The Art of Philosophy

This is going to be a pile of digressions on digressions, but I hope it’ll make for a good read. So, in a recent post on Newapps, Catarina Dutilh Novaes draws our attention to a painting by Roy Lichtenstein called ‘Philosopher in Landscape’
RL-landscape-with-philosopher(I’ve posted a large copy, so that you can see the philosopher.)

I really love this painting. First of all, it never occurred to me that Lichtenstein could do something so interesting with his pop art techniques. I like this much better than the comic strip stuff he’s famous for.

But this got me thinking about other representations of philosophy (or philosophers) in art. And it occurred to me that this might make for an entertaining series of occasional posts on the blog. Call it “the Art of Philosophy.”

When I was thinking about where I should begin, one painting immediately sprang to mind. I suspect it did for some of you as well: Raphael’s School of Athens (aka the banner art for 7 out of 10 philosophy department webpages). Here it is in all its glory!


This is surely the most famous philosophical painting of all time. It hangs in the Vatican museum, just moments away from the Sistine Chapel, where I plan to see it for a second time this summer. Raphael did a series of frescoes for the library of Pope Julius II, who was kind of a jerk, but a fine patron of the arts nonetheless.

One curious feature of the painting is the architectural background. We get the expected Renaissance-y features:  grand barrel vaults, classical orders, and lots of symmetry. But the structure is oddly open to the sky, looking more like some sort of public plaza than a building. There are aesthetic reasons for this: it allows Raphael to deepen the pictorial space, but I think there’s more going on here. The work was painted sometime around 1510, while the new basilica of St. Peter’s was being constructed. (The construction would end up taking over a century, due to political instability and architectural disagreements.) One of the prominent issues was how to build a dome of such unprecedented size without relying on huge (and ugly) external walls to contain the outward thrust of the vaults. The initial architect, Bramante, just started building the enormous piers (connected by barrel vaults) that would support the dome. But he really hadn’t figured out how to build the dome itself, and he conveniently died before he got to this stage, leaving this problem to his successors. (Raphael himself would later take on the role of lead architect, until his untimely death, but it was Michelangelo who finally solved the problem years later, in the 1540s.) Anyway, as of 1510, the central crossing of the church looked like this:

St.Peters-constructionIt seems likely that Raphael, busy painting next door, was referencing the then stalled state of construction. (By the way, the tiny church-within-a-church in the drawing is what’s left of old St. Peter’s, the original 4th Century basilica. It was being demolished in stages as the nave of the new building was constructed over it. This should give you some indication of how truly enormous St. Peter’s is!)

OK, back to the School of Athens. One of the things I find especially striking about the work is that it’s at once intensely specific and maddeningly obscure. Many of the figures are depicted in precise, presumably-definitive, activities. It generates an urge in the viewer to play the game of who’s who. And we’ve been playing this game for centuries now.

As you’ll soon see, one of my opinions is that a lot of the views expressed on this issue are nonsense. I was deeply impressed by a piece I read last year by the Cambridge Classicist, Mary Beard, a review of several recent books on Alexander the Great. She argues that these passionately defended accounts of Alexander’s life have little basis in fact. The sources are highly partisan, inconsistent with one another, and written long after Alexander was dead. There’s actually very little we reliably know about the man. And yet the books keep rolling out. It’s a terrific review. You should read the whole thing; it’s a real tour de force! (Oh, and she also has a terrific blog.) Ever since I read this review, I’ve been viewing much of the history I encounter through this lens. I find myself asking: how much of it is just layers of encrusted opinion, solidified over the decades and centuries into something that now looks like certainty?

So, let’s apply this skeptical attitude to our painting. Raphael doesn’t give us a lot to work with, really. There are no names. He didn’t know what the ancient philosophers looked like, and neither do we. It’s actually an interesting dilemma for an artist. How does one successfully represent these figures in the absence of clearly identifiable visual criteria? (Assuming, of course, that this is what he was actually trying to do.)

