This book is recommended reading for all serious travelers on the via pulchritudinis. It is an argument for the inclusion of the ‘quadrivium’ in education as an important part of the antidote to modernism. I posted this review when the book first came out about three years ago. I re-post it now because my friend Strat is very ill and will most likely not live through the summer. It is by way of a tribute to him and that I would like to draw attention to his work. Here, Strat pulls together and builds with great insight on themes raised earlier and discussed in issues of the journal of faith and culture, Second Spring, which he c0- edits. I was lucky to be able to contribute some of these articles to this journal myself. The articles of mine are the product of many enjoyable hours of conversation between Strat and myself over the years and I am flattered that he refers to our conversations in the forward to this book.
Stratford has been one of the main influences on my thinking over the years and one the people who first encouraged me to start writing about my ideas. To the degree that I have done so, I could not have written anything worthwhile without his help. I first went into his office in Oxford 15 years ago looking for help in establishing a new sort of Catholic art school. I had phoned him up out of the blue because someone had told me that he was interested in similar things. He instantly agreed to see me and I travelled up to Oxford from London a week later. In this meeting he patiently listened to me and said that he would like to help me. He then invited me up to Oxford and took me through a week of guided reading and helped me to write the first article I had ever written containing these ideas. This was published in Second Spring and was entitled the Way of Beauty (this is where the name for this blog came from!). I remember two things about this, first of all how slow and difficult writing was for me at that point (I hadn't written an essay for the consideration of others since I was sixteen years old!). Second was how patient he was in molding it, suggesting changes for reasons of both style and unorthodox content in such a way that the elegance and clarity of the prose were improved dramatically, but somehow he preserved the essential ideas in such a way that it was my voice that was talking. Several articles followed this, the next was connecting the patterns of the liturgy to the patterns and beauty of numerical description of the cosmos and was called the Art of the Spheres. It was these articles that caused me to be noticed by Catholic institutions such as my current employer, Thomas More College and by Shawn Tribe when he was looking for an art writer for the New Liturgical Movement website. He opened the door that led to what I do now.
The theme of liturgy and number is one that Strat picks up on in his book here, discussing them in the context of the formation of man in education.
Translated as the ‘four ways’, the quadrivium is the collective phrase for four of the seven liberal arts: number, geometry, harmony (music) and cosmology.
The quadrivium is concerned with the study of cosmic order as a principle of beauty. The patterns and rhythms of the liturgy of the Church reflect this order too. As it is all expressed mathematically it allows for the possibility of the liturgical ordering of all our work - the whole culture - to the divine. The patterns of our days, the dimensions of our buildings, the ordering of our institutions can all be in harmony with heaven, creation and the common good.
Interestingly, Pope Benedict XVI drew our attention to the quadrivium in a recent address about St Boethius, (a patron of this blog). He described Boethius's work in adapting this aspect of Greco-Roman culture into a Christian form of education. Boethius wrote manuals on each of these disciplines.
Stratford describes how at a medieval university, around say 1400AD, students received a Bachelor of Arts for the 'Trivium' or 'three ways' (rhetoric, logic, grammar - the other three liberal arts). After this they progressed onto a Master of Arts by studying the quadrivium. This prepared them for the final and longest stage of study, for a doctorate in for example Theology or Philosophy. For Caldecott does not wish to eliminate or undo progress, but rather to add a unifying principle to all that is good about the developments of the modern world and which binds it to its ultimate purpose, and ours.
In his beautifully clear, penetrating prose he describes how each of these subjects is linked to the traditional idea of beauty. I found the chapter on music particularly interesting in this respect. He even speculates on how these areas could be developed in the light of modern scientific developments, for example in his chapter on the Golden Section.
Then in the final chapter he sets out his stall, explaining how he feels this will benefit modern society. He writes: ‘The modern era can be characterised by a certain outlook shaped in part by the overthrow or displacement of ancient metaphysics. We call this outlook 'secular,' and it may take the form of an extreme form of materialism, though it may also take religious forms...even the protection of religion often takes the form of privatization, with faith being exlcluded from any real influence over public life, morality and technology...The modern person feels himself to be disengaged from the world around him, rather than intrinsically related to it (by family, tribe, birthplace, vocation, and so forth)...'
'This all pervasive modern mentality is what we are up against, in education as everywhere else. So the question is now, what can be done about it, if anything? The Enlightenment is not something you can simply unthink. So how do we combat the negative effects of individualism, without losing the benefits of self-consciousness and rationality? The key lies, I believe in revelation and worship. What defines secularism more than anything is inability to pray, and he modern world in its worst aspects is a systematic attack on worship, an idea that begins with the acknowledgement of a Transcendent that reveals itself in the immanent. [Hans Urs von] Balthasar was right: once we lose the sense of objective beauty, of the Forms of the fabric of the world (confirmed and strengthened by revelation), then the ability to pray goes too. The fully ‘buffered’ self has no Forms to contemplate in the cosmos, no reality higher than itself, it has no God to turn to. Prayer is a vital dimension of fully human living. But while we can all pray on our own, it is always in some sense a community thing. It turns us away from ourselves toward God, and in so doing it turns us toward each other (or should do). In fact human civilization had always been build around an act of worship, a public liturgy. Liturgy (from the Greek leitourgia: public work or duty) technically means any kind of religious service done on behalf of a community. Liturgical prayer is a way of being in tune with our society, with other people. But if we are to renew our civilization by renewing our worship, we must understand also that liturgy is a way of being in tune with the motions of the stars, the dance of atomic particles, and the harmony of the heavens that resembles a great song. And Catholic liturgy takes us even deeper than that. It takes us to the source of the cosmos itself, into the sacred precincts of the Holy Trinity where all things begin and end (whether they know it or not), and to the source of all artistic and scientific inspiration, of all culture.’
These are words that even the colleges who think of themselves as faithfully Catholic should take to heart. How many I wonder, truly integrate the liturgical life with the academic life rather than viewing the liturgy as a supporting player that is practised peripherally, however beautifully, to the activities of the classroom?
Back issues of Second Spring and subscriptions can be obtained online here.
To buy Beauty for Truth's Sake, go through to Amazon.com here.