In the classical tradition, the study of the liberal arts enabled one to most fully realize one’s humanity—to become the best version of oneself. Put another way, the arts helped a man to live well, to craft a life worth living. Living such a “good life” was regularly contrasted with merely earning a living. The liberal arts, therefore enabled free men (those with the time and means) to remain free and to acquire capacities and virtues that blessed the man and those he served. There was both an internal and external aspect to a liberal arts education: the study of the arts were an end in themselves (personally humanizing and enriching) but also capacitating and equipping one to serve with excellence and wisdom.
John Henry Newman describes the capacities and virtues imparted to one by a classical, liberal arts education. He summarizes these capacities and virtues as the “perfection of the intellect:”
That perfection of the intellect which is the result of education, and its beau ideal, to be imparted in their respective measures, is the clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things, as far as the fine mind can embrace them, each in its place, and with its own characteristics upon it. It is almost prophetic from its knowledge of history; it is almost heart-searching from its knowledge of human nature; it has almost supernatural charity from its freedom from littleness and prejudice; it has almost the repose of faith, because nothing can startle it; it has almost the beauty and harmony of heavenly contemplation, so intimate is it with the eternal order of things and the music of the spheres.
Newman wrote this describing how he would create an ideal university (from his book The Idea of a University). In another place Newman summarizes what he calls a liberal education: “A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation and wisdom.”
These are all attributes which are desirable for their own sake—but who can deny their practical value for anyone possessing them? Newman makes this very point, while stressing that “liberal knowledge” alone “stands on its own pretension, which is independent of sequel, expects no complement, refuses to be informed by any end, or absorbed into any art, in order duly to present itself to our contemplation.”
Thus we encounter a paradox of liberal learning: by not focusing on the practical, we become quite useful to others. This warrants some reflection. Of course there are many important “practical arts” (servile arts, manual arts, mechanical arts were older designations) worthy of study and mastery. Right now, there is quite an emphasis on the utility of students learning coding, for example.
The liberal arts, however, make a man practical by making him a master of language and mathematics and by enriching his mind with a storehouse of stories, poetry, history, geometry and physics—the best that has been thought and said. The trivium arts of grammar, logic and rhetoric enable men to make things out of words: poems, speeches, letters, essays and arguments. Doing these things really well—is good for what? Well Newman would say these things expect no compliment and refused to be informed by any end. They are a good unto themselves, “free” from any obligation to a particular use. And yet… and yet great speeches, poems, essays and arguments make anyone in any profession interesting, compelling and effective. A man with a perfected intellect—with calm, accurate vision, prophetic insight and supernatural charity—who would not want such a person as pastor, politician or plumber?