Classicism as a ‘Liberal’ Art
Updated: Feb 10
This essay was published in Traditional Building magazine more than ten years ago, but is even more relevant today; unfortunately, the magazine has recently taken it off their website. There are precious few voices of classical art and architecture who are making a case for its ennobling, humanizing, and liberating aspects. So I am posting it to contribute to that essential work.
Humanitas, as Cicero understood it, was closely associated with the old Roman virtue of clementia and thus stood in a certain opposition to Roman gravitas.... [I]t was the study of art and literature rather than of philosophy which was supposed to result in “humanity.”
Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis in Culture,” Between Past and Future, Penguin Books, 1993, p. 297, n. 17
Being countercultural unfortunately can often mean being contrary. Classical art and architecture today, so counter to the prevailing tenets of modern and most post-modern cultures, naturally gravitate to some form of “conservatism” as an antidote to the dominant worldview, which is rooted in the ideal of the avant-garde—the belief that true art is always at the head of the pack, charting new territory, breaking new ground. Within the history of the classical tradition, however, there has typically been a tension between what we might call conservatives and progressives, between those who want to hold onto, even return to, the past, and those who want to use the tools of the past to invent solutions to new problems. I don’t believe it is a bias of mine that the latter group was, at least during the Renaissance, the dominant group, indeed the one that gave us the vast majority of the literary and artistic works cherished ever since. In this they were not radical, but in fact quite mainstream within the broader current of what is called humanism. It was only with the beginning of neo-Classicism in the eighteenth century, and with all of its consequences in the nineteenth century, that real artistic conservatism became a dominant cultural force. And it was in part that conservatism that engendered the radical reaction of the early modernists (from the Impressionists and Art Nouveau to De Stijl and beyond). The case for a kind of natural conservatism, the inherent dependence on the past of all traditional cultures, never really had to be made before the nineteenth century: indeed, anything else would have been unthinkable, since the only artistic criteria that mattered was being as good—not as different—as possible.
It would seem, then, that to truly be countercultural—to fully recover the dominant, healthy, optimistic character of pre-modern classical architecture—we again need to tap into its “liberal” side. This would mark a true rejection of modernism, which thrives on the false polarities of the modern/liberal vs. the classical/conservative. The culture of classical humanism provides the firmest foundation for rebuilding a liberal architecture.
Ingrid Rowland renders this succinct definition of humanists: “people who had undergone the course of classical studies known in their own day as humane letters, studia humanitatis.” It was the artes liberales, the liberal arts, which were supposed by the Romans to characterize a “free” person. Moreover, the very word culture is of Roman origin, referring specifically at first to agriculture, “in the sense of cultivating and tending nature until it becomes fit for human habitation. As such, it indicates an attitude of loving care and stands in sharp contrast to all efforts to subject nature to the domination of man.” Later, the term was associated by Cicero with philosophy: “He speaks of excolere animum, of cultivating the mind, and of cultura animi in the same sense in which we speak even today of a cultured mind.” So to be humane, free, and cultured is to be immersed in the arts.
What this meant for the humanist culture of the Renaissance—which attempted to recover these classical ideas and wed them to their inherited Christian faith—was an enlarging of artistic possibilities, even if the examples of the past proved dauntingly elevated. Indeed, the choice between retreating into the past as an escape from the present versus using the past as a guide for the future was fraught even in the fifteenth century. An immensely cultivated person like Niccolò Niccoli was only interested in conserving the great books of the past, and he was dubious that any modern author could equal his beloved Cicero and Virgil. But, fortunately, his was not the dominant view. Liberal artists like Leon Battista Alberti and Poggio Bracciolini firmly believed, instead, that they could measure up, or at least that the effort of trying was worth it:
I am little weary...of this exhausting quest for new books. Now it is time for me to wake up and put to some use these ways of life which we read about daily and reflect on. For always to collect pieces of wood, stones and mortar would seem very foolish if you built nothing with them. But this edifice which we must construct to live well is so arduous, difficult and laborious, that it can scarcely be completed even if we begin young. Nevertheless I for my part have a will to try.
This liberal approach to the arts, in this case literary, meant taking risks. It was therefore hopeful, not only for the improvement of the arts, but also for the betterment of the human condition. Perhaps because they were critical of late medieval culture for its presumed decline from ancient glory, these authors’ longing was for a past so distant that it couldn’t really be returned to; therefore, there really was nothing to “conserve,” and so they felt emboldened to try their hands at new epics and rhetoric. On the contrary, our contemporary classical conservatives mostly long for a not so distant past—maybe only several decades gone—and therefore feel compelled to “conserve” it, or reconstitute it whole. This is not the dream of a renaissance, but a revival. A renaissance is a rebirth, characterized by the past being made new again:
There is first the archaeological impulse downward into the earth, into the past, the unknown and recondite, and then the upward impulse to bring forth a corpse whole and newly restored, re-illuminated, made harmonious and quick.
This is why the Renaissance showed so little apparent respect for the remains of the past, which they systematically used to build new buildings, and why Renaissance classical buildings look so unlike their ancient models. They showed little interest in being “conservative” in the modern sense. Certainly the past had value, but not as an alternative to the present. Caring for the past meant cultivating it, bringing forth new fruit. Since no time in the past is ever perfect, the ideal is always yet to be, tantalizingly out of reach. Bernini, for all of his brilliant accomplishments, always maintained that the idea he had in moments of divine inspiration far exceeded what he was able to realize. He could only attempt to get infinitely close.
What the liberal arts offered to humanists were the tools to, in the words of the Delphic Oracle, “Know thyself.” Self-awareness means objectively looking into all sides of our nature, good and bad: it does not admit of self-righteousness, but arms the aware person with the confidence that comes from healthy self-criticism. Now more than ever, we need a positive dose of self-awareness, of both our culture’s flaws and our critical advantages. The classical liberal artist is capable of being countercultural—to consumerism, the avant-garde, secularism—without being contrarian or nostalgic. This is the invigorating freedom of action that comes from a Renaissance humanist perspective.
Ingrid Rowland, The Culture of the High Renaissance, Cambridge, 1999, p.10
 Arendt, p. 212
 ibid, p. 212
 Letter from Poggio Bracciolini to Niccolò Niccoli, trans. by and cited in Thomas H. Greene, “Resurrecting Rome: The Double Task of the Humanist Imagination,” Rome in the Renaissance: The City and the Myth, Binghampton, NY: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, p.45
 Greene, p. 41