Introduction: The School of Athens

I begin this course with one of my very favorite works of art, a painting called “The School of Athens.”

Raphael, The School of Athens (Wikimedia Commons)

This is a fresco by the Italian Renaissance artist Raffaello Sanzio (1483 – 1520), better known in English as Raphael. (Optional: The Wikipedia entry on Raphael – not to be confused with the archangel or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle – has biographical information and reproductions of many of his major works, including “The School of Athens.”)

Raphael painted “The School of Athens” between 1509 and 1511 for Pope Julius II. The work is part of a series of frescoes in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican in Rome. It depicts the great philosophers of the ancient world. These philosophers are almost all either Greek or Roman and from the period between 600 B.C. to A.D. 500. I want to use this painting to introduce three important points about the material we’ll be covering in this course.

THE FIRST POINT is that the study of the natural world was part of philosophy. It was a branch of philosophy called “natural philosophy.” Many of the people whose work we will study in this class considered themselves to be “philosophers.” (For example, Galileo and Newton called themselves natural philosophers.) The term “scientist” was not coined until the nineteenth century. Although there were no “scientists” (or nobody who called him or herself a scientist) until the nineteenth century, there was certainly lively interest in the natural world.

However, natural philosophy is not just what science was called before the modern period. Natural philosophy and science were fundamentally different endeavors. Natural philosophy was part of philosophy – the search for wisdom. The word philosophy comes from the Greek roots philo (love) and sophia (wisdom): philosophy is the love of wisdom. Philosophy, including natural philosophy, was supposed to make a person wiser and more virtuous. In Plato’s Republic, for example, he argued that astronomy “forces the mind to look upwards, away from this world of ours to higher things” (Plato, 247). In a Christian context, natural philosophy was often about the search for knowledge of the Divine Creator. At the end of the sixteenth century, the Lutheran astronomer Johannes Kepler declared that the study of the heavens revealed “the Creator’s most profound plan,” and should inspire “knowledge, love, and worship of the Creator” (Kepler, 225).


In Raphael’s “School of Athens,” we can find several figures who wrote, studied and taught about the natural world. The two central figures are Plato and Aristotle. Raphael placed them at the center of the composition because they were (and still are) considered to be two of the most influential figures in western intellectual history. Plato (427-347 BC) is the older man on the left. He carries copy of the Timaeus, his work on natural philosophy. In this book, he described the creation of the universe – the earth, animals, plants, and human beings – by a benevolent deity. Aristotle (384-322 BC) is the younger man on the right. He was a student of Plato, and he wrote extensively on natural philosophy. Whereas Plato wrote just one small book on natural philosophy (the Timaeus is less than 100 pages in modern translation), Aristotle wrote on a wide range of natural philosophical topics. He wrote books on physics (Physics), astronomy (On the Heavens), meteorology (Meteorology), and animals (The History of Animals, On the Motion of Animals, On the Parts of Animals, and On the Generation of Animals).  (Please note: the links in this paragraph are all OPTIONAL.  They are not part of your required reading.)


Raphael included the figures of Zoroaster and Ptolemy to represent the subjects of astronomy and geography. Zoroaster (ca. 628 – ca. 551 BC), an ancient Persian philosopher, holds a celestial sphere. Ptolemy (ca. 85 – 165), Greek living in Alexandria under Roman Empire, holds a terrestrial globe. Note that this ancient philosopher believed that the earth was spherical! As we will see, the notion that before Columbus everyone thought the world was flat is not true.  Ptolemy wrote on astronomy and astrology as well as on geography and cartography.

Raphael included the figures of Euclid and Pythagoras to represent mathematics and geometry. Euclid (300 BC), on the right, represents geometry. Pythagoras (569 – ca. 475 BC), on the left, represents mathematics.


