While the beauty of Raphael’s School of Athens is widely appreciated, we today probe the controversial idea behind it.

Show Notes

As you may have heard, for the next month or so, I’ll be publishing only Mini Pods regularly, though I’ll add an occasional full episode from time to time. I’m working now, for example, on a full episode on the Room of Constantine, the largest of the Raphael Rooms, but it won’t be ready for a couple of weeks. So until further notice, expect Mini Pods on Thursdays, and full episodes on occasional Tuesdays.

Let’s return today to the Room of the Seal, the Stanza della Segnatura, which is known best for the fresco that now goes by the title, “The School of Athens.” My main point in the last episode was to suggest that it was big news that a pope had a great artist paint a fresco that does not have a single saint in it and contains no signs of the Christian faith. To the contrary, the fresco is populated with mathematicians, philosophers, and scientists, who hail from non-Christian times and places.  A good fraction of the total represents ancient Greeks, but others were separated by over a thousand years and a thousand miles. For example, there is even a Muslim from twelfth century Andalusia, Averroes, who earned his place in the mural by being a brilliant student of Aristotle and Plato.

Raphael, “School of Athens,” Detail of Averroes (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

I consider Averroes to be important for the theme of the Stanza della Segnatura as a whole, for he advanced the controversial or even revolutionary idea that it was crucial to recover Aristotle’s wisdom even though Aristotle never had the benefit of knowing the Koran. He defended the view, that is, that there is a route to wisdom independent of divine revelation, and of course his view was contested. The “School of Athens” advances a parallel position: it teaches that the ancient thinkers deserve our deep admiration, and reward our study, even though they never knew the Bible. Hence several of the Renaissance popes encouraged not now the destruction or neglect of ancient texts but their collection, study, and diffusion.

These popes, including Team Della Rovere, did not take this turn on their own: they were influenced by the scholars we now call the Renaissance humanists, who showed by their example that ancient authors and artists offered new and exciting models for imitation. The career of a certain Poggio Bracciolini is a good reminder of this new spirit and its spread within the Church. He shows not merely toleration of the thinkers of pagan antiquity but the passion to follow their lead, and he came to be employed by seven different popes and, among other services, sought out and found ancient manuscripts long tucked away in monasteries all over Europe. Among other finds, he came up with the sole surviving copy of Lucretius’s, On the Nature of Things, which described a materialist and atheist view of the world such as had not been seen for a thousand years. Thanks in part to the efforts of Bracciolini, this one manuscript was brought back to light and spread throughout the West. According to a recent best-seller—it’s by Stephen Greenblatt and is called The SwerveLucretius helped to make the world modern and secular by spreading the idea that the deepest causes of things are not providential gods but atoms in purposeless motion. That he, he helped to weaken the sway of Christianity and, thereby, that of its Church.

Lucretius does not enjoy the honor of being represented in the School of Athens, but his exclusion is not because his ideas were censored from it. Surprisingly, there are no ancient Romans in the School of Athens: Raphael gives pride of place rather to the sources of the Romans’ ideas, the Greeks. Lucretius’ teacher or inspiration was the Greek thinker Epicurus, whose emphasis on pleasure is known today as “Epicureanism,” and he is represented in the left foreground.

Far from being excluded from the painting, the atomist and atheist ideas of Epicurus and Lucretius may even receive a subtle honor. The man who most of all influenced the design of the Stanza della Segnatura is generally thought to have been a humanist, Tommaso Inghirami. Inghirami was a classical scholar and held several positions in the papal court. He was, for example, the chief Vatican librarian, an ordained deacon of the Papal Chapel, and a papal diplomat. Less formally, he showed his enthusiasm for classical authors by organizing and acting in dramatic performances of ancient plays. Raphael honors him in the fresco—or, more likely, Inghirami required Raphael to so honor him—by painting his likeness on one of the representations of an ancient thinker. With what thinker does he choose to associate himself? Epicurus, the teacher of Lucretius and atheist defender of the view that pleasure is the only good.

