The very first definition of "liberal" in the Oxford English Dictionary goes: "Originally, the distinctive epithet of those 'arts' or 'sciences' that were considered 'worthy of a free man'; opposed to servile or mechanical ." The Romans considered skills like logic and rhetoric to be attributes of freemen, not slaves (e.g. the Greeks). Tom Wolfe in I Am Charlotte Simmons puts forth the theory that the Romans did not want slaves learning skills of persuasion and argument -- slave lawyers would be too dangerous! Slave engineers and mathematicians, no problem! Maybe. Another idea might be that spending all your time on useless, "life of the mind" topics was a sort of conspicuous intellectual consumption that advertised you didn't have to spend your life actually working or making stuff (creating wealth, as we say today).
Last update: 7/19/05