This is a general problem for the visual arts. Take Botticelli’s Primavera, for example:


The painting is clearly an allegory of the spring, but it’s still hard to figure everyone out. For example, it’s commonly held that the guy on the left is Mercury. But that’s far from obvious. And a small minority of scholars seems equally convinced that he’s Mars. But, really, there’s no solid basis for either attribution. Some guy in the 17th Century offers an opinion, and centuries later we’re repeating it as fact. As you’re beginning to see, this is the theme for my post.

But back to Raphael (again). In a way, the problem facing him in this project was worse, for there was little in the way of standard iconography for philosophers. This is still true, but the situation was even worse in 1510. Remember, much of the classical canon had only recently been recovered, and many sources we take for granted remained hidden at the time (at least in Western Europe). By way of contrast, it was easy to indicate which saint you were depicting: add a lion, and everyone knows it’s St. Jerome, who tamed the beast by healing its paw. A young man pierced with multiple arrows? Obviously that’s St. Sebastian.

Saints Jerome and Sebastian

A whole system of symbols and meanings had been settled on, making communication easy. Here, however, Raphael was working from scratch. He gives us a bunch of philosophers, but determining who’s who is far from easy.

And yet … Everyone seems convinced that they have the solution to this puzzle. If you go to the Wikipedia page for this painting, you can even find a handy numbered list.

School-wikipedia-IDs“1: Zeno of Citium 2: Epicurus Possibly, the image of two philosophers, who were typically shown in pairs during the Renaissance: Heraclitus, the “weeping” philosopher, and Democritus, the “laughing” philosopher. 3: unknown (believed to be Raphael)4: Boethius or Anaximander or Empedocles? 5: Averroes 6: Pythagoras 7: Alcibiades or Alexander the Great? 8: Antisthenes or Xenophon or Timon? 9: Raphael, Fornarina as a personification of Love or Francesco Maria della Rovere? 10: Aeschines or Xenophon? 11: Parmenides? (Leonardo da Vinci) 12: Socrates 13: Heraclitus (Michelangelo) 14: Plato (Leonardo da Vinci)(Archimedes) (thought to be an amalgamation of the three) 15: Aristotle (Giuliano da Sangallo) 16: Diogenes of Sinope 17: Plotinus (Donatello?) 18: Euclid or Archimedes with students (Bramante?) 19: Zoroaster (Baldassare Castiglione) 20: Ptolemy? R: Apelles (Raphael) 21: Protogenes (Il Sodoma, Perugino, or Timoteo Viti)”

True, the footnotes acknowledge some dispute about these identifications. But they don’t capture just the tenuous nature of much of the scholarship around this painting. It’s easy to find widely varying lists, presented with no reservations, all over the place–in books, articles and websites. Once again, we have layers of opinion solidified into certainty. For a scholarly example of this sort of speculative and, in my opinion, unsubstantiated work, see: Glenn W. Most, “Reading Raphael: ‘The School of Athens’ and Its Pre-Text,” Critical Inquiry, 23(1), 1996: 145-182. The author believes that the key to the text is the description of a house scene in Plato’s Protagoras (314e-316a). In my view, the lack of evidence speaks for itself. (I leave it as an exercise for the reader to see why.)

All that said, there are two people we can unquestionably identify: Plato and Aristotle.

Plato and Aristotle

The old master accompanied by his finest student. We can recognize them because they’re conveniently holding their representative works: the Timaeus and the Ethics.
(They’re holding them anachronistically, of course, as books didn’t yet exist! Strictly speaking, they should be holding bundles of scrolls, but that would just look funny. On the plus, side, however, at least they’re wearing togas, and not doublets and hose.)

Now, why these two works? The Ethics (presumably the Nicomachean variety) makes sense, but the Timaeus will strike many of us as an odd pick. It’s certainly interesting, with it’s bizarre cosmology, but the Republic is the superior work, and one that better captures the breadth of Plato’s thought. But, for Raphael and his age, the Timaeus was the obvious choice. It was the only work of Plato’s to survive the end of antiquity in the west–in a partial Latin translation. It thus played an important role in the development of philosophy and science in the middle ages. It was at the heart of the western canon, whereas the Republic was simply one of many new Platonic texts recovered in the past century.

