Athenian philosophers seemed to me as if they never lived, but who knows…


murat ulker

Raphael was an Italian painter and one of the three most important figures of the Renaissance, along with Michelangelo and Da Vinci. He is a complete artist, that is, both a painter and an architect, as is often seen in the artists from that period.

Raphael’s father was also a painter, even first teaching his son the art, and when his father noticed his superior talent, he took him to Perugino, where he received his first important education. Raphael lost his family early; he lost his mother when he was 8 and his father when he was 11. He could paint perfectly by the age of 15, and at 17 he started painting at master level. At the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th century, it was a great success to be named a “master” at a young age in the art world during the period he lived. In time, he no longer fits in Urbino, the city where he was born and was living; at the age of 20, he goes to Florence to see works by Leonardo and Michelangelo. When he visited Leonardo’s workshop on this trip, he saw and was impressed by the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) that was there at the time. It is even said that this state of his, his long examination and visit of the painting attracted Leonardo’s attention and he asked “Raphael from Urbino?” In other words, even at that young age, his fame had exceeded the boundaries of his city and reached the most famous painters of the period (2).

Picture 1 Raphael Sanzio, Scuola di Atene (School of Athens), 500 cm × 770 cm, 1509-1511. The Apostolic Palace is located in the Vatican. Image taken from Wikipedia.

Now, if we turn to the work of the School of Athens; this work is a great homage to the corpus of philosophy and the history of thought. This work, which is a concrete example of the spirit of the Renaissance, features the most famous scientists and philosophers of the Ancient Greek period. Another important feature is: In the work, important names of those who built the Ancient Greek culture are depicted in a building within Ancient Roman architecture. Thus, two important elements that formed the basis of the Renaissance were brought together in this work. As a reflection of Greek Art, where the statues of Apollo on the right and Athena on the left are included, the scene gained a whole new life as the unique invention of Architect Filippo Brunelleschi’s perspective weave reinforces the sense of depth with successive arches.

Picture 2 Plato and Aristotle, School of Athens Detail

As for the names of the figures in the painting, right in the middle, in the center, are Plato and Aristotle, who are the most important names of the era and the history of philosophy. Plato, a student of Socrates, is also a teacher of Aristotle. Although there is a teacher/student relationship between them, they are representatives of different philosophical disciplines. The reflection of this situation in the picture is as follows; Plato is pointing upward, representing his idealistic philosophy; similar to saying that we should look for absolute reality in a world of ideas. Right next to him, Aristotle points to the ground, which is a reflection of his realist world of ideas; this seems to indicate that the material world, nature, is the source of knowledge. They each have a book in their hands; his dialogue Timeo (Timaeus) in Plato’s hand, Etica (Ethics) in Aristotle’s hand.

Speaking of Plato, to talk about his views on art and artists; according to Plato, the world of matter is not real, but a world of appearances, the beings we perceive with our senses are only copies of the Ideas. Since art imitates nature, artists/poets deal with appearances instead of facts/essences, that is, they make copies of copies and distance people from real truths. This is why Plato does not include poets in the ideal state (2).

According to Aristotle, art is an imitation, ‘mimesis’. The artist reflects the elements of nature, human relations, both what is and what can be. The artist reflects the object, that is, the matter he sees, by interpreting it. In this sense, Aristotle states that art is not just an imitation, but an action that goes beyond it and belongs to human beings. Aristotle, on the other hand, differs from Plato in his view of art. According to Aristotle, artists make up for the deficiencies in nature and repair the flaws in society (2). I wonder, which one do you think is right or which one do you feel close to?

In the work, we can see that Plato’s face is likened to Leonardo’s. This can be seen as a kind of salute/stance of respect. The face of Aristotle is depicted as Giuliano da Sangallo, a famous sculptor, and architect who lived in Italy during the Renaissance period.

