As discussed in this previous blog entry, one of the difficulties in writing about the liberal arts comes from coping with the lingering meanings buried within each new cultural interpretation and appropriation of the phrase. In honoring the longevity of the phrase’s usage, we must acknowledge that each aspect of its meaning is at once fundamental and fundamentally incomplete in describing its full meaning and potential. In this sense, the modern phrase ‘liberal arts’ (ie a certain kind of university or college) has become so divorced from its original meaning that it is in danger of becoming a vestigial idea, the final step before verbal extinction.
So what, then, does it mean to be liberal? The word’s modern usage is nearly always pejorative. Politically, it is the word of the opposition. The whole notion of Liberal and Conservative as labels are an implicit statement about how one supposes they’ll handle the nation’s money; those who will spend it liberally and those who will conserve it for future generations. Victorious Democrats are never liberal, but Progressive. Liberal is a way to criticize laxity of discipline as in “So-and-so is liberal in the way they raise their kids.” It can also used as a back-handed criticism of over-indulgence as in “My that is a liberal portion of bacon-sausage loaf.” Given the number of ways that liberal is presented in the modern lexicon with a sum negative tone implied in its usage, one might assume that it has its roots in some kind of awful Druidic ritual. Or something involving castration.
What kind of surprise then is it that liberal first and once commonly meant ‘in the manner of those who are free?’ Its antonym was not ‘conservative’ but ‘slavish’. Setting aside the obvious question of who might benefit in the refraction of this particular word into a meaning it was never meant to carry, the value in recalling the fuller definition of liberal is in understanding how this meaning informed the original meaning of the phrase ‘liberal arts’. But to appreciate this, we must recall not only the roots of freedom inherent to liberality but the expanded meaning that the word, ‘art’ carried in its classical incarnation.
In the modern worldview, art is generally viewed as a creative expression intended to engage the observer and evoke some kind of response. It is a noun; something you can often point to and, in many cases, produce or consume in either its original or reproduced form. Formulated along these modern lines, ‘liberal arts’ can be interpreted (and often are) as ‘the study of (fill-in-your-own-negative-adjective-here) things’. Some modern usages of the word ‘Art’ do still retain some of the original meaning, such as when we talk about the Art of Archery or the Art of Diplomacy. Ancient Greek peoples so highly valued arete (often translated into English as ‘virtue’ or ‘excellence’, but better understood as a full expression of a thing’s potential through a masterful execution of its function) that it was, at times, personified in divine form as the sister of Harmony and daughter of Justice.
In this same sense, we still profess the belief that an action performed by someone who has mastered that action, is capable of being elevated to the realm of art though, in less skilled hands, it might be seen as merely craft or labor. This ability to transform action into something transcendent might then be thought of as Artistry and its practitioners, as Artists. This expression of Art, Artistry, and Artist still well encompasses the much narrower definition of modern times but reconciles not only the outlying usages in English but the common understanding of the word still held in many Asian cultures.
Considered in this context, the liberal arts regain their original meaning and importance; namely, the body of knowledge and skills necessary to freed persons who wish to remain so, transformed through artistry into action that reflects and amplifies the values of freedom. Toppling inconvenient foreign regimes will never release the peoples of the world from bondage. Only the truth sets any of us free.