Interview With Dr. Jeffrey Lehman

compiled by Wes Wright

Hillsdale College greatly values its core, those classes that unite us and provide an introit into the liberal arts. With Russell Kirk we recognize the ability of the liberal arts to order one’s soul, to turn one’s attention to the higher things. Yet while we can speak of the liberal arts generally, it is often difficult for Hillsdale students to justify their interpretive or theoretical viewpoints. Lamda Iota Tau’s lectures on literary theory and classes like The History and Philosophy of History currently seek to remedy this issue, and we at The Hillsdale Forum thought a discussion of the classical division of disciplines would add to the conversation.

We spoke with Dr. Jeffrey Lehman about the traditional understanding of arts and sciences:

How were arts and sciences traditionally understood?

Although the terms “art” and “science” were used in various ways throughout Western history, one typical way was to see them as distinct yet complementary forms of knowledge that result from man’s reasoning about himself, the world, and God. For the ancients, an “art” (Greek techne, Latin ars) was knowledge of how to make or do something; it was knowledge that yielded a “product” of some sort. A “science”, on the other hand, was something that began with self-evident principles and yielded universal knowledge of the natures of things—whether plants or animals, angels or God. Some pursuits were arts and not sciences, some sciences and not arts, some both. For example, geometry was considered a science insofar as it began with self-evident principles and worked out the universal, necessary implications of those principles (e.g., Proposition 1.47 of Euclid’s Elements: In right-angled triangles the square on the side subtending the right angle is equal to the squares on the sides containing the right angle). Geometry was considered an art insofar as it leads to knowledge of how to “make” certain things—ultimately, the five “perfect solids” (i.e., the tetrahedron [pyramid], octahedron, cube, icosahedron, and dodecahedron). The construction of these solids is the crowning achievement of Euclid’s Elements.

What was the traditional division of the sciences?

Once again, different authors have divided the sciences differently, but one prominent division is that of Aristotle, a division handed down to the Middle Ages by Boethius and championed by Thomas Aquinas. Among the speculative sciences (as opposed to the practical sciences), there are mathematics, natural philosophy [or science], and theology. These sciences were distinguished by their objects and by the method used to pursue knowledge of these objects. Fundamental to all these sciences is arrival at a knowledge of causes. As Aristotle puts it in his Physics, “men do not think they know a thing till they have grasped the ‘why’ of it (which is to grasp its primary cause)” (194b19-21). When the mind arrives at knowledge of a cause, it comes to rest.

How would a better understanding of this division help students?

By acquiring a better understanding of the division and methods of the sciences, students stand to gain a firmer grasp of whatever they study while here at Hillsdale as well as anything they might study throughout life. In the pursuit of wisdom, students make headway by understanding how the various disciplines fit together and how what they are working on in any particular course relates to the larger aims of liberal education.

What are the differences between the liberal, the fine, and the servile arts?

The liberal arts in particular and liberal education in general are the surest, most time-tested way to direct students toward a life that is truly free.  The liberal arts develop foundational skills that free an individual to investigate the order in things, especially in human speech and in nature, while liberal education facilitates the free pursuit of more universal knowledge that involves historical, philosophical, and theological inquiries.  The liberal arts and liberal education are not certain, guaranteed paths to freedom; to think so would be to deny the very freedom this tradition of education seeks to enliven and foster.  Rather, by developing these skills and growing in such knowledge, the one who studies the liberal arts and engages in liberal education puts himself in an excellent position to cultivate the moral and intellectual virtues that free him from vice and ignorance.  Thus, when we speak of liberal arts and liberal education, the sense of “liberal” we have in mind is “what is conducive to liberating the mind and heart.”  Toward this end, the liberal arts and liberal education are meant to assist the diligent, well-disposed student in his pursuit of the true, the good, and the beautiful.

The servile arts aim at fulfilling fundamental human needs, for example, for food, shelter, clothing, etc. Because the needs of the human body must be attended to, the human race has had to develop these arts in order to take care of these basic necessities of life. The fine arts, by contrast, aim at producing pleasant things, such as beautiful poetry, paintings, sculptures, and so on. The ancients divided the “good” into three basic types of goods—useful, pleasant, and noble. The servile arts produce useful goods, things desirable for the sake of something else. The fine arts give us things that are pleasant in themselves, not simply for the sake of something else. To laugh, to sing, to create beautiful artwork: these are good for their own sake. Finally, the ancients saw the liberal arts as yielding noble goods—by receiving training in the liberal arts, the student stands to grow in moral and intellectual virtue, thereby ennobling his soul.

Do the fine arts bridge the gap between the liberal and the servile arts?

Although they may not always do so, they certainly can. In fact, the line between pleasant and ennobling goods can at times be hard to draw or to discern. The fine arts fit naturally with the liberal arts, being distinct yet complementary ways of enriching our minds and hearts.

Editor-at-Large Weston Wright is a senior studying speech and political economy with a minor in classical education.

Image courtesy Elena Creed.

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