The Preservation of Liberty

Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” – Thomas Jefferson

The ancient Roman system of education called liberalia studia or “liberal studies” has been immensely influential on the modern world. In a nutshell, liberal studies are those which give a man his liberty. Liberty is not preserved by government, it is maintained by those who understand what erodes it and what fortifies it. Simply put, liberty is preserved by virtue and eroded by vice.

Some have claimed that the liberal arts bestow virtue upon its students, but they do not. Seneca explained it best in “Epistle 88”:

Our ancestors used to teach their children nothing that could be learned while lying down…  But neither the new system nor the old teaches or nourishes virtue.  For what good does it do us to guide a horse and control his speed with the curb, and then find that our own passions, utterly uncurbed, bolt with us?  Or to beat many opponents in wrestling or boxing, and then to find that we ourselves are beaten by anger? “What then,” you say, “do the liberal studies contribute nothing to our welfare?” Very much in other respects, but nothing at all as regards virtue. For even these arts of which I have spoken, though admittedly of a low grade – depending as they do upon handiwork – contribute greatly toward the equipment of life, but nevertheless have nothing to do with virtue. And if you inquire, “Why, then, do we educate our children in the liberal studies?” It is not because they can bestow virtue, but because they prepare the soul for the reception of virtue.  Just as that “primary course,” as the ancients called it, in grammar, which gave boys their elementary training, does not teach them the liberal arts, but prepares the ground for their early acquisition of these arts, so the liberal arts do not conduct the soul all the way to virtue, but merely set it going in that direction.

In classical antiquity, liberal arts was a catch-phrase for those subjects of study deemed essential for a free person to master in order to acquire the qualities that distinguished him from a slave. Hence, the system was more concerned with producing students who knew how to live a good life than it was with teaching students to make a living. Students trained in the liberal arts were taught to think, to have minds free from traditional beliefs that tend to be accepted uncritically. The liberal arts are in this sense liberating arts, providing those grounded in its principles the means of leading their culture into all that is good, beautiful and true.

7 thoughts on “The Preservation of Liberty

  1. Kai Newell

    I love what is being introduced in your post here. As one who has a degree from a liberal arts college, how much more I could have taken advantage of my time in school had the opportunity been explained as you have presented today. I’m glad to burst the confined vision that a liberal arts education is an alternate and even rebellious choice. It is a path (in college or not) for anyone who is looking to make a real difference in the future of the earth. Woohoo!


  2. Steve Ventola

    Sounds like you have set a context for a course in Liberal Arts 101 that every school could present. When there is a why aspect that can be applied to any course for that course to be seen in light of the whole context of learning the benefits of the educational process can more fully appreciated. Wonderful thought expanding post!


  3. Colin

    There are many jokes made about the liberal arts path, first among them that you will end up peaking lower in your career path than you would if you had taken classes in a science or engineering path, which can almost guarantee a pretty good job. I think this can be an accurate portrayal in some cases, but it is mostly because learning the liberal arts is an opportunity, not a guarantee. It is learning the groundwork of learning, learning how to learn. You can ascend to great heights with a liberal arts education, arguably higher than you can with something more technical, but it won’t be that way for everyone. It gives you a chance to prepare for a life of mental work and learning, of thinking and analyzing the ideas and tendencies of humanity that might not be obvious to a surface glance.
    This is relevant to Seneca’s passage because virtue is not a default in our society, unfortunately. It is something that has to be learned, and something that has to be found through an analysis and restructuring of one’s own thoughts, words, and deeds. To be virtuous takes work, dedication, and bravery. Liberal arts can make the changes needed for this more likely to be achieved.


  4. David R

    The liberating arts – such a vital topic! It is impossible to think freely or inquire successfully unless the foundations of thought are true. Typically the education people receive is not designed to liberate but to bind people in predictable patterns of thought and belief so that thought can be controlled and passions harnessed to fulfill the concerns of others.

    I notice that your blog consistently challenges untrue or unbalanced propositions and presents true and balanced ones. As indicated, none of this ensures that the mechanisms of thought and feeling will be activated by the spirit of virtue, but at least the foundation can be there if a person will allow it to be!


  5. MMc

    Thought-provoking post. Wiliam Butler Yeats wrote “Education is not the filling of a pail,
    but the lighting of a fire.” Educating for a narrow task has been a type of economic enslavement. We haven’t matured ourselves for the emergence of creativity of thought.
    I thoroughly enjoyed your book, thank you. It encourages the emancipation of the spirit and mind from pettiness, self pity and discouragement that stunts the liberating spark of appreciation. We’re never to old for education but the younger we are the more time to let it benefit us all.


  6. Coco

    What an interesting post. I’ve never thought of education as liberating in preparation for receiving virtue but it does. Narrow mindedness or a constricted heart could be a symptom of a lack of education as to how things work. It seems usual to fall prey to superstition or fault finding if virtue has never taken root. Great point today, thanks.


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