Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Seven Liberal Arts

Presented to the Northern California Research Lodge
By Thomas D. Worrel on March 20, 1997
(revised January 2002)

"Wisdom builded her house; She has hewn out her seven pillars." Proverbs 9:1

Table of Contents

* Introduction
* Interpretations of Masonic Authors
* The History of the Seven Liberal Arts
* The Cathedral and School of Chartres
* The Winding Staircase as a Symbol of Ascension
* The Seven Liberal Arts

I. Introduction

The Staircase Lecture is presented to the Masonic candidate in the second degree of his work -that of Fellowcraft. The lecture is considered to be quite a long one as it covers many subjects pertinent to the Mysteries of Freemasonry. Within the dissertation are explanations of the three, five, and seven steps, which compose the staircase. Yet when the lecture reaches the seven steps we are merely told that they represent the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences; and, the seven subjects are named. There are no further explanations given, nor elaboration offered but for one exception -that of geometry. Being that the seven make up the bulk of the staircase, it would seem that further light would be forthcoming. But such is not the case.

In this situation, we are left with more questions than answers. Why are these particular subjects mentioned? It is certainly debatable whether or not these are the most important academic disciplines. Why are there just seven? There are certainly more than just seven arts and sciences. Why are they in a staircase motif? If we took this to mean levels of prerequisite education or understanding or of importance, there would be considerable disagreement regarding this order. So what we are really left with are implications derived from the comments on geometry. That is, that these are subjects worthy of study and geometry is the most important of the seven. We are then left with the broadest question of them all: Is this the extent of the message to the candidate?

In fact, that is the idea conveyed to most candidates. The apparent interpretation of the seven steps is the importance of acquiring a solid well-rounded education. And perhaps, highlighting the intimate connection between Masonry and geometry. What other notion could the candidate have? The importance of education has always been stressed in Freemasonry, not only for cultural reasons, but also for its role in promoting freedom and restricting tyranny. Indeed, there seems to be an inverse correlation between the education of the population and the success of tyranny. But, the importance of a good solid education seems obvious to most people. There is nothing very profound about the good sense of acquiring it. We do not need to join a fraternity nor participate in rituals to impress this wisdom upon us.

The history of the Seven Liberal Arts tells us a completely different story. Its origin is in antiquity. Its role in the development of Western Civilization was immense. And its adoption among the Fraternity suggests far more than currently realized. And because its history and relevance to both our culture and our Craft was so central, it sadly points to the present situation of American Masonry as something near tragic. What was once a precious adornment of our Lodge has now become basically a footnote in one of our lectures. In the ongoing sacking of the Temple in order to attract more members and "modernize" our Craft, we are virtually draining the life- blood from this august body. The purpose of this paper is to look at something we have lost; to try and reestablish our connection with a part of our past; and, in a broader sense, issue a call to preserve one of the true beauties within our fraternity of Freemasonry.

There are, of course, many commentaries on the winding staircase by the various Masonic writers. Usually the explanations of the Seven Liberal Arts are somewhat sketchy. It is common to find mere basic definitions of the seven subjects. Sometimes there is a little more elaboration but it never seems complete. But, as we combine the different views, the Masonic significance becomes clearer. The first section of this paper will look at some of these explanations. Following that I will explore the curriculum of the Seven Arts, how and where it developed and by whom. It is in the history of the Seven Liberal Arts that we begin to glean the high purpose for which it was intended. In the third part of the paper I will discuss the incomparable cathedral at Chartres and the Neoplatonic school that grew around it. In the last part I will explore the psychological and spiritual significance of the seven steps and the winding staircase.

II. Interpretations of Masonic Authors

There are many Masonic writers who have given at least some explanation of the Seven Liberal Arts. Space only permits my mention of only a few. My criteria for selecting the authors I have is only a function of providing a sample of the differing views and depth. There is a common thread and that seems to be that most Masonic writers at least sense that the Winding Staircase is much more than it at first appears. From that point the opinions seem to diverge into several different directions. As H.L. Haywood states in his book Symbolical Masonry: "The Three, Five and Seven Steps have long been a puzzle to the candidate and a problem to Masonic writers;" 1 Every writer I have investigated knows that the classification of the Seven Arts comes from the Medieval educational curriculum. The problem is not where it originated but why is it included in our Rites. But the answer seems to be approached in this sense: It is obviously in our Rites for some reason; so, it must mean this or that. First we will review what Masons have said; then, in the next section, we will explore the history of the curriculum itself and the intentions of its formulation.

A view common among Masonic writers is portrayed by H.L. Haywood in this following statement in one of his books: "I believe that Masonry is justified in retaining the Liberal Arts and Sciences in its Ritual just because they still have power to humanize us, to 'improve us in social intercourse,' to make us broader of mind, more tolerant in opinion, more humane in action, and more brotherly in conduct. Besides, knowledge of them, can make us more useful to the lodge." 2 He goes on to explain the usefulness of people in the lodge that can write, play music, and to speak. He obviously considers the Seven Arts as merely having useful educational purposes. This view is consistent with California monitors at least dating from 1927 wherein a small explanation of each discipline is given in the lecture.

H.P.H. Bromwell (1823 -1903) wrote in his massive tome Restorations of Masonic Geometry and Symbolry that: "Although the number of recognized sciences far exceeds seven, yet, giving to that number the benefit of its symbolic meaning, it stands for the whole circle of sciences, whether specifically named among the seven or not." 3 Here is an example of someone who considers that the number seven is used in its symbolic sense of meaning "the whole picture" or "all encompassing". We can speculate that his interpretation is that the Seven Liberal Arts refers to all knowledge. In Stellar Theology and Masonic Astronomy by Robert Hewitt Brown, he wants to interpret just about everything in the ritual in an astronomical way. He writes: "The wages of the faithful craftsmen, we are told, are 'com, oiL and wine.' The seven signs of the zodiac, from the vernal equinox to the first point of Scorpio, 'winding' in a glittering curve about the heavens, may in a like manner be said to be emblematic of seven winding steps, thus corresponding with the more ancient versions of the fellow-craft legend;" 4 This is an interesting scenario but completely ignores the subjects of the seven steps, and the history of the curriculum.

There are Masonic authors who interpret the Seven Liberal Arts in ways that are not based upon historical knowledge but more upon a more psychological, philosophical or spiritual paradigm. For example, in the popular Art and Imagination series by Thames and Hudson, the volume on Freemasonry by W. Kirk MacNulty is a case in point. MacNulty writes the following: "In the most general terms the Winding Staircase defines seven 'levels of consciousness', from consciousness of the physical body at the bottom to consciousness of the Spirit and Divinity at the top. By summarizing a large body of ritual and lecture, we can say that the Stairs assign a step or level of consciousness to each of the seven Officers of the Lodge; " 5 His correspondences are the following: Tyler with Grammar, Inner Guard with Logic, Junior Deacon with Rhetoric, Senior Deacon with Arithmetic, Junior Warden with Geometry, Senior Warden with Music, and the Worshipful Master with Astronomy. This type of explanation deals more with how one might currently interpret the Seven Liberal Arts but does not address the original intent of the founders of the Craft.

Another author in this survey is George H. Steinmetz. In his book Freemasonry: Its Hidden Meaning he also tackles the seven steps. He makes the cryptic statement: "the seven steps have a deep occult meaning which we will merely mention here. They are the vibrations producing color and sound." 6 He does not elaborate on this and so neither will I! A few pages later he states: "There are actually seven interpretations of Masonic symbolism, or more correctly, seven means of interpretation." 7 He goes on to explain how each discipline can individually be applied to the Rites of Freemasonry to garner ever deeper interpretations. There may be some truth here although it is a clumsy fit with some of the disciplines.

There is much in Freemasonry of an astronomical nature. Much obviously, is related to geometrical and number symbolism. And you can make some case for the others but it begins to get weaker and weaker.

