Sun   arithmetic
Mars   music
Jupiter   geometry
Saturn   astronomy

These correspondences were well-known in the Western tradition and appear, for example, in the Convivio of Dante and in the tympanum of the Door of the Virgin at Chartres cathedral. Some of the attributions are easier to see than others: Mercury, associated with the reasoning mind, is naturally connected with logic, while Venus, the planet of beauty, is connected with rhetoric, with presenting ideas in a beautiful and compelling way.

Furthermore, the sequence of these arts is portrayed as an ascent. As such they are connected with the esoteric idea of the soul's progress as an ascent through the concentric spheres of the heavens. This path is depicted in a positive fashion in Dante's Paradiso and in a negative fashion—as liberation from a series of evil planetary archon—in the Hermetic text known as the Poimandres, as well as in many other places.

These arts were not exactly the same as we conceive them: music did not so much involve playing an instrument as studying the harmonics innate in musical relations. Astronomy was inseparable from astrology until the seventeenth century. In any event, the liberal arts were originally seen as a curriculum aimed at inner development; they were not merely meant to imbue students with a hodgepodge of general knowledge. 

Over the centuries, the original schema of the seven liberal arts collapsed along with the medieval view of the cosmic order, and so did the goal of providing the student with a holistic view of the world. Now they are envisaged as training the mind to think clearly and critically without necessarily teaching students any specific skills.

Nevertheless, the liberal arts served comparatively well even for careers until the last generation or so. Up to that point, a college education was rare enough that it came close to guaranteeing employment somewhere regardless of what the degree was in. Today it is different. The abundance of college graduates, along with a tight job market, means that the liberal arts degree has lost its old cachet, and students are drifting toward more technical and vocational majors, such as business or engineering—the exact opposites of the liberal arts as traditionally conceived.

It's naive to assert that some particular historical development is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing. Realities are what they are, and no amount of editorializing will change them. But these reflections lead me to wonder if the liberal arts will not eventually go back to their original role of serving as an education for those who are free from economic concerns. It would be odd, of course, if the tremendous democratization of education during the last couple of centuries were to lead to this result, but this kind of reversal seems to happen often in history. If this development does occur, it will unfortunately lower the general level of culture and thought. But as a kind of compensation, it may allow this curriculum, in some new and reimagined form, to serve as a means of inner development.

Richard Smoley