A Stroll Through The Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences

By Richard D. Marcus

George Washington Lodge # 337 F&AM, Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin

Throughout our lives, we have heard of the liberal arts and sciences. But until we were presented with them in The Winding Stair lecture, most of us had only a vague notion of what they consisted. The Fellowcraft Degree commends Freemasons to study the Liberal Arts and Sciences, which are grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. When we study the historical background for this list, we will uncover layers of Masonic meanings for us in each of the seven areas of knowledge.

Parts of the original list date back to ancient Greece. By medieval times, the completed list had become central to educators and scholastics. The following remarkable woodblock print symbolically captures the relationship of knowledge to crafts.

This print is German from about AD 1500. It shows a goddess holding a book and a rod. She is called Wisdom or Sophia. The love of wisdom or the "philio of Sophia" is the meaning of the word Philosophy. We see Wisdom’s lifeblood pouring into all of the arts and crafts drawn as young men. All knowledge is united in this illustration. Painters, architects, musicians, and soldiers receive Wisdom.

Proverbs 9:1 says, "Wisdom hath built herself a house, she hath hewn her out seven pillars." Religious scholars have long speculated upon the seven pillars of Wisdom. Wisdom is poured out to seven vocations or callings. Wisdom also is seen presiding over branches of knowledge.

This leads us to a second woodblock print, which also is German from about the same time. This one includes clear words representing the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences. Once again a book and rod, symbols of a teacher, are held by a three-headed winged Wisdom. She oversees seven maidens.

In AD 420, Marcianus Capella in Carthage wrote an allegory of the Phoebus-Apollo, God of the Sun, presenting the Seven Liberal Arts as maids to his bride Philology, a lover of words. Thereafter, artists have illustrated the liberal arts and sciences as maids. The maids congregate around Wisdom. Knowledge is drawn within a circle. Above Wisdom are morals and theology. In the bottom corners are Aristotle and possibly Plato. But the central figures are the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences.

The Winding Stair

Youth, manhood, and age are the three stages of our lives. Likewise, the three degrees of Masonry progress from youth to manhood to maturity. The EA degree builds a foundation of brotherly love, relief, and truth. The FC degree leads us toward successful manhood with an attentive ear, an instructive tongue, and a faithful breast. The MM degree teaches us, among other things, that time and patience will accomplish all things.

We advance in life as if we were climbing a winding stair. We cannot see too far ahead. Our progress requires courage to press on as we grow and mature. We first encounter the three steps in Masonry. Next, we master our five senses as we observe our world. And we climb the steps of the seven liberal arts and sciences. Likewise, education is a process of steps up a winding stair. First grade teaches us to read and write simple ideas. We progress up the steps of schooling to abstract concepts and ideas.

There must be many fields of knowledge that could have been listed: history, chemistry, or literature. Yet this list is commended to our consideration. Why "grammar"? Why "rhetoric"? We may well ask, "Why this list and not others?"

A History of the List

The phrase, the liberal arts, comes from the Latin artes liberales. Liber is translated both as Free and Book. Much of the well-educated in antiquity disliked work. If you were indentured as an apprentice, you were not free to study what you wanted. You had to do what was assigned to you. The artes illiberales were vocational studies aimed for an economic purpose, such as a being a stonemason. So it is intriguing that speculative Masonry encourages us to study the liberal arts and sciences.

The history of the seven liberal arts and sciences is intricate, but chiefly Pythagoras, Plato, and St. Augustine play key roles in framing it.

Pythagoras, illustrated above, was not only a great mathematician and philosopher, he was a master Greek theologian. His students in the Academy looked for connections between Geometry and the Divine. His disciples sought relationships in music, arithmetic, and astronomy. Pythagoras is associated with the last four in the list of the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences. Pythagoras was at his peak around 520 BC.


 About BC 400, Plato wrote of the importance of education for citizens in The Republic. Plato (illustrated in a statue above) emphasized logic, philosophy, and dialectic. For Plato, logic represented our highest cognitive faculty. To see both sides of an argument, the pro and the con, is to understand it.

St. Augustine of Hippo left behind 5 million words that still exist today. Though he lived in the third century AD, he was the greatest teacher of rhetoric in the known world. He held that if one wished to defend truth, one must be eloquent to refute falsehood through the power of oratory. He filled out the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences with his emphasis on grammar and rhetoric.

An Orderly List

There is wisdom in the order of the items in the list. Teachers and scholastics have found these seven and their general order to be of great utility. Home-schoolers today are returning to this list to start with grammar and rhetoric in their education.

As infants, we are unable to speak. We must learn words to describe everything. Words organize our thoughts. Language is essential for learning. As we progress up the winding stairs, we learn to speak with eloquence and grace, which is rhetoric. We learn to use logic to make our arguments persuasive and true.

