The seven liberal arts, which embraced the studies constituting the curriculum of school education in the Middle Ages, were an inheritance from classical antiquity. Their origin is to be sought in Greek education. Thus Aristotle in his Politics defines “the liberal sciences”1 as the proper subjects of instruction for free men who aspire not after what is immediately practical or useful, but after intellectual and moral excellence in general, and mentions several of these studies separately. By his time the educational doctrine of the Greeks had become highly developed and exhibited the ideals towards which the best Greek minds endeavored to direct their educational practice. We are not to suppose that by the terms “liberal arts,” “liberal studies” and “liberal sciences” they meant either the whole of human knowledge or even the whole of liberal culture, for although the terms are not always employed in a uniform sense, yet they have a proper sense which must be held clearly in mind, if we would avoid confusion. Their proper meaning is this: the circle of disciplinary school studies which minister to the general education of youth, preparatory to the higher liberal studies, which are compendiously called philosophy. The distinction between the liberal arts and philosophy thus contains in germ the distinction between what we now mean by gymnasial2 and university education. It is of course true that the liberal arts were not always spoken of consistently, and that the practice of Greek writers may be compared in general with the varying modern use of the word “education,” but it is no less true that to the Greeks the liberal arts primarily meant the circle of school studies.
In fact they are often identical with school education itself, so that the saying of Pythagoras, “Education must come before philosophy,” meant to the Greeks that training in the liberal arts must precede the higher culture. Philosophy also, as the goal of the earlier studies, is not infrequently styled a liberal art, sometimes the only truly liberal art. Thus Aristotle affirms, “It alone of the sciences is liberal, because it exists solely for its own sake and is not to be pursued for any extraneous advantage.” The studies which came to be regarded as liberal arts were grammar, rhetoric, dialectics, music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. It is not clearly known when each of these began to be considered as a school study, or how many of them were commonly so pursued, or that they were the only liberal arts. The Greeks did not formulate an unalterably fixed body of studies, seven in number. No list of seven arts nor any mention of seven as the number of liberal arts is to be found in the Greek writers. However there was an order which they were pursued, and the first three, grammar, rhetoric, and dialectics, were preparatory studies which were generally pursued in the order stated. The other four disciplines usually came later, and it is probable that only a portion of those who had com- pleted their grammar, rhetoric, and dialectics passed on to the music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy, and that only a portion of those who so passed onward studied all the four latter arts. It is clear, however, that the Greeks came to consider acquaintance with the liberal arts as a general education, and the only general education.
—from Alcuin And the Rise of the Christian Schools (1912)