The term “language arts” is a familiar term for anyone involved in education. But although many people have heard it, few can say exactly what it means. Most of the time we settle for a random listing of the things we have been taught are included under the label: reading, writing, spelling, literature, grammar, and composition. But the ancient and medieval thinkers had a better way of thinking about the language arts.
The best way to define anything is to use a skill taught in material logic called “division.” Division is an analytic skill that involves identifying the specific parts of some more general thing or concept. The process of “classification” is covered under the study of division, but is the inverse of division: It is a synthetic skill that involves identifying what larger whole a specific part belongs under.
If we divided the concept “cat” (in the sense of domestic cat) we would list all the different breeds of cat that come under that idea (Persian, Siamese, tabby, etc.). But if we instead classified “domestic cat,” we would put it under the biological genus felis and it would be listed with all the other kinds of cats under the same category (lion, tiger, bobcat, etc.).
If we apply these procedures to the term “language arts,” what do we find?
“Language arts” is a translation of artes sermocinales, which referred to the first three of the liberal arts (the “trivium”), as opposed to the last four of the liberal arts (the “quadrivium”), which were mathematical or quantitative in nature. These were the artes reales or physicae.
The word “art” had a different meaning for the ancients and medievals than it does for us today.
When we hear the word “art” today, we think of a painting or a sculpture. But its older meaning had the sense of a skill or method. An art was an ability to do something which, through cultivation, could be improved to allow us to do it better.
The Liberal Arts
The arts of the trivium consisted of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and were the skills of language that were the first arts to be mastered and the ones preliminary to the rest of the arts and to all other branches of knowledge (called “sciences”). The other four liberal arts (the “quadrivium”) were the mathematical arts of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The trivium was the classical language arts program.
The liberal arts, the artes liberales, were related to two other kinds of arts, the first of which were the artes illiberales, the arts learned for merely practical or economic purposes. They would include the manual arts of cooking, sewing, typing, woodworking, machine repair, etc. The second of these were the fine arts, the main traditional ones being painting, sculpture, and architecture, in addition to the performing arts of theater and dance. To these could be added more modern fine arts such as film, photography, and conceptual art.
The Arts vs. the Sciences
The arts are distinguished from the sciences in that the arts are the tools of learning and the sciences are the bodies of knowledge that are gained by applying these tools.
The arts are the how. The sciences are the what.
In the Middle Ages, the sciences consisted of medicine, law, and theology. To these sciences we have added others in the last several hundred years, such as the social and natural sciences. History and literature are also now considered separate sciences in a way they were not in earlier times.
Although the arts, too, constitute a body of knowledge, we still primarily consider them arts because their primary role is to serve as skills. They are the means to the sciences. The sciences on the other hand, even though they employ certain unique skills or methods, are primarily considered sciences rather than arts because their primary final cause or purpose is the discovery and collection of knowledge itself.
The sciences are the ends toward which the arts are the means.
We should add here that in addition to the how and the what, there is the why. In addition to the tools of learning (arts) and bodies of knowledge (sciences), there was the ultimate or “divine” science. For the Greeks, this was metaphysics. Interestingly, Aristotle also called metaphysics “theology.” This was how the Christian scholars of the Middle Ages considered theology: as the Queen of the Sciences. It was the Science of Wisdom. It ordered all the other arts and sciences, putting them in their proper places and determining their relations to each other.
The Place of the Language Arts
The division into seven distinctive arts (the trivium and the quadrivium) was first formulated by Martianus Capella in the early fifth century in his book On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury. Capella’s rendering became widely accepted during the Middle Ages and is still considered a legitimate accounting of the arts by classical educators today, even though many modern educators are either ignorant of them or are under the misapprehension that they are irrelevant.
The listing of subjects we think of as language arts today is not incorrect. The study of literature was often conducted under the label of grammar, and reading, writing, spelling and composition under rhetoric. One of the first things the great Roman teacher of rhetoric discusses in his Institutes was how to teach phonics. But if we want a better way to think about where these skills fit in the structure of learning, the classical view is the way to go.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Spring 2017 edition