Tag Archives: liberal arts

“liberal” work, “servile” work, and plumbers–Professional Panel notes

In my last response to the 2017 Conference on Leisure and Labor at St. Gregory’s University, I discussed some questions that arose from the keynote speech, particularly as regards the terms “useful” and “useless” as used of an art or the goods it seeks.

Something mentioned in that talk, the late Roman and medieval distinction between “liberal” and “servile” arts, recurred in the Invited Scholars Panel on the second day and lingered in the air of the Professional Panel that afternoon.


The “liberal” arts are, of course, those proper to the maintenance of a “free man” (and, where culturally conceivable, a “free woman”).  A “free man” stands without intermediary before the laws of the nation, owns property in his own right, participates in civic affairs in his own name, and is not a dependent of another in such a way as to render him obliged to give anyone payment or service without an equitable contract.  Those born or reduced to service–to slavery, or in better times to serfdom–were “servile,” that is, they had become dependents (voluntarily or involuntarily) to such an extent as to perpetually be obliged to offer service for subsistence, without any standing to insist on equitable terms by litigation, legislation, or direct action.

Now, as there was limited likelihood that most people in, say, 10th Century society could move between these states, there was little incentive to propose that the “servile” add “liberal arts” to their repertoire.  And as is so often the case, the urge to turn things into tidy exclusive sets seem to have made “liberal arts” and “servile arts” seem like two exclusive groups to most moderns.  The “liberal arts,” then, are often thought of as belonging to different departments–not just practically, but by necessity and by right–from what have variously been called “mechanical arts” or “practical arts” or “useful arts.”

Indeed, though it is far from obvious that this ought to be “just the way it is,” it is quite obvious that at least some moments in history–the 10th-12th centuries, though less the 13th-14th; the late 18th and 19th centuries, though less the late 20th–made it seem very expedient that those of “servile” status not be urged to waste their time on “liberal arts,” and those who could expect “liberal” lives eschew the “servile arts” altogether.

Even in times when economic incentive or egalitarian ideology, or some combination of these and other factors (such as the sudden need of many thousands of African Americans for education to live as free in the late 19C, or the need to re-integrate many thousands of soldiers after World War Two), have put a premium on “liberal education for all,” the troubling split between the two has often remained.  This divide–even where we are trying to erase or deny it–seems to emerge in, for example, radically flattened definitions of “liberal arts” or “servile arts” that turn one or both into a pragmatic adjunct of the other.

In my post about the discussion following the keynote written by Fr. Schall, I noticed with what difficulty we find language to articulate the difference between what is “truly useless” (miseducation, wasteful and destructive activity) and what is “useless” only under the influence of a pervasive utilitarian, pragmatist, instrumentalist understanding.  We often end up conflating such apparently “useless” activity with the “contemplative life,” and using that conflation to radicalize the division between the “useless” liberal arts and the “useful” merely utilitarian arts.  In so doing, we wrong the “active life” by treating it as merely instrumental, forgetting that study and teaching themselves properly belong to the “active life”; we forget that contemplation is both flower and fruit, and therefore also seed, of that which is nurtured and fed by activity, and neither merely a product of a process nor a purchase delivered.

The liberal arts, I therefore suggested, should be viewed as incorporating education that pursues both goods that could be taken for merely utilitarian goods (convertible only for other goods in the active life) and goods that could not be taken for merely utilitarian goods (strictly liberal goods).  I concluded that, from the perspective of the liberal arts so understood,

We are either growing and shaping our active lives so as to make it more possible for ourselves and others to enjoy the goods of friendship with God, and thus converting the mixture of true and false goods that are judged useful in the utilitarian sense into liberal goods that fructify in enjoyment of friendship with God (and being converted from a utilitarian to a liberal conception of what is useful); or we are stunting and misshaping our active lives so as to convert its goods only into others of its kind, while specifically treating as useless those activities that would make the true enjoyment of those goods possible, thus making those goods truly useless to ourselves and others.

In other words, a true liberal arts education will eschew some things that are truly “servile” in the worst sense, but will not make that distinction at the line of “knowledge worker” versus “laborer” or “white collar” versus “blue collar” or “theoretical” versus “practical” or “intellectual” versus “mechanical.”  A true liberal arts education will jettison whatever is contrary to human dignity, anti-realist, merely utilitarian, merely pragmatic, designed to bind us more completely to the powers of this world and make us more efficient subjects to secular tyranny; it will not train slaves, slave traders, or slave-drivers.

