If you browse the websites of Catholic schools, or homeschool publishers, you will often see the image above. It is called the “Hortus Deliciarum” (The Garden of Delights), and is taken from a book that was published in the 1100s. The schools and websites that share this image do so because it’s pretty and interesting–looks medieval and Catholic. What this image teaches us, however, is that there is only one Catholic curriculum, yet, despite decorating their websites and catalogs with this image, other schools and homeschool programs want nothing to do with it. Most of them have absolutely no idea what this image shows, or what the Latin phrases mean. It’s just used for marketing to ignorant, Catholic consumers who are looking for colorful pictures. The truth is that only the Classical Liberal Arts Academy can show this image and say, “This is the curriculum we teach.”
Let’s study the details of this image so that we can learn from Catholic history what the one Catholic curriculum is, and then pursue it in our own studies and homeschooling work.
At the center of the image we see a woman seated on a throne. This is Philosophy, or “Wisdom”, who is regularly depicted in art and Sacred Scripture as a woman. She sits on the top floor of this house, on her throne, and wisdom issues forth from her down to the floors below. In her hands, she holds a banner that reads:
“Omnis sapientia a domino deo est; soli quod desiderant facere possunt sapientes.”
The first half of this saying comes from the first verse of the book of Sirach in Sacred Scripture. The Douay-Rheims translation reads, “All wisdom is from the Lord God.” Thus, this is Christian image, which teaches that God is the great Philosopher, and that all true wisdom in the world comes from Him. This was taught by Solomon in Scripture:
“The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails deeply fastened in,
which by the counsel of masters are given from one shepherd.” (Ecclesiastes 12:11)
That “one shepherd” is the Lord God, the source of all Wisdom.
The second half of the phrase in Philosophy’s hands is translated:
“soli quod desiderant facere possunt sapientes.”
only what (they) desire to do are able wise (men).”
In other words, “Only wise men are able to do what they desire.” This is a common teaching of the classical philosophers, being taught in Aristotle’s Ethics and Plato’s Gorgias. The idea is that wicked and foolish men can neither understand nor do what they desire (i.e., the good) because they don’t have the understanding or virtue necessary to do it. “Only wise men can do what they desire.”–and all wisdom is from the Lord God. Thus, this Philosophy is not the vain worldly wrangling of men who call themselves “scholars” or “philosophers”, but Divine Wisdom.
Now, on Philosophy’s head, we see three heads emerging from, or forming, her crown. These three heads represent the three philosophical science:
- Rational Philosophy, or Reasoning
- Moral Philosophy, or Ethics
- Natural Philosophy, or Physics and Metaphysics.
These are the three necessary sciences that exist because of the relationship of human Reason to the order of things created by God. St. Thomas Aquinas explains this in his commentaries on Aristotle, and this is where the Philosophy studies in the Classical Liberal Arts Academy come from. There is no alternative to this set of studies, or the sources they are to be learned from. This is the division of true divine Wisdom as regards the philosophical sciences. If you look at your children’s curriculum and don’t see them ever learning these three philosophical sciences, no matter what you or anyone else may say, they are not studying the one Catholic curriculum.
In the image, we also see seven streams of water flowing out from Philosophy. We will learn the meaning of these below.
Below lady Philosophy are seated two men: the Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato. These two men are labeled “Philosophi“, which means “Philosophers”. These are the masters of true Philosophy, but are really merely the scribes (see Sirach 38) of Philosophy, writing as she dictates to them. It’s worth noting that when Our Lord was on earth, He taught His disciples, “Neither be ye called teachers; for one is your teacher, Christ.” (Matthew 23:10). The true philosophers are not “teachers” of wisdom, as sources or inventors of it, but mere messengers or scribes. It is Wisdom who dictates to them, and they write it down and “teach” it to others. While these men are praised by ignorant men, if we read their writings, they never said they were the sources of their teaching. Socrates, for example, claimed to “know nothing”. This is the mark of the true philosophers. Philosophy, after all, is the investigation of God, man and the world by means of human reason–without the assistance of divine revelation. The masters of this learning were the true “Philosophers” and these are identified by name as Socrates and Plato in the image.
We should wonder why Aristotle, whom St. Thomas Aquinas calls, “The Philosopher” is not included in this image. Why only Socrates and Plato?
Well, this offers a great lesson in Catholic educational history.
The works of Aristotle were largely ignored in early Christian history because many of the works were lost and those that were available were often received under the influence of false Arabian interpretation and commentary. It was believed that Socrates and Plato were true and Aristotle false. The only works studied by Christians were some of the books of Aristotle’s “Organon“, which were translated into Latin by Boethius (477-524 AD). The Church fathers were, for the most part, Platonists when it came to philosophy, with St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) being the last of the “Fathers”.
In the 12th century, the works of Aristotle were translated from Arabian copies and brought back into focus in Europe. We can see this in the records we have of the curriculum of the University of Paris in 1217, which states:
“The treatises of Aristotle, on logic, both the old and the new, to be read in the schools in the regular and not in the extraordinary courses.”1
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 AD) studied to master them and proved that Aristotle had been misuderstood and falsely judged by Christians because of the influence of false commentators who had misinterpreted them. St. Thomas explained the true meaning of works of Aristotle and established Aristotle as thet greatest of the Philosophers and most agreeable to Christian doctrine. This shift from Platonic to Aristotelian philosophy in the Church is called “Scholasticism” and we may contrast the Scholastics who followed St. Thomas with the Patristics who went before him, under the influence of Socrates and Plato.
Thus, if the painting had been made 100 years later, we would likely have seen Aristotle added to the Philosophi in the middle of the Hortus Deliciarum. Unfortunately, the painting was made 50 years before St. Thomas was born.
What is ultimately important about the painting is that it shows that the Wisdom, which proceeds from the Lord God, reached the Philosophers, Socrates and Plato (and Aristotle), and allowed them to lead many to the knowledge of the truth in many subjects. There is no conflict between true philosophy and divine Wisdom. In fact, God is the source of true philosophy and the study of philosopy is a Christian study.
The Classical Liberal Arts
Above, I noted that seven streams of water flowed from Philosophy. The significance of these seven streams is explained by the words that are written in the circle around her, which reads:
“Arte regens omnia quœ sunt ego philosophia subjectas artes in septem divido partes.”
By (my) art directing all things that exist, I, Philosophy, divide the subordinate arts in into seven parts.
In Aristotle’s Ethics, he explained that some arts are pursued for the sake of other “architectonic” or master arts. Wisdom is the end of true learning, and is sought by means of the three philosophical sciences–Rational, Moral and Natural Philosophy–explained above. These philosophical sciences, however, are pursued by means of other subordinate arts, which are seven in number: the classical liberal arts.
It is important to note that this image does not suggest to us that the seven liberal arts are an artificial set of subjects invented by men for use in schools in a certain period of history. No, in this image, we are talking about true Wisdom–the true Wisdom that comes from the Lord God. We are told that this Wisdom is pursued by means of three philosophical sciences, which are pursued by means of seven subordinate arts. This is not an optional curriculum, but the only true curriculum. God Himself, as we’ll see, is the author of this curriculum.
Now, what most schools or homeschool publishers do is use this image as a springboard to launch into a discussion of the “Trivium’ and “Quadrivium” which they define however they wish and then move on to the books they are publishing or the school model they are following–regardless of what this image actually shows and teaches. By the time they’re finished, they’ve completely lost the message of the painting and contradict everything it represents. They aren’t teaching the ancient arts of Grammar, or Reasoning or Rhetoric. They aren’t teaching ancient Arithmetic, Geometry, Music or Astronomy. They aren’t teaching the three philosophical sciences. They are selling the same man-made, modern and destructive, math and science-based, K-12 curriculum that is available in every public school in the modern world, with some pictures from Catholic history to make it marketable to Catholics who pretend to want something different, but aren’t going to make any effort to test what the salesmen tell them.
When we turn from this image of Philosophy and the seven liberal arts–which shows us the only Catholic curriculum–to the programs offered outside the Classical Liberal Arts Academy, we find nothing but names to be common. In Reasoning, this is called “equivocation“–make sure you learn the meaning of this word–where a deceiver retains the same names, but changes their meaning as he speaks to deceive others. That, in Reasoning, is evil. That’s what the study of the art of Reasoning teaches us to avoid and helps us to protect ourselves from. Yet, in Catholic schools and homeschool program, this is the norm. Anyone who wants to sell something just slaps pictures and words on it–“classical”, “Catholic”, “traditional”, etc.–and the Catholic homeschool parents fall for it all. It just needs to be easy, colorful and look Catholic, and it will sell.
