Studies for the sake of the church – Rhabanus Maurus on the liberal arts

posted in: homeschooling 1

No, I didn’t know who he was either, before reading this next selection from The Great Tradition: Classical Writings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being. Rhabanus Maurus was a Germanic monk who studied under Alcuin at Tours. In fact, the name Maurus is an honorific given him by Alcuin.

He was deeply learned; read Scripture, the Church Fathers, as well as Greek & Roman literature; he wrote commentaries as well as textbooks on the liberal arts. Eventually he became the archbishop of Mainz.

The editor, Richard Gamble, writes of Rhabanus:

Believing that the only possible source of truth and wisdom is God, Maurus embraces truth and wisdom wherever they are found – a generous view of secular learning characteristic also of many of the Church Fathers.

This learned and “lifelong servant of the church” also “never separates knowledge from right conduct.” Yes, the goal of education in the early church as well as the ancient world was virtue. In the early church, then, an addition to the virtues required is humility:

True education presupposes humility and fear of the Lord.

The selection included in The Great Tradition is from “Education of the Clergy” – for he believed strongly that the clergy, of all people, should be well educated in the liberal arts.

Servants of God ought to be educated

Before he begins his exposition of the liberal arts, he explains why servants of God ought to be educated. It is so that they will:

  • “acquire fulness of knowledge”
  • “strive after rectitude of life”
  • “strive after perfection of development”
  • “not be allowed to remain in ignorance”
Therefore, they should endeavor to grasp and include in their knowledge the following things:

Acquaintance with

  • Holy Scripture
  • the unadulterated truth of history
  • the derivative modes of speech
  • the mystical sense of words
  • the advantages of the separate branches of knowledge
  • the integrity of life
  • delicacy and good taste in oral discourse
  • penetration in the explanation of doctrine
  • the different kinds of medicine
  • various forms of disease

That’s a lot of things to know! But he makes his point strongly:

Any one to whom all this remains unknown is not able to care for his own welfare, let alone that of others.

And though he commends secular learning (more on that in his conclusion), he also clarifies up front:

The foundation, the content, and the perfection of all wisdom is Holy Scripture.

In fact, even if the source we have for some piece of wisdom is secular, the wisdom itself is not secular, for wisdom is from God.

When anything deserves the name of wisdom, it goes back in its origin to this one source of the wisdom of the Church.

God is wisdom and works with wisdom, and any ancient philosopher who found fragments of truth was not an inventor, but a discoverer.

For it was not originally invented by those among whose utterances it is found; it has much rather been recognized as something present from eternity.

Christian schools are liberal arts schools

If Rhabanus Maurus were to establish seminaries or Christian schools today, he would make them liberal arts schools.

The first of the liberal arts is grammar, the second rhetoric, the third dialectic, the fourth arithmetic, the fifth geometry, the sixth music, the seventh astronomy.

Then, the bulk of the selection is his explanation of what each art entails: and it is a broad curriculum to be sure.

Grammar is the science which teaches us to explain the poets and historians; it is the art which qualifies us to write and speak correctly.

Grammar is much more than conjugating verbs and diagramming sentences. It is more even than the bare facts of a subject, but it does include them.

Whatever you need to know to be able to write and speak correctly, that is grammar. History, literature, stories, language, poetry – these should fill ourselves and our students before we go farther into the liberal arts:

Grammar is the source and foundation of the liberal arts. It should be taught in every Christian school, since the art of writing and speaking correctly is attained through it.

Rhetoric is the art of using secular discourse effectively in the circumstances of daily life.

Rhetoric is the ability to be winsome, to use language to convince and persuade. It is the art of using language to good effect.

in his written exposition he knows how to clothe in adequate and impressive language


Yes, this is the order he put them in. Dialectic third.

Dialectic is the science of the understanding which fits us for investigations and definitions, for explanations, and for distinguishing the true from the false.

Dialectic is all reasoning arts and the pursuit of truth.

It teaches us to discover the truth and to unmask falsehood; it teaches us to draw conclusions.

Arithmetic is the science of numbers.

He says that arithmetic is the most pure of the mathematical liberal arts (the quadrivium) because it does not need any of the others. However, all the others require it.

How about this answer for “why learn math?”:

in large measure it turns the mind from fleshly desires and furthermore awakes the wish to comprehend what with God’s help we can merely receive with the heart. Therefore the significance of number is not to be underestimated.

Geometry…is an exposition of form preceding from observation.

If we don’t understand proportion, we don’t understand beauty.

for every excellent and well-ordered arrangement can be reduced to the special requirements of this science.

Geometry was used in the building of the temple, and just so may it be used to develop the temple of our own individual “spiritual culture.”

Music is the science of time intervals as they are perceived in tones.

Music is the pinnacle of the liberal arts in a wonderful and mysterious way.

He who is a stranger to [music]is not able to fulfill the duties of an ecclesiastical office in a suitable manner.

Music is harmony, and when people and the world do what is right, it harmonizes, resonates, and creates music within the world.

When we employ ourselves with good pursuits in life, we show ourselves thereby disciples of this art…Even heaven and earth, as everything that happens here through the arrangement of the Most High, is nothing but music, as Pythagoras testifies.

Astronomy teaches the laws of the stellar world.

Astronomy pulls together the other mathematical arts to draw conclusions about the world we can see but not comprehend: the universe.

Astronomy…is a weighty means of demonstration to the pious and to the curious a grievous torment.

All truth is God’s truth
Christians should learn [the seven liberal arts] for their utility and advantage.

We should not, either, be embarrassed about citing or learning from Pythagorus or other pagan philosophers:

When those who are called philosophers have in their expositions or in their writings uttered perchance some truth which agrees with our faith, we should not handle it timidly, but rather take it as from its unlawful possessors and apply it to our own use.

Did any of these definitions of the seven liberal arts surprise you?

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  1. Anna
    | Reply

    I found the last two things servants of God must know interesting, because in the Brother Cadfael mystery series the main character is a monk whose work in the monastery is with herbs and their uses for healing. Especially in the one I listened to most recently, St. Peter’s Fair, treating the sickness of the body as a way to also minister to the soul was mentioned.

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