Picture 3 Socrates, School of Athens Detail

Who the figures on the rest of the painting are, is not clearly stated, there is no complete synergy of understanding. However, if we start from the general acceptance over time; to the left of Plato and Aristotle, we see Socrates in green clothes. He is pictured while explaining something to the people around him by calculating with his fingers. Socrates did not leave any written work behind, all the information about him is from Plato. Socrates, one of the founders of Western philosophy, is also the founder of the dialectical system of thought. Saying “The unquestioned life is not worth living“, Socrates says in Plato’s Apology, “I tell you not to spend a single day without discussing the goodness” (3). What a valuable piece of advice that still applies. But it didn’t end well for him; the philosopher, who created environments for philosophical discussion by wandering around the city, was accused of confusing the minds of young Athenians and was killed with hemlock poison, refusing the exile he was sentenced to. For this reason, the fact that he is pictured in dialogue with those around him is an attribute to him.

Picture 4 Diogenes/Diogenes, School of Athens Detail

Just below Socrates’ feet, we see Diogenes sitting haphazardly on the stairs, holding a copper water bowl in one hand and papers in the other. Diogenes is a thinker who chooses to live on the streets, feeds on the wastes thrown in the garbage, and mostly does not prefer to dress, but wraps himself in dirty rags when he is dressed, and lives a bit of an anomaly. According to him, a rich and happy person lives in accordance with the rhythm of nature, is free from the traditions and customs of the society, and is content with little (4).

Picture 5 Pythagoras/Anaximander, School of Athens Detail

When we look at the bottom, we see Pythagoras, who recorded information on the tablet in front of him. Little is known about Pythagoras’ life, but he is believed to have been born on the island of Samos, off the Turkish coast. It is also said that he learned the principles of geometry on a trip to Egypt. He is the one who learned that the square of the hypotenuse, is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, which we all see in schools. Even numbers are good, odd numbers are bad, and the concept of justice is indicated by the number four. He was the first person to coin the term ‘philosophy’ and to apply the word ‘cosmos’ to the universe (3).

Just behind him, Anaximondros is pictured copying his notes into his notebook. On its upper left step, we see that Ibn Rushd is depicted. Ibn Rushd is a philosopher and a mathematician born in Andalusia (2). He also played a major role in his recognition with the Aristotle translations he made in the 12th century. The saying “Wherever we are, knowledge is our homeland, ignorance is a foreign place (3) is valid at all times.

Picture 6 Heraclitus, School of Athens Detail

In the center is Heraclitus, pictured sitting thoughtfully on the steps with his hand on his chin. He is probably the owner of the saying “you can’t bathe in the same river twice that we’ve all heard. What he means here is that the water flows and therefore the water we touch are is constantly changing; according to him, every object and thing is in a state of constant change. The face of Heraclitus is likened to the face of Michelangelo in this work. After the Da Vinci on Plato’s face, this appears as a second homage.

Picture 7 Hypatia, School of Athens Detail

Another remarkable name in the painting is Hypatia of Alexandria. Famous for her grace and beauty as well as her contributions to science, Hypatia is the daughter of the Alexandrian mathematician and philosopher Thenon (2).

Picture 8 Euclid (Euclid/Euclides), Athens School Detail

Below on the right, Euclid (Euclid/Euclides) is pictured making drawings on a wooden board with a compass in his hand for the crowd gathered around him with curiosity. In the description of Euclid, Donato Bramante, who has a very important place in shaping the history of art, is included (5).

And the last surprise is on the right side of the picture, Raphael added himself to the picture at the age of 26-27. He reflected himself as Apelles, one of the Ancient Greek painters.

The work is really impressive both by conveying the spirit of the Renaissance and respectfully giving place to the people of art and thought that have come up to that day.

Speaking of so many artists, let me mention a memory that is rumored to have passed between two famous artists of the period;

“One day, while Raphael was with his disciples, he met Michelangelo; Michelangelo said to hi: ‘You walk surrounded by an entourage like a general.’ ‘And you,’ responds Raphael: ‘You walk alone like an executioner.’ (5).

None of us can do things alone; we are moving forward with our surroundings in our own time, adding to a legacy that preceded us and gave us the chance to own what we own today. It seemed to me that the Athenian philosophers had never lived until I saw Raphael’s painting of the School of Athens, but who knows what it is, who is who?