A true liberal arts education will include many things, then, that are often seen as on the “wrong” or “lower” side of these divides:  useful trades, especially those that can be taught from generation to generation, from craftsman to apprentice, farmer to farmhand.  These well-chosen trades will have two defining characteristics:  they will tend to make those who learn them capable of securing and enjoying the purely liberal goods, the leisure for contemplation; and they will tend to make those who learn them more capable of securing these goods for others, and teaching them to enjoy them.  It is necessary, then, that those who will be thought masters (fit to teach) or doctors (fit to devise programs of study, to teach teachers) be able to articulate the relationship of these chosen trades, and other fields of study, to the liberal goods and the contemplative life.

A liberal education, that is, aims at true conversion, not to be confused with a bare grasp of a concept or a temporary redirection of one’s aspirations.  This is a conversion of the goods of life, that is, a materially real and thus thoroughly personal commitment of one’s ability to gain a subsistence, to work and to learn, to a way of life that pursues the truly good and promotes the common good; that eschews the truly servile, wasteful, and destructive; that refuses to permit goods to remain merely earthly, consumed and being consumed, but cooperates with grace to heal and perfect nature.

To do that, it is probably practically necessary that there be three tiers of training, and these correspond readily to the traditional bachelor, master, doctor system:

  • the bachelor gains a trade and also studies the liberal goods in a way that orients his trade toward securing, enjoying, and sharing those goods;
  • the master continues in study of the liberal goods sufficiently that he can teach these through the bachelor’s level;
  • the doctor commits his life to the ongoing study of the liberal goods sufficiently that he can devise and refine courses of instruction, taking responsibility for the cultivation of these goods at all levels of society as his profession.

Now, I would contend that much of the bachelor’s training in a trade (and also much of liberal education) should be completed well before and probably through other means (here again I mention apprenticeship) than what we consider “college education” these days; honestly, the resources currently spent giving so many such a poor education through high school, and then through most four-year programs, are not only wasted but turned to positively destructive ends.  But whether achieved before, around, or through any particular educational organization, it is the aim of the liberal arts educator that every person who is willing and able should leave the family home to start a new life, likely a new family, equipped with the ability and understanding to secure, enjoy, and share the liberal goods–though we have to recognize that we, too, will have limitations in ability (and in will, though we ought to overcome these).


All these reflections, swirling in my head over the years and intensified in the last few years, were coming into fresh clarity as I heard the formulations of others at St. Gregory’s last week.  It was with some disappointment, then, but not much surprise, that I kept hearing the Professional panel talking about “critical thinking” and “problem-solving skills,” all too often exemplifying “character” only through literally servile traits like regarding inefficient use of on-the-clock time as “stealing” from one’s employer.  Even “empathy” in management, though certainly not negligible (no more so than punctuality, at least), was justified in terms of its capacity to make the workplace more efficient, for the most part.

Over the course of the question-and-answer period, however, some well-considered and even pointed questions and comments from the audience started to tease out of these presenters their better reflections about the relationship of the spiritual life to work, including not only the useful-to-employers traits they began with but the common understandings of what is good for humans that workers at all levels of organization must share if they are to produce real, truly durable, even eternal goods.

The problem, though, was that even in the context of such a conference, it was evident that the participants in the “Professional” division were initially primed to regard merely utilitarian goods as self-justifying and necessary, “tangibles” that were enhanced and optimized by the addition of “intangibles” superadded by the “liberal arts.”  When engaged in discussion, however, in most cases elements of their formation were drawn out that indicated their ability to understand–indeed, at some level, the basically human need to understand–that the liberal goods are not “intangibles” at all, not luxuries or even highly desirable option packages, not optimizations or class upgrades, but tangible human goods made ready for conversion, cultivated to the point of fructification.

This difficulty was, as evidenced above, the occasion of a number of reflections on the nature of the liberal arts.  Let me suggest one final thing it suggests, though:  it suggests that those who are already basically capable of gaining their subsistence, of acquiring utilitarian goods by work, can and should be prompted to consider again the need to sort these goods and convert them to “liberal goods”–to those goods that are, either mediately or immediately, convertible into the goods of contemplation, the fruit of leisure and a well-furnished mind.  It suggests that we can and should teach our friends and neighbors, “in the middle of life,” to commit themselves to securing and enjoying these goods in a way that also helps others to secure and enjoy them, that shares these goods and teaches others how they are to be enjoyed.

And that, friends, is worth a lot more than another cooking video, or another course in critical thinking.

It is the difference, not between a job and a career, but between a career and a life.

It’s what I was put here for.

Leisure and Labor–notes from the conference at St. Gregory’s University

As St. Gregory’s University in nearby Shawnee, Oklahoma, welcomes its new president, Michael Scaperlanda, we nearby academically-inclined folks get to enjoy a conference designed to offer shape and scope to the direction St. Gregory’s is heading–and it’s encouraging!

Alas, keynote speaker Fr. James V. Schall was sick, and not able to read his own paper, but it was read by the learned and witty Dr. Wilfred McClay in his stead, with comments offered by Dr. Marcel Brown, Dr. Kyle Harper, and a stimulating discussion from the audience.


