The Province of the Liberal Arts

Allegory of the flourishing state of the Republic, 1602 Emblema Hodierni  rerum status Belgica foederata (title object) Allegory of the flourishing  state of the Republic, 1602. Face in the forest with princeTrue learning does not consist solely of systematizing highly specialized observations, though this task features significantly in the natural sciences. Rather, an integrated individual learns on two levels, which can be termed the specific and the foundational. To the former province belong the natural sciences and to the latter-the liberal arts.

I have termed the liberal arts foundational precisely because they establish that general context within which the pursuit of knowledge is possible in the first place. Building a spaceship is quite a feat, but, before one even begins, one’s liberal arts background should inform him that technological progress and space exploration are desirable in the first place. Writing a paper on the interactions between DNA and its packaging proteins is a mighty task, and one must first know how to write. Building a future through the achievements of the hard sciences is a heroic endeavor, and the man who undertakes it must have rational art, music, and literature to serve as his spiritual fuel, to establish a vision of the future he seeks.

Moreover, questions exist that the special sciences alone cannot answer, but on which their success depends. Do we live in an absolute reality? Are we empowered by our reason to comprehend it, or are we doomed to wander amid a state of perpetual flux? Is man to use his own autonomous judgment, or to submit unquestioningly to the pressures, regulations, and dictates of others? Moreover, what type of society is worthy of man, and what characteristics does it have? The liberal arts, through the propositions of philosophy, the characters and plots of literature, and the sense of life captured in painting and music, can provide these answers.

The liberal arts’ concern for a unique realm of human existence does not render them any less objective, rational, or scientific, however. The skillful use of language is a science with its own principles, just as music is a science, based on logical harmonies. Ethics is a science capable of delineating a moral code for man to pursue in consistency with his nature as a volitional, reasoning entity. Economics is a science explicating universal laws of human action and applying them to the phenomena of human value-trading. The liberal arts are sciences based foremost not on specific observations, but on general ones, which are ubiquitously accessible to every human being, if he would only focus on them and derive their logical implications. The liberal arts begin with the senses that all men have in common, and seek to derive truths that are, too, common to the human experience.

Too often has it been claimed that there are no standards in the liberal arts, that they are, in effect, a relativistic free-for-all where “anything goes.” However, a concerted study of any liberal arts discipline will demonstrate the contrary. This is the fundamental purpose of examining the liberal arts: to learn that reason, standards, and systems do not stop with the hard sciences, but are rather essential in every domain, from discovering the meaning of life to discovering the meaning of a note well played or an image well rendered.