The Liberal ArtsDefinition and Division[Record]

  • Robert Smith

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  • Robert Smith, F.S.C.

The Liberal Arts DEFINITION AND DIVISION In the beginning of the Metaphysics, Aristotle speaks of art as something that arises “ when from many experiences a single universal judgment is produced1.” In accordance with this very general definition, he speaks of the skill of the builder, the carpenter, and the doctor as an art, and in the same place he refers to the logical disciplines and mathematics as being equally arts2. He distinguishes between these various pursuits by saying that some of them are ordered to the necessities of life (servile arts like carpentry), others to the acquiring of the sciences (logic), while still others have no utility since the knowledge of them (mathematics) is an end in itself3. Commenting on this passage, St. Thomas speaks of the mathe­ matical arts as maximae speculativae4. This general use of the term “ art” to refer both to practical skills and speculative disciplines has been retained steadily since the time of Aristotle. It has been, and still is, the custom to speak of sculpture and medicine as arts and to refer to the “ liberal arts” of logic and mathematics. Despite the venerableness of this usage and despite its universality, the use of the same term for such widely different things may well be a source of confusion. It is only natural for men to judge what is less known to them by what is more known. In the matter of art, we know best the servile arts and the fine arts, like sculpture and painting. If the term “ art” were to be applied in the same sense to them and to logic or mathematics, confusion would necessarily result. It is doubtless for this reason that in the passage under consideration Aristotle himself refers us to the Ethics for a proper distinction between science and art. As St. Thomas remarks: Since he had used the names art, wisdom and science as it were indifferently, lest anyone should think these names synonymous, or having almost the same meaning, he removes this opinion, and refers us to the book on moral acts, that is to the sixth book of the Ethics, where it is stated in what manner science and art, and wisdom, understanding of principles and prudence differ5. 1. Metaphysics, I, chap.l, 981a6. 2. Ibid., 981al5, 981bl5. 3. Ibid., 981b25. 4 . In I Metaphysicarum, lect.l (ed. C a t h a l a ) , n.33. 5. In I Metaph., lect.l, n.34: “Sed quia usus nomine artis fuerat et sapientiae et scientiae quasi indifferenter, ne aliquis putet haec omnia esse nomina synonyma idem penitus significantia, hanc opinionem removet, et remittit ad librum moralium, idest ad sextum Ethicorum, ubi dictum est, in quo differant scientia et ars et sapientia et prudentia et intellectus.” IIn the sixth book of the Ethics, Aristotle distinguishes two parts of the rational soul: a scientific part according to which we consider things whose principles are unchanging, and an opinionative part which considers chan­ geable things1. An example of an object which is unchanging in its nature is the predicamental number four, and an example of something which is naturally mutable is the stock market or a piece of stone. Those things that are by their nature unchanging and fixed can be objects of certain knowledge. When we know their causes, we can see why it is that they are of necessity what they are. This it is to have science in the strict sense2. We can consider changeable things either in order to regulate our moral conduct with respect to them, or in order that we may change them ...