Raphael's School of Athens: The Big Picture
Emil A. Kramer (Augustana College)
My presentation reveals what I believe is the biggest of the "big picture" ways to understand Raphael's famous fresco known commonly as the School of Athens. My argument is quite simple: the artist's composition perfectly reflects the paradigm of education set forth in Book 7 of Plato's Republic.
Book 7 of Plato's Republic begins with an elaborate tale that is sometimes called the “Allegory of the Cave” (Republic, 514a–521b). The "Allegory of the Cave" depicts education as a journey from the shadows of the Cave into the light of the Sun, with the caveat that those who have glimpsed the Sun must return to the Cave to assist those still trapped therein. Socrates goes on, then, in the remainder of Book 7, to describe the sort of education that might effect such a journey from the Shadows to the Light. Students should begin, Socrates tells us, with the study of simple mathematics (522c–526c). The next step is the study of plane (two dimensional) geometry (526c–527d), and the third—at least initially—is the study of astronomy (527d–528a). But at this point Socrates suggests that he has made a misstep—the study of solid (three dimensional) geometry should come before that of astronomy. So, solid geometry (528b–e) becomes the third step, and astronomy (528b–531b) the fourth. The sort of study of astronomy that Socrates has in mind, however, is not the sort that focuses on the heavenly bodies, “the way astronomy is done at the moment” (530c), but rather the sort that attempts to ascertain, in accordance with the Pythagorean school (530d), the mysteries of “astronomical motion” and the harmony of the spheres, with a close attunement of the sciences of harmonics and astronomy (e.g., 530d: “These may well be in some sense sister sciences”). But, all of this is “merely the prelude” (531d). The final stage of a student's education will be in the dialectical method (531d–541b).
The design of Raphael's masterpiece adheres rather closely to the paradigm of education described in Book 7 of the Republic (my apologies to the reader for the lack of visual aids here). In the foreground, at the lowest level of the composition, we find students studying, on the right, plane geometry, the first stage in Plato's paradigm. Next to them and standing, at the far right, are figures who have always been associated, because of the globes they hold, with astronomy—an interesting nod to Socrates own (seeming) misstep in placing the study of astronomy before solid geometry; the artist grasps Plato's point: the study of “simple” astronomy, which involves basic knowledge of the heavenly bodies, may precede the study of solid geometry and higher astronomy. The next step in Plato's paradigm of education finds itself, again, quite perfectly depicted in the School of Athens. On the lower level still, but on the left, we find Pythagoras, whose school Plato mentions by name at this point in his paradigm. He is writing in a book and looking at a tablet held before him by one of his pupils; this tablet has written upon it in Greek, in schematic form, the harmonic ratios that Pythagoreans believed to be the key to the "music of the spheres". Having completed this “prelude,” a student progresses up the stairs to the final stage of his education: dialectics. As the student makes his way up the stairs an anonymous figure points him towards Plato and Aristotle, the masters who will introduce him to two different understandings of dialectics: one, the theoretical approach advocated by Plato, seeks knowledge of things that cannot be perceived by the senses—hence Plato points up toward things beyond the visible world; the other, the more practical approach advocated by Aristotle, deals more with the things of this world—hence Aristotle's downward gesture to the world in front of him. The figures on the highest level with Plato and Aristotle, we may therefore conclude, are engaged in dialectics.
The School of Athens shows its debt to Book 7 of Plato's Republic in another way which, again, quite precisely reflects its source of inspiration. The semi-circular architectural setting for the School of Athens, called in Italian a grottesco (“little cave”), a common architectural frame for many Renaissance works, takes on added significance in the School of Athens. Here, its cave-like frame reminds us of the “Allegory of the Cave” that opens Book 7 of the Republic, and so also of the ascent from shadow to light which is Plato's allegory of education. The path through the two vaults behind Plato and Aristotle leads to a view of blue sky and clouds—a stunningly brilliant blue in Raphael's fresco that contrasts remarkably with the shadows of the coffered ceilings of the vaults. Clearly, we have here the mouth of the Cave which leads to the light of the Sun. That Plato and Aristotle seem to be walking into the Cave reflects the injunction at the end of the “Allegory” that philosophers must not be allowed to spend their lives gazing at the Sun, but must return to those imprisoned in the Cave. That the Sun itself is not visible—only its light—reflects the overall message of Plato's philosophy: we must strive to see what is real, even though we can never actually do so while we live in the material world.
As my presentation will naturally require slides, I request twenty rather than fifteen minutes.