Vol. XXII No. 5 — May 1944

Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences

That any Masonic symbol of so great antiquity should receive such scant attention by Masonic writers is a mystery almost as great as the Seven pose to the usual Fellowcraft!

Of almost all the rest of the principal symbols of the Fellowcraft Degree — Winding Stairs, Brazen Columns, &, the Passage of the Jordon, quotation from Amos — there is literature aplenty; in book and magazine and encyclopedia many Masonic pundits have written their explanations and derived an appropriate philosophy.

But of the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences there is little to be found; almost it appears that commentators were afraid that of a seven-headed subject of such complexity they could not develop an adequate literature and therefore avoided it completely! Even Mackey, whose thoroughness is only equaled by his scholarship, depends much upon quotations from non-Masonic sources for his development of his theme regarding the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences.

That these are of great antiquity in Freemasonry is evidenced by the references made to them in practically all of the early manuscript constitutions; even the Regius, oldest of all, speaks of them. The Edwin, Alnwick, Harlean, Sloane, Kilwining, Lansdowne, York, Cooke, and Dowland manuscripts are so similar, although discovered at different periods and in various parts of England and Scotland, that it seems evident they are either copies of an original, or were committed to writing by the Masons of the same period of thinking of the Middle Ages. That the clergy originally framed these manuscripts seems probable as they all commenced with an invocation to the Holy Trinity. They all refer to the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences, attributing their origin to Lamech’s children; five of them refer to Abraham as having taught the Seven Sciences to Euclid.

It may be interesting to quote at least one old manuscript — the Cooke, probably of the fifteenth century:

And, moreover, He [God], hath given to man wit and knowledge of divers things and handicraft, by which he may labor in this world in order to therewith get our livelihood, and fashion many objects pleasant in the sight of God, to our own ease and profit. To rehearse all these matters here were too long in the writing or telling; I will therefore refrain, but nevertheless tell you some: for instance, how and in what the science of geometry was first invented and who were the founders both thereof and of several other crafts as is declared in the Bible and other histories. You must know that there are seven liberal sciences from which seven all other sciences and crafts in the world have sprung; but especially geometry, the first cause of all other sciences, whatsoever they be; the seven sciences are Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy.

Twenty years ago a writer who does not sign his work contributed a paper on this subject to The Builder, magazine of the National Masonic Research Society; a part of it is worth rereading:

Educators of the Middle Ages divided their curriculum into seven branches, in two groups, one of three and one of four, called respectively the trivium and the quadrivium: the former comprised usually grammar, rhetoric, and logic; the latter arithmetic, music, astronomy and geometry. It is this old-time arrangement of studies that remains in the degree to symbolize an effective schooling. There is no need to analyze this arrangement or to attempt to justify its use in this day and age; the main point is that in Freemasonry the Liberal Arts and Sciences symbolize an education.

There is, however, this thing to be said about the medieval curriculum: it was a discipline in the humanities, and that is something worth thinking about. The tendency in schools nowadays is to give a student either a scientific course, so as to equip him for one of the technical professions, or else a course in business methods with a view to fitting him for office or factory. This is all well and good but it is not a complete education, and our educators will some day regret their surrender to the utilitarians who have demanded a schooling that pays. Life is more than a profession, finer than a trade; its has ends and needs above and outside of these, important as they are. One has a religious and also an imaginative relationship with the universe which deserves to be developed and instructed; it is just as important to look upon the stars with the eye of reverence or as things of beauty as to measure their diameter or estimate their distance in space; the fields and hills are to be loved for their own sake, as well as to be converted into tillage and farmyards. There are such things as art, poetry, music, and worship, and these too are to have a place in school. Also it is necessary for a man to understand his own nature, and the nature of the men and women with whom he lives, a need satisfied by literature, painting, and music. Every laborer is a man first, with neighbors and a family, and a life to live; to give him nothing but a training in his craft is to rob him of his most precious birthright. The old ideal of the Liberal Arts, the humanities, is nearer the truth and need of things than any ultramodern drill in scientific technique. We need to understand nature; yes, but we need quite as much to understand human nature.

Freemasonry makes much of the study of geometry; it receives more attention in the Fellowcraft Degree than the rest of the seven liberal arts and sciences together. It is emphasized that it is revered, is the foundation of architecture, the root of mathematics, is the first and noblest of the sciences, is the basis whereon Masonry is erected, is the means of tracing nature to her innermost secrets and discovering the wisdom, goodness and power of the Grand Artificer; is of a divine and moral nature and demonstrates the most important truths of morality.

Hear Dr. Oliver Day Street on this latter claim:

It cannot be denied that to the present generation and in our present state of learning, geometry is nothing of the kind. To anyone except a Freemason, and to the great majority of them, the idea that geometry inculcates moral truth is utterly foreign and incomprehensible. Those members of the Craft who have ever thought of the matter at all, as a rule look upon these expressions as crude extravagances, as distorted attempts to attach a speculative meaning to a science or an art which had never properly borne any other than a practical signification. We are not surprised, it is true, to find still incorporated in our system these inheritances of a past age and simply tolerate them as such without any serious attempt to ascertain their meaning or to measure their significance.

