What Is So Liberal about the Liberal Arts?

The word liberal is so misused today that it brings confusion not clarity. So what should be liberal in education? The wisdom of Seneca can help us define it.
Apr 19, 2018

I have at times attempted to define classical education by referring to the liberality of the liberal arts. Maybe I aimed too high, but surely a word that denotes generosity and freedom is favorable. That word liberal, however, is so misused today that it brings confusion not clarity. No, I’m not speaking of the political spectrum. This isn’t about a liberal bent in social issues. 

So what should be liberal in education? Is it all about having choices? In 1975, Dr. Eva Brann wrote in her article “Some Advice for Fellow Lovers of Liberal Learning,” that a first function of liberal learning is to unlearn. It serves as “a purgative, a cleansing, of those who wish to be free. By its means we can cleanse ourselves of our undigested and unconscious prejudices.”

If we consciously unlearn first, we can then see what we really know. With that, we can ask where the liberal arts lead us. Better yet, who do they lead us to? The simplest explanation I have found lies in the words of the Stoic Seneca.

Born in Spain a year or two before Christ was born in Bethlehem, Seneca was educated in Rome and quickly became a senator, essayist, playwright, poet, and advisor to Nero. Seneca speaks of the liberal arts as a liberal or generous study in his essay “On Liberal and Vocational Studies.” Though the word is derived from one that once meant a freed slave, he defines “liberal” as “that which gives a man his liberty. These are the liberal arts. They are generous because they deal with the study of wisdom, and that is lofty, brave, and great-souled. All other subjects are puny and puerile.” 

Not everyone agrees with Seneca’s definition. For some, liberal arts should be a sprinkling, a light taste, of every kind of knowledge available. Forget the renaissance man when a dash of this and a pinch of that will do. Seneca would disagree. He felt that those who don’t believe in the generous study of wisdom should at least choose to study onesubject because it can make men good.

His examples show us more than the facts of history or the study of story. Seneca says we could investigate factual questions like whether Homer or Hesiod was the older poet. We could determine whether Achilles or Patroclus are a certain age. We could ask where did Odysseus really travel, where did he stray to in storm after storm. But why? Seneca’s point here is that facts alone don’t make us better or bring us towards virtue. Seneca’s refrain becomes one of applying knowledge:

“But we ourselves encounter storms of the spirit, which toss us daily, and our depravity drives us into all the ills which troubled Odysseus. For us, there is never lacking the beauty to tempt our eyes, or the enemy to assail us; on this side are savage monsters, on that the treacherous allurements of the ear, and yonder is shipwreck and all the varied category of misfortunes. Show me rather the example of Odysseus, how I am to love my country, my wife, my father, and how, even after suffering shipwreck, I am to sail to these honorable ends.” 

Applying what is learned through the story, we realize these experiences can prepare the soul for truth. Seneca extends his argument to other subjects as well:

“Consider the musician. You sir, teach me how the treble and bass are in accord, and how the strings produce different notes; the result is harmony; rather bring my soul into harmony with itself. Let my purposes not be out of tune. You show me the doleful keys; show me rather how in the midst of adversity I may keep from uttering a doleful note.

“The mathematician teaches me how to lay out the dimensions of my estate; but I should rather be taught how to lay out what is enough for a man to own. What good is there for me in knowing how to parcel out a piece of land, if I know not how to share it with my brother?”

Seneca addresses the lawyer, the astronomer, and others, essentially asking the same question: Of what benefit is our knowledge if we don’t know how to live? Does any of our knowledge nourish virtue? Yes, knowledge can equip the mind, but virtue gives life purpose. This—this is the only life of value according to most Stoics. 

In his Letters Seneca writes that virtue is the good. It is the only thing of true benefit. Health and wealth are valuable yet not good in the same way. For the Stoics, virtue is the ideal of liberal learning and the end of man. Yet Seneca left out the most critical question. Where does this virtue come from? 

As Christ-followers we acknowledge that any goodness or virtue within us is from God. We cannot create it, though we can choose well. And maybe that idea—the concept of choice—is the most generous of all. There is no higher liberality. While we were yet sinners, He died for us. Our choice in education is liberal because we apply knowledge in hope of God’s wisdom, His understanding, as we seek to know the world we live in.

Christine Norvell

Christine Norvell

Christine Norvell is a longtime educator living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with her husband and three sons. She has played cello since she was eleven and currently teaches high school literature and humanities classes at a classical Christian school. 

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