Why “the liberal arts” has nothing to do with being left-wing
And why hating them is pointless and wrong
WARNING! This is an essay. I’ve tried to keep it pretty simple for a newcomer to understand, but it’s an essay and a slightly long one at that. However, I do think it’s important stuff!
BUT, I know that the Internet has a short attention span so there’s a TL;DR at the end!
To the majority of the English speaking world, the term “liberal” has come to be associated with the left wing, with welfare, with social policies favouring the working classes over the upper classes and aristocracy, and at the extreme end with communism and other non-capitalist economic systems. The notable exception is Australia where, due to the presence of the conservative Australian Liberal Party (ALP), the term “liberal” means “conservative or right-wing”, but even here we understand what’s being said when non-Australians talk about “liberals”.
But one thing recently has been really irritating me, and it’s Americans talking derisively about so-called liberal arts degrees. As a medical scientist I study those things that are firmly within the realms of the natural sciences, but I’m also a student of ancient history, anthropology, mythology, and many other areas often considered parts of the liberal arts. Right-wing Americans often refer to “liberal arts” degrees as being the “product of feminism and communism” (whilst wrong, there’s nothing wrong with a
bit of lot of both of those), and think that because they’re liberal arts this must mean they’re left-wing arts.
The thing is… the term has nothing whatsoever to do with this. In fact, it’s actual root is something that almost all Americans, and indeed Westerners, would support wholeheartedly - freedom. Specifically, the term Liberal Arts originated during the Renaissance (from rinascimento, literally “rebirth”), a period of reformations in the studies of the sciences, arts, humanities and other areas of intellectual and philosophical pursuits. The Renaissance primarily originated in the city-states of Italy, France, and other continental European powers. Whilst it spread to the UK and other areas later, this was it’s true birthplace and this really showed in the terminology of the day. Pre-Renaissance ways of thinking were described as “Old World beliefs”, and the Renaissance men (though women were often involved, 1500s men most certainly would never include us) preferred to describe themselves as “New World thinkers”. The language of the day was primarily Italian but since most of the Renaissance thinkers were educated academics communicating with other academics in potentially new countries, they instead chose to speak almost entirely in Latin and Ancient Greek to “aid comprehension” (and help keep the plebeians from understanding too).
Two such Latin terms for new branches of knowledge were two of the most general branches of which Renaissance thinkers could conceive. These were Artes Mechanicae, and Artes Liberales - literally “the mechanical arts” and “the liberal arts”. I’ll explain both, though I’ll only explain the Mechanicae briefly.
The Mechanical Arts
The Mechanical Arts dealt with those features of the world that were considered “mechanistic” or… well, for want of a better word, menial. They were basically all of the things that the aristocratic Renaissance thinkers described as being necessary for the world to actually function, but were “unbecoming” for a gentlemen. Basically, the things people actually needed, but didn’t necessarily want to do themselves. They were classified into seven rather arbitrary categories:
- Agricultura - Agriculture, farming
- Architectura - Architecture, building
- Coquinaria - Cooking
- Mercatura - Trade
- Metallaria - Metallurgy
- Militia et venatoria - Warfare and hunting
- Vestiaria - Tailoring
Anything that wasn’t something an aristocrat wanted to do? Mechanical art.
The Liberal Arts
The Liberal Arts dealt with those features of the world that were necessary for free men to understand. That’s the reason they’re called the artes liberales, literally the Free Arts - because they were the subjects (artes) that free-thinking and politically free aristocrats (classism is inherently built into the Renaissance) were expected to understand in order that they might rule the lands effectively. The terms are a little more complex than the seven above, but I’ll explain.
Prior to the Renaissance, the Medieval concept of the artes liberales was divided into the trivium, and the quadrivium. Later, subjects derived from the trivium became the early bachelor of arts, and the more ancient quadrivium became the early master of arts.
Trivium (”the three paths”):
- Grammar - “Why is the world the way it is?”; understanding the world through the senses and through observing. A tree is a tree, and not a cat.
- Logic - “How can I think about the world?”; understanding logical conclusions, avoiding logical fallacies, and coming to accurate conclusions. A tree is a tree because it has leaves and cats have 4 legs and no leaves, therefore it is not a cat.
- Rhetoric - “How can I tell others about the world?”; conveying, through appropriate language, what you have discovered through observation and logical thought. I will tell you that a tree is not a cat, and this is how I know.
This kind of underlies what the ancient people, especially the Greeks, thought about the world - that it could be understood entirely through thought, and that experimentation was not required.
Quadrivium (”the four paths”):
- Arithmetic - Basically, mathematics as it deals with numbers.
- Geometry - Mathematics as it deals with shapes. This is important, because the Greeks and the Medieval people did not believe that numbers and shapes were necessarily the same thing, and geometry was taught FIRST.
- Music - The study of music, but also of songs and poetry, and of how they shape human understanding and thought.
- Astronomy - And also often astrology; the study of the stars, constellations, and often of divination through the stars.
One was taught the quadrivium only after one was first taught the trivium - the ancients believed that before we taught people how to learn about the world, they must first be taught how to learn.
These subjects formed the basis of the Liberal Arts, and thought the later Renaissance thinkers replaced studying logic and grammar with studying history and ethics, it was basically the same.
As a result… basically all Liberal Arts degrees from that point onwards were about those things. Liberal Arts were considered the things you needed to know in order to be a free-thinking human being, nothing at all to do with “liberalism” and “left-wing politics”. In fact, many arts students in the first days of universities and further education considered politics to be a sort of modern Mechanical Art - necessary for the world to function… but ultimately, not something that “freethinking” people should concern themselves with.
Ultimately the liberal arts today are much more diverse and much less classist than they were at the time of their first conception. Subjects such as literature, archaeology, linguistics, history, philosophy, logic, morality, theology, psychology, musical studies, and a huge array of other disciplines are included under the banner of the Liberal Arts, but I think that it’s always important to remember what the “liberal” in “Liberal Arts” truly stands for.
It stands for our
Freedom To Be People
– Juniper Wildwalk