What to Read – advice on the liberal arts from Hugh St. Victor

Hugh of St. Victor was a Saxon churchman who read and wrote much. Wikipedia says of him:

Hugh wrote many works from the 1120s until his death, including works of theology, commentaries, mysticism, philosophy and the arts, and a number of letters and sermons. Hugh was influenced by many people, but chiefly by Saint Augustine, especially in holding that the arts and philosophy can serve theology.

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In his primary work on philosophy and education (after all, philosophy – wisdom-love – is the crown of education), Didascalicon*, he tells us what we should read and why.

Know what we should study first?

The seven liberal arts.

Why?

Because they are most worth knowing and with them, we can learn anything else we might want thereafter – they are tools of learning. In our day, perhaps, they are lost tools, but back in the eleventh century, Hugh was calling them tools of knowledge.

Diligently study the seven liberal arts, for it is through them we come to wisdom.

Of course the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is insight. Yet knowledge also of God’s world is required for wisdom, as is knowledge of words – for God has revealed Himself in Word, and in reasoning and logic – for Christ is the logic in Whom the world holds together.

To say that the study of the liberal arts is the way to and of wisdom, as Hugh of St. Victor says, is not to deny that wisdom belongs to God or that we must begin and end with God in our pursuit of wisdom. But, as other medieval schoolmasters before him made clear: the more we understand the way the world and words and people work, the better we will understand God’s Word, serve God, and love others.

It is bad to pursue something good negligently; it is worse to expend many labors on an empty thing.

Convicting. We all tend to both, don’t we? We and our children. We dilly-dally over the good we are called to and then fritter away time on vain pursuits. It’s not a modern problem; it’s a human problem.

The two things by which every man advances in knowledge are principally two – namely, reading and meditation.

We all need to prioritize time to read and time to think.

For there are three things particularly necessary for reading: first, each man should know what he ought to read; second, in what order he ought to read, that is, what first and what afterwards; and third, in what manner he ought to read.

And that is the springboard for his book, Didascalicon:

Out of all the sciences above named, however, the ancients, in their studies, especially selected seven to be mastered by those who were to be educated.

Hugh stands in a tradition and will now explain why we should, also:

For these, one might say, constitute the best instruments, the best rudiments, by which the way is prepared for the mind’s complete knowledge of philosophic truth.

Isn’t the end of education virtue? Yet here he seems to say it is “complete knowledge of philosophic truth.”

These are complementary truths. Knowledge of wisdom and truth informs us what is good and right. Virtue is acting upon that knowledge.

Therefore they are called by the name trivium and quadrivium, because by them, as by certain ways (viae), a quick mind enters into the secret places of wisdom.

The liberal arts comprise the three-fold way and the four-fold way to wisdom.

These seven they considered so to excel all the rest in usefulness that anyone who had been thoroughly schooled in them might afterward come to a knowledge of the others by his own inquiry and effort rather than by listening to a teacher.

Only after mastering the seven liberal arts did the ancient schoolmasters consider their pupils ready for “independent learning.” It is not that in learning the seven liberal arts they learn how to learn but that the liberal arts themselves provide the tools of inquiry.

[The seven liberal arts] comprise the tools of all philosophy; afterwards, if time affords, let these other things be read.

He acknowledges there are other good things to read, but reminds us that we must prioritize the best things over the good things.

It is in the seven liberal arts, however, that the foundation of all learning is to be found.

Before all others these ought to be had at hand, because without them the philosophical discipline does not and cannot explain and define anything.

Again, the liberal arts are not mere subjects, but ways, modes, tools for coming to wisdom (philosophy).

Two separate concerns, then, are to be recognized and distinguished in every art: first, how one ought to treat of the art itself, and second, how one ought to apply the principles of that art in all other matters whatever.

This is how the seven liberal arts are tools: first they are an area of knowledge themselves, and then they are a way to approach other knowledge. He gives an example:

We treat of grammar when we set forth the rules given for words and the various precepts proper to this art; we treat grammatically when we speak or write according to rule.

Because the seven liberal arts are each areas of knowledge and ways to come to knowledge and wisdom, we need all seven:

Therefore, those persons seem to me to be in error who, not appreciating the coherence among the arts, select certain of them for study, and, leaving the rest untouched, think they can become perfect in these alone.

We don’t get to be picky or half-hearted and, say, study only the trivium to the exclusion of the quadrivium. They are a seven-piece package. The arts work synergistically, not individually.

Surely the more you collect superfluous details the less you are able to grasp or to retain useful matters.

Here he advises against being a trivia-master. I thought at first this was a statement now disproved by science: the memory is more like a muscle than a container. But in context, I realized he’s not talking about memory as a limited container we must be careful to fill properly, but it’s a continuation of his warning to spend our time and attention on the best things rather than the trivial.

If we are collecting trivia, we are staying shallow – “superfluous.” The problem is in what we’re reading and how we’re using our time, not in memorization.

Immediately following this he sets up the contrast we should imitate:

Some men studied these seven with such zeal that they had them completely in memory, so that whatever writings they subsequently took in hand or whatever questions they proposed for solution or proof, they did not thumb the pages of books to hunt for rules and reasons…but at once had the particulars ready by heart.

So we see contrasted those who “collect superfluous details” and those who study with such zeal that they know, without needing the crutch of a reference or reminder.

But the students of our day, whether from ignorance or from unwillingness, fail to hold to a fit method of study, and therefore we find many who study but few who are wise.

See, it’s not just a modern problem. Educators have always faced ignorance and unwillingness.

Consider – is the studying we’re doing not “fit” so that it becomes trivial rather than philosophical (wisdom-gaining)?


A part of my weekly digest newsletter, The Weekly Review, includes a snapshot of a commonplace entry from my reading that week and a note about what I read that week. Sent out every Saturday morning, The Weekly Review offers an exclusive short attitude-management pep talk, links from the week, a snapshot and a brief paragraph about something I read that week, and a reminder to do your weekly review. 



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  1. Lauren Scott
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    I’m still trying to wrap my head around the seven liberal arts. This was quite helpful. ☺

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