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Philosophy and the Liberal Arts

Philosophy and the Liberal Arts is plate XI (11) from the The Hortus Deliciarum and is perhaps the most iconic image of liberal arts education. It was created by Herrad of Landsberg and a community of women who studied in the Vosges mountains around the twelfth century. The article Liberal Arts Education by and for Women focuses on Herrad and covers the meaning behind the inner circle of the image which primarily centres on philosophy. In this article the focus will be on the seven liberal arts (septem artes liberales) that surround Philosophy. 

Around the Queen Philosophy, under round arches separated by columns, are the seven liberal arts. In their notes on the image Straub and Keller (1977) tell us ‘These arts are ever at Philosophy’s orders in the supreme direction she exerts over the trivium and quadrivium of profane studies’. These words are expressed by the circular inscription that frames Philosophy: arte regens omnia quae sunt ego philosophia subjectas artes in septem divido partes – I, the divine Philosophy, govern all things wisely; I lay out seven arts which are subordinate to me.

Sqoosh. Philosophie mit den sieben freien Künsten 1 • Philosophy and the Liberal Arts
Philosophy and the Liberal Arts
(see a higher resolution image)


The Seven Liberal Arts


This picture is an illustration of Grammar who stands as a muse of her art. One of the seven liberal arts she forms part of a larger illustration titled Philosophy and the Liberal Arts.

At the top of the rose Grammar wears red, her head covered in a white veil. The rod she holds signifies the strict discipline that accompanies the learning of grammar. In the other hand she carries a book decorated with jewels. Inscribed on the arch above her we can read:

Per me quivis discit, vox, littera, syllaba quid sit
Through me, all can learn the meaning of words, syllables, and letters. 


This picture is an illustration of Rhetoric who stands as a muse of her art.

Next to grammar is Rhetoric, who holds up a stylus and a pair of wax coated tablets as an example of the care required of the orator in preparing their speeches, each part of which will need close attention to detail and numerous revisions:

causarum vires per me, alme rhetor, requires.
Thanks to me, proud speaker, your speeches will move.


This picture is an illustration of Dialectic who stands as a muse of her art.

Dialectic is engaged in a lively exchange. The barking head of a dog in her left hand expresses the energy and regularity of argumentation involved in dialectical debate and the intense vigilance required when reasoning with an opponent.

argumenta sino concurrere more canino
Like the barks of a dog my arguments follow each other with speed.


This picture is an illustration of Music who stands as a muse of her art.

Playing a harp-shaped instrument called a cithara, Music is surrounded by various instruments including a hand organ (organistrum) and a lira.

Musica sum late doctrix artis variate.
I am Music and I teach my art with the help of various instruments.


This picture is an illustration of Arithmetic who stands as a muse of her art.

Arithmetic counts on a knotted rope. Above her we can read:

Ex numeris consto, quorum discrimina monstro.
I have faith in numbers and I show how they are related to each other.


This picture is an illustration of Geometry who stands as a muse of her art. One of the seven liberal arts she forms part of a larger illustration titled Philosophy and the Liberal Arts.

Standing a compass (circulus) on the ground, Geometry also holds a yard stick or surveying rod. Her role is the art of measuring the world at rest.

Terrae mensuras per multas dirigo curas.
With precision I measure the earth.


This picture is an illustration of Astronomy who stands as a muse of her art. One of the seven liberal arts she forms part of a larger illustration titled Philosophy and the Liberal Arts.

Astronomy looks towards the cosmos to study a sky of stars. She holds in her hand a type of magnifying lens, or perhaps a casing filled with water to reflect a view of the night sky.

Ex astris nomen traho, per quae discitur omen.
I owe my name to the celestial bodies and I predict the future.

Philosophy and the Liberal Arts

This picture is an illustration of a band which forms the outer circle of Philosophy and the Liberal Arts
The Outer Circle of Philosophy and the Liberal Arts

The large band that encircles the seven liberal arts (septem artes liberales) contains four aphorisms:

+ Hec exercicia que mvndi philosophia investigavit · investigata notavit · scripto firmavit et alvmnis insinvavit
What it discovers is remembered · Philosophy investigates the secrets of the elements and all things.

+ Septem per studia docet artes philosophia · hec elementorum scrvtatvr et abdita rervm.
Philosophy teaches arts by seven branches · It puts it in writing, in order to convey it to the students.


Philosophy, Liberal Arts and Lying Fictions

Outside the philosophical circle of women, beyond the realm of the seven liberal arts muses and their Queen Philosophy sit four men. Poets, mage, or magicians, the men work at desks writing words beyond the influence of philosophy and the seven liberal arts. Echoing Socrates (Plato) from the Republic, Herrad regards their work as dangerous, frivolous, and impure. The black birdlike creatures seem to be whispering ideas into their ears. Taken by their fantasies some of the mage can no longer write and appear lost in their dreams.

The inscriptions make Herrad’s opinion most clear:

poete vel magi spiritu filthy instincti.
The poets and magicians who are moved by the impure spirit.

Isti inmundis spiritibus inspirati scribunt artem magicam et poetriam id est Isti inmundis spiritibus inspirati scribunt artem magicam et poetriam id est fabulous comments.
Those moved by impure spirits teach magic and write poems, that is, lying fictions.


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Language and Number

The seven liberal arts became the form and content for much liberal arts education through the Middle Ages, and its origins can be traced back to Plato’s academy. Many medieval manuscripts document the septem artes liberales as their main programme of education.

There are many ways to read the distinction between the three language arts of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, and the number arts of music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. We can of course take a modern approach and simply think of them as the separation of arts and sciences. This though misses much, not least that the point of liberal arts education is not only to understand each art in itself but also in its relation to the other arts. It also tempts us to think of the arts as unscientific and the sciences as lacking in artistry. Anyone who has trespassed across this divide knows only too well how inaccurate that distinction is.

We can also take the approach popular in the Middle Ages and know this relation by the terms quadrivium – the place where the four roads meet – and trivium – the three ways. Though these terms become common in medieval education some suggest that the trivium was invented by The Sophists. ‘The idea of shaping the soul is implicit in Protagoras’ assertion that harmony and the rhythm of poetry and music must be impressed on the soul to make it rhythmical and harmonious. […] Before [the sophists] we never hear of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic: they must therefore have invented them.’

By the time of Boethius priority is given to ‘number which is in itself a whole, then to music which is the harmony of wholes in relation to each other, then to geometry and astronomy which explore magnitude without motion and with motion respectively. The order of the quadrivium sees the learner move from material in motion to the immaterial and unchangeable, or to theology/philosophy, repeating the hierarchy in which freedom or education is the handmaid of discipline and science’.

The Middle Ages take Boethian texts as the standard for the mathematical disciplines of the liberal arts. The distinction that begins to emerge with Boethius is one between physics and metaphysics, or the distinct realms of the body and that of the soul. This allows us to read the quadrivium and trivium as a creative tension between the speculative philosophy of Plato, and the practical philosophy of Aristotle. ‘The Platonic holds to the tripartite nature of the speculative (nature, mathematics and theology, as in the Republic) while the separation of the theoretical and the practical, and the scientific nature of physics and the inseparability of bodies and sensible forms are Aristotelian’. Liberal arts education therefore becomes the experience of working productively within the tension of theory and practice.

The Italian poet of the Middle Ages, Dante Alighieri, highlights the importance of this relation for an idea of human education:

The highest faculty in a human being is not simply to exist, because the elements too share in the simple fact of existence; nor is it to exist in compound form, for that too is found in minerals; nor is it to exist as a living thing, for plants too share in that; nor is it to exist as a creature with sense perception, for that is also shared […] but it is to exist as a creature who apprehends by means of the potential intellect […] The intellectual potentiality of which I am speaking is not only concerned with universal ideas or classes, but also with particulars; and so it is often said that the theoretical intellect by extension becomes practical, its goal then being doing and making.

In their relation to philosophy the liberal arts can then be understood as central to thinking and doing, universal and particular. Long before the Middle Ages, the Roman statesman Cicero knew this too; ‘the subtle bond of a mutual relationship links together all arts which have any bearing upon the common life of mankind’.


Hortus deliciarum (The Garden of Delights)

Hortus Inner Cover 1 • Philosophy and the Liberal Arts
Hortus Deliciarum which contains the plate Philosophy and Liberal Arts

This article is written with reference to a version of the Hortus produced by the Caratzas Brothers in 1977, the full text of which is below. It contains some beautifully descriptive notes by A. Straub and G. Keller.

This edition of the HORTUS DELICIARUM reproduces the plates and commentary (in English translation) collected and prepared by Canons A. Straub and G. Keller between 1879-1899 under the sponsorship of Societe pour la Conservation des Monuments Historiques d’Alsace and first published by Schlesier & Schweikhardt in Strasbourg in 1901. It has been limited to seven hundred and fifty copies.

ISBN 10: 0892410027 / ISBN 13: 9780892410026

In the preface Herrad writes to her nuns: I myself, the little bee, composed this book titled Garden of Delights, and drew from the sap of the diverse flowers of Holy Scripture and from philosophical works, inspired by God, and I constructed it by my love for you, in a manner a honeycomb full of honey for the honor and the glory of Jesus Christ and the Church. It is for this reason I urge you to study this book often and seek the sweet fruit it contains, to refresh your tired spirit by the drops of its honey so that, nourished by its spiritual sweetness, you would be able to confront without danger the transient things of this world; for myself, having traversed the dangerous routes of this stormy sea, I will be protected from all earthly affection; and by your intense prayer be borne with you to heaven, in the love of your beloved Christ!

