Astronomy and the Quadrivium

Astronomy and the Quadrivium

Perhaps your first thought, as was mine, is: “How can Astronomy be an ‘art?'” Furthermore, how can Astronomy be called a ‘liberal’ art? From a very interesting (and worth exploring) website called “Arts of Liberty,” we have a snippet for explanation:

“To call astronomy an ‘art’ can come as a shock to a modern reader… Perhaps without thinking much about it, we think of “science” as being a genuine and exact knowledge, whereas ‘art’ is more expressive, or touchy-feely.  But, that is not quite adequate, since medicine is also an ‘art,’ and it is anything but touchy-feely… And while ‘science’ and ‘art’ do not appear to be synonyms, it could very well be that the same discipline can be called both a ‘science’ and an ‘art,’ although for different reasons.

To understand this properly requires us to consider a sense of the word ‘science’ not in common use today.  The word ‘science’ comes from the Latin word scientia, which meant a very exact knowledge, a rigorous and sure knowledge of things deduced from self-evident truths.  The ancient Greeks would have called such knowledge epistémé...  

In the vocabulary of the ancients, an ‘art,’ like a science, meant a carefully reasoned-out knowledge, but more than that, it meant a knowledge of how to produce something.  Where there is no ‘product,’ there is no ‘art.’  So it is possible for a form of knowledge to be a ‘science’ but not an ‘art.’  For example, Aristotle considered the study of god to be a ‘science,’ a body of knowledge rigorously reasoned out from self-evident principles, but not an ‘art,’ because it did not teach us how to make gods, or how to do anything about god.”

Ptolemaicsystem-smallClaudius Ptolemy (100-170 CE) was a Greek mathematician living in Alexandria. His work The Amalgest was one of the most influential astronomical works until Galileo’s discoveries in the 17th C. The Amalgest documents many mathematical and astronomical treatises, including works by other mathematicians – works thought to be lost. The most significant piece of this Amalgest (total of 13 books), is the documentation of the geocentric model of the universe. Ptolemy’s work became the accepted theory of the structure of the planets and stars, with the Earth central to all.

This influenced not only astronomy and mathematics but also theology, philosophy, and fine art. Three centuries after it was written, Hypatia and her father Theon, genius mathematicians, added to the work with their own commentary, throwing in their thoughts of elliptical orbits, the procession of the equinoxes, revising Ptolemy’s Handy Tables, and introducing the sexigesimal calculation systems. It’s believed that this rendering of the Amalgest, with the Hypatia/Theon commentary, is the one that was used for the majority of the Middle Ages although no direct reference to Theon survives and Hypatia is mentioned only in a passing 10th C. reference.

And thus, the Quadrivium ends. I hope you’ve enjoyed my answer to the Bro.’s challenge of finding a significant event, work, or person who influenced each specific liberal art. The question was posed, should Freemason’s really learn the liberal arts? The answer, to me, should be obvious. Not only should we learn the liberal arts individually, but understand their context in the whole of being educated about the natural world. Human beings can be taught easily to survive; we cannot just “pick up” how to thrive, generate ideas, and create a better world.

An example of this “Freemasonic mindset” is James Madison, even though he was not a Freemason. In his early twenties, when the United States was in its infancy, he gave up much of his career and life to studying the histories and government of world cultures. He was relentless in his pursuit of the histories and knowledge of government administration, what worked, what didn’t; he studied philosophy, history, theology, art, classical literature, geography – the liberal arts and more. By the time he finished, and began his work in the new nation’s government, he was arguably the single biggest influencer in shaping the United States Constitution and the framework of our Democracy. By learning the past deeply, he was able to innovate and create a new world. To me, that is a main goal of the Service of Freemasons.

The Quadrivium

The Quadrivium

What scholars call the “foundation of Liberal Arts” – the Trivium – is taught in order that one may expand to other subjects, building upon the skills learned. These subjects have been varied over time, based on the philosopher teaching them but they are now generally accepted as mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy – the Quadrivium. While these subjects were taught by ancient philosophers (Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, etc.), they became “the Quadrivium” in the Middle Ages in Western Europe, after Boethius or Cassiodorus had a go at translation.

(Encyclopedia Britannica has an excellent article on Mathematics in the Middle Ages, which discusses the Quadrivium briefly.)

