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A Quadrivium Developed: Christianized Liberal Arts (Part Two)

In our first article, we looked at the development of the subjects comprising the seven liberal arts with specific attention given to the quadrivium. In this article, we will focus on how the seven liberal arts were Christianized. Hopefully, this will give us some background for part three of this article series when we will examine how the quadrivium would have been taught within the medieval university.

Today’s liberal arts education is not what it used to be. Not only have the subjects become entirely different, the philosophy behind the goal of a liberal arts education has also changed. The Greek culture sought the subjects that would later become the trivium and quadrivium in order to shape the moral character (virtue) of individuals so that they could embrace roles of citizenship for the sake of the state. Education was intended to serve the purpose of a community of people. No doubt, this focus on community compared to focusing on the individual appealed to Christian educators who sought education reforms through Scriptural principles.

In the third and fourth centuries, most Christians opposed the seven liberal arts. It was believed that Roman civilization had inserted pagan teachers and philosophers who destroyed the good of the liberal arts. This reason primarily originated from the application of these subjects being set within a context of pagan mythology and the forced assimilation of pagan gods. The context of Christian persecution in the first few centuries influenced a negative perception of the liberal arts even more. Many Christians could not reconcile their persecutors’ education system given the terrible torture they received for not submitting and participating in the worship of Roman deities and political figures. Some of the most significant Christian fathers to have communicated a public disdain for these pagan schools and philosophers were Origen, Tertullian, and Jerome. These men and their outspoken views against such schools and philosophers influenced many Christians to stay away from the classical traditions of these pagan schools.i This disdain was far more focused on the teachers and schools rather than the actual subjects being taught. Over time, this context influenced negative perceptions among Christians regarding the subjects being taught at these schools.

Early in the fourth century, Christian ideals began to expand. With the reign of Constantine the Great, Christianity was on the rise and eventually it became the governing religion within the Roman Empire. The reasons for Constantine’s attraction to Christianity are unknown, but history points to his reign as having a significant influence on the growth of Christianity. At the end of the fourth century, Christian ideals had triumphed over paganism. Due to Constantine’s passion for the growth of Christianity, Christians were now securing the most prominent offices within the Roman Empire. This new authority provoked many new discussions and questions regarding the relationship between Christianity and the old traditions taught in the pagan schools. Specifically, many believed pagan literature, rhetoric, and dialectic to be of significant value for teaching Christian theology.ii One of the most prominent advocates for the implementation of pagan subjects within a Christian context was St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430). St. Augustine promoted the use of pagan philosophy and art on the grounds that they were necessary for the understanding of Scripture. He argued that all truth, wherever it is found, belongs to God. Later, in the Middle Ages, Augustine’s treatise, De Doctrina Christiana, became the most extensively cited authority for Christians’ use of the pagan liberal arts. Augustine’s view is summarized in this excerpt from chapter 18 of his treatise:

Let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master; and while he recognizes and acknowledges the truth, even in their religious literature, let him reject the figments of superstition.

In this same treatise, Augustine paints a beautiful parallel between the Israelites and the Egyptians at the time of the Exodus in order to give biblical proof that Christians are called to search out truth and, in part, redeem truth from the clutches of evil. Read more about this argument of Augustine’s from Wesley Callihan’s article entitled “Plundering the Egyptians.”

It has not been proven that Augustine claimed the exact seven liberal arts that we briefly outlined in part one of this article series, A Quadrivium Developed (Part One). However, there is evidence that Augustine records seven liberal arts and does not mention more. Are these the same as Capella’s seven liberal arts from The Marriage of Philology to Mercury? Scholars and historians cannot prove this to be exact, but many have speculated this to be true given Augustine’s thorough use of Capella’s work. As a reminder, Capella’s work, The Marriage of Philology to Mercury, was an allegorical treatise in which he takes the subjects of M. Terentius Varro’s education system and describes them in a Greek mythological context.iii Despite Capella’s original intention for his treatise, Christians began teaching and citing The Marriage of Philology to Mercury for its basic biblical truths and eventually adopted the book as a Christian study. In this appreciation, the “seven disciplines” became a study requirement for church leaders. This treatise became prominent in the development of the seven liberal arts and was, eventually, one of the most popular books among teachers of the liberal arts during the Middle Ages. Today, scholars and readers alike are baffled as to how such a “dull” book had such significant influence on the education of Western Europe for so long.iv

Another prominent figure for the role of Christianizing the liberal arts was Senator Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus (AD 468-569). Cassiodorus was known primarily for his writing, Introduction to Divine Human Letters. Both volumes found in this writing support Augustine’s claims regarding the importance of the liberal arts as preparatory studies for the sacred. Interestingly, Cassiodorus claimed that the seven pillars of wisdom mentioned in Proverbs 9:1 was a specific reference to the seven liberal arts. The number seven became enough for most Christian leaders to support the seven liberal arts as a divinely sanctioned curriculum. With Cassiodorus, the medieval curriculum began inching ever closer to being a fixed study for religion. Cassiodorus’ constant use of both Martianus Capella and philosopher Boethius eventually gained attention from later scholarship where studies in the works of these figures amplified the philosophy behind the seven liberal arts taught within the medieval universities. While there are other notable figures who could be given credit, Augustine and Cassiodorus are considered the two main figures for the final transition of the pagan arts into medieval Christendom.v

In our next article, we will look at some of the major figures that influenced the way the subjects of the quadrivium were taught in the medieval university. We will also look at some of the philosophies that surrounded these subjects in order to assess how math, music, and astronomy would have been taught when the quadrivium was alive and well.


i Paul Abelson, The Seven Liberal Arts: A Study in Medieval Culture, Teacher’s College Columbia University, New York, 1906, pg. 7.

ii Ibid. pg. 8.

iii Andrew Fleming West, The Seven Liberal Arts, essay originally published in Alcuin and the Rise of the Christian Schools, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912, pg. 3

iv Bruce A. Kimball, The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Documentary History, pg. 55-56

v Abelson, pg. 9

CATEGORIES: Articles, Classical Christian Education, Dialectic Stage (ages 12 to 14), Grammar Stage (ages 4 to 11), Rhetoric Stage (ages 14 to 18)

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