Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Chartres Cathedral and the Liberal Arts Personified, by Carrie Gress

Here is an interesting nugget of a blog post by Carrie Gress, which first appeared on the blog Beauty of Catholicism. (blog.pontifex.university.)

In it, she contrasts a traditional approach to philosophy, as it would have been taught at the medieval School of Chartres with the typical modern approach. The example she gives of the discussion in a contemporary philosophy class emphasizes how philosophy - the love of wisdom - has become too focused on analytical thinking, which looks at details, and neglects synthetic thinking. Synthetic thinking allows us to take a step back, so to speak, and place the detail in the context of the whole. This is precisely what a traditional formation in beauty - which included the seven liberal arts that Carrie mentions - trains the person to do naturally. Knowledge only becomes wisdom when we can understand how information relates to a bigger picture, which in the final synthesis (as distinct from final analysis!) is our human purpose.

Carrie is a philosopher, author (and mom) who, among other things, specializes in teaching philosophy courses for artists in any creative discipline. I encourage you also to check out her personal site: carriegress.com.

Carrie writes:
I’ve just started doing some research on Chartres Cathedral and ran across this quotation from 11th century Thierry of Chartres.

In his work, the Heptateuchon, Thierry says, “Philosophy has two principal instruments, the mind and its expression. The mind is enlightened by the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music), its expression, elegant, reasonable, ornate is provide by the Trivium (grammar, rhetoric and dialectic).”

These seven liberal arts and the artists who most exemplify them are featured on the Royal Portal of Chartres Cathedral. (Geometry: Euclid, Rhetoric: Cicero, Dialectic: Aristotle, Arithmetic: Boethius, Astronomy: Ptolemy, Grammar: either Donatus or Priscian)
What is striking about this is:

A) How foreign the notions of the Quadrivium and Trivium seem to us today. What does astronomy have to do with philosophy?

B) How technical and abstract philosophy has become. Philosophy, the love of wisdom, has only a few academic corners where it can actually call itself that. In most university settings, philosophers resort to very precise language and techniques that strike most on the outside as, at best, impenetrable, and at worst, nonsensical.

The one semester I spent doing doctoral studies at a well-known university drove this home to me. The methods of logic have overtaken the field in strangely anachronistic and confounding ways. For a course on Plato, a general assignment would be to read five paragraphs from a given text and then evaluate the argument as logical or illogical, while the rest of the text was of no consequence. When I suggested that one paragraph was made clearer by understanding what Plato said in another book, my comment was met with glazed eyes and a quick changing of subject. Such elements were simply irrelevant. The imposition of twentieth-century techniques upon an ancient text was really what we were after.

Thinking of Thierry of Chartres, few philosophers today give much if any consideration to the elegant, ornate, reasonable expressions available to their trade. For all the efforts to understand the logic of great thinkers, philosophers in the trade have left entire generations of philosophy students empty-headed about great works. Ironically, because philosophy has become so off-putting in content, it has also left students bereft of its modern raison d’etre, the use of logic.

The West portal has the Seat of Wisdom - the Sedes Sapientiae - on the right. It is Our Lady and Our Lord with the personifications of the liberal arts in the pointed arch above her.

And here are some more photos of Chartres:

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: