Jacques Maritain Center : A History of Western Philosophy Vol. II / by Ralph McInerny

Part I: The Age of Augustine

Chapter V

Cassiodorus, Isadore, Bede

A contemporary of Boethius, as we have already noted, Cassiodorus Senator (c.480 - c.570) is sometimes thought to have been a student of Boethius as well. Like Boethius he was engaged in political affairs under the Goths, in the tradition of his family, but unlike Boethius he managed to survive his service. Various reasons are given for this, and it is not uncommon to accuse Cassiodorus of obsequiousness and opportunism, a charge which finds some foundation in his flattering appraisal of the Goths in his historical works. The importance of Cassiodorus for our purposes resides in the fact that he was the founder of a monastery at Vivarium, his family estate in Southern Italy, where the finest library in the West was collected. While he himself seems to have never become a monk, Cassiodorus was the patron of the monastery and lived in its neighborhood. For the monks he wrote a book called the Institutiones, the first part of which dealt with Scripture, the second with the liberal arts. In urging the monks to intellectual pursuits Cassiodorus was instrumental in making the monastery the repository of ancient culture during the ages when contact with the past might quite easily have been wholly lost. Indeed, the Institutiones of Cassiodorus begins a tradition of summarizing and epitomizing ancient wisdom. Of this work Cassiodorus said that he would not there command his own doctrine but that of the ancients. This heritage must be praised and taught, for it would be impious to shrug off what the ancients did by way of praise of God.

The second part of the Institutiones, which deals with the liberal arts, was particularly influential, often being copied separately. Although Cassiodorus, true to his promise, gives us very little in it that cannot be found in earlier writers, he passed on the divisions of philosophy, both the Stoic and the Aristotelian, the division of the liberal arts into the trivium and quadrivium, and had something to say under each heading which was of increasing interest when the original sources were lost from view.

Cassiodorus is insistent that the number of the liberal arts is seven, going so far as to adduce scriptural passages to support it.{1} If there are seven liberal arts, what is meant by "liberal" and what by "art"? When he says that he will first speak of grammar since it is the source and basis of liberal letters, Cassiodorus pauses to discuss the meaning of "liber." In Latin this term can mean either book or free, and Cassiodorus is concerned to explain this equivocation. Book is signified by "liber" because in early times writing was done on bark freed from trees. Thus, "liberal" in the phrase "liberal arts" refers to the fact that books are involved in their pursuit. Cassiodorus thus does not attach the same significance to the term in this context as did the Greeks.

With respect to the etymology of "art" Cassiodorus suggests that the word has come from the fact that art binds and limits (artet) us with its rules, or it may come from the Greek term for excellence or skill (arete). From this passage, then, one might conclude that liberal arts are those skills or rules gathered in books. Whatever the case, there is a most interesting problem raised if not solved by Cassiodorus, namely, what is the relation between art and science? Are they the same or different; can we speak interchangeably of seven liberal arts and seven liberal sciences, or are some of the seven arts and some sciences? The question is raised first with regard to logic, "which some prefer to call a discipline and others an art, saying that when someone discourses in apodictic or true disputations it ought to be called a discipline, and when it is something likely and of opinion, it takes on the name art. Thus it has either name depending on the quality of its argumentation." (II.e, n. 17) He notes that Augustine speaks of grammar and rhetoric as disciplines (that is, sciences) as Varro had, and that Capella entitled his work (which Cassiodorus did not have an opportunity to see) On the Seven Disciplines. Discipline indicates that it can be learned, and something will be called such insofar as it attains to unchangeable things by the rule of truth. The difference between art and science, in short, is that science involves necessity while art does not. Insofar as some arguments are certain and some probable, logic can, on this basis, be sometimes called science, sometimes art. Cassiodorus returns to this point later, referring to Plato and Aristotle: "Between art and science Plato and Aristotle, esteemed masters of secular literature, intended this difference, namely, that art is concerned with the relations of contingent things, which can be otherwise than as they are, whereas discipline is concerned with things which cannot be otherwise." (II, 3, n. 20)

Whether this settles much is extremely doubtful. Given that art is concerned with the contingent and science with the necessary, the question remains whether we can call geometry, for example, a liberal "art." It would certainly not be said to concern itself with the contingent. With respect to logic itself, for which Cassiodorus elaborates the distinction, he can be said to have confused the logic of probable argumentation and a probable argument.

