The title The School of Athens is a misnomer that conceals Raphael’s broad vision of learning. Banners over the fresco, which was painted between 1509 and 1511 under the commission of Pope Julius II, read Causarum Cognitio, meaning “Seek Knowledge of Causes.” With that, Raphael seems to suggest that what unites the figures is neither an institution nor prestige, but a common quest for knowledge and wisdom (“knowing why,” as Aristotle put it). The work is not so much a glorification of the great thinkers of antiquity as an extolment of the process of learning itself.
Raphael conveys the life of the mind through physical activities. Nowadays, we tend to take this conception of intellectual engagement for granted; back in the early 16th century, however, it was revolutionary. According to Glenn W. Most in “Reading Raphael: The School of Athens and Its Pre-Text,” in the tradition of personifying the seven liberal arts in painting, philosophy had usually been portrayed as an idealized woman flanked by male philosophers. Though alluding to this tradition by painting an enthroned lady on a tondo above the fresco, Raphael separated her completely from the central scene, allowing Plato and Aristotle to dominate. While scholars have focused on the contrast and balance between Plato and Aristotle—everything from their hand gestures to the colors of their clothing—what impresses me the most is Raphael’s decision to emphasize not an idealized personification of knowledge, but ordinary mortals immersed in the process of seeking knowledge through demonstrating and debating.
In fact, while having fun identifying each figure, I was surprised at the pluralism and inclusiveness of Raphael’s vision of learning. By some counts, only a third of the figures hail from ancient Athens; others lived far beyond that time or place. Raphael even included thinkers from outside the Western canon, including Zoroaster, a prophet from ancient Persia, and Averroës, a medieval Islamic scholar and an interpreter of Aristotle’s philosophy.
These two figures also challenge the common understanding that the various thinkers can be neatly separated along the idealism-realism axis between Plato and Aristotle. Averroës was a brilliant physician, physicist, and astronomer, yet he is placed on the side of the idealist Plato, and is consulting Pythagoras, who is often associated with mysticism. Similarly, Zoroaster, who resembles an astrologer holding a celestial globe, represents the practice of studying the stars and planets in order to divine human affairs—thus blending heavenly and earthly studies. All of this seems to recognize the spirit of inquiry as being fully inclusive, crossing temporal, geographical, cultural, and disciplinary borders.
Inspiring as that vision of learning may be, I still wondered where the viewer fits in. Should we simply gaze upon these great figures with admiration for their relentless pursuit of knowledge? Robert Haas, in Raphael’s School of Athens: A Theorem in a Painting?, offers an edifying answer: “Raphael is here painting not a historical gathering, but a Renaissance library collection.” According to Haas, the philosophers personify their books. I find this interpretation intuitive, because the fresco was painted on a wall of the Stanza della Segnatura, then the pope’s personal library. It also hints at a greater truth about the study of classic books. To portray the great thinkers, Raphael employed illusionism, a technique that makes the figures appear to be in the same room as the viewer. Thus, the viewer becomes not simply a passive observer of preserved knowledge, but a participant in ongoing conversations that span countries and centuries.