THE SECOND POINT is that mathematics and geometry (and indeed natural philosophy) were associated with abstract reasoning, not with technical skills. Mathematics, geometry and astronomy were part of the traditional Seven Liberal Arts, a tradition going back to the ancient Romans. The Seven Liberal Arts were composed of the three literary arts (also known as the trivium) and the four mathematical arts (also known as the quadrivium). The subjects of the trivium were grammar, logic and rhetoric; the subjects of the quadrivium were mathematics, geometry, astronomy and music. The Seven Liberal Arts were the foundation of education, and a prerequisite for study in universities, all the way through the medieval and early modern periods. Most of the people we will study in this course were trained in the liberal arts before they turned to more specialized subjects.

The Seven Liberal Arts, Francesco Pesellino and Workshop, Italy, Florence about 1422 – 1457 Florence, Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama

The term “liberal arts” is derived from the Latin word liber, which means “free.” The liberal arts were those subjects appropriate for and restricted to free men, that is, men who did not have to work for a living and were thus free to devote themselves to intellectual and political life. In the ancient world, manual labor was done by slaves and non-citizens. In the ancient world, and indeed for the entire period covered by this course, intellectual work was valued above manual labor – including any kind of working with hands. There was, in fact, a sharp division between working with the mind and working with the hands. If you worked with your hands you were (by definition) not working with your mind, and vice versa. Abstract, pure knowledge was valued above practical skills and know-how.

Of course, there were men and women who had a great deal of practical understanding of the natural world. Without such practical know-how, there would have been no agriculture, no medicine, no building of roads, bridges, ships or churches. However, the skills and knowledge needed to plant crops, compound herbs into drug, and to build even elaborate structures like aqueducts or Gothic cathedrals were valued less than abstract, pure mathematics and geometry. One striking example of this devaluation of practical know-how is the ability of Roman engineers to make concrete that would set underwater, and that would withstand the constant buffeting of waves and corrosion of salt water. Many of these structures are still standing today, some 2000 years after they were built. This article from last year on The History Channel website describes how modern researchers, using sophisticated forms of chemical analysis, have begun to piece together the composition of this concrete and to understand how Roman engineers accomplished this remarkable feat. And another piece from this year on the Archaeology News Network describes modern scientific analyses of Roman concrete that have helped elucidate why the stuff has proved so durable.  Why don’t we already know how the Romans did this? Because the techniques were never written down (or, if they were, these texts were not preserved). This kind of knowledge of the natural world (what we might call “materials science”) was simply not seen as important enough to write down and preserve generation after generation. The works of Aristotle, Plato, and Euclid were.

One of the very interesting things about “The School of Athens” is that is was painted in a period when this sharp distinction between intellectual and manual work was beginning to break down. Practical skills and know-how, the ability to make and do things with natural knowledge, came to be much more highly regarded. One group of “manual laborers” that gained considerably more respect and intellectual standing in Raphael’s day were artists. We may not think of artists as “scientists” or as having knowledge of the natural world, but in the Renaissance painters, architects and sculptors were expected to know mathematics and geometry, anatomy and materials science. Painters had to be able to construct pictures using the mathematical technique of linear perspective. Architects needed to know geometry to design buildings. Painters and sculptors needed knowledge of anatomy to accurately portray the human body. And painters, sculptors and architects needed intimate knowledge of the natural materials (stone, wood, minerals for pigments, etc.) that they worked with. Raphael reflects these changes in the hierarchy of knowledge in “The School of Athens.”


Quite remarkably, Raphael painted HIMSELF among the great philosophers of the ancient world. There he is, just to the right of Ptolemy. The older man to Raphael’s right may be his teacher. Raphael is on the very edge of the painting, and indeed, artists were only just coming to be accepted as intellectuals in their own right, on par with philosophers. But he looks directly out at the viewer, a sign of pride and confidence.


Further, Raphael put a number of his artistic friends and colleagues in the painting. Look again at Plato – that’s a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519).


Look again at Euclid – that’s Raphael’s good friend the famous architect Donato Bramante (1444 – 1514).


And the gloomy figure in the left foreground? That’s the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus (535 – 475 B.C.), only he’s modeled after Michelangelo (1475 – 1564), who was painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the Vatican while Raphael was working on the Stanza della Segnatura.

