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VII. The Arts in the First Century

Our Lord Jesus Christ
“And they were astonished at his teaching. For he was teaching them as one with authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:22)

Thus far in this course we have observed that the pursuit of wisdom (philosophy) has never been conducted apart from the classical liberal arts curriculum. There have been particular instances where the special mission of a group (e.g., the Apostles) required a special education, but when we investigate the general or normal courses of study history’s wisest men have followed from the beginning to the end of their studies, we find the classical liberal arts.

In this lesson, we will continue to follow the development of the classical liberal arts in the early Christian Church. Too great familiarity with the history of the Church has bred a widespread contempt as modern men seek to find reason to suggest that their ideas, interests and endeavors are worthy of great attention. The truth is that the effects of the Christian Church on human civilization have made all else relatively insignificant. We do better today to preserve and transmit what we have received than to attempt to invent anything of our own. Many disagree with such a notion, so let’s consider whether it is true or not.

The Word of God

We have seen that throughout history, God enlightened chosen men and sometimes revealed wisdom to them directly, and sometimes simply assisted them in their studies. However, when Christ came into the world, the age ended where in God:

“at sundry times and in divers manners, spoke to the fathers by the prophets” (Hebrews 1:1)

but that began in which it might be said,

“In these days, hath spoken to us by his Son.” (Hebrews 1:2)

The coming of the kingdom of God on Earth was not just one of many great times of enlightenment or cultural progress. It was the climax of all divine revelation, which consisted not in holy men moved by God, or in shadows or symbols, but as St. Paul explained,

“In him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead corporeally.” (Col. 2:9)

God did not raise up for the world another great teacher or philosopher–a new Moses, Solomon, Plato or Aristotle. God did not reveal a new law or new idea. God did not supply the content for a new book. St. John of the Cross famously explained this truth when he said:

“In giving us His Son, his only Word (for He possesses no other), He spoke everything to us at once…and He has no more to say.” (CCC 65)

The Gift of the Holy Spirit

Our Lady Seat of Wisdom
“Wisdom hath built herself a house, she hath hewn her out seven pillars” (Proverbs 9:1)

Before Christ, the world was already filled with different schools of thought and religious sects: Epicureans, Stoics, Platonists, Pharisees, and many more. What would distinguish Christianity from the rest? Would it provide the answers to every other group’s flaws? Yes. Would it bring men to levels of happiness never before known to men? Yes. Would it transform civilization and bring times of refreshing to the world? Yes.

However, none of these were the true mark of Christianity, which set it apart from all other philosophies and rules of life. St. Paul addressed this in his own day as he challenged all men in saying (the Latin and Greek are much stronger than the English),

Non enim in sermone est regnum Dei sed in virtute. (1 Cor. 4:20)

Christianity was more than a new school of thought. It was founded not by the dedication of a building or the publication of a book but by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We must consider the circumstances surrounding the event and reflect upon what their effect would have been. We are familiar with the basic details of Pentecost in Acts 2, but do we consider what followed the event:

“There were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, ‘Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his own native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.’ They were all astounded and bewildered, and said to one another, ‘What does this mean?’”

We learned that in the days of Solomon, all of the nations were represented among his audience. We find the same here at Pentecost. Visitors from every nation are present to witness the event: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Asia and Europe. It was to this crowd that St. Peter preached the first homily in the Christian Church and it was from this crowd that 3,000 persons were added to the Church. What we must imagine is the ripple that this event would send through the world as these travelers took not only their stories of their visit home with them, but also the news of the fulfillment of “what was spoken through the Prophet Joel”, as St. Peter described it. These international visitors went back to their cities as Christians and that would require some explanation.

The explanation, of course, was not founded upon the speech of the Apostles, but upon the power surrounding and being dispensed through their ministry, which consisted of teaching, instituting the sacraments and prayer. As St. Luke said, these men “turned the world upside down”.

Seeing all of this, we would have to imagine what the classically trained rhetoricians would have to say. These apostles were agrammatoi and humble. They were not trained in the arts of Logic or Rhetoric, yet they moved multitudes and “brought low every height that exalted itself against the knowledge of God” (1 Cor. 10:5). More importantly, we will see that the greatest question among learned men was of the fruit that would be born when this raw power took upon itself the ornament of the liberal arts.

Schools of the First Century

By the grace of God, we have record of the Acts of the Apostles. Without these, we would be in the dark about the traditions and practices of the Church, just as Christians are often ignorant of the historical and cultural context of the Gospels when they neglect the study of the Deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament. What we find is the beginning of the redemption of the world and, as we’ve discussed in this course, the “plundering of the Egyptians”. Let’s take a moment to look more practically at the methods of education around the world in the first century.

When we speak of education, let us remember that we are speaking of a portion of society for only the free-born were free to study and for this the course of study was known as the liberal (“free”) arts. We also keep in mind the economy of the ancient world, which was founded upon slavery. Education and culture were enjoyed by those free to pursue them and the modern notion of universal education was unknown and undesired.

