Raphael’s (Raffaelo Sanzio) most well-known masterpiece is The School of Athens. Commissioned in 1508, the fresco is part of the decoration of a suite of four rooms in the Pontifical Palace in the Vatican— now known as Raphael’s Rooms.
What significance does this 500-year-old fresco have, which presents so many thinkers, for us as artists? To me, at least one significance lies in the discourse of Plato and Aristotle. In this article, we will explore the philosophical meaning and artistic choices of the two central figures.
According to Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists, the architect Donato Bramante, who was good friends with Raphael, convinced Pope Julius II to allow Raphael to demonstrate his skill painting the newly built rooms of the palace (Vasari 312). Raphael was pleased with this arrangement and moved to Rome to begin painting the rooms.
Vasari says that the fresco depicts “the theologians reconciling philosophy and astrology with theology… ” and Raphael “portrayed all the wise men of the world presenting different arguments” (Vasari 312).
The extravagant multi figural composition is grouped around the two central figures framed by a classic architectural arch, Aristotle and Plato.
Plato is shown to the left and is believed to be modeled after Leonardo da Vinci. He is depicted as an older man in simple clothing. The red color of his garment is contrasting with the blue of Aristotle’s, to emphasize the disagreement in the philosophical discourse. He points to the sky with his right hand and holds his book, Timaeus, under his left arm.
Plato bases all of his thought on what he calls the forms. The forms are the absolute, universal truth and are obtainable through the rational examination of ideas. Truth, for example, exists as a form, and in its true form, it is true for everyone (as opposed to a relative, subjective truth, which is only true for the individual who experiences it).
Plato’s famous allegory of the cave illustrates this idea. Briefly, he suggests that it is like we are all imprisoned in a dark cave. In front of us is a wall that has shadows cast upon it. We mistake the shadows for truth.
One of us, however, is able to escape the chains that keep us inside of the cave, and we investigate the shadows’ source, which happens to be a fire behind passing objects outside of the cave. We find that there’s a whole world beyond the cave, and this world is truer — more real — than the shadows we first experienced upon the cave wall. In other words, our material world is less true than the world of the forms.
Plato holds his book Timaeus under his left arm and points to the sky. Timaeus is a book about how a divine craftsman mathematically ordered and structured the universe. We can now see what Plato may be suggesting when he points toward the sky: the truth of the universe is the eternal, unchanging form beyond the material world and is embodied by the divine craftsman whom we can only know through rational exploration.
But what does this have to do with artists? Plato famously said artists are liars and should be banned from the Republic or, at the very least, censored. All techne — the skill necessary to do something well — is imitative of things removed from the form that causes them.
Let’s take a closer look at this idea in relation to a chair. The form of the chair exists in our minds. The form of the chair is our idea of the chair. By definition, a chair is a chair universally. What this means is that a chair must have certain qualities or characteristics before we can call it a chair, otherwise, it is not a chair.
The craftsman makes a chair based on the idea of the chair, that is, based on the chair’s form. The craftsman produces a chair once removed from the absolute truth of the chair’s form. Thus, the chair, when it’s produced, becomes a multiplicitous expression of the absolute form. In other words, there are many types of chairs made from many materials, and though the craftsman must know something about chairs and their form, none of the created chairs are the true expression of the true form of chairness; they are all derivations of the absolute truth of a chair.
The artist, however, can only copy the craftsman’s interpretation of the chair’s form. The artist can also only copy the craftsman’s interpretation of the chair’s form from certain angles and can never show all sides of the chair at once without losing the chair’s form in the process. The artist also does not have to know anything about what is copied but only needs to know how to copy it.
Thus, for Plato, the artist, being so far removed from the source of the chair, its form, can only lie about the chair. Plato saw this as dangerous for the Republic he was trying to construct.
For Plato, the gods, goddesses, and heroes in Athens were already morally abhorrent with stories about them acting worse than the average human being. It was the artist’s job to pay homage to these gods, goddesses, and heroes, but doing so would legitimize and encourage a base morality throughout society that Plato feared would only serve to destroy the society. Therefore, Plato argued, it was the philosopher’s job — as the one who understood the forms — to instruct the artist on what should and should not be depicted so that only those depictions that were worthy of the gods, goddesses, and heroes were shown to the public, and the public would then have true depictions of gods, goddesses, and heroes to follow.
It was the philosopher’s job to get all of society as close to the true forms as possible, that is, as close to the intentions of the divine craftsman as possible. Anyone who was a disservice to this end should be banished.
Raphael depicts Plato’s student, Aristotle, walking alongside Plato. Aristotle is believed to be depicted after the sculptor Giulliano del Sagallo as a younger man with more elegant, ornate clothing. He looks at Plato as he holds his right hand forward with his palm facing the ground and his book, Nicomachean Ethics, foreshortened against his knee.
Raphael paints Aristotle’s hand as pointing forward and his palm toward the earth as if to suggest that there’s no reason to transcend the world before we come to understand the world, our place in the world, and how to ethically engage with the world.
Unlike Plato, Aristotle separates art from politics and morality to see if art has any goodness in and of itself. He does this by looking at art through what he calls the four causes: material cause, the formal cause, the efficient cause, and the final cause.
For Aristotle, however, and in contrast to Plato, imitation is beneficial for humans because it is directly associated with knowledge. We learn through imitating and imitating successfully, as well as recognizing a successful imitation, gives us a certain pleasure.
But what about the drama and horror of tragedy? How can imitation concerning these be reconciled with Plato’s concerns about art’s effect on the public?
Yes, the artist imitates, but the artist has to have a certain knowledge about what is being imitated in order to imitate it well and conjure the appropriate pleasures for the viewer. So, the artist has greater access to the emotional and psychological aspect of human beings. The artist has to know what it means to be happy, sad, angry, intense, calm, etc., if the artist is going to portray the substance of these emotions accurately in their work.
The artist, with this knowledge of human psychology and emotion, can construct a composition that creates specific emotions within the viewer. The two emotions that stand out for Aristotle are pity and fear. When the artist can create a composition that produces these two emotions, especially when they are produced intensely, then the viewer can have a cathartic experience.
What, then, is catharsis? It has been interpreted as an experience in which pity and fear are taken to an extreme and are purged or purified at their limit. Imagine sitting through a movie that makes you weep because of the fear and pity you feel at the protagonist’s sufferings. Something about this experience, for Aristotle, is ethical.
So the artist, for Aristotle, engages in ethics by understanding the final cause of their art, that is, the emotional and psychological happenings of themselves and their fellow human beings. This is the foundation of building an ethical community.
Plato and Aristotle agree that virtue is essential for a well-lived life. The disagreement presented here would find itself revisited multiple times throughout our historical struggle around the purposes of our arts. This struggle poses the question, “Which is primary for understanding ourselves in relation to our creations: turning toward the world in an attempt to build an ethics within it or transcending the ways of the world toward the potential peace of moral absolutes?”
We are still only trying to figure it out. We don’t have all of the answers, but it’s part of our story to keep trying, to approach our art with the thoughtfulness and care it deserves, to think of eternity and move toward the future with the type of probing questions built on sincerity. So, what do you think? Do you point up with Plato or gesture toward the earth with Aristotle? Is it possible or wise to attempt both? Or is it wiser to try something new altogether?
Vasari. “Raphael.” The Lives of the Artists. Translation and Editorial Material by Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella, Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 312.