We advance up the lessons to higher levels of arithmetic, geometry, and music. These require abstract thinking and greater levels of concentration. As we mature in life, we gain perspective and wisdom as we enjoy the glorious works of creation, the stars and planets, astronomy, and the Divine. The order of these topics was developed over a thousand years. They continue to attract our attention today.

The Trivium

The Trivium comes from the Latin for Three Vias or roads. The first three of the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences represent a crossroads or intersection where the public meets. We could call it the public square, where the public meets to discuss the usual topics of the day: the weather and harvest.

Those who excel at quickly remembering common experience are good at "trivia." Trivia is at the center of everyday knowledge. The Trivium consists of Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic.

1. Grammar

In Genesis, the first job given to Adam is to name all things. Adam is told to name them and to have dominion over creation. Knowing the name of things gives a man authority to speak and to understand.

In elementary school or Grammar School we learn to recite the alphabet, numbers, and colors. Grammar involves words and meanings. The earliest lessons in speaking involve repetition and alliteration. We say tongue twisters and recite phrases to learn to speak. We say, "she sells sea shells by the seashore" as an articulation exercise. Children learn their own language as well as foreign languages. To learn another language, grammar and structure are essential.

Grammar can be divided into technical or exegetical grammar. Technical grammar is what most of us associate with the word grammar ― diagramming sentences with subjects and verbs. Grammar involves learning declensions for verbs and nouns. But exegetical grammar involves learning the meaning of words, their nuances, and how they fit in different settings.

We learn that deferential language is appropriate to use for speaking to those in authority over us. We are told to keep a tongue of good report in the FC Charge. The FC historical lecture directs us to have an instructive tongue so that we become better men. Grammar teaches us to speak clearly and concisely.

2. Rhetoric

A synonym for rhetoric is persuasion. To study rhetoric is to study speaking and writing to persuade others. Too often we think of rhetoric as unimportant, as in the throwaway line, "well that was just a rhetorical comment." Rhetoric is serious business: it has substance. Rhetoric is essential in the study of law and regulations. Roscoe Pound, Albert Mackey, and Allen Roberts were some of the greatest writers on Masonic jurisprudence. They were marvelously persuasive writers as well.

Influential Romans learned to speak in public with fluency and oratory. Newly initiated Entered Apprentices are invited to speak in Lodge on whatever was on their hearts. Public speaking is terrifying to some: but to Freemasons, we learn both to speak to listen to others.

Rhetoric adds force and elegance to our thoughts. As we improve in rhetoric, we captivate the hearer with both the strength of our arguments and the beauty of our expression. Our mastery of rhetoric teaches us to entreat and exhort our brethren to acts of charity. Skillful rhetoric uses tact to admonish our brothers. Rhetoric weaves praise to applaud excellence in conduct or deportment.

Discussion in lodge gives us practice in listening to train the ear. As we climb the winding stairs, we must gain mastery of our five senses. One of the moral principals taught in the FC Degree is to have an attentive ear. Listening teaches us to hear the poetry of language and word order. We know somehow that Faith, Hope, and Charity sounds better than Charity, Faith, and Hope.

Lodge discussions offer opportunities to explore styles of learning. Our oaths and promises are heard and repeated. We prepare them in our posting. We listen to historic lectures, orations, or talks on speculative Masonry. The various tokens and grips in our ritual are lessons in listening. We are asked, will you be off or from? By listening we hear the word and give the proper reply. As we talk and listen to each other in lodge, we grow in appreciation of debate and exhortation. We are brothers speaking to and listening to one another.

3. Logic

Logic is the third step of the Trivium. Logic directs and guides us after truth. It consists of a regular train of argument where we deduce or infer from the facts. Logic leads us to conclusions based on our knowledge.

We use all of our faculties of conceiving, judging, reasoning, and disposing of questions before us. Logic trains the mind to think clearly. We are charged to be good men and true. Sincerity and plain dealing should distinguish any Mason.

Dialectics is the term used to describe critical thinking. We weigh the pros and cons to find the better choice. We observe the world. As we see patterns and relationships, we begin to make predictions using inductive reasoning. Dialectics guides us to make proofs or syllogisms.

Early on, we find that you can disprove assertions easier than prove them. Reductio ad absurdum means to find a contradiction that proves the opposite. It is easy to disprove, "all elephants can fly," simply by finding one that can’t. A single observation proves that, "not all elephants can fly."

The education of our minds includes proofs and deductive reasoning. We start to see actions that help one person may not help all. We learn to avoid arguments that something is true or false simply by who says it, instead of its inherent truth.

As we advance in logic, we begin to think about proofs for the existence of God. We see the beauty of an autumn leave, so intricate and perfect. The teleological proof of God’s existence is that design in nature proves that there must have been a designer, our G.A.O.T.U.