In the Scottish Rite, the 30th Degree, that of "Knight Kadosh" or "Knight of the Holy Spirit", we again run into the Seven Liberal Arts. This time they are on a double seven-runged ladder. Albert Pike's explanation in the Liturgy is really based around the lessons of the Knight Kadosh degree but we get hints of a deeper and more mystical significance when we consider the corresponding words on the other side of the ladder. It is written in Hebrew and are obviously related to the Spheres on the Kabalistic Tree of Life. Pike directly states in the Legenda: "You conclude that, in this Degree, the words on the seven steps of the Ladder mean something more and higher than the mere elementary Sciences of which they are the names. You are right " 8 As Pike's commentary continues he basically explains these Seven Arts as steps to ever larger vistas of God and Creation; and, with the corresponding rungs on the opposite side develops a much more exalted role of these Arts and Sciences. As we will see later, this is closer to the original intent.

The last Masonic writer I want to consider is Walter Leslie Wilmshurst (1867- 1939). He is the author of several books including: The Meaning of Masonry, Masonic Initiation and The Ceremony of Passing. As we can tell from the passage I am about to quote, the ritual was somewhat different than what we now work today. Wilmshurst is a very spiritual and mystical writer and, as such, we should expect to find his interpretation down those lines. This lengthy quote displays just that:

"The perambulations are made on the level floor of the Lodge, which the candidate keeps on "squaring," visiting each of its four sides in turn. But at the end of the third circuit the moment comes when his forward motion on the level ceases, and he is directed to mount spirally, by a series of winding steps. Linear motion gives way to circular; he advances now not merely forward, but up. By this change of motion, this spiral ascent, is implied that the time has come when the Candidate must leave the level of the sense- world and rise to the supra-sensual; must divert his thoughts and desires from sensuous objects and concentrate them on the insensible and much more real things of the world of mind." 9

Clearly, Wilmshurst is of the opinion that the winding staircase, which includes the seven steps, is considerably more than an exhortation on the merits of an extensive education. The winding stairs become the vehicle of his ascension into the spiritual realm. He further states that: "From the moment of ascending the winding staircase, then, the Candidate is mentally leaving the outer world more and more behind him and rising into an inner invisible world. He is making what has often been called ltinerarium mentis in Deo, the ascent of the mind to the Source of Light; "10

There can be no question that Wilmshurst sees a deeper role for the Seven Liberal Arts. The above sampling of Masonic writers and their comments on the winding staircase show different levels of possible meaning to this Second Degree motif. We know that there have been ritual changes in the past regarding the winding stairs. There were, indeed, different numbers of steps at different times. Haywood informs us that:

"In some eighteenth century tracing boards the stair is composed of only five steps, in other of seven. Preston divided them into one, three, five, seven, nine and eleven, making thirty-six in all. The Hemming lectures, which replaced Preston's at the time of the Union, struck out the group of eleven steps, thus reducing the number to twenty-five. The American Ritual, in turn, further reduced the number to fifteen by striking out the one and the nine."11

Not only has the whole staircase changed but the Seven Liberal Arts were not always in the Second Degree. They were in the First Degree at the beginning of the eighteenth century.12 But regardless of the changes, the seven steps has always represented the Seven Liberal Arts.

And it is those Arts which are our focus here. We have seen some Masonic authors consider these steps in their most obvious interpretations and we have seen others consider it the vehicle to mystical heights. In an attempt to get closer to the actual we have to go outside of the Fraternity and explore the history and development of this curriculum.

III. The History of the Seven Liberal Arts

The history of the Seven Liberal Arts is the history of the development of education up until the end of the Middle Ages. Its origins are in classical Athens. The different disciplines were developing at different times and it was not till later that they crystallized into a set of seven. The term "liberal" has lead to some confusion because we use the term somewhat differently now. We think of it as a broad education in contrast to a technical or professional education that is highly specialized. But liberal in the context of the Seven Liberal Arts means education suitable for the free man. The term is used as early as Plato. The term "arts" has to be thought of in the sense of "skills".

Plato had a model curriculum as did his pupil Aristotle. Different subjects were stressed at different times. By the third century BC the curriculum begin to formulate into a foundational work consisting of: gymnastics, grammar, music, drawing, arithmetic and geometry. Other subjects taught were medicine and architecture. Later, the Romans adopted the Greek ideas of education. It was not until the fourth century AD that the Pagan schools fixed their curriculum to seven arts. With the decline of paganism and the rise of Christianity we find the Christians adopting similar methods of education. The first Christian to use the term "seven liberal arts" was Cassiodorus (480-575). This curriculum was readily adopted into the Latin West and remained fixed all throughout the Middle Ages. Its full flowering was seen at the Cathedral School at Chartres in the 12th century.

These seven subjects -grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy -were considered a unity. They were divided into two parts: the trivium of grammar, rhetoric and logic; and the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. All seven made an integrated whole which also made all seven necessary. And it must be remembered who put these subjects together. William Stahl explains that: "...the people who were most interested in the full span of subjects were philosophers; and the seven liberal arts were in essence, and always remained, a philosophers' curriculum." 14

There are some important issues to be aware of in considering the individual subject matters. The study of grammar encompassed not only parts of speech and rules but also literature, reading, exposition, etymologies and what we now call linguistics. All instruction was in Latin; therefore, mastery of the Latin language was preliminary to everything else. Rhetoric is the training of the orator or developing the practice of speaking to the level of an art. But in the Latin West it took the forms of learning how to produce proper letters and documents. How to make appropriate addresses and petitions and so on. Logic was not so much as a preparation for philosophy but the study of formal logical methods. Arithmetic was basically the art of computation but there was strong interest in the mystical and symbolic elements due to the influence from Pythagoras. Geometry was not anything like we now think of it until the tenth century. It was not until the 12th and 13th centuries that complete translations of Euclid from the Arabic were available. Music was completely theoretical. It was only a mathematical and speculative science. There the influence of Pythagoras was apparent again. Astronomy was the most popular as there was a great interest to all things astronomical including astrology.

What is important to keep in mind is the intention of the schoolmasters in using this curriculum. This can not be better illustrated than by the activities going on at the magnificent gothic cathedral of Chartres and its appendant school in the 12th century. To this we will now turn our attention.

IV. The Cathedral and School of Chartres

We know that as early as the sixth century that a cathedral school existed at Chartres. But it was not until the twelfth century that it became the center of Latin Platonism and a school where students flocked to learn the highest philosophy of the land.

The geographic area itself is interesting. It is thought that prior to the early school that it was a center used by the Celtic druids for their purposes. The cathedral also sits on a granite promontory that cuts through the limestone plain. This fact corresponds to the structure of Stonehenge where the concentric circles were hewn out of granite and set on the limestone of Salisbury Plain. 15

The cathedral and school are important to us here because the Seven Liberal Arts reached not only a high degree of perfection as taught but it seems that the architecture also gave witness to this same spirit. The Seven Liberal Arts ''as a means to the knowledge of God finds visible expression in the cathedral at Chartres."16 Adolf Katzenellenbogen states in his work that:

"If one studies the representations of the Seven Liberal Arts in the twelfth century one realizes that they are only a link in the whole chain of representations of this subject, and that a long tradition of ideas and forms lies behind their images." 17 and "It is generally agreed that the first facade on which the Seven Arts were represented was that of the Royal Portal of Chartres Cathedral. ...these systems of decoration indicate in different ways the relation of secular learning to theological truths." 18

We also know that Thierry was chancellor of the School when the figures were carved. Thierry was not only chancellor but in charge of supervising various parts of the building the Cathedral. There is no doubt that there is a connection between the sculptural and architect's design and his philosophical conceptions. In Thierry's own handbook on the Seven Liberal Arts he defined the specific role of the Quadrivium as illuminating the mind and that of the Trivium as making its expression. His influence was great not only within the School but also for all of Europe. Raymond Klibansky explains why is so:

"Under him Chartres became the center of the liberal arts to which students came from all over Europe. In search of new sources of knowledge, his pupils crossed the Pyrenees and the Alps. They brought back mathematical and astronomical works in translations made from the Arabic, and new texts of Aristotle in versions made from the Greek. From Chartres this new learning was handed on to the Latin world." 19

It is true that the School laid emphasis on the quadrivium but as Klibansky informs us that the purpose was: " to attain, through knowledge of the structure of the created world, knowledge of the Creator. As the world, ordered according to number, measure, and weight, the sciences of the quadrivium -arithmetic and geometry, music and astronomy -are the instruments which the human mind has at its disposal for recognizing the art of the Creator." 20 It was a grand school with grand designs. As David Luscombe states: "... the Chartrains attempted to establish the existence of God by numerical speculations, to synthesize Platonic cosmology and biblical revelation, and to compare the Platonic world soul with the Holy spirit, ...[and] God was considered to be the form of all being." 21

V. The Winding Staircase as a Symbol

A full understanding of the Seven Liberal Arts in a Masonic context must take into account its use as symbolism. The Seven are actually contained within another symbol -the Winding Staircase. It is interesting to look at how the symbol has been interpreted in psychological ways and also how it has been portrayed in religious art, story and legends.