It’s often claimed that Raphael used an elderly Da Vinci as his model for Plato. They did cross paths at around this time, and Leonardo was then in his late 50s. A self-portrait from around this time looks sort of similar:

Da Vinci as Plato?I can certainly see the resemblance, in the nose and eyes as well as the hair, but I wouldn’t say it’s decisive. More intriguing–to me at least–is Plato’s vigorous gesture, pointing up with his right arm and index finger. It reminds me of Leonardo’s last known painting–completed right around this time–of St. John the Baptist:

Plato and John the BaptistCoincidence? Quite likely. One should constantly be on guard against these tempting linkages. Still, like I said, it’s intriguing.

Of course, the gesture also has philosophical significance. As has been widely noted, the pairing of Plato and Aristotle is meant to represent the great division within ancient thought. Plato points up to the heavens, the starry skies above us, reminding us that we should seek knowledge in the eternal forms, not in the earthly world of sense. Aristotle gestures downward (well, more forward than downward, strictly speaking, but definitely not upward). It certainly gives the impression that he’s rebuking his teacher, saying that we should seek knowledge in the empirical world. Well, sort of. Except that Aristotle was kind of into the eternal heavens too. Even wrote a book about it. Or three. And it’s not like there was an active empiricist tradition in the Renaissance. Remember, Francis Bacon is still 50 years away from being born!

All of this makes me wonder if the rationalist-empiricist reading of these gestures would have been natural to Raphael’s contemporaries as it now is to us. After all, the philosophical distinction really only came into vogue with Kant, who makes much of it in presenting himself as the bridge between these two traditions. (Back in the day, when I was a course assistant for Dan Garber, the great scholar of Early Modern philosophy, he liked to emphasize how anachronistic this distinction is.) Still, even granting all that, there’s something to the idea that Aristotle lacks Plato’s open hostility toward the evidence of the senses. Perhaps that’s what Raphael has in mind.

After Plato and Aristotle, identifying the figures gets a lot more difficult. Plenty of them are nondescript, perhaps meant to represent disciples and followers of the key philosophers. (The Glaucons and Adeimantuses of Athens, if you will.) But let’s start with the guy lying on the stairs.

DiogenesAccording to pretty much everyone, this is Diogenes the Cynic. The giveaway is the cup by his right leg. According to Lives of the Philosophers (written by the much later Diogenes Laertius), Diogenes threw away his cup (as an unnecessary luxury) when he saw a child drinking water with his hands. Of course, here the cup is still present, but perhaps it simply serves as a symbol. Diogenes lived on the streets, without any home, which may be why he’s shown here reclining on the stairs. (He’s generally depicted in paintings as sitting or lying on the ground.) I find this attribution reasonably convincing.

Moving to the bottom right, we have this interesting group:

Bottom right groupThe geometer at the bottom is usually identified as Euclid or Archimedes, but that’s just because they’re the most famous Greek mathematicians. It could be anyone really, or even just a generic character. Standing beside him are two figures holding globes. The one with his back to us is almost certainly Ptolemy. The terrestrial globe refers to his Geographia, the most influential study of the Earth’s geography in the ancient period. (Plus, in the middle ages Ptolemy the scientist was often confused with the Ptolemies who ruled Egypt in the Hellenistic period, and so it became somewhat common to depict him wearing a crown.) Facing Ptolemy is a man holding a celestial globe, presumably an astronomer. He’s often identified as Zoroaster (i.e., Nietzsche’s Zarathustra), but I don’t see why. Zoroaster was certainly known as an astrologer, but lots of people studied the stars back then (including Ptolemy himself). Apparently, Zoroastrian priests wear white as a symbol of purity, but that’s hardly decisive. (Plus, I checked, and the hat ought to be white as well.) So I don’t buy it. By the way, the guy to the right of both philosophers, staring out at us, is our artist Raphael himself. (How do we know? It matches other portraits of him, and inserting the artist as a side figure, breaking the fourth wall, was common in Renaissance art.)

Moving on, we have another interesting group on the bottom left:

Group at bottom left

Lots going on here. The guy sitting on the right is a late addition. (He doesn’t show up in Raphael’s preparatory cartoons for this work.) He’s often identified as Heraclitus, based on absolutely nothing, frankly. More interesting is who he looks like: Michelangelo. Remember, Michelangelo was busy next door, painting the Sistine Chapel, at the same time that Raphael was working on this painting. The thought is that Raphael added his colleague as a kind of tribute, perhaps in awe of his work on the ceiling. (This is a little odd, given that the two were known as fierce rivals, rather than friends, but perhaps Raphael just knew talent when he saw it.)

Next to Buonarroti is a guy pointing at his open book. He’s tentatively identified as Parmenides. I don’t see it, unless there’s something symbolic about his standing with one foot on a block. Anyone know? Beside him is a man sitting as he writes in his book. (I’ve checked high-res detail images of the book, and you can’t read the writing.) He’s said to be Pythagoras, and, although I started off skeptical, I’m now convinced. This is because of the slate being held before him by the cherubic figure, which is legible:

Pythagoras' slateThe Greek is a little tricky to make out, but the ratio at the bottom is clear: 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 = 10. This is the tetractys, which has long been associated with Pythagorean number mysticism. (I don’t quite get it, but the perfect triangularity of the ratio, and the arrival at 10–as in 10 fingers–somehow blew their minds.)

Behind Pythagoras are two more scholars. The guy with the turban is thought to be Averroes. That makes sense, just because he’s the most famous of the Arabic philosophers. Below him is another philosopher, apparently copying from the notes of Pythagoras. He’s been linked to many philosophers. Wikipedia mentions “Boethius or Anaximander or Empedocles?” I think the question mark says it all: it could be pretty much anyone.

At this point, we start to get diminishing returns. Here’s one final group, just to show you what I mean:

Group at top leftI could be convinced that the guy on the right is Socrates, as is often claimed, just because of the snub nose that Plato mentions in several of his dialogues. But the other three, though very distinctive, are pretty much impossible to pin down. According to Wikipedia, they may be (from left to right) “Alcibiades or Alexander the Great? Antisthenes or Xenophon or Timon? Aeschines or Xenophon?” As far as I can tell, there’s no basis for any of these identifications. We’ve lost the key, if there ever was one.

Again, the moral of the story is, be wary of what you read. Wikipedia’s page on the School of Athens is quite unreliable, but the professional scholarship is often just as speculative. However, I did learn one useful fact from wikipedia. Notice the two guys along the back, middle right?

R-SoA-2-figuresNow dig out your old Guns ‘n Roses albums, and check out the cover of Use Your Illusion:
Wow, who would’ve guessed?! So, we’ve gone from a pop artist to Renaissance art and ancient philosophy, back to pop artists. Probably as a good a place as any to stop.

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2 Responses to The Art of Philosophy

  1. Josh says:

    Really interesting stuff… The Guns ‘n Roses tie-in is really worth the price of admission.

    You say that Rafael didn’t have a real “philosophical iconography” to work with (and yes, it is still a problem! The New York Times won’t even run an obituary for John Rawls!) I did see Ted Cohen in Hyde Park the other day and recognize his face, so I guess that’s something.

    It sounds like something implicit in what you’re saying is that Rafael may have been trying to establish such an iconography, at least for the ancients. Over and above the relative lack of evidence about whom he intended to be who, is there any evidence that he was trying to depict specific philosophers at all? I’m assuming “The School of Athens” is his title, but are there any other words that can be directly attributed to him?

    • Nates says:

      Yeah, I agree that there’s room for some skepticism about whether he’s depicting particular philosophers–rather than, say, generic types. I mean, some of the attributions seem quite convincing to me, but there’s no reason to think that each figure was meant to be someone. That said, it seems to me that there’s something about the painting that triggers this desire to solve the puzzle. (By comparison, I never feel this urge to figure out who the people in Botticelli’s Primavera are.)

      The title doesn’t help us sort out this issue, as it’s not original. As far as I can tell, all we have from Raphael is the painting itself, along with his preparatory sketches. (I’ll see if I can dig anything up.) In fact, Vasari, our earliest source, thought that some of the figures were evangelists, rather than philosophers. His reasoning isn’t very good, but it shows that even the basic subject matter of the painting was unclear to Raphael’s contemporaries.

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