Raphael's School of Athens and What Can We Know?

Raphael’s famous fresco, The School of Athens (1510-1511), painted when Raphael was 27 years old, casts as its central characters Plato (left) and Aristotle (right).

Raphael’s fresco illustrates the impact of rediscovered Greek and Latin classics in shaping the humanistic thought that was so integral to Renaissance thought. Raphael aimed to indicate that Renaissance thinkers matched the ancients and his own artistic genius, along with that of such greats as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, led to this period being dubbed the High Renaissance. So Plato is presented in the guise of Leonardo da Vinci. In the wider fresco Raphael also portrays a brooding Michelangelo, plus himself wearing a black beret. A great many other great ones are also represented, e.g. Archimedes, Euclid, Pythagoras, Diogenes of Sinope. Plotinus, Ptolemy, Parmenides.

Raphael portrays Plato and Aristotle as though they were walking through an open agora (marketplace), while espousing their respective philosophies. However, he presents them in a manner that indicates that Aristotle has transcended Plato. So the fresco shows the youth looking admiringly at Aristotle. Aristotle is portrayed taller than Plato, with height performing an important symbolic function in art. While Plato is honoured as a wise-looking man, he is portrayed as being old, grey, unkempt and wearing old-fashioned garments. Aristotle, by contrast, is a vigorous mature, handsome man, wearing fashionable clothes. Plato is barefoot and is depicted as rising on his toes, as though he would ascend to where his finger is pointing. Even the book he is carrying is inclined vertically. Classy sandals adorn Aristotle’s feet, which are planted solidly on terra firma and the book he grasps is held horizontally. Plato has a plain necklace, Aristotle a gold necklace.

However, it would not be right to conclude from this that Plato is the philosopher for the past, while Aristotle is the philosopher for today. Both hold modern-bound copies of respective works, Plato carrying his Timaeus and Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics. Here Raphael is indicating the contemporary value of both approaches. Plato and Aristotle are seen as complementing each other. Yet as they look at each other, their very gazes express a fundamental difference of perspective, though without any sense of antagonism. By framing them with an arch Raphael indicates their essential unity and gives them a unique identity that sets them apart from all philosophers.

The continuing relevance of Plato is expressed by casting him in the guise of Leonardo. However, the clear preference Raphael shows for Aristotle indicates that Plato’s approach, while not irrelevant, lacks the greater contemporary relevance of Aristotle’s approach. It is important to appreciate that though Aristotle’s hand is directed downwards, in contrast to Plato’s upwards-pointing gesture, he is not in fact pointing downwards, as some have supposed. Rather his fingers are reaching out horizontally, in parallel to the earth but inclined towards the viewers, establishing a particular bond between Aristotle and Raphael’s contemporaries and indicating that unlike Plato his philosophy enters the world in which we live.

What then is the significance of the contrast between the right-hand gestures of Plato and Aristotle? There is indeed some difference among interpreters as to the significance of these contrasting gestures. One humorous interpretation is that Plato is balancing an invisible spinning basketball on the point of his upraised finger, while Aristotle is bouncing an invisible basketball with his right hand, But we are probably close to the mark if we see Plato pointing upwards to that which is beyond appearances, to his Theory of Forms, the realm of ideas – things we can’t see or hear or feel or touch. By contrast, Aristotle, much more the empiricist, displays his primary concern with concrete particulars – the things we can see and hear and feel and touch. The gestures can also be understood as indicating difference in method. Plato’s method was that of deduction, moving from the general to the specific. Aristotle, by contrast, employed induction, moving from the specific to the general. For Aristotle accorded much greater importance than Plato to perception as the means by which people access the real world. The central issue concerns where one should begin – from above, the heavens, or below, on earth. Raphael is indicating that the time has come to place far more weight on Aristotle’s approach than on Plato’s.

The fresco also expresses the implications of the respective philosophies of Plato and Aristotle with particular philosophers placed in positions that are outward and downward from each of these great thinkers. From Plato the picture moves downwards to a group dominated by Pythagoras. From Aristotle the movement downwards is to a group dominated by Euclid. There is also a movement from left to right. From philosophical assumptions along the same lines as those of Plato which were foundational to the mathematical approach of Pythagoras and company, to the philosophical assumptions more in keeping with Aristotle’s approach to reality, as epitomised by the mathematical approach of Euclid and company. So Pythagoras endeavoured to determine how divine ideas might be measured and perceived on earth, whereas Raphael understood Euclid’s geometry to be constructed on more horizontal lines (excuse the pun) reflective of pure rational thought independent of assumptions involving a divine underlay.

Raphael’s contrasting of Plato and Aristotle raises fundamental epistemological questions. What is the source of our knowledge of reality? Is there an hiatus between knowledge derived from divine revelation and that derived from empirical observation and the exercise of human reason? Of course, those who drive a wedge often presuppose that there is no such thing as genuine divine revelation. Clearly, there are irreconcilable differences between world religions which appeal to divine revelation. So if there is genuine divine revelation we must discriminate between that which true and that which is false.

From a Christian standpoint John Frame’s tri-perspectival approach to the justification of knowledge is to be commended. When someone asks you why you believe what types of answer can you give? Frame proposes that, depending on the perspective one adopts, there are three possible answers, all of which cohere with each other and all of which are integral to as complete an answer as we can give.

  1. Normative: One can answer, “I believe p (a variable, representing any proposition at all – “there is a book on the table”, “God exists”, etc.) because believing p is in accord with the norms or laws of human thought.” Here I claim to be following the rules of thought. But when I speak of rules it is inevitable that I also brings ethics into knowledge.

  2. Situational: “I believe p because it conforms to the facts.”

  3. Existential: “I believe p because I find it the most deeply satisfying.” Properly understood, this is not blithering subjectivism, but hard-headed rationality.

In the Christian worldview these three questions should have the same answer because we believe in God. God coordinates the laws of thought, the facts of the world he created and human subjectivity which he made to be a receiver of knowledge. God is the author of all three and therefore they are harmonious, they cohere. If we see a discrepancy it is because we haven’t seen the full answer.

As Frame explains, there are three forms of justification according to the biblical worldview:

  1. Normative justification: I believe in God, in Christ, in all kinds of other things, because I believe that belief is in accord with the laws of thought, that God authorises me to have this belief. We start with God’s revelation but know this in the light of our knowledge of the world and self.

  2. Situational justification: I believe in God, etc. because these are the facts. Here we start with the world (only a perspective, an angle) but understood it in the light of revelation and self.

  3. Existential justification: I believe in God, etc. because this gives me cognitive rest. Here we start with self though this is only comprehensible in the light of revelation and knowledge of the world.

For an excellent video examination and interpretation of Raphael’s fresco see the one produced by Columbia University: Raphael’s Fresco of the School of Athens.

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