And the conversation really did continue at the reception afterward.

There were too many good turns and reflections in the original paper and the total conversation to remember, and I won’t wear you out trying to recount them all in my wandering fashion–nor would I do justice to the “you had to be there” quality of such a good discussion, if I tried.  You’ll just have to come join the conversation when you can.

But there was one really good thread that I wish we’d had even more time to pull.  Fr. Schall’s talk included a discussion of the “uselesness” of much that is still true and good to learn, distinguishing it from the merely instrumentally “useful” nature of other things.  In commenting later, someone linked “leisure” (as conceived by Pieper, especially–note the forward written by Schall) to the “uselessness” of learning, and linked these in turn to the need for a “contemplative” as well as an “active” component to life.

But in that process, I really found myself wanting to jump up and press for some distinctions.  (I have now decided that, given a chance to teach an appropriate audience, especially in a Socratic classroom, I will certainly ritualize the cry, “Distinguo!”)

Specifically, teaching and study are considered to be part of the active life, not part of the contemplative life.  The relationship between these things, as external actions that prepare us for well-ordered, peaceful adoration of God in a state of readiness to obey Him, is less like the relationship between toaster and toast (instrument and object) than like the relationship between preparing a cup of tea for my wife when she’s reading and enjoying the repose I’ve cooperated in making more completely fit, or perhaps better yet by responding gratefully to God who arranged the giant gaseous ball that sends the rays that warm her and that help the tea grow (and all other things on this Earth).  It is less like working to put gas in the car to drive it down the road on vacation; more like repeatedly fueling the car and driving through the night and seeing my family’s back porch as I roll in the driveway.

In other words, the active life–to include teaching and study, that is, including leisure activities as well as “work” in our modern sense, whether professional or “labor”–is not of a kind with the contemplative, just arranged as the product of a process of manufacture, as commodity to factor.

Instead, the active life reaches many goods, and commensurates those goods in order to achieve the economies that let us recombine those goods in order to achieve goals; but this system of nominally commensurable exchanges does not reach all goods–we say vulgarly, “Money can’t buy me love”–because some goods have directly to do with the good of friendship with God, a good which is too basic to our nature (on the one hand) and too far beyond our powers of estimation and comprehension (on the other) to ever build the right theoretical or practical structure to grasp or “buy into” on the basis of activity alone.

But that means that our definition of “useful” needs some modification, so that we can understand how the active life can aid the contemplative life.  We can approach this in steps:

  • Some activities, including some teaching and study, yield only nominal goods that are not essentially good (false goods); they are truly useless.
  • Some activities, including some teaching and study, yield goods convertible only for other goods that are part of the active life; they are useful only in the utilitarian sense, but that sense is not negligible, as such activities can help us and help others toward truly liberal goods.
  • Some activities, including some teaching and study, yield goods that actually prepare us for and provide expanded opportunity for the contemplative life (or “leisure”); they are useful in the liberal sense, the sense intended by the liberal arts (and these therefore include more mechanical arts than many think).  These activities, or “liberal arts” properly so called, are not themselves contemplations or the goods of contemplation, but like driving through the night they are definitely related to the enjoyment of the goods of seeing one’s family home (and higher goods yet).
  • Contemplation, however, is our increasing capacity for enjoyment of friendship with God, sincere and constant prayer, docility to His leading in public and private, and readiness to cooperate in His movements (as when He directs us to some good activity); it is useless in the utilitarian sense, as its goods are not convertible for other goods that are part of the active life.  It is useless in the liberal sense, as it is the enjoyment of that for which we have gained and used both utilitarian and liberal goods.

This paradoxical double sense of “useless,” however, should alert us that a conversion from merely utilitarian to properly liberal activity is an essential property of our becoming capable of friendship with God, of gaining the opportunity and readiness to truly enjoy this transcendent good.

Where we find ourselves describing the contemplative life as useless in the utilitarian sense, our words are trivially true but dangerously wrongheaded:  all utilitarian goods ultimately (at the horizon of death) “cash out” either in liberal goods that make possible the enjoyment of friendship with God, or they prove to be false goods.

Put differently, we are either growing and shaping our active lives so as to make it more possible for ourselves and others to enjoy the goods of friendship with God, and thus converting the mixture of true and false goods that are judged useful in the utilitarian sense into liberal goods that fructify in enjoyment of friendship with God (and being converted from a utilitarian to a liberal conception of what is useful); or we are stunting and misshaping our active lives so as to convert its goods only into others of its kind, while specifically treating as useless those activities that would make the true enjoyment of those goods possible, thus making those goods truly useless to ourselves and others.

“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Here, enjoy some Hugh of St. Victor on the divisions of the liberal arts: