Karl Marx was wide of the mark when he suggested that "hitherto philosophers have only sought to understand the world, the point however is to change it." In fact philosophers have always tried to do both. The intellectuals, scholars and academics who follow in the wake of a philosopher's ground-breaking thought usually seek to popularize or systematize the new vision. These secondary types are in effect standing on the shoulders of the giants who preceded them, and we in turn are often standing on the shoulders of the best of this group.
It is in this way that the philosophers, over time, have changed the world. Thus a truly broad appreciation of modern history would have to begin with the great early modern philosophers such as Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Locke and Spinoza and the same principle applies to the roots of our Western Civilization in Greece and Rome. Here we would have to look at Plato and Aristotle and the great philosophers of antiquity who followed in their wake.
If philosophy hardly looks this way to the average person today it is partly because so few of us have the leisure time to devote to its proper study and partly because what passes for philosophy today is a very specialized discipline rather than a way of life. But in the ages of great art, painters and sculptors looked up to the philosophers as grand and noble spirits and aimed to translate the reverence they felt for their way of life into artistic images. Theoretical ideas were addressed directly to the intelligence of the eye. In the seventeenth century Rembrandt was especially effective at this. His work Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer and the lesser work known as Philosopher in Meditation both suggest a deep appreciation of what the life of philosophy represents.
Both Benjamin West and Jacques-Louis David painted The Death of Socrates from Plato's Phaedo, int which Socrates drinks the hemlock while continuing to recommend the philosophical life to his grief-stricken friends. West and David are showing us that it is in the philosopher's confrontation with death that the life given over to the pursuit of truth can be seen in its true light. For his part Joseph Wright of Derby connects philosophy to the modern scientific spirit in his work An Experiment with an Air Pump. This brilliant work reminds us that philosophy can indeed change the world, especially through the inquiries into natural phenomena that are inspired by its relentlessly inquiring spirit.
But it is during the Renaissance, especially in what is called the High Renaissance, that we see the best historical phase of philosophical painting. It was at this time that the meaning of pagan antiquity was being rediscovered and absorbed by Christian Europe. Raphael Sanzio, who Vasari called "the prince of painters," was a young man when he moved to Florence to study painting. Once there he learned from two older contemporaries -- Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti. The greatness of these two mentors only served to fuel Raphael's ambition, which combined with his immense talent, resulted in one the greatest images in the history of Western art, one which ever since has taught its viewers about philosophy as a way of life.
This fresco in the Vatican has been called The School of Athens for the past 300 years for want of a better title. It represents an assembly of the greatest philosophers of antiquity. For the first time in Western Art a painter was able to represent the harmonious unity underlying the diverse pursuits of human reason by portraying some of the rationalist tradition's most exemplary individuals as all at work in one mythical place and at one mythical time.
The School of Athens is something of an ambiguous title in that despite the presence of such eminent Athenians as Socrates, and his various students Xenophon, Alcibiades and Diogenes, there are many non-Athenian worthies in the famous scene. We see non-Athenian figures who are known to have visited Athens such as Parmenides and his disciple Zeno, and there are also thinkers who lived long after the death of Aristotle such as Epicurus. Most interesting is the brooding presence of Zoroaster from ancient Persia who lived long before the time of Athens, and Averroes the great Islamic commentator on Aristotle who lived many centuries later. As it turns out the "school" of Athens can be found in places and times very distant from where the tradition of Greek moral and philosophical reasoning actually began. Raphael wishes us to see how reason is truly multicultural and trans-historical.
Philosophy as the ancients saw it is not an isolated activity which necessarily removes its devotee from the life and concerns of ordinary people. Rather it should be seen as the fulfillment of the meaning of our more ordinary living and therefore as the peak of our humanity. Raphael's way of showing this is first of all by conceiving the magnificent building which houses these men as a symbol of the healthy harmony between the powers of the soul and the mind. As Jacob Burckhardt said in such a place one could be happy.
We find in this picture a most excellent arrangement of teachers, students and spectators. Raphael has translated the whole thought and learning of antiquity entirely into lively demonstration and earnest listening. The few isolated figures most notably Diogenes the Cynic (whom Raphael has given the countenance of Michelangelo) stand out as the exceptions. In this assembly the peak of the peak is the center of the painting the magnificent figures of Plato and Aristotle. Supremely self-confident, gloriously larger than life, manly and virile they each stand holding one of their books. Plato holds the Timaeus and Aristotle the Ethics. The investigation of the origin of the universe and the inquiry into the good life and happiness comprehend the essential subjects of ancient philosophy even as they remain the most serious questions anybody can think about today.
Raphael has symbolized in the dramatic gestures of the two central figures in the painting the very transcendental and metaphysical nature of Plato's philosophic thinking on the one hand, and the very "down to earth," practical nature of Aristotle's teachings on the other. Plato and Aristotle were teacher and pupil respectively, and as should always be the case, at a certain point the pupil disagreed with his master. Aristotle came to think of Plato as so concerned with the "other world" that he might have his students disappearing into the clouds of speculation (so to speak). Thus he put a stress on how we can practice the virtues necessary for the good life here below. But we need to keep in mind that the differences between Plato and Aristotle which Raphael clearly understood and to which he calls our attention by the very titles of the books he places in the two figures' hands, need to be seen against the backdrop of the school as a whole. The great arches which spread over all the figures in the painting show that there is a "university" in the sense of a "university-ness" which binds all the schools of thought and various philosophical disciplines into one harmonious whole.
How did this astonishing work come about? The twenty-seven-year-old Raphael Sanzio was recommended to Pope Julius II (1503-1513) by the pope's architect, Bramante, who like Raphael hailed from the city of Urbino. Raphael was asked to fresco the walls of what was to be Julius' library. In antiquity, libraries had been decorated with portraits of poets. Julius, who was notable above all for his affinity with the great generals of antiquity, wanted a grand library decorated in the same style. Although Raphael had very little previous experience in large fresco painting, there was an outstanding example right s"next door" in the form of the Sistine Chapel, the painting of which by Michelangelo had revolutionized this particular art.
Where did Raphael get his program for this work? As usual scholars have disagreed on this question for as long as the painting has been studied. But I see a connection between the greatest poem of the Christian era, Dante's Divine Comedy and Raphael's magnificent painting. In the fourth book of the Inferno, before Dante and Virgil descend very far into Hell, they come across the virtuous pagans: heroes, poets and philosophers who although living prior to the highest truth in Revelation, nevertheless lived rightly according to their lights.
It seems most likely that Raphael used or was given this passage as guidance in developing his vision for the painting. But in his own twist on Dante, Raphael situated the figures in the poem, not on a path down into Hell, but in a vision of Heaven. The philosophers are pursuing the truth in a "Paradiso" which is all sky and light as contrasted with the depth and darkness conjured up by the very mention of the word "Inferno." Raphael conceived of a means of manifesting the metaphysical significance of the philosophical way of life through the placing of the two great founders of Western rationalism and their historical progeny in a setting so beautiful that we can almost here the music of the spheres while looking at it.
This article is copyrighted 2002. Please do not republish any portion of this article without written permission.
Joseph Phelan can be contacted at email@example.com
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