The Seven Liberal Arts: a very short Survey

Those astrological disciplines that can be bundled together under the title “traditional astrology” (hellinistic astrology, mediaeval astrology, renaissance astrology, etc. ) have one common philosophical background that not only bridges them historically but also unites them. These are the artes liberales or the seven liberal arts.

The liberal arts were divided into two different groups. The first group or trivium are the basic three arts of grammar, logic/dialectics and rhetoric. They are ‘trivial’ because essential. Notice they are language based, the word is central. The second group or quadrivium are the mathematical arts, astronomy/astrology, arithmetic, music and geometry. We must be careful to remember that our idea of what each of these, now sciences, are about are not concurrent with how they were understood in late antiquity or in the middle ages. For example grammar, nowadays is considered a very dull science that has remote interest for linguists. But grammatica was more than the science of sound and letter, it also included the whole corpus of knowledge either spoken or written. Literature. And with it history. And maybe surprising to some, ethics. An understanding of how language works was necessary for the next of the three ‘trivial’ arts, logic or dialectics. With logic the whole apparatus (organon) of how our thinking works and how we think and how we apply our thinking was examined. The basis of science or if you like the product of logic and dialectic is science. And the last of the three, rhetoric, was devoted to the communication of knowledge. With it came jurisprudence and the art of writing as well as later the art of the sermon.

Of the quadrivium, astronomia/astrologia, particulary interests us. But before we go into more detail what do all four have in common? Number. And with number, rhythm and proportion. Each of the four has its own approach to number. But there isn’t a well defined border from one to the next (as you will probably have noticed with the short description of the trivium). In my article on Ptolemy, (Ptolemy Wherefore art Thou Ptolemy) you will remember the following quote:

Hence we were drawn … especially to the theory concerning divine and heavenly things. For that reason it too can be eternal and unchanging in its own domain, which is neither unclear nor disorderly. Furthermore it can work in the domains of the other two divisions of theoretical philosophy (theology and physics) no less than they do. For this is the best science to help theology along its way, since it is the only one which can make a good guess at that activity which is unmoved and separated; it is familiar with the attributes of those beings which are on the one hand perceptible, moving and being moved, but on the other hand eternal and unchanging, having to do with motions and the arrangements of motions.

( from “Ptolemy’s Almagest, translated by G.J. Toomer, Princeton University Press)

We realise that the word, ‘theology’ as it is used here is different from its present usage. Theology in late antiquity concerned itself with the matterless unmoving substance of the divine (theology only later became focused on the problem of the fall and redemption of man ). Anyone who has looked into the Almagest and later astronomical literature will notice how essential an understanding of geometrical method is and will also come to understand how later Kepler could search for a correspondence between the platonic bodies and also speak of the music of the spheres.

As the arts of the quadrivium have number as their core so do they have a common means of presentation – notation. The musician has musical notation just as the mathematician or geometrician uses notation to clarify and to follow a proof. There are also maps, astronomical or geometrical. And you dear astrologer, use a chart with its notation to orient yourself. Moreover you will notice that those who are practised in each of these arts seem to glide over the notation. Watch a musician glide over the notation on the music-stand before her or a mathematician writing a proof on a blackboard. You will notice that when you “read” a chart that the reading is not in the notation but is grounded in your own practice and experience (regardless whether you are a hellene, middle-aged or reborn 🙂 ). And if you look at your collection of astrological literature you are also a grammatician! In fact if you look closely you will find all of the seven liberal arts are present in your practice.

The winter solstice is at hand and so I wish you dear reader all the best for the coming year. There will not be a Quizze for each of the 12 days of Christmas but I promise that there will be a Quizze-Questionne for the 1st of January!


14 thoughts on “The Seven Liberal Arts: a very short Survey

  1. Dear Thomas,

    thank you for this interesting survey. What springs to mind is the idea of seven Esoteric Liberal Arts, Robert Zoller mentions in his translation of Alkindi’s “On the Stellar Rays”. According to him, these were:

    Grammar: Incantation

    Rhetoric: Enchantment

    Logic: Laws of Nature follow laws of thought because mind moves matter

    Arithmetic: Number Magic & Gematria in Greek, Latin, Arabic or Hebrew

    Geometry: Sigils and Figures

    Music: Orphic or Davidic psaltery

    Astronomy: Astrology and Astrological Images

    Let me take the opportunity to wish you a happy Solstice and all the best for the year to come.


    • Dear Peter,

      It is always a pleasure.

      Considering how basic a structure the 7 provided, and still provide, I am sure there are many correspondences.

      Thank you. And the very best to you for the year to come! 🙂


  2. Nourishing food for thought, as always Thomas! Thank you.

    And may I wish you the compliments of the season with good health and prosperity in abundance for the coming new year too.


  3. Hi Thomas-

    Very interesting. I am looking forward to your new Quizee.

    I hope I can still find your blog by then.

    All the best in the New Year!

    ps- my computer is “posessed” by some people that have nothing better to do than stay in my life! Very annoying.. not to mention stressful!!

    • Hello Bia,

      Thank you for the New Year greetings.

      Yes I do hope you will find Altair Astrology again.

      Would a system overhaul help free your computer of unwanted “possesion”?

      all the best,

    • Dear Trojan,

      If it only were so! 🙂 Thank you for a truly moving compliment! Perhaps it will help speed the fractional progress in that direction.

      And to you good health as well (don’t we know how important that is)!


  4. Dear Thomas,

    allow me to express my gratitude for the enrichment your blog-musings have brought to me this year! Also this last post is a jewel by itself!
    And I especially like all those angels disguised as snowflakes, coming down from your blog onto/into my screen, I love them! 🙂

    Wishing you an Angelic Avalanche for the new year,

    most respect- and gratefull,


    • Dear Herman,

      Yes, the snowflakes are a nice touch. And I am quite curious as to what the new year will bring! 2009 has been a very rough year for me and so I hope not to be overwhelmed in 2010!

      And may the new year be filled with inspiration and strength to meet all challenges!

      And I am very pleased to have such a regular reader! 😉

      You will be sure to enjoy the whimsical Quizze that will be posted tomorrow, at latest the day after!


  5. Dear Thomas,

    A very happy. prolific and healthy new year to you, your family, friends, guests and blog readers !

    Looking forward to your new quiz. 😉

    The Antiquarian Aquarian

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