Throughout the course we will look at range of motivations for studying the natural world. We will examine the work of people whose study of the heavens, earth and human body was motivated by a philosophical search for knowledge for its own sake – the pursuit of wisdom. And we will also look at more pragmatic motivations, including the need to predict and/or control natural phenomena. Of course, as we will see, some individuals were stimulated to investigate the world around them by a desire for BOTH wisdom and practical gain. Within each section of the course we move roughly chronologically, but also up and down hierarchy of knowledge. For example, in the first section of the course, on the heavens, we will look at attempts to understand the structure of the universe (a philosophical quest), as well as attempts to gauge the effects of the heavens on life on earth. This latter pursuit, astrology, was largely practical in nature.

THE THIRD POINT raised by the painting is chronology. This course is not arranged chronologically, so it is useful to have some sense of the time periods we will cover. When I use the term “antiquity,” I refer to the period between 500 B.C. and A.D. 500 (roughly from the rise of Greek city states to the end of Roman empire in the west). When I use the term “medieval” or “Middle Ages,” I refer to the period between 500 and about 1450. When I use the term “early modern,” I refer to the period between 1450 and 1800. This tripartite periodization is a creation of the early modern period. Indeed, Raphael’s painting participates in the construction of this particular division of historical eras. In Raphael’s day – a period known as the Renaissance – artists, writers, and philosophers looked back to the ancient world, the world of ancient Greece and Rome, as period of tremendous intellectual and artistic vitality. They saw the period from the decline and fall of the Roman Empire to the period immediately prior their own as a “Dark Age.” And they believed they were living in an age in which ancient culture was being reborn (“Renaissance” means rebirth). Raphael’s “School of Athens” represents this new view of history. The painting, which is full of philosophers from the ancient world, is suffused with light. The figures converse with one another in a building resembling an ancient temple. The building is open to the sky and sunlight bathes the figures and illuminates the whole scene. And remember that Raphael put himself in this painting, and gave several of the ancient philosophers the faces of his contemporaries. In so doing, he drew a connection between the world of the ancients and his own world, in which the glories of Greece and Rome were being recreated. Also note the presence of Hypatia of Alexandria (ca. 370 – ca. 415), the figure in white standing behind and to the right of Pythagoras. She is the one woman in the painting and she represents the end of ancient philosophy. Hypatia was a mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher. She was also a pagan and was brutally murdered by a Christian mob. Her death was frequently taken (in the Renaissance) as the end of the ancient world and the beginning of the “Dark Ages.”


As you might expect, medieval people divided history up differently! No one in 900 or 1200 believed he or she was living in a “Dark Age” or a “Middle Age.” But medieval people too divided history into ages of light and darkness. For them, the time before the birth (actually the conception) of Jesus Christ was the age of darkness, and the time after, the time in which they were living, was an age of light. Accordingly, it was in the Middle Ages that the practice of dividing time into B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini, which is Latin for “in the year of our Lord) was devised. (If you are interested in reading more about that, look here and here for biographies of the sixth-century monk Dionysius Exiguus (ca. 470 – ca. 544) who created this dating system.) Because we still talk about three historical period – antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the early modern period – and because we still use B.C. and A.D. (or B.C.E. and C.E.), we see the ongoing influence of both Renaissance thinkers like Raphael and his medieval predecessors.

ASSIGNMENT: Explore “The School of Athens” further on this website. There is a “clickable” version of the painting – identify some other figures in the composition. How many are familiar to you? Watch the video on this website on the composition and construction of the fresco (about 18 minutes) and read “The Mystery Surrounding the Fresco” about the inclusion of the late antique philosopher Hypatia.

Sources used:

Johannes Kepler, Mysterium Cosmographicum, trans. A. M. Duncan (Norwalk CT: Abaris Books, 1981).

David Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450, 2nd rev. ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

Plato, The Republic of Plato, translated with introduction and notes by Francis MacDonald Cornford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1945).

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