The Seven Liberal Arts

A Duty to Ourselves, Our Brothers and The Gentle Craft

by John Mooney


I believe it is very clear my Brothers that contemplation and education in the liberal arts and sciences is a common thread woven openly and sublimely through the tapestry of Masonry.  Why is this?  I have some thoughts on this and beg you indulgence today to hear me out and then encourage us to engage in a hearty discourse to exchange our collective wisdom on the idea not so much to seek agreement among all of us on the topic, but rather to spark further reflection for each of us.

To state my premise, I believe that as Masons, we have a duty to ourselves, our Brother Masons and the Gentle Craft itself to learn and comprehend Masonry through the study and practice of our ritual as well as to expand and explore our general knowledge of the world and our own place within it through the development of our understanding and practice of the liberal arts and sciences.

Several times in our journey through Masonry, we are encouraged to develop our knowledge of the liberal arts and sciences.  As Entered Apprentices, during the final charge we were prompted to devote our “leisure hours to the study of such of the liberal arts and sciences as may lie within the compass” of our attainment.  The Senior Warden’s lecture in the second degree draws our attention more specifically to the study of the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences - Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy.  In the Charge to the Fellowcraft “the study of the liberal arts, that valuable branch of education which tends so effectually to polish and adorn the mind is earnestly recommended to your consideration; . . .”  Finally, we are instructed during the Raising ceremony that the study of the liberal arts, gave us insight into the secrets of nature and the principles of intellectual truth that we might contemplate the final truth revealed in the contemplation of our own death - the ultimate value of virtue, uprightness and morality in the conduct of our lives.

So let us dig deeper into the seven liberal arts.  The Seven Liberal arts as we are informed in The Work are made up of Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy.

First a little history.  Many researchers in the area can trace the earliest origins of the Seven Liberal Arts back to the Greek and Roman era.  Though most scholars believe that they were not referred to specifically as the liberal arts or that they numbered precisely seven.  One writer made reference to work by Aristotle who described “the liberal sciences as the proper subjects of instruction for free men who aspire not after what is immediately practical or useful, but after intellectual and moral excellence in general.”

By the late medieval period the scope had evolved into the seven areas of study we recognize by name today.  The were known at the time as the “Arts Liberales” from the Latin “liber” meaning free.  This denoted them as subjects available to free, non-indentured, men and were a contrast to the “Artes Illiberales”, which denoted arts taught for purely economic reasons so that a man might earn a living - operative arts such as operative masonry.  The liberal arts were believed to represent the sum total of all knowledge that was worthwhile to a complete education.  They focused on developing the mental capacity of young gentlemen.

By the Middle Ages, the liberal arts had become central to university education.

The Seven Liberal Arts are divided into two groups called the Trivium and the Quadrivium.  The Trivium sometimes also translated as “Artes Triviales”, as the names suggests, is composed of three subject areas:

  • Crammer
  • Rhetoric
  • Logic

The term Trivium is Latin for Three Ways or The Road of Three Paths and as you can see from its contents focused on literary disciplines.  The trivium was considered the preparatory area of study and work which needed to be undertaken prior to progressing on to the Quadrivium

The Quadrivium is composed of the remaining four subject areas which were considered the mathematical disciplines: 

  • Arithmetic
  • Geometry
  • Astronomy
  • Music

The term Quadrivium is also Latin and as you may have guess is Latin for Four Ways

This piece of Masonic education will confine its focus to the Trivium and take each of the three areas in order.  I broad terms they can be described as the science of language, the science of oratory and the science of logic.

According to the Encyclopedia of Freemasonry - Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric form a triad dedicated to the cultivation of language.

First Grammar.  The meaning of grammar was different than the commonly held understanding of today.  Grammar was not about the dissection of language into component parts - this is technical grammar.  That branch of grammar being referred to within the Seven Liberal Arts is “exegetical grammar” which refers to learning the meaning of words and their nuances.  Exegetical grammar is the science of the correct and elegant usage of language through the study of great poetry and oratory.  Increased knowledge in exegetical grammar facilitates the fine tuning of our speaking and writing abilities.

Next Rhetoric.  Again the meaning is far different from what we often consider today.  Today, rhetoric has a largely negative connotation -  - just noisy rhetoric or a rhetorical comment.  Rather the meaning associated with it in Masonry is the science of expression, especially persuasion and deals specifically with the organization of speech and writing to formulate and present arguments of persuasion to a listener or reader.  As one writer explained, “Rhetoric adds force and elegance to our thoughts.  As we improve in rhetoric, we captivate the hearer with both the strength of our arguments and the beauty of our expression.”  The more appropriate understanding of rhetoric from a Masonic point-of-view is the use of artful and effective speech to convey to others what we understand and to debate with them in order to reach a greater level of knowledge and understanding for all involved rather than the sole motivation of proving others are wrong.

Finally Logic, sometimes outside of Freemasonry called Dialectic.  This is the science of correct thinking or reasoning.  In particular it focuses on the correctness of the thinking process or the validity of an argument’s construction through deduction and inference.  It helps a person arrive at the truth through reason and proof rather basing the validity or falsehood of an argument on the identity or claimed expertise of the person making it.

