The Role of Literature within the Liberal Arts Philosophy

I deliver a lecture on the liberal arts philosophy to students in all of my classes, adjusting it for the needs of the particular class. This is a formalized version of the lecture I wrote in preparation for my Introduction to Literature class, more detailed and technical than the version I deliver orally. Sister Miriam Joseph’s book, The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric and Dorothy Sayers’ essay “The Lost of Tools of Learning” substantially informs this lecture, as do several other treatises on the liberal arts. Because this is a synthesis of numerous readings from an extensive tradition, I do not cite my sources, but it should be noted that I make no claims to originality in this presentation. In fact, my aim here is to be as traditionalist as I can in presenting the system, though I cannot help but imprint my own patterns of thought upon the material as I see it.

The notion of the liberal arts is not merely a set curriculum or program of study. The liberal arts curriculum has been developing for well over two thousand years, since at least the time of Plato, Aristotle, and the city-states of ancient Greece. Although it was Christian pedagogues of the early Church that established the historic liberal arts curriculum in the western world (drawing, by turn, on the work of late Roman educators), the concept is not exclusive to any one worldview or time period.

Liberos means, in context, a free adult, a matured citizen, and an art is a definable subject matter with particular methods to that subject’s study. In its conception, therefore, the liberal arts constitute a course of study not suitable merely for children, or only for obscure academic study. It is also not, however, simply a pragmatic or utilitarian view of education – being educated, from a liberal arts perspective, contributes to a more full experience of our own humanity and the humanity of others. Anicent Greece was, unfortunately, classist and sexist in its liberal arts institutions, excluding slaves and often women from many elements of the curriculum (though there have always been detractors of social wrongs in such societies). The modern liberal arts perspective, though still founded on many profound insights of the Grecian period, holds that education promotes the fulfillment of individuals’ intellectual, spiritual, vocational, public and personal lives, regardless of gender, race, religion, or social status. This is the ideal to which we strive.

Cultivating philosophy, the love of wisdom, is the object or intended achievement of the liberal arts curriculum. This surely includes the logical investigations of the philosophy department in the modern university, but the classical understanding of philosophy is a multi-disciplinary pursuit, where individuals explore a fuller range of their potential. Three elements understood together create the Liberal Arts Philosophy: 1. Human Nature as broadly teleological, 2. A Hierarchy of Values which defines the priorities of what human life ought to be dedicated towards, and 3. A rationally ordered and set curriculum that helps individuals to discover their place in the community and the value of vocations different from our own. The following explication of these three are especially drawn from the works of Dorothy Sayers and Miriam Joseph, though they can be found in liberal arts pedagogues down through the centuries.

  1. Human Nature is broadly teleological. By teleological, I mean that the liberal arts philosophy holds that there is an achievable goal for all human beings to better appreciate of what people are capable. Human beings have natural virtues, or potential capabilities, that can be refined. While a knife has the singular function of cutting (an example from Aristotle’s treatise on virtue ethics, The Nichomachean Ethics), human beings have many virtues, many fitting functions, and to never attempt to develop those virtues is a sad negligence of our unique status as humans. Improvement of our virtues – or, more precisely, making our potential virtues actual virtues – is inherently good for each of us. Our virtuous pursuits can be roughly categorized in one of two ways: pursuits of the life of the mind and pursuits of the active life. It is not possible to ignore either of these and remain virtuous, because the two depend on each other in numerous ways. Formal education emphasizes the life of the mind, partly to give individuals time to develop those virtues for their own sake, but also so that they will serve in their communities with greater communal efficacy and deeper personal fulfillment. This leads us to the hierarchy of values within the liberal arts philosophy.
  2. The Hierarchy of Values. This is a threefold, but fluid, hierarchy. Primary, or inherent, values are those sought for their own sake, more or less – they have self-explanatory purpose. Miriam Joseph, author of The Trivium, lists as examples “virtue, health, happiness, and knowledge.” Secondary, or useful goods, help us to more effectively pursue primary goods. These include, according to Joseph, “food, medicine, money, tools, and books,” goods which help us to achieve desired states in the order of primary goods, but which can lead us astray if excessively privileged. Tertiary, or ornamental goods, are not necessary for either secondary or primary goods; they are the “icing on the cake,” so to speak, and contribute to our satisfaction but not to happiness or joy. They should not be the primary focus of our energies, but also shouldn’t be ignored. Often I use with my students the example of my ties – I wear a unique tie for each day I am on a given campus during a semester, because I like ties and have bought several and been given many more as gifts. This gives me some pleasure, but I could do my job just as well, and be more or less as satisfied with my life, if I only had enough ties to wear a different one each day of the week (supposing there is some utility, i.e. secondary value, to having ties as someone who speaks in front of people professionally).
    It is fair to note that many goods occupy two or three of these at once to some degree, but can usually be more or less fit into one place. The primary value of reading good literature is that it allows us to imagine more profoundly and more actively; literature’s useful value is that it improves our critical thinking and communication skills, helping us to perceive others in a more sympathetic light and engage other disciplines in a more thorough way. The ornamental value of literature is that it may be entertaining, exciting, or pleasurable to read, but a personal preference for a piece of literature is not necessary for the first two, even though this third one is still valuable. In fact, part of the primary of value of literature is not only that it allows us to discover what we find meaningful and beautiful, but to discover what others find meaningful and beautiful, even if others do not. In that way, sometimes reading a text we find unpleasant may have more value than reading one we prefer.
  3. A Rational, Pedagogical Curriculum. The liberal arts curriculum, according to its philosophy, attempts to unlock virtues of primary value in students by having them encounter foundational arts that will be beneficial to the challenge of learning more sophisticated disciplines. Those arts are organized as arts of communication, arts of organization, arts of application, and arts of production. The first three are emphasized in the university because classroom education is geared towards the life of the mind, although the active life ought to be developed as well.

Trivium – the three arts essential to language’s capacity for promoting thought and communication. These are grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

Grammar – This art uses and interprets language correctly (syntax, spelling, speech and essay writing, literary meaning)

Logic – This art uses languages in a valid way that coherently places sound conclusions after premises. It includes argumentation, syllogisms, fallacies, proper relationship of information to interpretation to produce knowledge.

Rhetoric – This art uses language in a persuasive way that moves the audience to find your message important and likely to be true. It involves argumentation, essay and speech writing, literary analysis and literary composition. The features of ethos, pathos, and logos (persuasions of personal character, emotional motivations, and arguments and information) are essential to the art.

Quadrivium – These are the arts of organization, and they include arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.

Application – Application puts the arts of the trivium and quadrivium into contact with particular, historical institutions, and includes history, politics, economics, law, the sciences, business, and medicine.

Production – Arts of production, ideally, consider the best application of the trivium and quadrivium recommended by the other arts, and includes manufacturing, farming, painting, musical composition, and publishing works of fiction and non-fiction.

Imaginative literature is the primary cross-roads of the disciplines (while theology is the primary cross-destination of the disciplines, which can be asserted regardless of theological commitments). Good understanding of literature requires philosophical, historical and literary knowledge. It allows us to imagine places we have not been, real and imagined, and depicts interpersonal skills as well as disciplinary skills with people we haven’t met and knowledge we don’t yet have. Study of any discipline, the energy required to fully develop one’s skills in that field, is the result of a strong imagination that can see the value of the field for the community. It also reveals our personal virtues. A clear-sighted, powerful imagination better grasps what we can contribute within the discipline we pursue, helps us to explore and discover our identities, and to engage our personal relationships in a clearer way.

We all possess the natural capacity to imagine, and this may be stronger or weaker depending on our inclinations, preferences, and experiences. The imagination is a virtue of the mind with poignant application both in a variety of aspects of the life of the mind and the life of action, and developing it has a primary value for achieving a fuller range of intellectual abilities. But it has secondary value as well for our other studies, because it teaches disciplined focus of mental energy to a single task, as well as others. Finally, it may produce great entertainment and enjoyment, especially as our imaginations become more highly developed. The study of literature involves the development of the virtue of imagination in an essentially unique way. A developed imagination perceives beauty more easily, and takes pleasure in more difficult products of imagination, leading to more fulfilling experiences in whatever types of literature we might prefer. That is the role, I believe, of imaginative literature in the liberal arts curriculum.

One thought on “The Role of Literature within the Liberal Arts Philosophy

  1. Man. Every time I hear you guys talk about this stuff, it makes me want to learn more. And then I feel dwarfed again by the infinite volume of things I do not — and will never — know. It’s quite humbling and inspiring and daunting at once.

    Like

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