Appeared in Spring/Summer 1996, Vol. XXII, Nos. 1, 2 Download PDF here

 Notice how aptly contemplating is compared with playing, and because of two characteristics. First, play is delightful, and the contemplation of wisdom brings the greatest joy; my spirit is above honey. Second, sports are not means to ends but are sought for their own sake, so also are the delights of wisdom .. .. Divine wisdom compares its joy with play; I was delighted every day, playing before him at all times; and suggests many gazings on a variety of truths.1

As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, play by nature belongs to a category of goods that are pursued for their own sake, as ends in themselves rather than as means to an end. Inherently meaningful and delightful activities such as play or contemplation are free or “liberal” in the sense that they serve no other immediate purpose or utilitarian goal beyond the natural enjoyment that accompanies these pursuits. They occur during leisure or “free” time when one is relieved of the necessity of servile tasks-the work required to keep the body healthy and alive by providing basic needs such as food, fuel, shelter, and clothing. In other words, we work in order to play; the end of the active life is the contemplative life; the servile arts care for the physical health and well-being of humans so that their spirits, minds, and hearts are free to delight in liberal activities such as play and wisdom, friendship and love, beauty and sports.

In a certain sense, then, play and wisdom-like friendship, love, and beauty-appear to be useless. There are no tangible, practical, material results that can be measured in terms of the “fruits” associated with the Baconian philosophy of power and progress. However, as Cardinal Newman explains in The Idea of a University, good things or liberal ideals pursued for their own sake are always ultimately useful though there is no conscious, deliberate aim at utilitarian practicality:

… though the useful is not always good, the good is always useful. Good is not only good, but reproductive of good; this is one of its attributes; nothing is excellent, beautiful, perfect, desirable for its own sake, but it overflows, and spreads the likeness of itself all around it. Good is prolific; … it not only attracts us, but it communicates itself ….A great good will impart great good.2

Children play for the sheer joy and fun of it-not because it is advised by doctors, teachers, or parents to benefit their physical health and improve their social behavior. Yet play as an inherent good valued for its own sake overflows with untold blessings: a healthy body, a lively spirit, a creative imagination, deep friendship, and a love for life all flow from the “reproductive,” diffusive aspect of the good that follows from play.

Like play and wisdom, a liberal arts education is a natural, intrinsic good to be cherished for its own sake. “All men by nature have a desire for knowledge,” Aristotle said in his famous statement from The Metaphysics, indicating that the contemplation of truth is the “noblest” of activities and the philosopher the “happiest” of mortals-the pleasure of knowing its own raison d’etre. Philosophy, which means love of wisdom, conveys the idea that knowledge is attractive and beautiful and desirable for its own sake. Hence, as in the Book of Proverbs, wisdom is personified as a lovely woman who is to be courted and won as a prize more precious than rubies: “and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it.” And in Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy, Lady Philosophy-wisdom personified-is described as eternally young and radiant: “a woman of majestic countenance whose flashing eyes seemed wise beyond the ordinary wisdom of men.”3 Will Durant, in The Mansions of Philosophy, underscores the relationship between play, love, and wisdom when he remarks that the older person’s love of wisdom can be as magical and adventuresome as a child’s sense of play and as romantic and rapturous as a young man’s attraction for a woman.

A child’s sense of play, then, is introductory and preparatory to other higher liberal activities: playing for the sheer love of the sport is like doing good for the purest of reasons, virtue as its own reward; playing for fun is like appreciating beauty as something wonderful and glorious in itself; playing for the joy of it is like loving the truth for the happiness it brings. The sublime, eternal realities of the good, the beautiful, and the true – the highest objects of human thought, known as the transcendentals in Thomistic philosophy—comprise the essential subject matter of a liberal arts education, a knowledge of first principles, final causes, universal truths, and eternal realities that play in its various forms initiates. In Dante’s Divine Comedy something as great as the beatific vision grows out of something as basic as the “play” of loving good things for their own sake and pursuing liberal activities as ends in themselves. With a child’s fresh wonder at the miraculous goodness at the world around him as he receives love from all the blessed souls in heaven, with a lover’s sensitivity to the beauty of Beatrice’s eyes and the music of the spheres, and with a philosopher’s desire to know first principles and final causes, Dante’s journey to the Paradiso provides him a liberal arts education that leads him to contemplate the mind and art of God in the order and unity of creation: “the love which turns the sun and the other stars.”


The classics of children’s literature and the great books illuminate the ideals of goodness, beauty, and truth and illustrate the eventual, ultimate usefulness of liberal ideals that seem to serve no practical purpose. In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice,Bassanio, the lover who “hazards all” in selecting the leaden casket that promises him neither gold nor silver, wins the hand of Portia, a treasure beyond all price, because he acted for disinterested reasons. In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the lighthearted fairies who revel at night in the forest resolve the complex romantic problems of the mortal loversthrough their frolic and play-dilemmas which the businesslike, legalistic world of Athens cannot solve. In Dickens’ Hard Times, Mr. Sleary, the ringmaster from the playful world of the circus condemned as “idle” and useless by Mr. Gradgrind, the head of an academy that prides itself in teaching exclusively utilitarian subjects and banishing liberal arts from its curriculum, proves that the circus folk in their playfulness contribute more to society than Gradgrind’s pupils with their seriousness. In Fielding’s Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, good-natured characters who are charitable, generous, and pure of heart receive miraculous good fortune as they never act with selfserving, ulterior motives. In Hawthorne’s story of Baucis and Philemon from A Wonder Book, the old couple give hospitably to two transient vagabonds (two gods in disguise) whom they never expect to see again, only to be blessed by these two strange visitors who grant their special wish to die together. In the story “Mother Hulda” from the Grimms’ Household Stories, a girl who goes into a well to retrieve her spindle is besieged with requests: the bread in the oven asks, “Take me out”; the apple tree requests, “Shake me”; and old Mother Hulda asks her to do housekeeping duties. As a result of serving others without thought of reward and placing others’ needs before her own, Mother Hulda showers the girl with gold and gives her the lost spindle when she leaves the well. All these stories illustrate Newman’s statement that the good is always useful: “not useful in any low, mechanical, mercantile sense, but as diffusing good, or as a blessing, or a gift, or power, or a treasure, first to the owner, then through him to the world.”4

One of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories, “Something,” especially reveals how, as Newman argued, the good is prolific and how liberal ideals sought for their own sake yield a rich harvest. In the story five brothers all have great aspirations to leave their distinguished mark upon the world, to be “Something.” In their competition to outdo each other and prove themselves superior, the four younger brothers assume airs of grandeur. The second brother ridicules the oldest brother’s desire to make bricks for a living; “Something very little, though,” replies the second brother. “Why it is as good as nothing! Better be a mason, as I intend to be.” The third brother, ridiculing the work of a mason, asserts that he will seek a higher profession and become an architect. The fourth proclaims he will be a genius, an innovator and inventor. The fifth brother, the most prideful of all, shows contempt for the ambitions of all his brothers: as an astute critic he will discover their faults and expose their ridiculous undertakings, boasting “that will be something.”

During his lifetime the humble brickmaker who earned a modest living generously offered his broken bricks and many perfect ones to a poor old woman, Mother Margaret, so that she could afford a makeshift lowly dwelling for a home. The simple brickmaker dies without fame or honor, soon followed to the grave by the second, third, and fourth brother who all fulfill their worldly ambitions of mason, architect, and inventor. After the fifth brother, the critic, dies, he finds himself at the gates of heaven next to Mother Margaret. “And how did you leave the world?” the critic inquires. Mother Margaret narrates the episode of the ice skating party where the whole town was enjoying the winter. Foreseeing by a sign that a terrible storm would crack the ice, Margaret screams a warning that no one can hear. Another thought crosses her mind: “I could set fire to my bed. Better let my house be burned to the ground than that so many should miserably perish.” Saving the town by setting fire to her straw, Margaret is welcomed into heaven, and the blade of straw from her bed is converted into dazzling gold.

