Astronomy: One of the Seven Liberal Arts

This morning I came across this picture (via @hist_astro on Twitter):

Seven Liberal ArtsIt is by Giovanni dal Ponte and was painted in or around 1435; the original is in the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid. It depicts the Seven Liberal Arts which, in antiquity were considered the essential elements of the education system. The Arts concerned are: Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectic, Astronomy, Arithmetic, Geometry and Music. Appropriately enough, Astronomy is in the middle.

I suspect some of you may have noticed that there are more than seven figures in the painting. That’s because each of the Liberal Arts is itself represented by a (female) figure, presumably a Goddess, and also a famous character associated with the particular discipline. Second from the right, for example, you can see Arithmetic accompanied by Pythagoras, who seems to be trying to copy from her notebook. Astronomy. In the centre, kneeling at the feet of Urania (the muse of Astronomy) is Ptolemy..

It’s quite interesting to look at the structure of a Liberal Arts education as it would be in classical antiquity. The first three subjects (Grammar, Rhetoric and Dialectics) formed the Trivium (from which we get the English word “trivial”). “Grammar” means the science of the correct usage of language, knowledge and understanding of which helps a person to speak and write correctly; “Dialectic” basically means “logic”, the science of rational thinking as a means of arriving at the truth; and “Rhetoric” the science of expression, especially persuasion, which includes ways of organizing and presenting an argument so that people will understand and hopefully believe it. These may have been considered trivial in ancient times, but I can’t help thinking that we could do with a lot more emphasis on such fundamental skills in the modern curriculum.

After the Trivium came the Quadrivium: Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy and Music all of which were considered to be disciplines connected with Mathematics. Presumably these are the non-trivial subjects. We might nowadays consider Astronomy to be a mathematical subject – indeed in the United Kingdom astronomy was until relatively recently generally taught in mathematics departments, even after the rise of astrophysics in the 19th Century. On the other hand, fewer would nowadays would recognize music as being essentially mathematical in nature. Historically, however the connections between music, mathematics and natural philosophy were many and profound.

Of course there are now many other disciplines and it would be impossible for any education to encompass all fields of study, but I do think that it’s a shame that modern education systems are so lacking in breadth, as they tend to emphasize the differences between subjects rather than what they all have in common.

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