The winding staircase is an image that refers to upward movement -of moving from one level to a higher level. Related images include: ladders, mountains, flying and towers. We can also include the image of climbing a rope or cosmic pillar and in this modern time, taking an elevator. The Jungian psychologist Edward F. Edinger classifies this type of image under the term Sublimatio. It is an alchemical term he finds convenient to use. I suppose he likes to use the Latin spelling to distinguish it from the Freudian term sublimation which is not the same psychological mechanism. Freud used it to refer to the way we channel our instincts into socially acceptable behavior.

The alchemical definition is the basic chemical operation of turning material into air by volatilizing it, it then turns into air and reformulates in a higher place. In a lab it works like this: take a certain solid -apply heat -turns into gas -ascends -then cools -then resolidifies. Distillation is related but is applied to liquids as when we heat water to boil, capture the steam, and it recondenses to water as it cools leaving the heavy contaminants behind in the original vessel. So according to Edinger: "... the crucial feature of sublimatio is an elevating process whereby a low substance is translated into a higher form by an ascending movement." 22 Lets go back to our Latin studies and find that sublimis means "high". Its meaning in Jungian psychological circles is the following: "Sublimatio is an ascent that raises us above the confining entanglements of immediate earthly existence and its concrete, personal particulars." 23 From their point of view this process can take different forms. It can manifest as seeing a problem from a broader perspective; maybe, something has troubled an individual to where his functioning in some area of his life is restricted and then by some event or change his view of the situation completely alters and he sees it from a higher perspective which lessens its original hold upon him. Or even to the extreme event of some mystical experience which usually overturns ones life and washes away many of the petty things we once felt were so important; and consequently frees us -or volatizes our consciousness -where we can view things "from on high".

Ediniger points out that many of the alchemical processes overlap. Overlapping with sublimation is the process of separation or separatio. They are both extraction processes. The "spirit" is extracted from "matter". Therefore, the ultimate sublimation is death which would remind us of the Degree following the Fellowcraft. The alchemists sometimes referred to the spirit of man as quicksilver.

Ediniger states that: "This 'expulsion of the quicksilver' is done by sublimatio, which releases the spirit hidden in matter. In the largest sense, this refers psychologically to the redemption of the Self from its original unconscious state." 24 This statement is also interesting in a cabalistic sense in Freemasonry. The words Aur Ganuz (Hebrew: AVR GNVZ) meaning "hidden light' have the same numerological value as Hiram Abiff (that is: 273) The situation as the alchemists saw it was that matter and spirit was intermixed in a basic state of contamination. Thus, the need for the alchemical procedures of extraction. The procedures produced a purified state by separation. The Seven Liberal Arts were thought of as achieving the same ends. It was considered a way of purifying the soul so that it could ascend to the spiritual realms. Another aspect of sublimation that Edinger mentions is the theme of translation to eternity. For examples he relates the stories of ancient heroes being taken to the realms of the gods such as Heracles, Elijah, Christ and the Virgin Mary. We find this theme in ancient Egypt as well. This is a quote from the Egyptologist E.A. Wallis Budge:

"...the model of a ladder was often placed on or near the dead body in the tomb, and a special composition was prepared which had the effect of making the ladder become the means of the ascent of the deceased into heaven. Thus in the text written for Pepi the deceased is made to address the ladder in these words: "Homage to thee, 0 divine Ladder! Homage to thee, 0 Ladder of Set! Stand thou upright, 0 divine Ladder! Stand thou upright, 0 Ladder of Set! Stand thou upright, 0 Ladder of Horus, whereby Osiris came forth into heaven." 25

The resurrected Osiris is sometimes pictured in Egyptian art as a ladder with arms holding the Crook and Scourge.