They show a picture of the historic, Catholic curriculum–and then give you something else in its name–and you fall for it. “But they’re good Catholic people!” They may be good Catholics, but they are false teachers when it comes to education, and their marketing schemes are misleading thousands of Catholic families, who will pay the price–not to mention the Church, which, for all of these schools and homeschool programs, can’t find a priest, monk or nun anywhere.
Worse, when I demonstrate this, as I have done for over 12 years online now, and everyone reads and sees that what I say is true, they still go back to the false programs and agree to pretend that what they are giving their children is actually the real, historic curriculum known by Catholic wise men and saints throughout history. That’s a tragedy.
Some criticize me and say that I can get a little nasty in my article or discussions on these subjects–and they’re right. However, what they don’t understand is how much I’m holding back because I think that the schools and publishers who do this are lying and hurting Catholic children, and I believe parents who fall for it are being lazy and giving in to worldly anxieties about college, money-making and so on. I ask that you watch my video “You Do Not Need a Job” to let me explain how we should be thinking about the education of Catholic children. I’m not an idle, fussy, critic. I am working to provide a positive solution–and I’m trying to be nice.
What this famous image shows us is that God is the source of all Wisdom, and that He has established the seven liberal arts as the ONLY means by which His wisdom can be pursued by study. This is stated explicitly in Sacred Scripture:
“Wisdom hath built herself a house, she hath hewn her out seven pillars.” (Proverbs 9:1)
God has commanded us in Sacred Scripture to seek Wisdom, and He has revealed to us, through the Church, the curriculum by which men are to seek it. There is no other curriculum that serves this end, and we have to ask ourselves what we’re doing allowing ourselves to follow some other course of study, in the name of Catholic education, that is not coming from God or the Doctors of the Church.
What are we doing?
Will we really pretend to be amazed that there is a “vocations crisis”, and pray to God for vocations, while we reject the course of study He has revealed for His disciples? Will we really go on bragging about accreditation and SAT scores and high school diplomas and college degrees, while completely ignoring the seven arts established by the Holy Spirit to lead us to Wisdom? Are we really going to pretend that using a Catholic homeschool program that is “accredited” by a secular accreditation agency, but which contradicts the teaching of the Church on the one Catholic curriculum, is good for our children? Are we going to pretend something amazing has happened when they are swept away from the Catholic faith by the childish deceptions of the world because they have no knowledge of the philosophical sciences that God has taught Catholics to be the way to divine Wisdom?
I do all that I can to not only restore this curriculum–without equivocating–and help families make use of it, but there’s only so much I can do. I can’t compete with this spirit of worldly anxiety that comes to the “Classical Liberal Arts Academy” asking about accreditation and college admission. If I ask a parent, “What do you mean by accreditation?”, I can’t even get an answer. They’re just parroting something they think they should be asking, ignorantly. I asked a man, “Accredited by whom?” and he answered, “I don’t know, anyone.” There’s no sincere interest in education, and that’s what allows the schools and homeschool publishers to do what they do. The results speak for themselves. The schools and homeschool publishers know that parents aren’t going to check the things they say–and they’re right.
The truth, however, is that there is only one Catholic curriculum. The only course of study that leads us to true Wisdom is that which God himself has revealed to us. God reveals the most sublime true through divine revelation, providing us with Theology. He shares His wisdom with us in three divisions of philosophy: Reasoning, Ethics and Physics/Metaphysics. These divide further into seven arts: Grammar, Reasoning, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy. We, as students and teachers, begin at the bottom of this mountain and work our way up from the classical liberal arts to the philosophical sciences to Catholic theology.
You can complain and say you don’t like it, or that you want your children to study modern Math and Science instead, but that’s irrelevant. There is only one curriculum that can claim to be “Catholic” in any historical or philosophical sense, and that is the curriculum depicted in the Hortus Deliciarum, and available to you–affordably and conveniently!–here in the Classical Liberal Arts Academy.
William C. Michael, Headmaster
Classical Liberal Arts Academy
P.S. Please forgive any typos. I published this with a small window of time available to write today.
Mr. William C. Michael is the founding headmaster of the Classical Liberal Arts Academy. He graduated from Rutgers University with an honors degree in Classics & Ancient History and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Mr. Michael has worked in private education as a Classics teacher and administrator for over 20 years. He is a Roman Catholic, married to his highschool sweetheart, a homeschooling father of ten children, and keeper of a quiet family farm in North Carolina. Mr. Michael enjoys studying ancient natural philosophy, gardening and running.