Upward and Outward: The Tree of Wisdom and Its Prudential Fruit
~by Phaedra Shaltanis~
Picture the grandest tree you know: maybe a live oak or a tropical monkeypod. Envision its breadth and height. Notice the span of its branches, their interconnected tangle. Imagine its roots sprawling underground, ever reaching for nourishment to sustain the tree’s grandeur. Such an example of ancient life can be a profound teacher, and long has the metaphor of the tree fed the souls of those who ponder it.
There are many reasons the tree is ideal for analogies. It’s magnificent yet commonplace, glorious yet humble. It’s familiar, comfortable, and knowable. We see the extended metaphor woven throughout God’s Word, from the Fall in Genesis to the Tree of Life in Revelation. Yes, a tree is suitable for strong comparisons indeed.
Historically, classical education has been illustrated as a tree whose seven branches progress in rigor from grammar to astronomy. These branches of study, aptly called the liberal arts, are those which serve to make a man free (from the Latin liber, meaning “free”); they are essentially skills or tools used to discover truth and promote learning. As such, they contain lifetimes of wisdom gathered and presented to all who would delight in them. They make free people.
Sadly, many contemporary educators eschew these arts, trading them for more pragmatic studies aimed toward a specific goal. They target a distinct profession, train students in the appropriate skill set, and call the education complete. Many of us were schooled in such a way ourselves, but we can see the results of this folly: men and women trained to do a specific job but left feeling trapped and despondent. Even worse, we see people filled with despair and jaded from too many years of feeble, misguided study. For some, the joy and wonder of truth is deeply dormant. This is tragic, for as St. Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” Fully alive. Seeking and growing all the days of his life. There is too much goodness, too much truth, to remain stagnant in our plot of earth.
But accessing the ancient philosophies can seem overwhelming. Who among us is able to confidently discourse on Euclid’s Elements or Ptolemy’s Almagest? Why, some ask, should we engage in such difficult subject matter anyway? After all, there are individuals trained in these special arts; the average person has no need for such knowledge. These arguments cater to those who are satisfied with the status quo of modern education, not to those whose passion is to grow in wisdom. We may not see the immediate relevance in Ptolemy’s trigonometric table of chords, but we can recognize the geometry theorems and algebraic formulas. We can still appreciate the complexity of astronomy, particularly as presented by ancient scientists who had little more than the free tools of the night sky and a spirit of longing.
Even if we don’t feel ready to approach subjects such as astronomy, our involvement in the liberal arts is profoundly important. Let’s return to the tree metaphor. Rooted in piety, the tree of wisdom grows upward and outward, with logic and rhetoric sharing space with astronomy and music. To rest on one branch is to be connected with all the others, and since the tree is a collection of realized truths, any one twig can be a starting point for discovery. Just as in a tree, the branches of classical education must remain part of the whole and be studied as one glorious body of knowledge.
The liberal arts aren’t only about knowledge, however, and if we reduce them to facts and figures, we’ll miss the point. These areas of study promote contemplation of the Good and a properly ordered understanding of Truth. They encourage the learner to ask questions in pursuit of answers, and they provide pathways to seek such answers. The liberal arts present goodness, and since goodness encompasses prudence, we ought to seek them earnestly in our lifelong quest for wisdom.
When we dwell in Truth and are nourished by it, we grow in virtue. The liberal arts present many lifetimes of wisdom, and we would be prudent to partake of them. In doing so, we draw nearer to that serene passage in Jeremiah: “He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit” (Jeremiah 17:8, ESV). Together, let us continue to grow upward and outward for the glory of God!