Why modern Liberal Arts?

Liberal Arts (latin liberalis, free, and ars, art or principled practice) is not an ordinary university subject. It can make the claim to be the oldest curriculum of higher education in Western history. It goes back 2,500 years to Ancient Greece and at the time was the mark of an educated person. By late Antiquity it was divided into two parts: the trivium – grammar, rhetoric and dialectic – which carried the pursuit of virtue in the microcosm of personal and political life, and the quadrivium – astronomy, music, mathematics and geometry – which expressed the natural laws of the macrocosm. Together they embodied Western human enquiry into the first principles of the natural universe and into the lives needed to live true to them.

‘Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe… the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me’

(Immanuel Kant).

Modern Liberal Arts

In our modern Liberal Arts we retrieve this ancient and medieval search for first principles across all subject boundaries. But we also explore modern civilizations and cultures, covering selected areas of enquiry in philosophy, the humanities, natural and social sciences, and the fine arts. Our BA (Hons) Liberal Arts degree explores ancient and modern ideas in a truly integrated way. It is a new approach to the oldest university degree in Europe.


In Antiquity a man was free, only if his life was understood to be, and was lived as, an end in itself. This meant that a free man was slave to no one; he was an independent person in his own right, and had leisure time to think deeply about the most profound questions. But this leisured gentleman had all this free time only because he himself had slaves to look after the basic needs of life for him. This left the leisured scholar uninterrupted freedom for his intellectual enquiry into the first principles of the natural universe and social life within it.

Freedom in Antiquity was based on the existence of slaves, and took slavery to be a natural condition. In the Politics Aristotle defined the ‘liberal’ in liberal arts by separating schole (leisure) and diagogue (the civilized pursuits of the free man) from useful skills and knowledge (techne). The latter are only a means to serving the free man for whom ‘know thyself’ is the highest end in-itself. The free man is dependent upon the slave for meeting his basic needs yet the slave, despite being a man, is still only a piece of property, a tool to serve freedom but not to enjoy it as his own truth.

In the modern world, we can no longer teach a Liberal Arts education that retains the same definition of freedom as found in Antiquity. We have to re-define what libertas – freedom – means for us. The European Enlightenment grounded the freedom of all individuals as equal in reason, and as having the same natural rights. No one could now be a slave. However, we don’t believe that things are as straightforward as that. There are still slaves in the world – economic slaves, trafficked slaves, domestic slaves, animal slaves – and there are many ideas of what constitutes ‘freedom.’

In recognition of the fundamental change in the libertas of Liberal Arts, our core modules are called Freedom is to Learn, and run in each year of our programme.


In Antiquity nature, like freedom, was also an end in itself. In general terms this self-end was the principle of self-movement. The law of nature was Aristotle’s prime mover, able to move itself without being moved by anything outside it, and being the founding principle of the movement of everything else. The state of nature here was of harmony, proportion and beauty. In the macrocosm it was the perfection of the heavens or the cosmos, and in the microcosm it was the motion of the atom that could not be reduced to anything more fundamental or basic.

But over the centuries natural science came to change its understanding of the natural world. The speculative basis of the laws of nature ‘discovered’ by Aristotle was challenged in the Renaissance, for example, by the careful observations of nature by Leonardo da Vinci and other painters, and through the telescope of Galileo. When the idea of the principle of absolute motion collapsed, first through Galileo and then Isaac Newton, so the very idea of nature itself changed dramatically. When motion slipped the chain of an unchangeable and eternal mastery, then, released from the tyranny of harmony and perfection, it threatened chaos and disorder in nature. In more recent times we have come to know this new state of nature as relativity. It applies to all movement, including time and the relation of the planets to each other, but not, note, to the speed of light. At the microscopic level quantum physics reveals that not even the nature of reality itself is fixed or absolute, but is instead relative to our own observations of reality.

The tradition has moved from the principle of nature being fixed in itself to nature in modern science being relative and contingent. A modern liberal arts degree therefore needs to explore this change in nature, and to think about its implications not just in the natural sciences but also in the social and political sciences. To this end, our BA Liberal Arts in Winchester has modules on nature—covering the ancient and the modern—in each of our three years of study.


Just as the idea of freedom has changed since the first Liberal Arts programmes, so has the idea of truth. In Antiquity truth was a first principle, something upon which everything else depended for its existence. It was fixed, unchangeable and applied universally to all. In modern societies, this idea of truth is greatly distrusted. How could one truth be true for all types of human beings and animals across the whole world? Isn’t it more the case that different societies hold different ideas of truth, and that each is as equally valid as the next one? If one culture tries to impose its view of truth upon another, then that becomes imperialism, often with tyrannical forms of ‘government’ which oppress the indigenous populations.

In our Liberal Arts programnme we work with this distrust of truth. We find examples of it in philosophy, in modern quantum and relativistic science, in modern literature, and in the arts. The challenge for us is that we still explore the question of first principles, of truth in the world, but now mindful of the problems associated with how something like a first principle relates to different cultures and peoples in different parts of the world. In our version of modern metaphysics in Liberal Arts, we ask whether the contradictions that seem inherent in the notion of universal truth might be trying to teach us a different understanding of ‘truth’ altogether.


‘I consulted the philosophers, I searched their books and examined their various theories; I found them all alike proud, assertive, dogmatic, professing, even in their so-called scepticism, to know everything … They are only agreed in arguing with each other’ (The Savoyard Priest, in Rousseau’s Emile).

‘Another time he heard one of the philosophers, one whose utterances people especially trusted, expressed himself in this way: “to doubt everything is no easy matter; namely, not doubt about one thing and another, about this or that, about something and something else, but is a speculative doubt about everything, which is by no means an easy matter.” He recollected how alert he was at the beginning of this lecture, how dejected at the end, since he perceived not a single word had been said. It would have been better if the speaker had not said more than the first words, for what followed said nothing, although it gave the appearance of saying something… Johannes then bade the philosophers farewell forever. Even if he now and then heard a particular observation by them, he decided to pay no more attention to them, inasmuch as he had had so many sad experiences of how deceitful their words were’ (Kierkegaard, Johannes Climacus).

‘Philosophy fulfills itself only where it is more than a specialty’ (Adorno, ‘Philosophy and Teachers’).

Why is our modern Liberal Arts different from a philosophy degree? Because philosophy has become an academic discipline and, against this, we are committed to integrated thinking. If we wanted to educate students to become ‘philosophers’, there are areas of knowledge that we would have to cover (epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, logic, etc.) in order to meet the criteria of a proper professional training. Modern Liberal Arts is not restricted by the professional boundaries that subject specialists place around their academic disciplines. We roam freely (trespassing?) across all of them.

We are most interested in thinking philosophically about the world, and much less interested in being seen to conform to what counts as ‘doing philosophy’.  The great philosopher Immanuel Kant, at the end of his Critique of Pure Reason, said

‘philosophy is a mere idea of a possible science which nowhere exists… we cannot learn philosophy; for where is it, who is in possession of it, and how shall we recognise it? We can only learn to philosophise, that is, to exercise the talent of reason, in accordance with its universal principles… to confirm or reject these principles in their very sources’ (A838/B866).

We think of modern Liberal Arts as a philosophical enquiry into first principles, taken to all areas of knowledge, and not restricted by definitions of what counts as doing philosophy.