We find ladder and stair symbolism in many myths which of course are symbols of ascending and descending. The phenomenon is prevalent throughout the world. The historian of world religions Mircea Eliade comments in his book on shamanism that: The preeminently shamanic technique is the passage from one cosmic region to another -from earth to the sky or from earth to the underworld. The shaman knows the mystery of the break-through in plane. ...the essential schema is always to be seen, ...there are three great cosmic regions, which can be successively traversed because they are linked together by a central axis.

Certain ancient Mystery Schools and religious traditions also show a parallel with our tradition. Eliade mentions a few:

"A ladder with seven rungs is documented in the Mithraic mysteries, ...An ascent to heaven by ceremonially climbing a ladder probably formed part of the Orphic initiation. ...the symbolism of ascension by means of stairs was known in Greece. ...Jacob dreams of a ladder whose top reaches heaven, ...Mohammed sees a ladder rising from the temple in Jerusalem to heaven, ... in Islamic mysticism: to ascend to God, the soul must mount seven successive steps, ...In the heaven of Saturn Dante sees a golden ladder rising dizzyingly to the last celestial sphere and trodden by the souls of the blessed." 28

These are only a few examples that could be given. A study of world mythology reveals this same motif all over the planet from the most "primitive" tribes to the most sophisticated cosmologies.

We can now see the powerful use that Freemasonry developed in the Fellowcraft degree as regards the Seven Liberal Arts and the Winding Staircase. There is symbolism nested within symbolism. Not only do we have a symbol of ascending in that of the Winding Staircase; but also that of steps divided into three, five, and seven -all mystical numbers with their own significance. Corresponding with the Seven Steps are the Seven Liberal Arts; and, as we have seen, the whole point of this curriculum was to be a launching point of the mind to scale the realms
of the Spirit.


1. Haywood, Symbolical Masonry, p. 216.

2. Ibid., p. 237.

3. Bromwell, Restorations of Masonic Geometry and Symbology, p. 355.

4. Brown, Stellar Theology and Masonic Astronomy, p. 57.

5. MacNulty, Freemasonry: A Journey through Ritual and Symbol, p. 23.

6. Steinmetz, Freemasonry: Its Hidden Meaning, p. 120.

7. Ibid., p. 124.

8. Pike, Legenda of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, pp. 134-135.

9. Wilmshurst, The Ceremony of Passing, p. 20.

10. Ibid., p. 21.

11. Haywood, Symbolical Masonry, p. 218.

12. Ibid., p. 236.

13. Abelson, The Seven Liberal Arts: A Study in Medieval Culture. P. 3.

14. Stahl, Martianus Capella and the Seven Liberal Arts, p. 91.

15. Querido, The Golden Age of Chartres, p. 21.

16. Klibansky, The School of Chartres, p. 13.

17. Katzenellenbogen, The Representation of the Seven Liberal Arts, p. 39.

18. Ibid., p. 39.

19. Klibansky, p. 9.

20. Ibid., p. 9.

21. Luscombe, Encyclopedia of Philosophy, volume 1, p. 83.

22. Edinger, Anatomy of the Psyche: Alchemical symbolism in Psychotherapy, p. 117.

23. Ibid., p. 118.

24. Ibid., p. 123.

25. Ibid., pp. 133-134.

26. Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, p. 259.

27. Ibid., pp. 488 - 489.


Abelson, Paul. The Seven Liberal Arts, A Study in Mediaeval Culture

Bromwell, H.P.H., Restorations of Masonic Geometry and Symbolry

Brown, Robert Hewitt, Stellar Theology and Masonic Astronomy

Clagett, Marshall, Twelfth-Century Europe and the Foundations of Modern Society

Edinger, Edward F., Anatomy of the Psyche

Eliade, Mircea, Shamanism

Haywood, H.L. Symbolical Masonry

MacNulty, W.Kirk. Freemasonry: A Journey through Ritual and Symbol

Querido, Rene. The Golden Age of Chartres

Stahl, William Harris. Martianus Capella and the Seven Liberal Arts

Wilmshurst, W.L. The Ceremony of Passing

More articles by Tom Worrel

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