After birth, children were placed with nurses, who attended to the needs of the body and later to pedadogues who watched over the children’s moral conduct. Children had two options for schooling. They could receive private instruction–at home–by a hired teacher or they could attend larger schools called “public” schools (not to be confused with modern “common” schools). The most famous teachers were normally in the public schools, yet parents often preferred private education for the sake of its supposed moral benefits. There was disagreement on this question even among the most learned men, for while the famous Rhetorician Quintilian preferred the public schools, the emperor Marcus Aurelius was grateful to have learned:

“From my great grandfather, not to have frequented public schools, and to have had good teachers at home, and to know that on such things a good man ought to spend liberally.” (Meditations, I.4)

Nevertheless, what is certain is that the goal of parents was to seek out the very best teachers they could afford for the education of their children. It should be noted that the popular idea that “parents are their children’s best teachers” was never held by any society in history as far as academic studies are concerned. The modern notions of “public” and “home” schooling are extremes, both of which lead families away from more appropriate notions of “private” individualized instruction and “public” group instruction–both conducted by expert teachers, not Mom and Dad. There is no such thing as parent-driven “classical” home schooling for the classical world admitted no such practice.

The world’s greatest teachers often moved in and out of cities, providing instruction to families that could afford their price. Great cities hosted famous schools to which the “best” students (too often merely the wealthiest) were sent for their education. Just as families today might prefer a Catholic school to a secular school, parents sought out teachers who shared their beliefs and values. One teacher might be a Stoic, another an Epicurean and so on. Nevertheless, these all had one thing in common: they taught some variation of the classical liberal arts. The teachers were grammarians, dialecticians, rhetoricians, musicians, etc. and they passed on to children an education that was known for centuries.

The Christianization of Rome

While the classical tradition continued with little disruption during the Roman Empire, the Christians spent more time trying to survive the many waves of imperial persecutions that came upon them. We rarely (if ever) read of Christian children becoming great scholars in the early years of the Church. Most of the famous Christian teachers we can name were converted to Christianity after their education was behind them. Normally, those who took up arguments against the approved teachers in the Empire paid for it with their lives. Without peace and leisure, we should not expect to find much in the way of education among these early believers.

However, when Constantine converted to Christianity in AD 312, everything quickly changed. In 313, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan which forbid the persecution of Christians and granted the release of all Christian prisoners. For the first time since the founding of the Church, Christians were free to study and teach publicly. Out from the woodworks Christians came having been secretly serving in offices throughout the Empire: soldiers, governors, state officials–but more importantly philosophers and teachers were free to discuss the faith and apply it to the perfection of the classical liberal arts.

It was after this time that the great fathers and teachers of the Church rose up: Sts. Athanasius, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine and all the rest as a list of the Doctors of the Church makes plain.

The Christianization of the Classical Liberal Arts

While the classical tradition continued with little disruption during the Roman Empire, the Christian teachers had to work out the relationships between the classical liberal arts tradition and the Christian faith. The most famous treatment of the topic was St. Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana.

Augustine was born to a pagan father, but a famous mother, St. Monica, in AD 354. Thus, he was born into the first generation of free Christians. His father, like most worldly men, intended for him to become wealthy and famous, whether as a great lawyer, rhetorician or whatever else worked–and sent him to the best schools available. St. Augustine began his classical education in what would be the equivalent of the CLAA Petty School, and then moved (as CLAA students do) to Greek and Latin Grammar (Remember that Latin was the native language.). Augustine hated all of these studies, which he pursued only to avoid getting beaten and to win an occasional, “Well done!”.

In Book I of his Confessions, Augustine discussed what was wrong with the system in which he was educated:

“O my God, what miseries and mockeries did I experience, when obedience was proposed to me, as proper in a boy, in order that in this world I might prosper, and excel in tongue-science, which should serve to the “praise of men” and deceitful riches.” (Bk. I, Sec. 14)

It is important to note that Augustine did not question the effectiveness of the methods, but only criticized the ends for which they were employed in his day. They were pursued for a notion of beauty divorced from truth and goodness, which was, in Augustine’s judgment, no beauty at all. Without bodily punishments and material rewards, these studies find no motivation.

As he matured, Augustine progressed through the philosophical schools of his day, spending his time most among the Platonists and Manicheans. Though he admired the faith and sincerity of his mother, Augustine had little respect for Christianity and found the Scriptures to be rather boring in comparison with the writings of other philosophers, especially Plato and Aristotle. However, while following the teaching of the Manichees, Augustine moved to Milan to take an impressive post as a teacher of Rhetoric in the city, where he met (St.) Ambrose. This meeting changed Augustine’s life and changed the history of the classical liberal arts. Despite initially judging Ambrose on his eloquence alone, Augustine was most impressed by the bishop’s kindness, diligence, humility and wisdom. By steps, Ambrose led Augustine to the baptismal font and the rest is history. Today, both Ambrose and Augustine are honored Saints and Doctors of the Catholic Church.