So I mean this; the formation of history and the value we later attribute to it may not reflect the truth. This is because the hardest thing to get is the objective point of view. The judgments that we form by saying “he said”, “he said this”, “I understood it this way” and finally “I think it is so” become public knowledge and perception over time and call themselves objectivity. They are now “generally accepted facts”. This is called “inter-subjectivity” in social sciences. The origin of paradigms in social sciences is such assumptions (6). I would like to mention the word ‘mutawatir’ here. Mutawatir in theology and Fiqh method meaning ‘successive’ hadith refers to a report that claims the truthness of the text in itself while a large number of reporters, at different times that their agreement upon an untruth is inconceivable kept delivering, therefore it is accepted as unquestionable in itself. The condition of transmission within the framework of the conditions deemed necessary for such a report is also called ‘tawatur’ roughly meaning ‘broad authentication’. It is called as such because the reporters conveyed the news are not at the same time and together, but at different times and one after the other (7). I think the criterion of being (mutawatir) adopted by many uninterested people can well be used to justify events. Otherwise, official history becomes indistinguishable from accepted facts and believed dogmas (8). Isn’t it already proof of such a will that this imaginary painting made centuries later in the Renaissance period came into being, especially with the faces of the new era’s figures? It should not be difficult to guess which willpower for what purpose ordered and adopted this work! Right here, I would like to quote from the conclusion section of Necati Demir’s Turkish article titled ‘Some Thoughts on the Origin of Philosophical Thoughts’ (9):

“Western Civilization has developed on a triple pillar. Since its rational front, Greek thought, expansionist worldview, Roman pragmatism, and the fanatical front is equipped with Christian crusader ideology, it turns into a six-fold charismatic structure. The sharpness of its expansionist policy, technological superiority, the unpopularity of its pure rationalism, the Christian spirituality and the bigotry of the Christian crusaders are tried to be eliminated with its humanist packaging. This hexagonal demeanor of the West is vital in maintaining its popularity in any location and time. For this reason, Greek philosophy, one of the main dynamics of Western Civilization, had to be protected, even though scientific data revealed that it was not as original as it was thought. However, the discovery of scientific data in Egypt and Mesopotamia as a result of anthropological and ethnological studies and philosophical data in India invalidatedthe scientific and rational side of the term “Greek miracle”. Because it is necessary to explain the qualifications and judgments of each field with the concepts and idioms of that field. The concept of miracle is related to religion, the emergence of philosophical effort is a social event. How can the source of social events be tried to be reduced to a religious concept in the scientific context? It may have been a respected assessment in the era before anthropological and ethnological research on the Middle East, Anatolian, and Indian civilizations, which was firmly believed to be impossible, was put forward. The argument that such a mistake was made as a result of the inability to hide the astonishment with the emergence of a social phenomenon does not sound convincing.

As stated above, western social theorists may have seen the dissemination of the term ‘Greek miracle’ as necessary for the future of western civilization, but the question arises of how Western thought, which is based on rationality, feeds good attitudes to this irrational idiom. We do not know if there is a reasonable answer to this question for now. Despite all these contradictory documents and findings, the insistence of most western cultural historians on the term ‘Greek miracle’ is still incomprehensible. ‘The truth is that the Greeks were the inventors of a certain formalism. In order to bring order to thought and continuity to action, they have compiled methods of reasoning that have no analogs,’ says Henry Dumery, making the most reasonable and realistic determination on this subject. The more erroneous, biased, and inconsistent the views defending that the Greeks are the inventors of all kinds of knowledge and wisdom; (religion, philosophy, science, art, morality, and law), the more wrong and biased the thought that the cultural accumulation they contributed to civilization is just Greek nonsense. It is the result of an attitude. For Greek philosophy, the descriptions of “Greek miracle” like the praise of praise or “Greek nonsense” like the satire of satire are biased, subjective, and unserious, far from any moderation. Greek culture was influenced by Egypt and Mesopotamia in science, by Anatolian cults in religion and also by Indian thought in philosophy. But the ability to use them as materials and add their own cement to the establishment of Greek civilization is an honor of the Ancient Greeks. Western civilization is shaped around the helmet of Greek thought, not Indian thought. However, the failure of western social theorists to respect scientific dishonesty is the sad part of the problem. Otherwise, science is the property of every segment that demands it. To the extent that contributions to scientific studies and civilization are honorable, it is repulsive to consider them worthy of anyone other than ourselves or to try to hide and conceal the truth.”

