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Tuesday 23 August 2011

The School of Athens

The School of Athens is one of the huge frescoes painted by Raphael (1483–1520) in the Vatican's Stanza della Segnatura. It's always been one of my favourite paintings, and I knew the two central figures were meant to be Plato and Aristotle... but I've only recently discovered that many of the other figures represent real people as well. These include a number of philosophers, some of them contemporary with Plato and Aristotle, and others not! I've labelled these in the image below (click to enlarge), followed by a summary of their Fortean credentials.

From a Fortean point of view, Aristotle was one of the bad guys, because he invented the Law of the Excluded Middle so beloved of skeptics. Forteans, like the inhabitants of A.E. van Vogt's The World of Null-A, are non-Aristotelians (that's what Null-A means). In contrast, Plato was one of the good guys, since he emphasized the distinction between the world perceived by the senses and the reality that underlies it. Raphael's figure of Plato was modelled on Leonardo da Vinci, who was 58 when the picture was painted in 1510. I suspect Raphael rated Plato more highly than Aristotle, too, since the latter is gesturing downwards into the gutter while Plato is pointing up towards the sky!

It was Plato, of course, who produced the first detailed accounts of Atlantis, in his Timaeus and Critias. In those works, the history and geography of the "lost continent" are described by a character named Critias, in conversation with Plato's teacher Socrates... who is also shown in the painting, together with a group of his students including Antisthenes and Aeschines.

The core "School of Athens", comprising the great Athenian philosophers of the fourth and fifth centuries BC, stretch from the Socrates group on the left to Aristotle and his students (labelled "Peripatetics") on the right. Somewhat apart from the main crowd (in real life as well as in the painting) is Diogenes, who was the archetypal cynic. Although he was a contemporary of Aristotle, he had as little as possible to do with him. It's probably fair to describe Diogenes as an eccentric. On one occasion he was seen masturbating publicly in the middle of a marketplace, and was quoted as saying "If only I could satisfy my stomach as easily by rubbing it in the same fashion."

The figures around the edges of the picture (if the traditional attributions are correct) are a bit of a mish-mash both chronologically and geographically. The only one connected to the Athenian School (albeit somewhat later than the others) is Epicurus, who is standing in the left foreground. Epicurus was a materialistic hedonistic atheist, but unlike most materialistic hedonistic atheists, he's mentioned in the Bible. Saint Paul met some of his followers on his visit to Athens, as described in Acts 17:18.

The earliest philosopher depicted is Zoroaster (standing in the group on the right of the picture). Zoroaster wasn't even a Greek -- he was a Persian. He founded the dualistic religion of Zoroastrianism, which Philip K. Dick considered one of the major precursors of Gnosticism. It forms the basis of his early novel The Cosmic Puppets -- and later on, in his masterpiece VALIS, Zoroaster is described as the "first Saviour".

Another group that greatly influenced Philip K. Dick were the "pre-Socratics"... Greek-speaking philosophers from Ionia, in what is now modern-day Turkey. The most famous pre-Socratic was Pythagoras, who is pictured writing in the left foreground. Pythagoras is best known for his mathematical theorem, although he was a teacher of more esoteric subjects as well. In fact, the very word "esoteric" was originally coined in 1701 to describe the secret teachings of Pythagoras, as opposed to his public or "exoteric" teachings.

Other pre-Socratics, clustered around Pythagoras in the picture, include Anaximander, Heraclitus and Parmenides. The latter two feature prominently in VALIS, and also in PKD's non-fiction essay "How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later". Dick saw both Heraclitus and Parmenides as important precursors of Gnosticism, along with Zoroaster. In Raphael's painting, the figure of Heraclitus is modelled on Michelangelo, who at the time was working a few corridors away on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. This may or may not have been meant as a compliment to Heraclitus, since Raphael and Michelangelo didn't get on very well together!

Also in the Pythagorean group, and mentioned in Dick's essay, is Anaxagoras -- who is also reputed to have coined the word "panspermia". Well, maybe he did, but I doubt whether he was thinking of microbes falling to earth in meteorites... since I don't think anyone in those days was aware of the existence of either microbes or meteorites!