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (usually known simply as Boethius) (c. 480 – 525) was a 6th Century Roman Christian philosopher of the late Roman period. Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator (c. 485 – c. 585), commonly known as Cassiodorus, was a Roman statesman and writer, serving in the administration of Theoderic the Great, king of the Ostrogoths.  The former, Boethius, did a great deal to translate most of the ancient philosophers from Greek to Latin. Many of his works on Aristotle were foundational learning in the Middle Ages. Cassiodorus made education his life’s passion, particularly the liberal arts, and worked diligently to ensure classical literature was at the heart of Medieval learning. Both men have been credited with coining the term “Quadrivium,” or “where four roads meet.” Adding to the mix of Medieval education “influencers” is Proclus Lycaeus, one of the last classical philosophers and an ardent translator of Plato. He is considered one of the founding “fathers” of neoplatonism and had a great influence on Medieval education as well. His translations of Plato are peppered with his own ideas of education and philosophy. One of his most interesting books, considered a major work, is “The Platonic Theology.”

sevenLA1For the serious student of the classics, all of these philosophers, in their original Greek or Latin (with English translations alongside the original) can be found in the Loeb Classical Library series. Many used book stores, especially near universities, carry these books and they can be had for about 10$ each. There are hundreds of books but all are quite good as original references (See NOTE below) Back to the Quadrivium…

While many see the Trivium and Quadrivium as “separate,” I think this is a manufacture of our modern educational system. The Trivium are the basics for communicating thought, generating ideas, and conveying those thoughts clearly; yet, like Freemasonry, I don’t know that you would have jumped completely away from your foundations. Plato, in The Republic, does note that the quadrivium subjects, as identified above, should be taught separately. The Pythagorean School divided the subjects up between quantity (mathematics and harmonics, or otherwise known as music) and magnitude (geometry, cosmology or astronomy.) Personally, I find it difficult to talk about music without first having at least fundamental mathematics and exploring both together makes sense. I have not delved into the curriculum of the universities of the Middle Ages in Europe but if someone else has, it would be interesting to hear about it. sevenliberalarts

What I find most fascinating about the art surrounding the Quadrivium (and the Trivium, for that matter) is that nearly all of the plates, pictures, or engravings represent the subject matter as female or feminine. Perhaps it has to do with the receptive qualities of studiousness, or the idea of fecundity or maybe gentleness; whatever the reason, many of the Medieval and Renaissance European depictions show all subjects with a feminine demeanor. Since nearly all scholars in the middle ages in Europe were men, perhaps it was simply a bleed-over of the Medieval ideal of women. I am sure this is another subject for another time.

On an additional side note, I searched for representations of the Quadrivium and Trivium in Islamic art, also knowing full well that Islam is aniconistic. Islam really had begun to gain ground at the last part of the classical period in North Africa & Europe and as such did not really experience the same type of “downfall” or Dark Ages, that Europe did. The schools of Islam continued to develop the subjects of the quadrivium and trivium uninterrupted until Europe “caught up.” In fact, many of the mathematics, geometry, and astronomy texts of the latter Middle Ages were translated from Greek to Syriac Aramaic or from Arabic to Latin, and later taught in Latin universities in Europe.  Suffice to say that Islam did have an impact of the learning of the West, probably much more than most people today are aware.

So, why would the Freemason study the Quadrivium? The answer, to me, is obvious. If the one of the primary studies we must take on is Geometry, we need to understand how number fits into this process. We need Mathematics to understand Geometry, and Music to understand relationship of numbers, working in harmony. Astronomy teaches us our place in universe, and allows us to expand our knowledge of our own earth toward the heavens. Geometry, or the study of the measurement of the earth, is far more than the squares and triangle theorems we all know…and love. It’s about how to apply these numbers to the world around us. As we will see in each of the subjects, they can be taken for their base modern “ideas” or we can expand and overlap them, apply them to the natural world, and thereby become better caretakers of not only the earth we live on but the beings who live on it with us. The idea of a Renaissance Man is one who is well-versed in these foundations and has ideas that expand the world around us. They make the world a better place to live in, now and for the future. The Freemason, to me, embodies this idea completely.

Next stop, the subjects of the Quadrivium. Thank you for joining me!

NOTE For those interested in more of the Loeb Classical Library, but limited access to purchase these books, Harvard University Press has been working to put them online. The link is here:

Individuals can subscribe for a yearly cost, with subsequent years being cheaper, and non-profits can also subscribe for a reduced cost. If you are a serious researcher and you would like primary sources, this library is an excellent resource.