For this controversial situation that still continues, I would say that the new materialist and rational western thought’s leaning on the ancient Greek mythology and glorifying the ancient Greek philosophers and even including the Andalusian scholars of that period were probably seeking to gain objectivity. Otherwise, they would either live under the rule of the church as a Christian or surrender to the last updated version of the Islamic creed. At best, the last option would be to return to the stories of ancient Israel. The old/new testament stories found together in the present holy book of the West, Bible were probably the manifestation of this.

A similar situation is seen in many branches and stages of art. In addition to fine arts, this is obvious in literature, song lyrics, and cinema. It would be naïve to think that the actions that create these currents, which create a great economy while shaping and entertaining the visions of the future that make up the thoughts of humanity will happen spontaneously. Of course, this should not lead us to the assumption that we are under the dominance of conspiracy theories. There is no need for anyone to lead us into disaster scenarios because we are so cruel to ourselves anyway…

Don’t ask where it came from, but I have a similar fictional expectation for sports. For example, football contains a large betting economy that cannot be left to the efforts of 11×2 young players in 90 minutes. Especially when the ball is round… Greek philosophy is not just Greek philosophy, and football is not just football, you see…

I hope all of our lives will be surrounded by “well-intentioned” efforts that respect the past and our differences, increase the value and fertility of the present, and sow good seeds for the future.

Generally Accepted Names Table:

1: Zeno of Cyprian 2: Epicurus Picture of two philosophers, probably typical of the Renaissance period: Heraclitus the “weeping” philosopher and Democritus the “laughing” philosopher 3: The person thought to be Raphael 4: Boethius or Anaximander or Empedocles 5: Averroe, Ibn Rushd 6: Pythagoras 7: Alcibiades or Alexander the Great 8: Antisthenes, Xenophon or Timon 9: Hypatia 10: Aeschines or Xenophon 11: Parmenides 12: Socrates 13: Heraclitus with the face of Michelangelo 14: Plato with the face of Leonardo da Vinci 15: Aristotle with the face of Giuliano da Sangallo 16: Diogenes 17: Plotinus or Donatello 18: Euclid and his Disciples 19: Strabo or Zoroaster, Baldassare Castiglione 20: Ptolemy R: Apelles, Raphael 21: Protogenes (1)

Note: This article is open source and can be cited by mentioning the author. Does not require copyright.



2. Umberto Eco, Umberto Eco ile sanat (Art with Umberto Eco), Destek Publications, 2019

3. Felsefe Kitabı (Philosophy Book), Alfa Publications, 2011

4. Prof. Macit Gokberk, Felsefe Tarihi (History of Philosophy), Remzi Bookstore, 2008

5. Celil Loyal, Uygarlıgın Ayak Izleri Ronesans’tan Barok Donem’e Sanat Dehaları (Footprints of Civilization Art Geniuses from the Renaissance to the Baroque Era), Epsilon, 2020.

6. Babie, E. (2021). The Practice of Social Research, Cengage Learning.


8. Aktay, A. (2018). Tarih Araştirmalarinin ve Tarih Yaziminin Onundeki Temel Sorunlar, Sosyal ve Kulturel Arastırmalar Dergisi (Basic Problems Before Historical Studies and Historiography, Journal of Social and Cultural Studies), V.4, p.7. pgs. .57-71.

9. Demir, N. (1998). Felsefenin Mensei ;Uzerine Bazı Dusunceler, Cumhuriyet Universitesi Ilahiyat Fakultesi Dergisi, (Some Thoughts on the Origin of Philosophy, Journal of Cumhuriyet University Faculty of Theology), p.2, pgs.383-407