Herrad could not have expressed more clearly, nor with more charm the aim of her work. Her book is a collection of pieces culled from all the branches of human knowledge. They were drawn from Holy Scripture, the Fathers of the Church and other authors, intermingled with her graceful poetry of which some was put to music, for Herrad was a poetess as well as a musician.


In looking at this beautiful composition, one would say that he has before him the working model of a stained-glass artist for a rose window on the facade of one of our old twelfth century cathedrals,[1] like the wheel of fortune at Bale, whose frame bears a striking resemblance to the frame of our subject. 

In the center, Philosophy is enthroned as queen, her forehead encircled by a golden crown from which three human heads emerge, designated by the words etica, logica, phisica. Socrates and Plato are seated at her feet and carefully note down her words. On a long scroll, the middle of which is held at her breast, we read: “all wisdom comes from God. Only the wise can do what they will.”[2] Seven streams of living water flow from Philosophy; they are the liberal arts “with the Holy Spirit as their origin.” [3] Representations of them encircle the noble lady under many round arches, separated one from the other by Roman columns, the capitals of which are adorned with foliage or grimacing masks. These arts are ever at her orders in the supreme direction she exerts over the trivium and the quadrivium of profane studies, as expressed by the words inscribed in the circle that frames Philosophy: + arte regens omnia quae sunt ego philosophia subjectas artes in septem divido partes. 

At the top we see Grammar, her head covered by a white veil, under which appears the Byzantine coiffure described earlier. She is garbed, as is each of her companions, in a tunic with tight-fitting sleeves and in a bliau or long garment fitted at the waist. The sleeves tight to mid-arm, open into draperies which extend to just below the knees. She is armed with the rod—scope—symbol of the strict discipline that must be maintained over the lowly students; in the other hand she holds a book, whose cover is adorned with precious stones. The following inscription appears in the arch under which she stands: Per me quivis discit, vox, littera, syllaba quid sit

Moving towards the right of the viewer: Rhetoric, equipped with a stylus and two tablets coated with black wax, [4] to indicate the care that she recommends to the orator in preparing his discourses, each section of which must undergo close scrutiny and may require numerous revisions: causarum vires per me, alme rhetor, requires. [5] 

Dialectic, in lively discussion as indicated by the gesture of her right hand. In her left she holds the head of a barking dog, symbol of the unending shouts provoked by disputation and of the vigilance with which the disputant follows the reasoning of the adversary: argumenta sino concurrere more canino

Music, playing an instrument in the shape of a harp, but which the inscription calls cithara; next to her is a hand organ labelled organistrum and a lira, which today would probably be called rubebe: [6] Musica sum late doctrix artis variate

Arithmetic, counting on a semi-circular rod onto which are threaded twenty-two black balls. numeris consto, quorum discrimina monstro.

Geometry, standing a compass on the ground, circulus, and holding a long surveying rod: terrae mensuras per multas dirigo curas

Astronomy, her eyes raised towards heaven, as she studies the stars. She holds in one hand a closed box or, according to Rev. Ch. Cahier, a bushel, “because we associate meteorology with her as the directress of agricultural labors: ex astris nomen traho per quae discitur omen. [7] 

All these representations are enclosed in a wide circle which bears the following inscription:
+ Hec exercicia que mvndi philosophia investigavit · investigata notavit · scripto firmavit et alvmnis insinvavit
+ Septem per studia docet artes philosophia · hec elementorum scrvtatvr et abdita rervm.

Though full of admiration for the philosophers of ancient pagan times, “the scholars of the world and the clerics of former ages,” [8] Herrad is only horrified at poets and magicians, “inspired by the unclean spirit.” She therefore excludes them from this magnificent pictured rose. They are shown at the bottom of the page, deep in their dreams or writing in a book the false pedantries which the spirit of evil, in the form of a black and unsightly winged creature, tries to whisper into their ears. Isti immundis spiritibus inspirati scribunt artem magicam et poetriam, fabulosa commenta. We note the shape of the writing desk or fixed scriptore, which could also be used as a lectern. Both the poets and the philosophers are provided with the primitive horn-shaped inkpot sunk into the desk. Besides a reed or pen, the persons writing hold penknives with black handles. 

To these sinister agents of the evil spirit, as Herrad considers them, the Abbess attaches different kinds of idolatry which she develops in a series of very animated scenes, numbering four, if our memory is correct. 


