Many years ago, I taught business law at an institution of higher education that billed itself as a liberal arts college. After asking my students what the “liberal” in “liberal arts” meant, a few ventured a response of “broad” or “general,” education. They seemed somewhat surprised when I told them that “liberal” means “of or pertaining to freedom.” I explained that the liberal arts are the intellectual skills that free us. Unfortunately, their response was simply, “Will that be on the test?” Things got better as the semester progressed.
The liberal arts, traditionally grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music, are the intellectual skills that allow one to carefully observe, record, discuss, and respond to questions about what reality reveals to us. But how can we then say that these arts are freeing?
Perhaps my business law students, and many in higher education, were not as far as off as it seems. Doesn’t education aim at giving students the broad and general background that will allow them to fit into whatever society has to offer in terms of employment, status, and comfort? Going one step further down this path, doesn’t education offer the opportunity to understand the mechanisms of nature and society so that the latter can be “changed” to fit the prompting of our will? These views carry implicit notions of human freedom— we can simply find the route to maximum material comfort and ease; we can venture to shape the world according to our will. Both these views of freedom are sound, that is, if the world is void of meaning. However; if the world points to a truth beyond us, and the fulfillment of who we are is found in this truth, then those views of freedom are, at best, a trap, a tragic dead end. These views are the opposite of freedom. My business law students may have understood one’s need to understand the world as a whole- but they didn’t understand why.
Plato and Aristotle held that our world itself is a sign of some creative power above, and that human excellence – becoming truly who we are – follows from knowing the truth disclosed by the world. This was a remarkable insight unaided by Christian revelation. It stands as a luminous human achievement that is worthy of our continued study and admiration. It points the way to understanding how the liberal arts are freeing – they open us to the truth which frees us to be who we are.
After Plato and Aristotle, Judeo-Christian revelation disclosed to us that we are persons, created in the image and likeness of God, and that we are called to be with Him. Christian revelation discloses to us that Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, is Truth-in-person, and that the world is a sign, a sacrament, of the love and truth of the Trinity. Our ultimate vocation is the beatific vision of the Trinity.
Being made in the image of God means that we are able to discern the signs the personal God has given us in the world. The human capacity to do this is animated by wonder. Plato and Aristotle taught us that all knowledge begins in wonder. Then Thomas Aquinas defined wonder as our desire to know the cause of effects we see in the world, while realizing that we either do not know the cause or it exceeds our capacity to know. When we see something in the world, we want to know its cause, though we simultaneously realize we cannot know the cause while still wanting to know the cause. John Paul II identifies this desire as the call of God contained in the being of things. It is by responding to this call that we become aware of our transcendent dignity and reach the apex of our humanity. Wonder then sets us on the ladder to the beatific vision because the creative love of the Trinity is the cause of everything.
Wonder, then, sets us on the road to becoming who we were created to be.Jacques Maritain explains when he notes that the beatific vision is the supremely personal act by which we are incorporated into the truth and love of the Trinity. Joseph Pieper tells us the fact that we are created for such an end, of being incorporated into the love of the Trinity, is revealed in our very capacity to wonder. John Paul II said that without wonder we cannot live lives that are genuinely personal. These men all show the ladder, beginning with wonder and ending with truth.
Wonder requires the rejection of seeking physical comfort or assertion of our will as ends- Pieper tells us wonder requires a “purely receptive attitude to reality, undisturbed and unsullied by the interjection of the will.” John Paul II said we should adopt a “disinterested, unselfish and aesthetic attitude that is born of wonder in the presence of being and of the beauty which enables one to see invisible things, the message of the invisible God who created them.” The things we see, the visible things, lead us to reject our will and join it to Gods, thus guiding us to know the invisible God.
It should be no surprise that to be ourselves we must first let go of ourselves and open ourselves to the truth- there we will be set free. When the liberal arts are embraced with an “attitude that is born of wonder” we can learn to look carefully at God’s signs within the world. Grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music allow us to caress creation and learn from it and each other. The liberal arts open us to the call of God contained in the being of things and to realize and enjoy the freedom of reaching the apex of our humanity.