Connecting an education in the Seven Liberal Arts and Masonry directly has proved to be more difficult path to map.  It seems to be generally accepted that operative masons did not have a system of education which taught apprentices the Seven Liberal Arts.  Certainly, even into the 1700s most of the populace was illiterate and could not either read or write.  This extended into the nobel classes as it is said that king Louis XIV of France could only spell out a few sentences and struggled to write his own name.

Nevertheless, being a mason required and education of sorts and there seems to be evidence to support the idea that the term education and the understanding of what that meant somehow became equated with the phrase Liberal Arts and Sciences.  This term for education was passed over to speculative Freemasonry and over time the emphasis on the need to improve one’s education was retained and magnified.

Now that we have been armed with some background and knowledge on the Seven Liberal Arts, and the Trivium in particular let us turn back now to Masonry and link the Trivium to our responsibilities as Masons.

On being initiated into Freemasonry and before having entered our Lodge we were presented by the Inner Guard as a candidate, in a state of darkness,  who come properly prepared, humbly soliciting to be admitted to the mysteries and privileges of Ancient Freemasonry.  Shortly thereafter in the ceremony we were admitted with a warning passed from the Worshipful Master to us, through the Inner Guard to take heed upon what we entered.  In fact, we will receive this same warning twice more in the course of our Masonic progression - during our Passing to a Fellowcraft and finally, when we are raised to the sublime degree of Master Mason.  As our initiation progressed, we were questioned on our motives by the Worshipful Master asking us to declare that we were prompted to solicit admittance “from a favourable opinion preconceived of the institution, a general desire for knowledge, and a sincere wish to render ourselves more extensively serviceable to our fellow creatures.”  Later in the initiation we are informed of our duty to find common ground with any brother whom we may be at variance with prior to entering the lodge.  Finally, in the Charge to the Newly Initiated Candidate we were encouraged to devote our “leisure hours to the study of such of the liberal arts and sciences as may lie within the compass” of our attainment.

In the examination questions put to us prior to being passed to the Second Degree, we were asked “What is Freemasonry?” to which we replied, “A beautiful system of morality, veiled in allegory, and illustrated by symbols.” On being passed to the Second Degree, on top of being warned to take heed upon what we enter as mentioned earlier, we are received on the angle of a square in part to teach us to “keep within due bounds of all mankind, but more particularly with a Brother Mason.”   In the Charge to the Fellowcraft “the study of the liberal arts, that valuable branch of education which tends so effectually to polish and adorn the mind is earnestly recommended to your consideration. . .  Study of the liberal art we are instructed during the Raising ceremony gave us insight into the secrets of nature and the principles of intellectual truth that we might contemplate the final truth revealed in the contemplation of our own death - the ultimate value of virtue, uprightness and morality in the conduct of our lives.

These are several references to the Liberal Arts and Sciences made during our progression through Masonry along with several references to the responsibilities we commit to as we undertake and make our Masonic journey.  I am sure that I have not captured them all, however, theses are more than sufficient to establish and examine my premise.

First the duty to ourselves.  Each of us sought entry into The Craft of our own accord, as free men - we sought out Freemasonry.  We answered the questions posed to us about our inclination and our purpose - in broadest terms to become better men over the journey of our lives as Freemasons.  This comes to us, as we are instructed, through a beautiful system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols. Thus the path is not clearly laid out for us - there is no precise map or GPS route.  We need to figure it out - penetrate the veil as it were.  We are provided with the work, which I believe all would say has been beautifully crafted and carefully preserved.  I have heard many a Mason describe how he has gained a greater understanding of the craft and refined his own opinions as he has learned the work and heard it recited in Lodge.  We have a responsibility not to just learn the work in order to recite it, but to examine and understand the words - the language and the line of thinking - that makes up the work in its component parts and for the greater whole it creates.  This is what will help each of us pull the veil further back - to find our own truths within Freemasonry.

Next the duty to our Brother Masons.  I have already spoken about some of the explicit obligations we have to each other as Brother - to resolve variance and remain with due bounds of each other as Brother Masons.  I believe however it is important to recall that we are a fraternity “bound together in one indivisible chain of sincere affection, lawful support, relief, fidelity and truth.”  Furthermore we have committed ourselves to continue the search for the true secrets of a Master Mason together.  So in our discourse with each other we want to cultivate the best use of language possible.  Use those opportunities for discussion to challenge each other in ways that help each of us broaden the other’s understanding, In this way we support each other and raise each other up in our Masonic journey.

Finally our obligation to the Gentle Craft.  As Masons, we declare upon our honour our desire to make ourselves more extensively serviceable to our fellow creatures.  Also, in the Charge to the Entered Apprentice we were informed of the important duties we owed as Masons to live and act in such a manner as to fulfill the duties of a good citizen and thereby set an example for others to emulate. Clearly as Masons we are intended to be leaders and examples of what is good and right.  So what we say and how we express ourselves matters.  We ought to be as skilled in language, whether speaking or writing, as possible so we represent the Gentle Craft in the best light to all our fellow men.

So this my Brothers, brings me to the end of my musings.  I hope that you have found my paper interesting.  I look forward now to bringing you into the discussion so that we may debate with each other to reach that greater depth of mutual understanding that will promote our Masonic development both individually and collectively, making us the good examples we ought to be of our Gentle Craft.  This is after all our individual and collective responsibility.


 The Seven Liberal Arts: A Duty to Ourselves, Our Brothers and The Gentle Craft by John Mooney

Sourced from the Sunday Masonic Paper - April 2018



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