[1] It is the place that the master of the construction of the cathedral of Laon assigned to the Liberal Arts, which are represented a second time on the arches of the west portal. The personifications of the arts were freely admitted among the images of our ancient cathedrals. We find them on a stained glass window of the apse at Auxerre, on the western portal at Chartres, on the principal door of Notre-Dame of Paris and Sens, under the porch of the cathedral al Freiburg, in the ancient library or bookstore of Puy-en-Velay, etc. They are seen otherwise on a mosaic of the eleventh century of the cathedral of lvrea, seated beside Philosophy dressed as a queen. Aus’m Weerth, Der Mosaeikboden in St. Gereon zu Coeln, nebst den damit verwandten Mosaeikboeden ltaliens. Bonn 1873. p. 21. 

[2] Omnis sapientia a domino Deo est. Soli quod desiderant facere possunt sapientes. 

[3] To the right and beside the seat of Philosophy the author traced the words: Septem fontes sapientiae fluunt de philosophia, quae dicuntur liberales artes. On the left is read: Spiritus sanctus inventor est sept em liberalium artium, quae sunt: Grammatica, Rhetorica, Dialetica, Musica, Arithmetica, Geometria, Astronomia. 

[4] The use of the wax tablets never entirely ceased during the Middle Ages. The library of Saint-Gall possessed six of them with various accounts written in the Sixteenth century; the one at Dresden contains two dating only to the year 1426. Two others from the same period coming from Erfurt, are seen at the Wallraff Museum of Cologne. See. Anzeiger fuer Kunde der deutschen Vorzeit. Neue Folge, XII, 101,275. XX, 78. XXXJII, 279. 

[5]  In the pictures of the Sixteenth century which decorate the ancient bookshop of Puy-en-Velay, Rhetoric holds a file. It is, as can be seen, the Latin precept “saepe stylum vertas” translated by the brush in modern language, well before Boileau, whose verse relating to this passage are known by everyone.

[6] See Viollet-le-Duc, op cit., II, 306. 

[7] Nouveaux Melanges d’archeologie, d’histoire et de litterature sur le moyen age, IV, p. 155. – ln his Dictionnaire de I’architecture (11, 2). Viollet-le-Duc sees here a dome casing filled with water, “probably to observe the stars with by reflection.” Not wanting to point out the dome casing is used only for dry materials, we will observe that none of the copies colored by Engelhardt show the water with a different tint. The artists would not have neglected this detail, as proved by the outline of the drunken Noah. The haste with which he copied this tracing did not prevent him to write the word roth on the mouth of the vase which the patriarch holds in his hands, so to show the color of the liquid. 

[8] As the inscription traced on the side of the philosopher Plato calls them: “Philosophi sapientes mundi et gentium clerici fuerunt”. As usual let us indicate the colors. Setting: the abacus and the plinth of the base of the columns were red, the shaft green, the capital and the base brown, as well as the arches and the circles. Personifications Grammar, Music and Geometry wear a carmine bliau on lop of a white robe; Rhetoric and Arithmetic a blue bliau on top of a green robe; the two other liberal Arts a green bliau on top of a while robe. The two small headdresses under the veil of Astronomy and Grammar are blue. Philosophy is dressed in blue and draped with a purple overcoat. Socrates wears a green robe with a carmine overcoat; Plato a red robe with a blue overcoat. The Magi 1 an 3, looking from the left, both with grey hair, were dressed in a green petticoat with a carmine and red overcoat; 2 wears a red robe and a blue overcoat; 4 a carmine petticoat with a blue overcoat. The colors of the hose are indicated in the same order, they were: blue, white, red and green. 


Alighieri, D. (1996) Dante: Monarchy. Cambridge University Press.

Cicero, M. T. (1991) Cicero: On Duties. Cambridge University Press.

Herrad of Landsberg, Abbess of Hohenburg (1977) Hortus deliciarum (Garden of delights). New Rochelle, N.Y: Caratzas Brothers.

Jaeger, W. (1986) Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture: Volume I. Archaic Greece. The mind of Athens. Trans. by Highet, G. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Philosophy with the seven liberal arts. Engraving, colored from: Christian Moritz Engelhardt, Herrad von Landsberg, Hortus deliciarum. Stuttgart / Tübingen: Cotta, 1818. Johann Christian Senckenber University Library.

File:Philosophie mit den sieben freien Künsten.jpg – Wikimedia Commons (n.d.). Available at:

Tubbs, N. (2014) Philosophy and Modern Liberal Arts Education: Freedom is to Learn. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Vollmann, B. K. (n.d.) Christianity and poetic fiction (Cristianismo y ficción poética). Available at: