Raphael’s School of Athens
The School of Athens (1510-1511) by Italian Renaissance painter Raphael adorns a room in the Vatican Palace. The artist depicts several philosophers of classical antiquity and portrays each with a distinctive gesture, conveying complex ideas in simple images. In the center of the composition, Plato and Aristotle dominate the scene. Plato points upward to the world of ideas, where he believes knowledge lies, whereas Aristotle holds his forearm parallel to the earth, stressing observation of the world around us as the source of understanding. In addition, Raphael draws comparisons with his illustrious contemporaries, giving Plato the face of the Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci, and Heraclitus, who rests his elbow on a large marble block, the face of the Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo. Euclid, bending down at the right, resembles the Renaissance architect Bramante. Raphael paints his own portrait on the young man in a black beret at the far right. In accordance with Renaissance ideas, artists belong to the ranks of the learned and the fine arts have the stature and merit of the written word.
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Greek Philosophy, body of philosophical concepts developed by the Greeks, particularly during the flowering of Greek civilization between 600 and 200 bc. Greek philosophy formed the basis of all later philosophical speculation in the Western world. The intuitive hypotheses of the ancient Greeks foreshadowed many theories of modern science, and many of the moral ideas of pagan Greek philosophers have been incorporated into Christian moral doctrine. The political ideas set forth by Greek thinkers influenced political leaders as different as the framers of the U.S. Constitution and the founders of various 20th-century totalitarian states.
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THE IONIAN SCHOOL
Greek philosophy may be divided between those philosophers who sought an explanation of the world in physical terms and those who stressed the importance of nonmaterial forms or ideas. The first important school of Greek philosophy, the Ionian or Milesian, was largely materialistic. Founded by Thales of Miletus in the 6th century bc, it began with Thales' belief that water is the basic substance out of which all matter is created. A more elaborate view was offered by Anaximander, who held that the raw material of all matter is an eternal substance that changes into the commonly experienced forms of matter. These forms in turn change and merge into one another according to the rule of justice, that is, balance and proportion. Heraclitus taught that fire is the primordial source of matter, but he believed that the entire world is in a constant state of change or flux and that most objects and substances are produced by a union of opposite principles. He regarded the soul, for example, as a mixture of fire and water. The concept of nous (“mind”), an infinite and unchanging substance that enters into and controls every living object, was developed by Anaxagoras, who also believed that matter consisted of infinitesimally small particles, or atoms. He epitomized the philosophy of the Ionian school by suggesting a nonphysical governing principle and a materialistic basis of existence.
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PYTHAGORAS, THE ELEATIC SCHOOL, AND THE SOPHISTS
The division between idealism and materialism became more distinct. Pythagoras stressed the importance of form rather than matter in explaining material structure. The Pythagorean school also laid great stress on the importance of the soul, regarding the body only as the soul's “tomb.” According to Parmenides, the leader of the Eleatic school, the appearance of movement and the existence of separate objects in the world are mere illusions; they only seem to exist. The beliefs of Pythagoras and Parmenides formed the basis of the idealism that was to characterize later Greek philosophy.
A more materialistic interpretation was made by Empedocles, who accepted the belief that reality is eternal but declared that it is composed of chance combinations of the four primal substances: fire, air, earth, and water. Such materialistic explanations reached their climax in the doctrines of Democritus, who believed that the various forms of matter are caused by differences in the shape, size, position, and arrangement of component atoms. Materialism applied to daily life inspired the philosophy of a group known as the Sophists, who were active in the 5th century bc. With their stress on the importance of human perception, such Sophists as Protagoras doubted that humanity would ever be able to reach objective truth through reason and taught that material success rather than truth should be the purpose of life.
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Socrates, an influential philosopher of ancient Greece, never took notes on his own teachings; rather the notes of his pupils, including Plato, are the only record of his work. Socrates championed the ideal of reason and required that people act in accordance with their reasoned values. His criticism of injustice in Athenian society led to his prosecution for corrupting the youth of Athens. True to his principles, Socrates refused the opportunity to recant his criticisms and accepted the death sentence passed at his trial. Despite his followers’ plans for his escape, he died in confinement, calmly drinking a lethal dose of hemlock, in 399 bc.
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In contrast were the ideas of Socrates, with whom Greek philosophy attained its highest level. His avowed purpose was “to fulfill the philosopher's mission of searching into myself and other men.” After a proposition had been stated, the philosopher asked a series of questions designed to test and refine the proposition by examining its consequences and discovering whether it was consistent with the known facts. Socrates described the soul not in terms of mysticism but as “that in virtue of which we are called wise or foolish, good or bad.” In other words, Socrates considered the soul a combination of an individual's intelligence and character.
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PLATO AND ARISTOTLE
Plato, one of the most famous philosophers of ancient Greece, was the first to use the term philosophy, which means “love of knowledge.” Born around 428 bc, Plato investigated a wide range of topics. Chief among his ideas was the theory of forms, which proposed that objects in the physical world merely resemble perfect forms in the ideal world, and that only these perfect forms can be the object of true knowledge. The goal of the philosopher, according to Plato, is to know the perfect forms and to instruct others in that knowledge.
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The idealism of Socrates was organized by Plato into a systematic philosophy. In his theory of Ideas, Plato regarded the objects of the real world as being merely shadows of eternal Forms or Ideas. Only these changeless, eternal Forms can be the object of true knowledge; the perception of their shadows, that is, the real world as heard, seen, and felt, is merely opinion. The goal of the philosopher, he said, is to know the eternal Forms and to instruct others in that knowledge.
Plato's theory of knowledge is implicit in his theory of Ideas. He argued that both the material objects perceived and the individual perceiving them are constantly changing; but, since knowledge must be concerned only with unchangeable and universal objects, knowledge and perception are fundamentally different.
In place of Plato's doctrine of Ideas with a separate and eternal existence of their own, Aristotle proposed a group of universals that represent the common properties of any group of real objects. The universals, unlike Plato's Ideas, have no existence outside of the objects they represent. Closer to Plato's thought was Aristotle's definition of form as a distinguishing property of objects, but with an independent existence apart from the objects in which it is found. Describing the material universe, Aristotle stated it consists of the four elements, fire, air, earth, and water, plus a fifth element that exists everywhere and is the sole constituent of the heavenly bodies “above” the moon.
In the writings of Plato and Aristotle the dominant strains of idealism and materialism in Greek philosophy reached, respectively, their highest expression, producing a body of thought that continues to influence philosophical inquiry. Subsequent Greek philosophy, reflecting a historical period of civil unrest and individual insecurity, was less concerned with the nature of the world than with the problems in the individual. During this period four major schools of largely materialistic, individualistic philosophy arose: that of the Cynics, and those espousing Epicureanism, Skepticism, and Stoicism. For a detailed history of these and earlier schools, see Philosophy.
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