The angel asks the critic what he brought with him to heaven, berating the fifth brother: “Truly, I know that thou hast done nothing, not even made bricks.” As the angel denies the critic admission into heaven, Margaret pleads for him, arguing that the critic’s oldest brother’s kindness made possible her long life. Her shelter, made from the fragments of bricks, preserved her life; her long life allowed her to save the townspeople; and her eternal gratitude to the brickmaker moved her to ask for mercy for the critic who did nothing. The oldest son’s generosity to the old woman-his love of goodness for its own sake-gave long life to Margaret, saved the whole town from drowning, and won heaven for his brother. The brickmaker who appeared to be useless and “nothing” to his brothers and his kindness that went unrecognized by the world prove themselves invaluable, truly “something.” An ideal liberal arts education instills this love of virtue as its own reward. Although, as Newman explains in The Idea of a University, liberal education does not fashion a Christian or Catholic, it does form a gentleman whose refined mind loves virtue as a noble ideal and has “almost supernatural charity from its freedom from littleness and prejudice.”

Like play and virtue, beauty also is infinitely valuable in and of itself, having many resounding effects that show the prolific nature of the good. As Homer indicates in the Odyssey, the love of beauty marks a civilized, cultured people who recognize the distinction between living and living well; the difference between surviving like animals or barbarians and appreciating life in a rational, sensitive way. Homer, in describing the “rosyfingered dawn,” “the winedark sea,” “the bright-eyed Athene,” “Aphrodite of the beautiful crown,” the shimmering helmets and shields, or the glistening palace of Menelaus, associates the Greeks’ high level of culture with their recognition and appreciation of beauty in all its forms: in nature, in man and woman, in gods and goddesses, and in works of art. As Telemachus remarks upon beholding Menelaus’s palace gleaningwith copper, gold, amber, silver, and ivory, “The sight of it overwhelms me.”5In the Odyssey, beauty relates to color, light, vision, and intelligence, for the one-eyed Cyclops, the barbarian monsters who devour men, dwell in caves and shut themselves off from the beauty and light of day because of ignorance. In his many travels Odysseus especially admires the civilization of Phaeacia because this country practices the beauty and poetry of words and stories as the hosts listen with awe to Odysseus’s tales of adventure. Loving the beautiful and admiring it in all its expressions leads to a sense of wonder at the transcendent, supernatural, divine aspect of beauty-the wonder that Odysseus experiences when he beholds Nausicaa for the first time: “But are you some goddess or a mortal woman? If you are one of the gods who live in the sky, it is of Artemis, the daughter of almighty Zeus, that your beauty, grace, and stature most remind me.” Telemachus also thought of the gods after he admired the beautiful art in Menelaus’s hall: “I can’t help thinking that the court of Zeus on Olympus must be like this inside.”6The love of beauty awakens a knowledge of the gods and an awareness of the Muses, for the civilized like the Phaeacians and Odysseus who value beauty also honor the gods with sacrifices.

The powerful effect of beauty upon the beholder evokes a sense of wonder at the cause or origin of beauty, and wonder is the beginning of knowledge, the first step toward philosophy according to Plato and Aristotle. The appreciation of beauty that evokes wonder develops a particular kind of seeing or knowing—contemplation, “the steady gazing upon truth,” as Aquinas defines it; a form of knowledge best expressed by the word intellectus used by Boethius in The Consolation of Philosophy-that pure simple vision of seeing things as a whole, “all at once” in an intuitive glance that characterizes the angelic and divine modes of understanding. Just as play develops health, beauty enriches life. Just as goodness leads to luck, beauty leads to truth, again illustrating Newman’s notion about the usefulness of all good things prized for themselves. Throughout the Odyssey, Odysseus asks in all of his travels whether he has arrived among “some brutal tribe of lawless savages, or kindly and god-fearing folk.” A society that cultivates the love of the beautiful brings out great potential in humans: the capacity to be intelligent, skillful, imaginative, and refined like Odysseus instead of crude and brutish like the Cyclops.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Pied Beauty” begins with delight at the variegated splendor of creation seen in the order and diversity of the natural, human world:

Glory be to God for dappled things

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced-fold, fallow, and plough

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim..7

Enjoying the radiance of the sky in its blend of many hues, admiring the mixed coloration of animals like cows and trout, appreciating the varied undulations of the landscape, Hopkins recognizes the same principle of beauty-the idea of the one and the many-in the diversity of human talents and gifts that individualize and unify human work, “And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.” The pleasure of seeing beauty’s color and splendor superabound everywhere (“Christ plays in ten thousand places,” Hopkins writes in another poem) goes beyond visual gratification, leading to contemplative vision-the discovery of form in matter, of the idea or origin or cause of beauty itself:


All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change                                                                                                                                         Praise him.8

Play begets many incalculable blessings; goodness enriches the lives of the giver, the recipient, and countless others as the story “Something” shows; beauty creates culture and leads to the contemplation of God. “I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell,” Hopkins writes; “I know the beauty of our Lord by it.”9

Likewise, the love of wisdom or truth for its own sake yields a bountiful return as seen in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy. Prospero, the protagonist in Shakespeare’s play-“being so reputed/In dignity, and for the liberal arts/Without a parallel”10-loves his books. In the course of the story Prospero plays the part of an actor, donning the vestments of a magician and working miracles through his superior knowledge. Shakespeare shows that Prospero’s contemplative love of truth and pure desire for wisdom he prizes his volumes “above my dukedom”-affect his active life as father, teacher, and ruler in a most practical sense. Contemplating goodness, Prospero raises a loving, beautiful daughter, Miranda, a paragon of woman whose purity of heart, refined mind, and sensitive conscience value the goodness of others and the wondrous beauty that surrounds her:

O, wonder!

How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world

That has such people in’t!11

Contemplating truth, Prospero educates Ariel, a spirit imprisoned in a tree, bringing out his full potential when he frees Ariel from the spell of the witch that confined him and releasing spirit from matter in the act of teaching. Contemplating justice and beauty, Prospero as ruler of an island transforms a desolate, barbaric land governed by a monster into an attractive, civilized country informed by justice and mercy, manners and civility, beauty and art as he works miracles through his knowledge and magic. In short, Prospero’s love of wisdom-the contemplative vision that allows him to see form in matter (Ariel in the tree) and to glimpse eternal ideals such as truth, goodness, justice, love, and beauty-informs his actions as father, teacher, and ruler to make him the perfect philosopher-king.

In The Tempest, Prospero’s magic confers upon him the divine attributes of power, omniscience, justice, mercy, and beauty. However, Prospero only temporarily plays this role of god in the same way the actor performs his part on the stage for a brief interlude. For at the end of the play Prospero disrobes and ends his role as magician, wonder-worker, and god just as an actor quits the stage: “Our revels now are ended,” Prospero remarks, and “This rough magic I here abjure” as he returns to the role of Duke of Milan. The wise man, then, plays God or imitates God’s thought and action but does not presume to be God. Playing God is loving truth, doing goodness, and producing beauty as Prospero does with his magic. Playing the part of Divine Providence in the lives of his daughter, his pupils, and his subjects, Prospero reflects the wisdom and goodness of God as he envisions the whole future in the manner of a loving father providing for his children. Prospero’s pure love of the liberal arts, then, again illustrates the usefulness of seemingly useless things like wisdom. Prospero’s liberal education through the magic of his books cultivates in him a knowledge and love of ideals that inform his work in the world as father, teacher, and ruler, inspiring him always to act for the purest and noblest of motives. All effects resemble their causes: the loving daughter, just society, and beautiful world that Prospero’s art creates derive from his contemplation of Love, Justice, and Beauty, from his liberal arts education.

Boethius’sThe Consolation of Philosophy also shows the productive, invaluable nature of wisdom. Although Boethius is imprisoned at the beginning of the work and awaits his death sentence at the end-his physical condition remaining unchanged-Boethius’s mind undergoes transformation as he receives a liberal education from Lady Philosophy and acquires her wisdom. Attracted by the beautiful radiance of Lady Philosophy-“her color was bright, suggesting boundless vigor”Boethius pursues wisdom for its own sake, out of natural desire. As his dialogue with Lady Philosophy continues, Boethius’s perception of the tragedy and injustice of his cruel fate suffered at the hands of Theodoric and fickle fortune changes from an attitude of anger, despair, and ignorance to a state of equanimity and illumination. Lady Philosophy elevates Boethius’s understanding by leading him from the level of sense (his physical suffering in prison) to the level of imagination (the remembrance of past blessings and the recollection of his rational nature) to the level of reason (the knowledge of Fortune’s universal law of mutability and the permanent truth about the mixed nature of human happiness) and then to the level ofintellect where he is able to glimpse human affairs from the vantage point of God’s eternal point of view, sub specie aeternitatis. By climbing from the level of sense to intellect Boethius acquires from his liberal education a perspective that Newman describes as that “true enlargement of mind which is the power of viewing many things at once as one whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values, and determining their mutual dependence.”Enlightened by Lady Philosophy, Boethius concedes that what appears evil to human eyes or sense such as his own misfortune may not be ultimately tragic in the comprehensive providential plan in God’s intellect:

And it is not allowed to man to comprehend in thought all the ways of the divine work or expound them in speech.12Divine wisdom does what the ignorant cannot understand.13

In his education Boethius learns that just as sense and imagination must bow before the higher authority of reason, so human reason must humble itself before the divine intellect, acknowledging the limits of human knowledge and the incomprehensibility of the divine mind.

Loving Lady Philosophy for her own sake, Boethius finds himself consoled and strengthened by the truth he has discovered. No longer feeling passive in suffering, a victim of the wheel of fortune, Boethius recalls the twelve labors of Hercules and rediscovers the meaning of equanimity, the power to be “firm in strength and unconquered by adversity.” Strength, consolation, equanimity, and happiness are the by-products or “overflow” of wisdom. For Boethius learns that happiness does not consist in bodily pleasure or temporary goods like riches, power, and fame. Rather true happiness comes from a knowledge of the “true and perfect good,” God himself-the source of strength and peace. Boethius prays,

Grant, Oh Father, that my mind may rise to thy sacred throne .. .. For thou art the serenity, the tranquil peace of virtuous men.14

Thus Boethius’s liberal education teaches him to distinguish between appearance and reality, between true and false goods, between Fortune and Providence, between eternal happiness and temporary pleasure. The end of Boethius’s education is contemplation of the transcendentals, “the true and perfect good,” God himself-contemplation that represents the highest form ofhappiness. In the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, “The contemplation of truth, which is the noblest employment of the mind, gives the greatest pleasure, and therefore is a powerful relief forpain or sorrow. The greater is one’s love of wisdom, the more powerfully does contemplation of truth counteract pain.” In its miraculous power to heal sorrow and to give repose to the mind, wisdom shows its profound usefulness and verifies Newman’s claim: “If a liberal education be good, it must be useful too.”

A child’s play that recognizes the goodness of pure fun, the bricklayer in “Something” who saw charity as its own reward, Odysseus who marvels at beauty as a precious gift from the gods, Hopkins who wonders at the miracle of the earth’s pied beauty, Prospero’s love of books and the liberal arts, and Boethius’s attraction to Lady Philosophy and wisdom-all these examples from the classics show that the world’s greatest literature (the “best that has been thought and said” in Matthew Arnold’s famous phrase) constantly deals with these primary realities as their subject matter. Universal and eternal, the good, the beautiful, and the true are as permanent and as attractive as the stars that Plato compared them to. Though constant and real, the good, beautiful, and true-like the form of Ariel in the matter of the tree and the piedness of beautiful things-need to be discovered and known, felt and loved by both the head and the heart. The special role of liberal arts education is to lead the mind to contemplate universal truths, eternal realities, and heavenly things so that it may always carry with it a vision of the best, the highest, and the purest-in St. Paul’s words, “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely.” Liberal arts education seeks to create Plato’s philosopher-king, a mind illuminated and a heart inflamed by a contemplative vision of the good, beautiful, and true that communicates itself in manners, morals, motives and actions as Prospero’s daily life and work illustrate. This is Newman’s meaning when he remarks that “good is always reproductive of good” and “spreads the likeness of itself all around it.”



1 St. Thomas Aquinas, Opusc. IX, Exposition de Hebdomadibus, Prologue.

2 Discourse VII .5


4 Discourse VII .5

5Book IV

6Book IV

7Poems and Prose, p. 30

8 poems and prose, p. 31

9 poems and prose, p. 120

10 I.ii. 72-74

l lV. i. 182-185

12IV. vi

13IV. vi