Unfortunately, the "Zeno" depicted on the far left of the painting is probably Zeno of Citium, who is far less interesting than his namesake Zeno of Elea. The latter was a pre-Socratic who was famous for his paradoxes... including one which proves that any kind of motion is impossible! Philip K. Dick featured Zeno's Paradox in his 1953 short story "The Indefatigable Frog".

Moving forward to the post-Athenian period, the centre of learning in the Graeco-Roman world shifted to Alexandria in Egypt. Two of the early Alexandrians, Euclid and Ptolemy (both in the right foreground), are - like Aristotle - more famous for being wrong than anything else. Euclid believed space was flat, which it isn't, and Ptolemy believed the Sun went round the Earth, which it doesn't. Sadly, their views held sway for more than a thousand years before they were proved wrong.

A less well-known figure from Alexandria was Plotinus, who is shown standing on the right of the picture. During the third century AD he developed a system called neoplatonism, which was probably as close as Western philosophy ever got to Eastern mysticism... complete with enlightenment through meditation and oneness with the World Soul.

A later disciple of neoplatonism, also from Alexandria, was Hypatia -- pictured over on the left with the pre-Socratics, even though she lived almost a thousand years after them. As well as being a mystic, Hypatia was a pagan and a female -- a dangerous combination in the early days of Christianity. A mystical, pagan female... she must be a witch! Inevitably, Hypatia met her death in 415 AD at the hands of a lynch mob -- arguably the first ever victim of a witch-hunt.

Traditionally, Hypatia's death marks the end of classical civilization and the beginning of the Dark Ages. There is a gap of 750 years until the next person pictured -- a mediaeval scholar named Averroes, who is looking over the shoulder of Pythagoras. Born in the Islamic part of Spain, Averroes was one of the first people to rehabilitate the works of Greek philosophy and translate them into Latin. The picture on the left is one of Raphael's preliminary sketches for the painting... but it amused me because it looks like something from a pulp magazine, or one of those old black-and-white comics like Savage Sword of Conan!


Anonymous said...


I love the quote about Diogenes' mastabatory antics!

I also love where you have placed the caption of his name in your picture. Give his pose in the picture and the position of his left shoulder, it looks like you have placed his name tag to censor another mastabatory episode.

A funny happenstance!


Andrew May said...

Paul - thanks for the comment. The caption placement must have been unconscious genius on my part... I had no idea until you pointed it out, but it really does look like he's at it again!

Did you get the e-mail I sent you about the Weird Weekend, by the way? I hope another e-mail hasn't gone missing.


Anonymous said...


I did indeed get it, I just have not got around to replying yet!


machi4velli said...

"Euclid and Ptolemy (both in the right foreground), are - like Aristotle - more famous for being wrong than anything else."

This made me so sad.

"Flat space" has so many useful purposes. Sure, it's not accurate for physical space (though it is effectively accurate on scales outside the very small and very large), but the use of Euclidean space is used in many many mathematical models of all sorts of things. Plus, metric spaces emerged as a generalization of Euclidean space, and they actually are rather convenient for large-scale physical space (e.g. the Minkowski spacetime, which models for special relativity).

Plus, Euclid offered the first known axiomatic proofs, which have dominated mathematics ever since! The thing that changed was that Euclid treated them as truths whereas current mathematicians consider them as convenient assumptions for a particular class of problems.

Sorry for the rant, I love the picture, and have a print on my wall and was interested to understand who beyond the most famous (or mathematical) the philosophers were. I appreciate the summary.

Andrew May said...

Thanks for making a very valid point! As I hope you realise, my comment was tongue-in-cheek and not meant to be taken too seriously. You are quite right that the modern world owes a lot to Euclid.... And to Aristotle and Ptolemy for that matter. They may not have been spot on in terms of modern understanding, but they were way ahead of their contemporaries and shaped future knowledge for centuries to come. And as you say, most of what Euclid did is still completely valid in the world of everyday experience.