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.

Music and the Quadrivium

Music and the Quadrivium

Music is delivered to us via our sense of hearing, which when young hears a wider range than when we are older. Our mind processes the complex mathematical formulas of sound waves, and that processing, can affect our mood, thoughts, feelings, and memories. Music is found in all cultures, at all human times – humming, hitting things together, singing, instruments. We have found a way, through music, to sounds and words much more integral to our lives than mere language.

There are so many aspects of music that it is impossible to scratch even the surface here. In a recent conversation, I asked a Brother, proficient in music theory, playing music, and song, what he felt the most important aspect of music was. Without hesitation he said, “The perfect fifth.” I asked him to explain.

M_Octave_Fourth_FifthThe human mind likes consonance, or harmony in its music. We find our minds like notes to be evenly spaced, and those that are not are “out of tune.” The perfect fifth is considered the most consonant of musical intervals. However, the musical scale cannot, mathematically, work with all perfect fifths, up octaves and down. There must be adjustment, otherwise it sounds “off.” This equal  interval spacing, what we’re familiar with today, is called equal temperament. There are several tuning methods, and several types of equal temperaments. These differences come from how the octave is divided mathematically.

This brings us to The Well-Tempered Clavier. The Well-Tempered Clavier is a collection of two series of Preludes and Fugues in all major and minor keys, composed for solo keyboard by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is sometimes assumed that by “well-tempered” Bach intended equal temperament, the standard modern keyboard tuning which became popular after Bach’s death, but modern scholars suggest instead a form of well temperament. There is debate whether Bach meant a range of similar temperaments, perhaps even altered slightly in practice from piece to piece, or a single specific “well-tempered” solution for all purposes. There are 24 pairs of preludes and fugues, in each book (48 total) each representing the entire set of musical keys.

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750), German musician and composer playing the organ, circa 1725. From a print in the British Museum. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

This set of music is significant for a few reasons. The first is that it is really Bach’s catalogue of the styles and techniques of Bach’s day. It inspired many composers and it can be seen, in some ways, as a type of “color card” for music – not unlike the paint chip cards you find in a hardware store. The music exploits tuning methods, temperaments, and construction that Bach would have used on any keyboard instrument.


Interesting book on humankind and music here: The Singing Neanderthals: the Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body by Steven Mithen. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2005. ISBN 0-297-64317-7 374 pp.

Geometry and the Quadrivium

Geometry and the Quadrivium

Whist sitting in school, slaving away with compasses and a ruler, one hardly remembers that geometry is the study of the measurement of the earth. Earth. The thing we sit on, utilize, and finally rest in when this is all over. The geometry in schools today looks nothing like the geometry of 3000 years ago. It is difficult to divorce geometry from the other liberal arts when we take into consideration the scale to while discoveries are interconnected. Geometry arose from the needs of agriculture, civilization, and war. For so much of this, we can thank Archimedes of Syracuse. A student of Euclid in the 3rd c. BCE, his advances in the field of geometry furthered irrigation (Archimedes’ Screw), astronomy (the first planetarium), and weights & measures (Archimedes’ Principle). The most interesting, to me, is The Method of Exhaustion (remember Dialectica) also known as “The Method” or “Archimedes’ Method.”

“…, to estimate the area of a circle, he constructed a larger polygon outside the circle and a smaller one inside it. He first enclosed the circle in a triangle, then in a square, pentagon, hexagon, etc, etc, each time approximating the area of the circle more closely. By this archimedes_circleso-called ‘method of exhaustion’ (or simply ‘Archimedes’ Method’), he effectively homed in on a value for one of the most important numbers in all of mathematics, π.” 1

Linked together with this Method is the “Method of Mechanical Theorems.” Proofs are everything to the mathematician, and in his Method of Mechanical Theorems, Archimedes had none that would be accepted. He set out using Eudoxus’ The Method of Exhaustion to prove what he knew to be true. In a letter to Eratosthenes, in manuscripts discovered in 1906, Archimedes outlines his thought processes. This document is known as the Archimedes Palimpsest.

Certain theorems first became clear to me by means of a mechanical method. Then, however, they had to be proved geometrically since the method provided no real proof. It is obviously easier to find a proof when we have already learned something about the question by means of the method than it is to find one without such advance knowledge.

The importance of these discoveries and the methods by which Archimedes came to them may be obvious – who doesn’t need π? However, it is also fascinating to peer inside the mathematician’s mind and view it with a Freemason’s perspective. Here was a man who could see the Plan, understand the Plan, and only needed to bring it to life: a divine spark of wisdom, the will to discover, and beauty in its presentation.

For an interesting and short expose on The Method and the “Archimedes Palmipsest,” whence this Method is documented, review  “The Illustrated Method of Archimedes” by  Andre Koch Torres Assis and Ceno Pietro Magnaghi. The PDF can be found here.

Additionally, the originally translated letter from Archimedes to Eratosthenes can be downloaded here. (Thank you, JSTOR.)


Just a note (1): The Story of Mathematics, Luke Mastin – http://www.storyofmathematics.com/hellenistic_archimedes.html – I’ve done my best to verify statements here, and so should you.

Mathematics and the Quadrivium

Mathematics and the Quadrivium

Personally, I struggled with Math in school. Faced with a math test, any math test, I froze, cried, banged my head against the desk, and ultimately gave up. I saw mathematics as an isolated “thing” to be conquered. You were either good at math, or you were not.

How little I knew, and how little I was taught, about true mathematics. More than numbers, factorials, and fractions, Mathematics is about relationships – of numbers: how they work with each other, work for us, against us, and can talk about any situation. There are mathematics of money, elections, government, science, music, agriculture, capitalism, socialism, any -ism. Math is language and structure: it is a bridge between all aspects of liberal art. Which leads us to the Bridges of Koenigsberg.

bridgesLeonhard Euler, a Swiss mathematician of the 18th Century solved, sort of, the problem of the Seven Bridges of Koenigsberg (Russia, at the time). Koenigsberg had two islands connected by seven bridges. The problem is to decide whether it is possible to follow a path that crosses each bridge exactly once and returns to the starting point (touching every edge only once). Euler proved that a necessary condition for the existence of Eulerian circuits is that all vertices in the graph have an even degree, and stated without proof that connected graphs with all vertices of even degree have an Eulerian circuit. The bridges did not meet this condition and therefore, no solution could be found to the problem.

Yet, what this Eulerian circuit eventually did provide is the basis for modern topology , which has expanded into areas of quantum physics, cosmology, biology, computer eulernetworking, and computer programming. For example, the Eulerian cycle or path is used in CMOS circuit design to find an optimal logic gate layouts. For anyone wanting to read the paper outlining these paths in the original Latin, it can be found here.  English translations do exist. A good page on the history of topology is here.

Leonhard Euler was a fascinating individual in that he saw mathematics as something that infused all of life. Though his writings, he made applied mathematics accessible to the layman and his scholastic peers alike. An excellent and thorough biography, written by Walter Gautschi, can be downloaded in PDF form here. With a varied interest in all aspects of mathematics  (arithmetic, geometry, algebra, physics), music, anatomy, physiology, and astronomy, he truly was a man of the “Enlightenment.”  While he was not a Freemason from what I can tell, he seemed to hold much regard for the idea of true science, and creating a better world for his fellow man: a Freemason’s true ideals, to be sure.

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: http://www.hup.harvard.edu/features/loeb/digital.html.

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.