On the basis of this one sounding in search of a personal contribution, Cassiodorus does not reveal himself to have been an astute thinker. However, his claim to fame lies rather in his patronage of the monastery at Vivarium, his concern that the monks there devote themselves to both divine and liberal letters, and his pointing the way to the encyclopediac type of epitome which performed so useful a function throughout the Early Middle Ages. Some attention has also been paid to Cassiodorus' attempts in his De anima to prove the immortality of the soul. He shows that the soul cannot be material because it can know spiritual being and must therefore have affinity with such an object. This spiritual soul is diffused throughout the body, but everywhere distinct from it. Cassiodorus is thought to be trying in this work to reconcile conflicting traditions according to which the soul is on the one hand a substance in its own right and on the other the form of the body. This difficult reconciliation is not achieved by Cassiodorus and indeed must await the advent of St. Thomas in the thirteenth century. In the final analysis, then, Cassiodorus deserves mention as patron, compiler, and preserver of ancient culture and not as an independent thinker of any magnitude.

In continuity with Cassiodorus, we may mention here the efforts of Isadore of Seville (died 636) and the Venerable Bede (673-735), Anglo-Saxon monk of the monastery of Yarrow. Isadore's work on Etymologies covered in twenty books a vast range of subjects and has been called the first encyclopedia. The first three books of the work are devoted to the liberal arts, and Isadore's dependence on Cassiodorus is immediately apparent. Indeed, his general method is to reproduce his sources verbatim. We find here that art is concerned with the contingent and science with the necessary.{2} Nevertheless, Isadore may seem to be straddling the distinction when he says, "Disciplinae liberalium artium septem sunt" (there are seven sciences of the liberal arts). (I, 2) It is interesting to watch Isadore collate the liberal arts with the divisions of philosophy. (See Differentiae, PL, 83,93-94.) He has been discussing the difference between eloquence and wisdom (col. 93, n. 148) and goes on (n. 149) to point out that the ancients identify wisdom and philosophy, which is the science of things human and divine. Moreover, they held that there were three parts of philosophy: physics, logic, and ethics. Natural philosophy is ordered to the contemplation of the natures of things, logic determines the true from the false, ethics is ordered to correct living, its theory and practice. "This three-fold genus of philosophy is divided thus by the wise of this world. They say that to physics pertain the seven disciplines, of which the first is arithmetic, the second geometry, the third music, the fourth astronomy, the fifth astrology,{3} the sixth mechanics, the seventh medicine." (Col. 94, n. 150) The seven disciplines here listed are, of course, not the traditional liberal arts. One wonders if the distinction of eloquence from wisdom does not relegate the trivium to the former and demand an expansion of the quadrivium to attain the number seven. Under the heading of ethics, Isadore discusses the four cardinal virtues.

Isadore's sources in this discussion are Cassiodorus and the Augustine of book eight of The City of God, but the attempt to fit the seven liberal arts into the threefold division of philosophy, derived from the Stoics and ultimately perhaps from Plato, appears to be original with him. The attempt raises a good many questions. Do the divisions of the arts assigned to a part of philosophy produce subdivisions of that part of philosophy? For example, if the quadrivium belongs to physics, are there sciences of nature which are not mathematical? Isadore adds that not all the arts he refers to physics are suitable for a monk. We may close this brief mention of Isadore by noting that Isadore finds the threefold division of philosophy verified in Scripture: physics may be found in Genesis and Ecclesiastes, ethics in Proverbs, and logic in the Canticle of Canticles and the Gospels.

The Venerable Bede, like Isadore in Spain, was lucky enough to be living away from the turmoil on the Continent, and he is the beneficiary of a continuous tradition of learning in England. Bede is perhaps best known for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, but he also wrote on the liberal arts, composing works on orthography, prosody, and figures of speech. His De natura rerum, an encyclopedia after the manner of Isadore, is an ambitious compilation. He wrote as well on time and on the computation of the date of Easter.

The works of Bede were to have great influence both at home and on the Continent, the last in large part thanks to Alcuin. Through Bede, Isadore, and Cassiodorus, as well as independently, Augustine and Boethius emerge as the great authorities in the liberal arts.

Bibliographical Note

The works of Cassiodorus can be found in Migne, PL, 69-70. An Introduction to Divine and Human Readings, trans. L. W. Jones (New York, 1946). See P. Courcelle, Les lettres grecques en occident (Paris, 1943). The works of Isadore of Seville can be found in Migne, PL, 81-84. Etymologiae, edited in 2 volumes by M. Lindsay (Oxford, 1911). On Bede see H. M. Gillett, Saint Bede the Venerable (London, 1935).

{1} Institutiones, II, praef., n. 2 (ed. Mynors, p. 89) points out that Scripture makes it clear that there are seven arts. Do we not read in the Psalms that David praised God seven times a day and that Wisdom has built herself a house, erected on seven pillars? So too, in Exodus God tells Moses to make seven lights to illuminate his way. The utility of each art for reading Scripture is stressed in the preface to the first book, and we sense the influence of Augustine's De doctrina christiana.

{2} Unfortunately, in his Differentiae Isadore does not contrast science and art.

{3} "Astronomy is the law of the stars. Astrology defines the changes of the heavens, their signs, powers, the rise and fall of stars." (Col. 94, n. 152)

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