In short, the “School of Athens” represents a bold and exciting new idea, one advocated and exemplified by the group scholars now called the Renaissance Humanists. They persuaded at least some of the popes that the Church should recover, preserve, and honor the thought and art left by Classical Antiquity. What I wonder is how they thought this emphasis on Athens would affect the beliefs that had spread from Jerusalem, and which then were dominant in Rome and the entire West.

My emphasis on what I take to be the main theme of this room, the relationship between the truth-teaching of the Bible and the truth-seeking of the ancient philosophers and scientists, has led me to neglect the challenge of deciding which of Raphael’s figures represents what thinker from the past. Since the identities of some of the characters in the fresco are disputed, this is a common topic for discussion and can become a kind of game in which tour guides sometimes have a good time imagining new and fanciful possibilities.

“School of Athens,” Detail of Leonardo da Vinci as Plato (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Raphael did not leave behind a key that identified who’s who, and it does not seem that he gave a specific identity to every one of the fifty characters in the painting. Sometimes he used likenesses of his contemporaries—including Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Bramante, and, as we have seen, Tommaso Inghirami—to represent ancient thinkers. On the other hand, Raphael’s Socrates simply looks like the Socrates remembered in surviving busts and in his comic descriptions of himself in the Symposiums written by Plato and Xenophon.

“School of Athens,” Hypatia, perhaps (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

I don’t see that there are great issues at stake in all of these identifications, but one of them is worth a moment. The question centers on a figure in white, standing tall in the lower left, just to the right of the turbaned Averroes. This character might be the only woman in the painting (not counting the statue of the goddess Athena), for she is often identified as Hypatia, a mathematician and thinker from Alexandria, who spent her maturity in the early fifth century, when Christianity was completing its replacement of paganism around the Roman Empire. Having a woman amidst this sea of mostly bearded men is one thing, but Hypatia was also the head of a long-established philosophical school and was, partly for this reason, killed by a mob of fanatical Christian monks. If it is she, her inclusion would be a reminder that there was a time when powerful Christians were not so enthusiastic about ancient thought, a time when the open-minded view of the “School of Athens” did not always prevail. She would also indicate that the sponsors of the fresco were willing to allude to the violence used during the conversion of the Roman Empire from pagan to Christian, which challenges the view that the new faith spread by the peaceful dissemination of new truths made evident by miracles. But all this depends on resolving the dispute over the figure in white, looking directly out toward her or his viewers, and I am not able to do this.

Regardless of how one answers the “Who’s who” questions about the thinkers in the “School of Athens,” the fresco raises two “big questions” to keep in mind when viewing it. As noted, the first and more fundamental one concerns the place of rational thought in the Christian understanding: Is an Athenian School a threat to the Christian society that plays host to it? Here’s the second: Do we in the West still share the excitement over the free and open pursuit of ideas that Raphael represented so beautifully, and do we still believe that the ancient thinkers can help us in this pursuit?

I pose the second question because of the well-documented decline of liberal arts and classical education in the United States, if not in the modern West as a whole. I take it that the first cause of this decline is the belief that business and professional schools better serve the interests of students, while the more recent argument is that, as a Princeton professor has put it, “the production of whiteness . . . resides in the very marrows of classics,” so to admire the classics is racist.

Paintings can speak, but I don’t think even the frescoes of the Stanza della Segnatura can give a full response to these big questions, and neither can a Mini Pod. What Raphael’s “School of Athens” can do is show by its beauty and the excited concentration of its figures that he and Inghirami did not consider the students of Athens’ School to be morally flawed or to be wasting their time in studies that bring no economic reward: the effect of the painting is to lead us to admire and imitate, as best we can, the passion to understand that is evident in these same students.

As for the response of this Mini Pod to the explicit and implicit contemporary attacks on the kind of education represented by the “School of Athens,” this entire podcast series is based on the idea that we need to carefully reexamine the Western Tradition or Western Civilization to see better what its identity and possible merits are, where reexamining carefully is not the same as condemning hastily, dismissing categorically, or pillorying angrily. So far, it’s fair to say that, if Rome has a strong case to be considered the capital city of the West, the West cannot be characterized as the locus of a Golden Age of peace, justice, prosperity, and human enrichment. But as the “School of Athens” suggests, neither has it been without beauty and worthy models for emulation. The challenge is in reaching a thoughtful, balanced, open appraisal.

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