It is not difficult to wish that geometry had been omitted from the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences and given a place by itself in the Fellowcraft Degree; true though it be that few see easily the power of “the first and noblest of sciences” to demonstrate moral principles, the power is nevertheless there.

Briefly, the immutability of any law is discoverable when by its observation man can predict coming events with certainty.

Geometry enables the astronomer to predict coming celestial events; the rise and set of sun, the recurrence of tides, eclipse of moon or sun, changes in the phases of the moon, occultation of stars, etc.

An immutable law or plan implies a Planner; it is not possible for man to conceive of a working plan so perfect that its future working as well as its past results can be demonstrated; and not also conceive the Mind which planned.

Ergo, geometry is of a divine and moral nature and does demonstrate the more important truths of morality.

However, we are not here concerned with where geometry is mentioned; it is number five of the Seven Liberal Arts, and perhaps more wisely so than seems at first glance.

Practically all Masonic authorities are agreed that the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences are symbols of a good education; that they were put into the Masonic system in very early days of the Middle Ages when the trivium and quadrivium represented all knowledge and at a time, perhaps, when Freemasonry in its speculative aspects actually did assume to teach these subjects, or at least actively and practically to encourage Freemasons to study them. Note in the quotation from the unknown author in The Builder (above) the statement: “There is no need to justify its use in this day and age; the main point is that in Freemasonry the Liberal Arts and Sciences symbolize an education.”

Fools still rush in where angels fear to tread. Setting up a contrary view may easily bring upon this paper the critical frowns of better informed students. Yet a case may be made for the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences as concealing a teaching of more importance than the mere admonition of Solomon: “Get wisdom.”

The greatest minds of all ages, since man learned the meaning of civilization, have been concerned with the problems of philosophy. From whence came man? What is man? What is time? What is space? What is motion? What is matter? Is the universe to be evaluated in terms of mind, or is mind to be evaluated in terms of the universe?

No philosopher has ever answered these questions to the satisfaction of the next generation. Philosophy changes as civilization changes. But while neither philosophy as a whole nor its tool epistemology have ever given a categorical and satisfactory reply to any of the questions man has asked himself through the processes of thought alone, philosophy has been the window out of which the thoughtful have looked to discover worlds within and worlds beyond the world; powers beneath and powers above those known to science; meanings behind and meanings beyond that which seems commonplace and understandable.

One form of what is apparently good logic can prove that a man cannot walk from A to B, that an arrow cannot be shot from a bow and that the hands of a clock cannot reach the figure twelve together; there is epistemology which can in like manner “prove” that matter, space and time do not exist. Other forms of the same grade of thinking can “prove” that time and space are parts of one whole neither of which can exist without the other.

To the average man this is all metaphysics and useless thinking about matters of no importance. But the average mind does not reflect that without such questions there might well have been no science; that it is man’s unquenchable curiosity to know the “why” behind the “how” which developed all science out of its first beginning in geometry and philosophy.

Had there been no Descartes to begin “I think, therefore I am” there might have been no logarithms. Had there been no early Greek and Roman philosophy there might have been no Francis Bacon and Newton.

Science has just begun! Within the memory of still-young men the atom and the ether have been read out of existence and the electron and the quantum born. It is not yet three score years and ten since men laughed at the telephone as a toy and less than two score years since a great mathematician “proved” that a heavier-than-air mechanism could not fly. The age of synthetics, whether plastics or drugs, is hardly out of swaddling clothes, and electronics, which gives us radio and television as well as a thousand other marvels is still, metaphorically, playing with a rattle.

None of these could have been had not man been curious enough to ask “why — why — why?” of this and that before his eyes, inside his body, up in the sky, behind the lightning, within his mind.

Here, then, seems a meaning behind the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences much greater than merely an education. For there are millions of educated men for every one philosopher! But may not our Liberal Arts and Sciences — which were once the whole of education including philosophy, now be a symbol of the greatness of the science of the mind?

There is a gulf wider than any ocean between "To get — or not to get” — and “To be — or not to be.” There is a world between the conception of matter of twenty- five years ago as dead, inert, lifeless, and the conception of it today as space sparsely filled with electrons in incredibly swift motion. There is an universe between the conception of life of the man who gets up, eats, goes to work, marries, begets children and dies, a good if unthinking citizen, and he who spends his “few days, full of trouble” in thinking through some problem of philosophy or science for the greater good of his fellow man and the glory of God.

The thought is put forth for what it is worth. It is for no Freemason to dictate to another what any symbol of the Craft may mean to him; it is only for such as may to suggest what some great symbols might mean.

It is with this humble attitude only that these pages are launched, a tiny boat on the great sea of Freemasonry’s learning; a suggestion that the real and inner meaning of the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences in that degree which is itself universally admitted to be a symbol of manhood, is the importance and necessity of philosophy and scientific curiosity in the well rounded mind of him who would be a leader and a benefactor of his fellow men — a Freemason.

The Masonic Service Association of North America