The work of St. Augustine that interests us most in this course is De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching). In this book, St. Augustine teaches a system whereby Sacred Scripture may be interpreted and taught rightly. This discussion leads the saint to acknowledge the source of many of his insights: his own classical liberal arts education.

The first and greatest contribution made by St. Augustine (and the Catholic Church through him) to the classical liberal arts was to remind mankind that true wisdom was not attainable without holiness of life. St. Augustine taught that man approaches wisdom by seven steps, the details of which are available in Book II, Ch. 7 of De Doctrina Christiana (know their order!):

  1. Fear of the Lord.
  2. Piety
  3. Knowledge
  4. Resolution
  5. Counsel
  6. Purification of Heart
  7. Wisdom

Thus, St. Augustine lays the foundation for a more perfect use of the classical liberal arts aimed not at the mastery of the arts for their own sake, or for the sake of human wisdom alone, but for the sake of knowing God truly, primarily through the proper interpretation and application of Sacred Scripture.

In chapters 11-42 of Book II, St. Augustine explains the role of each of the liberal arts in Christian studies, the details of which we cannot examine here. However we must take a brief walk through each of his points.

St. Augustine’s concern is that there are multiple senses in which literature may be taken and the same is true of Sacred Scripture–only the stakes are much higher. His interest in this study surely flowed from his own distaste for the Scriptures through his life–that is, until St. Ambrose taught him how to read them. The chief problem is that untrained readers misunderstand or do not recognize figures of speech being used in Scripture and while the true interpretation is often very obscure, the divine inspiration of the Church allows us to have confidence that we are walking in the truth. The Church then, is established as the pillar of fire to guide all Christians in the pursuit of wisdom.

First, Augustine discussed the necessity of language studies. Sacred Scripture exists in Hebrew and Greek. Every other available copy of the Scripture is a translation, which pushes us at least one step away from the true Scripture and makes us dependent upon the translations of others which are numerous. When the opportunity is available to us, we should learn the original languages.

Second, Augustine explains the importance of general humanities learning, which consists of erudition or the “knowledge of things” in general. Through a sound understanding of literature, world history and the characteristics of animals, minerals, plants, etc., we are able to discover the meaning of obscure passages. To illustrate his point, Augustine describes how many times serpents are used as signs in Scripture and how incomprehensible those passages are without a real knowledge of their habits.

Note: This is a greater danger in modern society where most people teaching Scripture have scarcely spent time among animals and plants as ancient people did and therefore can easily misuse their illustrations.

Third, St. Augustine discusses the divine origin of logical reasoning and its benefits and dangers:

“The science of reasoning is of very great service in searching out and unravelling all sorts of questions that come up in Scripture, but in the use of it we must guard against the love of wrangling and the childish vanity of trapping an adversary.” (31)

Fourth, Augustine moves on to discuss the role of Rhetoric explaining its value in setting forth truth that has been discovered, but not in discovering the truth. He again seeks to make it plain that the art of Rhetoric was not created by men, but has merely been discovered by them. It is important to note that he makes an effort to remind the readers that Logic is greater.

Note: This last point is important historically because, as we learned in the last lesson, the Romans devoted great attention to the art of Rhetoric, as opposed to the Greeks who cared much more for Logic. Augustine seems to hint that a return to the Greek priorities would be helpful. This is important because we may see in Augustine’s thought the beginning of the Christian focus on Aristotle that would characterize the focus of Scholasticism, which we will study in an upcoming lesson.

Fifth (through Eighth), Augustine discusses the place of Mathematics, or the “science of numbers”: Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy. Just as we find in the CLAA curriculum, Augustine explains that the four mathematical arts are of divine origin and therefore only rightly studied when used as steps by which we may inquire after their source.


Many attempt to establish practical rules and doctrines based on the earliest years of the Church, but this is impossible. As the Church suffered great persecutions and spent much of their time in hiding, we should not expect to find much material from which such early practices may be studied. The book of Acts teaches us very little of the practices of the Churches outside of Judea and Samaria and the epistles are not to be interpreted outside of the Church for the simple fact that the living tradition of the Church is the key to their true meaning.

To find a truly Christian educational manual we must look to the 4th century Church, when Christians were free to study, discuss and publicly practice the principles of their faith with the fear of punishment behind them. When we look to that age we find, once again, the classical liberal arts unchanged.

St. Augustine challenges us to fulfill the divine purpose of the classical liberal arts and not be satisfied with the pursuit of them for their own sake. We are called to pursue the arts not for material gain or for the praise of men for the appearance of learning, but for things better suited to the mind of man. For God’s will is that our minds be fixed upon that which is eternal and unchanging that we find the true source of peace for our souls: the eternity, immutability and incorruptibility of God.

The Christian Church, then, brought the classical liberal arts to perfection by establishing their true goals and by clarifying the means by which they must be pursued. We must pursue wisdom in the person of Jesus Christ, by the light of the Holy Spirit, who speaks to us in Sacred Scripture and nourishes us with grace through the Sacraments of the Church. Anything less will lead us and the classical liberal arts into darkness and futility.