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Chartres Cathedral and Philosophers

By Carrie Gress, Ph.D.

I’ve just started doing some research on Chartres Cathedral and ran across this quotation from 11th century Thierry of Chartres.

In his work, the Heptateuchon, Thierry says, “Philosophy has two principal instruments, the mind and its expression. The mind is enlightened by the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music), its expression, elegant, reasonable, ornate is provide by the Trivium (grammar, rhetoric and dialectic).”

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These seven liberal arts and the artists who most exemplify them are featured on the Royal Portal of Chartres Cathedral. (Geometry: Euclid, Rhetoric: Cicero, Dialectic: Aristotle, Arithmetic: Boethius, Astronomy: Ptolemy, Grammar: either Donatus or Priscian)

What is striking about this is:

A) How foreign the notions of the Quadrivium and Trivium seem to us today. What does astronomy have to do with philosophy?

B) How technical and abstract philosophy has become. Philosophy, the love of wisdom, has only a few academic corners where it can actually call itself that. In most university settings, philosophers resort to very precise language and techniques that strike most on the outside as, at best, impenetrable, and at worst, nonsensical.

The one semester I spent doing doctoral studies at a well-known university drove this home to me. The methods of logic have overtaken the field in strangely anachronistic and confounding ways. For a course on Plato, a general assignment would be to read five paragraphs from a given text and then evaluate the argument as logical or illogical, while the rest of the text was of no consequence. When I suggested that one paragraph was made clearer by understanding what Plato said in another book, my comment was met with glazed eyes and a quick changing of subject. Such elements were simply irrelevant. The imposition of twentieth-century techniques upon an ancient text was really what we were after.

Thinking of Thierry of Chartres, few philosophers today give much if any consideration to the elegant, ornate, reasonable expressions available to their trade. For all the efforts to understand the logic of great thinkers, philosophers in the trade have left entire generations of philosophy students empty-headed about great works. Ironically, because philosophy has become so off-putting in content, it has also left students bereft of its modern raison d’etre, the use of logic.

Below: the portal on the right at Chartres is the sedes sapienta, the seat of wisdom. This is Our Lady with Our Lord sitting on his lap. The personifications of the liberal arts are in the archway above her.

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And here’s some more photos of Chartres Cathedral!

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