Mechanical arts
August 15, 2009

Steven A. Walton provides an illuminating summary of the scholastic incorporation of mechanical arts into philosophy and theology.

John the Scot first used the term artes mechanicae in the ninth century, and monasteries preserved and improved upon ancient technologies, but “they did not warrant inclusion in the philosophical canon.” Most Christian thinkers retained the ancient denigration of material arts: “Archimedes repudiated engineering because of its ‘mere utility and profit,’ and Aristotle treats mechanics as a branch of mathematics, but only in a theoretical sense, not the practical sense which is the essence of the medieval concept.” Augustine, Boethius, and Isidore followed suit.

Only with the twelfth-century “Renaissance” are the mechanical arts fully recognized as forms of knowledge that are worth the time of philosophers. Hugh of St Victor is a key figure:

“In the 1120’s, Hugh composed the Didascalicon , whose modern translator claims that, ‘the Didascalicon is important not only because it recapitulates an entire antecedent tradition, but because it interprets that tradition in a special and an influential way at the very dawn of the twelfth-century renaissance.’ Hugh’s special interpretation incorporates the mechanical arts in a systematic way, and the ramifications of his inclusion are far reaching, perhaps even to the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. In any evaluation, though, Hugh of St. Victor set a standard for the scholastics in terms of classifying the mechanical arts with all other forms of knowledge.”

In Hugh’s scheme, the mechanical arts becomes one of the four main divisions of philosophy, and he follows John the Scot in using the magic number 7 to summarize them: “Hugh chooses them to parallel the trivium and quadrivium: . personifying nature, he says, ‘three pertain to external cover for nature, by which she protects herself from harm’ (fabric-making, armament, and commerce) and ‘four to internal, by which she feeds and nourishes herself’ (agriculture, hunting, medicine, and theatrics). Hugh explains that the trivium is external and the quadrivium is internal in nature, and he thereby partially justifies his inclusion of the mechanical arts in what had previously been closed to them. In order to fulfill his claim that ‘These four [divisions] contain all knowledge,’ his classifications encompass more than is immediately suggested by their titles. For example, through some circuitous reasoning, Hugh classifies ‘all such materials as stones, woods, metals, sands, and clays’ under ‘armament.’ He thereby includes here all technologies such as carpentry, masonry, cooperage, joinery, and metal casting.”

Following Hugh, the mechanical arts gradually increased in stature. Robert Kilwardby’s On the Origins of the Sciences (De ortu scientiarum) ” presents the mechanical arts fully developed and integrated into philosophy and brings together the Augustinian, Boethian, and Arabic schools of thought.” Kilwardby is “the first scholastic to deny the difference between theory and practice, seeing them dependent upon each other in such a way that one could not exist without the other,” and “his openness to the mechanical arts is shown in that he admits that there is, ‘no other compelling reason why about so countless an array of arts we should number . . . precisely as seven, save for a certain superficial correspondence with the seven liberal arts.’”

During the same period, “Theophilus’ On Diverse Arts (De diversis artibus) , gives detailed information on glass making, enameling, metallurgical techniques, foundry methods, pigment manufacture, and a host of other arts. He created this work, not for any intellectual endeavor, but ‘to increase the honor and the glory of His name.’ The interesting attitude put forth is that craftsmanship was seen as good and virtuous. Theophilus opens by blessing all those ‘who are willing to avoid and spurn the idleness and the shiftlessness of the mind by the useful occupation of their hand and the contemplation of new things.’” He “justifies these crafts by citing Exodus 31 (1-11), where Moses is commanded to build a tabernacle and where God directly interceded and ‘filled [the masters of the crafts] with the spirit of wisdom and understanding and knowledge in all learning for contriving and making works in gold and silver, bronze, gems, wood, and in art of every kind.’”

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