A writer who is close to my heart, Simone de Beauvoir, wrote in her 1947 book, The Ethics of Ambiguity, that “it is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our life that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for acting.” That is, we draw our strength and purpose from a reservoir of knowledge.
How do we obtain knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives in order to fill such a reservoir? One of the most tried and true methods of obtaining knowledge has been called the liberal arts. Here, the term “liberal” is derived from a Latin word meaning “worthy of a free person”. As the writer David Hume expressed in 1758 “though men be much governed by interest; yet even interest itself, and all human affairs, are entirely governed by opinion.” So, we as free people would do well in the preservation of our lives by learning how to consider opinions and distinguish them from facts. Hence, the liberal arts, the arts of learning, are the arts worthy of free people who aim to govern their affairs.
The history of humankind’s development is often viewed as a struggle for freedom from the limitations of ourselves and our surroundings. Our tools of learning have evolved in accordance with the contours of this struggle. The liberal arts have traditionally been divided into two categories: the arts pertaining to the mind (ourselves) and the arts pertaining to matter (surroundings). The arts pertaining to the mind include the art of thinking (logic), the art of inventing and arranging symbols (grammar), and the art of communication (rhetoric). The arts pertaining to matter are the theory of number (arithmetic), one of its applications, music, the theory of space (geometry), and one of its applications, astronomy. Together, they are used to learn the genuine conditions (i.e. the facts) of our lives through reading and listening and writing and speaking.
As with any art, the arts of learning involve knowledge as well as practice. It is through the exercise of learning that our minds are strengthened. I imagine the importance of strength in living to be apparent to everyone considering the perpetual series of difficulties bestowed upon us by life. In addition, it should also be apparent that one can only overcome difficulty by facing it with knowledge and resolve.
Now, why is it important to draw our own reasons or purpose for acting? I believe we do so to lead our own lives as opposed to having them lead for us. Ideal leadership cannot be conducted by the complacently-minded, minds that only know how to implement vision and keep a routine going. No, ideal leadership is conducted by minds capable of producing vision and inventing routines. Truly leading one’s life requires the ability to create a vision to implement for one’s self and to define one’s own reasons and purpose.
Here is a good place to talk about what the liberal arts are not. The liberal arts have long been distinguished from the utilitarian arts, such as law, medicine, salesmanship, coding, plumbing, carpentry, cooking, etc. The utilitarian arts teach one to be a servant of another person, of the state, of a corporation, or of a business and to make a living by producing utilities that serve the desires and interests of humanity. The liberal arts, in contrast, teach one how to learn and how to make a life. Their product is not a tangible object or a usable service or a brain full of facts, but a sovereign, self-advocating, self-aware human being of learning. Both are necessary, but I believe it is of dire importance to not allow one to overshadow the other. In fact, mastery of the liberal arts enables one to freely choose how and when one will serve others and to do so with excellence.
In closing, I would like to issue a few challenges. First, I challenge you to visit or revisit the basics of learning and communication: logic, grammar, and rhetoric. Second, I challenge you to exercise those basics by reading, which I know is not for some of us as amusing as Netflix. That’s why it’s a challenge. Good books are crafted well using the arts of learning, and they often invite you to consider ideas that you would have otherwise never encountered. Third, I challenge you to muster the strength and courage to be more of a sovereign, self-advocating, self-aware human being. Don’t go with the flow. Walk your own way. Embrace solitude. Explore cities alone. Decide what you want, and commit yourself to its acquisition. Lastly, debate with your friends. Talk about serious, controversial topics like the debate between theists and atheists or the debates between American slaveholders and abolitionists, or serious, less controversial topics like biomimicry or the concept of friendship. Do so not as an incuriously complacent know-it-all, a cynical troll, a self-righteous tyrant, or a delicate ostrich hiding one’s head in the sand to avoid discomfort, but as a courageously adventurous human being of learning, and I am near certain that your life will expand.