Grammar, rhetoric, and logic are the trivium, or first three, of the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences. We are charged to polish and adorn the mind by studying them.

The Quadrivium

The Quadrivium is associated with science and learning the mysteries of the universe. Pythagoras is chiefly responsible for these four branches of science: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.

The Quadrivium means the Four Vias or paths. Where four roads converge is the center of the town or city. We leave the village of three roads and progress to the more advanced level of the city. A robust mind progresses as if upon roads or paths to the secrets of wisdom. A wise man strolls along the paths of science.

4. Arithmetic

Arithmetic involves computation or reckoning with numbers. Ignorance of numbers leaves many things unintelligible. To perceive the world accurately, we need facility with counting and measurement. Mathematics is taught step by step. We first learn to count before we learn to add and subtract. As a science, it is progressive by building skill and familiarity through frequent practice.

We develop abstract operations such as addition and multiplication. A number of Masonic writers have handed down a useful moral lesson: For the Freemason, the application of this science is to:

Add to your knowledge

Never subtract from the character of your neighbor

Multiple your benevolence to your fellow creatures

& Divide your means with those in need.

Arithmetic offers a structured system. In has rules, order, and operates in terms of equations. Balance and equality are principles learned in arithmetic that should remind us to act on the level.

There is beauty in arithmetic and mathematics. We discover symmetry and proportion. Numbers fascinates us. Leonardo Fibonacci in AD 1201 discovered that rabbits reproduced in a series of 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and 13. Ratios of any two successive numbers approach the Golden Mean, which is 1.618. The inverse of 1.618 is .618. The same digits reappear. The Parthenon was built on this same proportion of the length 161.8% of the height.

We feel awe and wonder at the beauty of mathematics. We find fractal patterns in biology, chemistry, and physics that are repeated. The Fibonacci spiral is found in conch shells

Mathematics shows that some propositions are right, and some are wrong. It indirectly teaches us about morality. There is no moral relativity here.

5. Geometry

Geometry concatenates geo and metric, or earth measurement, within it. Geometry discovers unmeasured areas by comparing them to areas already measured. Geometry is synonymous with self-knowledge, the understanding of the basic substance of our being. Freemasonry places special emphasis on geometry.

The tools of geometry are plumbs, squares, and levels. They are the basic tools of operative Masons. We use them in speculative Masonry to teach lessons of right-behavior, rectitude, and truthfulness. Our conductor in the FC degree leads us much like the apprentice is led by a Master of his trade.

The sense of seeing is developed in Geometry. We grow in perceiving which structures are in order and which ones are not well arranged. We acknowledge that geometric is the foundation of architecture.

6. Music

Music is the sixth of the seven Liberal Arts and Sciences. Pythagoras and his followers were keen on studying music as a science.

Music is part of us. Our heartbeat is the basic pattern, with sounds ranging from the first cry of a newborn baby to our last gasp for breath. The sense of hearing is improved, so that we recognize ditties and rhythms and syncopation. Clapping and singing are part of who were are as humans.

Vibrations cause sounds. Pitch is determined by the frequency of the vibrations. We learn to hear major, minor, and chromatic scales. We attempt to match the pitch of the lead singer. It takes discipline, but we achieve harmony. Many have sought to hear the sounds of the universe in radio frequency. Whole pieces of music have been dedicated to the music of the spheres.

The Senior Warden is sometimes associated with this Science, as the Warden asks for harmony in the Lodge.

7. Astronomy

Astronomy is last in this list of Arts and Sciences as we contemplate the stars and planets, and yes, the G.A.O.T.U.

Time and space seem to dwarf us. We feel tiny as we look at the Milky Way. Often it is said that the Fear of God is the Beginning of Wisdom. Looking at the universe helps to instill both fear and a sense of the glory of the universe.

The globes in the Lodge teach us to understand the rotation of the earth around the sun and the diurnal rotation of the earth. Daylight shrinks in the days before December 22nd, and then begins to lengthen. We observe this. Times and seasons are understood by contemplating astronomy.

A Charge in the Liberal Arts and Sciences

The Seven Liberal Arts & Sciences are branches of Wisdom or Learning. If we are to become better men, we should work on becoming better able to understand our world. These seven are key to learning other areas of knowledge including history and psychology. These branches are like rooms in a magnificent garden in which we should daily stroll.

There is a charge to us in these seven steps. That charge for us is to continue to be learners. Our education doesn't stop in high school or college. We are to continue to read classic literature, the Bible, biographies, history. We should see ourselves as life-long learners.

We should better comprehend the use of music, plays, and art in our lives. We should use math and geometry. We need to continue even with the Trivium to expand our vocabulary and practice writing. As we persevere in learning throughout our lives, we will become better men in Masonry.