Mechanical Arts and Sense Knowledge (St. Bonaventure, On the Reduction of the Arts to Theology, Part 2) 

Section 2

Bonaventure first expands upon the exterior light, among which he includes the seven mechanical arts enumerated by Hugh of St. Victor in his Didascalicon: weaving, armor-making, agriculture, hunting, navigation, medicine, and the dramatic art. Bonaventure suggests that all these arts are intended for either consolation or comfort. They are either useful of enjoyable, and their purpose is to banish need or sorrow.

In modern education, this category would include the types of skills learned in a Vo-Tech school—things such as auto repair, computer programming, etc. Interestingly, these arts, designed for consolation or comfort, have today become the biggest hindrance to deeper levels of thinking in several ways. First, so much of education is now designed towards pragmatic ends such as training in these arts. Consequently, the other arts and emphasis on contemplation are lost. Second, the improvements in technology have made information plentiful and readily accessible, but this has led to laziness of thought. Third, technology and the desire to be entertained have led to an alarming percentage of our time being filled with “amusement,” thus silencing the “muse” that once inspired us through meditation upon the Great Books.

Section 3

The second light is sense knowledge, or the inferior light, so-called because it “begins with an inferior object and takes place by aid of corporal light.”[1] This light has five divisions according to the five senses, and these five senses correspond to the four elements[2] and the fifth essence.[3] Bonaventure contends that the purpose of these five elements and senses was “so that a person might be able to perceive all bodily forms.”[4]

Education certainly depends upon a student’s facility with his or her senses, and the more of these senses that can be attuned at one time to the academic task, the better the expected result. The student who is blind, for example, can still learn, but finds themselves at a disadvantage compared to their peers. Likewise, the deaf student suffers at a disadvantage, yet still maintains the capacity for profound thought. Smell and taste and touch would presumably be less of an obstacle to learning than blindness or deafness, but these would nonetheless affect a student’s ability to experience aesthetically pleasing smells or tastes that relate to our capacity for enjoying beauty.

[1]Saint Bonaventure, On the Reduction of the Arts to Theology, trans. Zachary Hayes (St. Bonaventure, N.Y.: Franciscan Institute, 1996), 39.

[2]In classical Greek philosophy, these were air, earth, fire, and water.

[3]Aristotle later added a “fifth element” or “essence” called aether.

[4]Ibid., 41.

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