Snow White and the Seven Liberal Arts: An Allegory for Modern Science

Queen: Slave in the magic mirror, come from the farthest space, through wind and darkness I summon thee. Speak! Let me see thy face.

Magic Mirror: What wouldst thou know, my Queen?

Queen: Magic Mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?

Magic Mirror: Famed is thy beauty, Majesty. But hold, a lovely maid I see. Rags cannot hide her gentle grace. Alas, she is more fair than thee.

Queen: Alas for her! Reveal her name.

Magic Mirror: Lips red as the rose. Hair black as ebony. Skin white as snow.

Queen: Snow White!

Queen: [to her huntsman] Take her far into the forest. Find some secluded glade where she can pick wildflowers.

Huntsman: Yes, Your Majesty.

Queen: And there, my faithful huntsman, you will kill her!

Huntsman: [shocked] But Your Majesty! The little princess!...

Queen: Silence! You know the penalty if you fail.

Huntsman: [resigned] Yes, your Majesty.

Queen: But to make doubly sure you do not fail... [holds up a box] bring back her heart in this.

Applied to the notion of Science, contrasting the ancient and modern, the Queen, in this film adaptation of a fairy story by the brothers Grimm is Mathematics and Snow White is Metaphysics. The seven dwarfs are, of course, the seven liberal arts. 

However, we are not concerned to match the names of the dwarfs: Doc, Happy, Grumpy, Sneezy, Bashful, Sleepy, and Dopey; with the liberal arts: Grammar, Dialectic and Rhetoric (trivium); Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy (quadrivium). We are concerned only with their respective roles as helpful fellows and as arts preparatory to the study of science understood in the ancient or Aristotelian sense that made it in its general sense equivalent to philosophy.

The time when this magical conversation took place is transposed in real time to the period when Queen Mathematics came to rule the human mind. This we can rather loosely relate to its early beginnings in the late “middle ages” (or late scholasticism) through the time of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and Rene Descartes (1596-1650). This is not quite the full story, however; for the crowning of the queen did not take place until the time of Isaac Newton (1643-1727).1

Moreover, it was not quite in the role of pure mathematics that the queen came to power, but in that of what St. Thomas put as the formal part of a medial science, a combination of mathematics and natural science. Examples of such medial sciences are already in the liberal arts (quadrivium) in Astronomy and Music. The formal dominance of Mathematics in these sciences, and arts, would come to be generalized to cover the whole of natural science.

For, modern science has really two roots. The first is an empirical or experiential view of the whole of nature, thought to come from Francis Bacon (though it can easily be traced to an earlier Roger Bacon [1214-1294] and others of the scholastics). The second, and more significant, is the “rational” or mathematical view of the same natural world we have already alluded to. Both these sources are evident in the modern “scientific method.” 

This is not a simple deductive or inductive method, but a combination of both. The tension between these two makes it difficult for the modern mind to decide whether modern science is purely factually/empirically or hypothetically/mathematically based.

For St. Thomas there is no problem with regarding it as a mixed method, formally mathematical and materially empirical. Indeed, he maintained that ultimately, or “substantially,” the mathematical form was subordinate to the empirical matter so far as scientific truth (“fact”) was concerned. Thus, the mathematical theories had to give way to empirical observations where they were available. Had the clerics generally of the time understood St. Thomas’s famous statement about the “saving of appearances” by Ptolemaic astronomy (as St. Robert Bellarmine did), much argument and ecclesiastical Angst over the introduction of the new and revolutionary Copernican astronomy would have been avoided. 

The same applies to our theories about the temporal dimension of our natural world as to the spatial dimension; both were confined to the quantitative aspects of this material world. The length of days to be attributed to this physical world has to be accommodated to improvements in our ability to read the facts of the past by observation, experiment, and measurement. If, like biblical people, we look at the theories of Evolution in this way we could also save ourselves much unnecessary intellectual Angst.

The failure to understand its own method properly makes modern science “deform” its mathematical side to that of pure hypothesis (skepticism) and “dematerialize” its physical side to that of pure phenomenal appearance (sensism). These distortions, however, only affect the theories of science and scientific method, which are philosophical errors. They do not necessarily have any effect on working scientists. 

This new mixed or medial scientific approach to the study of the material world came to be called “the experimental method,” even by Newton himself.  But it is more properly named the physico-mathematical method, as described above. This comes out clearly in the very title that Newton gave to his most famous work: Philosophia Naturalis Principia Mathematica (“Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”).

This title also points up a significant change of terminology that was about to accompany this change of mind from regarding Metaphysics or Philosophy as the supreme science to regarding Mathematics or Physico-mathematics as the paradigmatic science. This was done, however, through a change of view about the study of nature. 


This is just an excerpt from Culture Wars Magazine, not the full article. To continue reading, purchase the May, 2019 edition of Culture Wars Magazine.

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