Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Sister Miriam Joseph on the Liberal Arts

One of my alltime favorite Shakespeare books is Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language, by Sister Mirian Joseph-- actually better understood as a catalogue of rhetorical examples drawn from Shakespearean sources.  It's learned in an old-fashioned way, nonetheless delightful on every page (I keep it handy as a bedside book).  I've just now been able to lay my hands on a copy of her other big book, The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric.  I'm only just getting started but I can see I am in for a good time:

 The seven liberal arts differ essenetially from the many utilitarian arts (such as carpentry, masonry, plumbing, salesmanship, printing, editing, banking, law, medicine, or the care of souls) and from the seven fine arts (architecture, instrumental music, sculpture, painting, literature, the drama, and the dance),  for both the utilitarian arts and the fine arts are transitive activities, whereas the essential characteristic of the liberal arts is that they are immanent or intransitive activities.

The utilitarian artist produces utilities that serve the wants of humanity; the fine artist, if he is of the highest order, produces a work that is "a thing of beauty and a joy forever" and that has the power to elevate the human spirit.  In the exercise of both the utilitarian and the fine arts, although the action begins in the agent, it goes out from the agent and ends in the object produced and usually has a commercial value; and therefore the artist is paid for his work.  In the exercise of the liberal arts, however, the action begins in the agent and ends in the agent, who is perfected by the action; consequently, the liberal artist, far from being paid for his hard work, of which he receives the sole and full benefit, usually pays a teacher to give needed introduction and guidance in the practice of the liberal arts.
 Italics added.  There, I hope that clarifies matters.  Or she might have added "ends with the agent until he gets a tenure-track position."   

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