Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

The Liberal Arts and the Virtues: A Thomistic History

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

The Liberal Arts and the Virtues: A Thomistic History

Article excerpt

When philosophy stood stainless in honor and wise in judgment, then, as facts and constant experience showed, the liberal arts flourished as never before or since; but, neglected and almost blotted out, they lay prone, since philosophy began to lean to error and join hands with folly.


Although the importance of the liberal arts is self-evident to many, the present crisis in the humanities has revealed the need for better defenses of their unique goals and worth. One of the most interesting attempts to take up this challenge argues that the humanities offer special instruction in questions of value. While disagreement about the canon and much else remains, there is a growing, if fragile, consensus that the liberal arts can benefit students morally.

As evidence for this, one might turn to a spate of new books that defend the study of the humanities as an inherently moral activity. Martha Nussbaum and Andrew Delbanco have recently argued that the humanities encourage forms of imagination and empathy necessary for full moral development. Mark Roche commends the liberal arts for their ability to groom the virtues of attentiveness and intellectual courage. Anthony Kronman has claimed that a liberal education is indispensable in helping students discern and take responsibility for their chosen moral identities. Their arguments reflect the views of an increasing number of educators. A recent study found that 70 percent of surveyed faculty believed that courses in the humanities should "develop moral character" and 66 percent responded that liberal education ought to "help students develop personal values." Both numbers represent sharp increases from three years earlier. (1)

The warm reception these books have received is not surprising. In the face of mounting financial and academic pressures, the need for a compelling justification of the liberal arts is undeniably pressing. Greater scrutiny is nonetheless warranted, perhaps especially for Catholic institutions seeking to promote the humanities through appeals to their ability to cultivate students' moral capacities. (2) The question I wish to raise can be found in Seneca's 88th letter: Do the liberal arts impart virtue? At the time Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius, pagan philosophers and orators had debated the question for almost five centuries. Seneca himself took a middle position between those defending the perfective powers of a liberal education and those skeptical that virtue could be taught, arguing that the liberal arts provided students an essential foundation for acquiring good character later in life. What Seneca did not foresee, and what he plainly could not take into account, was that this debate would soon be joined by Christians, who would in time radically alter the content and aims of liberal education. Since it now seems we are poised to relive this debate, or at least positioned to learn from it, I think it might be worth recalling some of the ways Christian thinkers in the West struggled to explain the relation between the liberal arts and the virtues. This is a large and many-sided topic and one that cannot be undertaken through a conventional history of the extensive Christian borrowing of pagan learning; nor, I think, should our theme be confused with a history of the individual liberal disciplines.

I am instead interested in reflecting morally on the activity of humanistic study itself. How might liberal education perfect or corrupt human character? Is there a connection between the liberal arts and the virtues? My attempt to provide some answers will focus on St. Thomas Aquinas's attempted resolution of a problem that remained curiously unsettled in early Christian thought. The essay comes in two parts. The first is historical and will broadly describe the state of the question as Aquinas inherited it. In his reflections on the liberal arts Aquinas is commenting, both explicitly and implicitly, on a number of received authorities, and his positions will be better understood when set against a background that includes Greek philosophy, early Christian thought, and the writings of St. …

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