In Pursuit of the Noble: The Classical Birth of the Liberal Arts
The most popular critique of the liberal arts in general and philosophy in particular is that they are “useless” and fail to produce marketable skills. This contention was already dealt with by Aristotle who flatly denied that “utility” is the highest form of good. On the contrary useful goods, are “good” only in relation to something else, and so are inherently secondary and subordinate to what is good in itself – “the noble.” From this distinction between the “noble” and the “useful” arose the corresponding classical distinction and the liberal arts and the mechanical arts. For Seneca the liberal arts are those which befit the gentleman, who being “free” from necessary labor had leisure to pursue arts which have their own proper excellence - as poetry, rhetoric, and philosophy. Arts concerned with commerce, industry, and labor for practical and material gains were subordinated by the classics as merely useful, “mechanical” arts. This educational tradition of the liberal arts has exercised a vast influence on Western civilization long outlasting the classical world itself. While this distinction is indubitably connected with the Greco-Roman class structure, it also reflected a deeper humanist truth. As the intellectual and moral faculties are what is best and noblest in man, so their cultivation brings about the full stature of human dignity.
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