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.
Western Philosophy (Greek philosophia, “love of wisdom”), the rational and critical inquiry into basic principles. Philosophy is often divided into four main branches: metaphysics, the investigation of ultimate reality; epistemology, the study of the origins, validity, and limits of knowledge; ethics, the study of the nature of morality and judgment; and aesthetics, the study of the nature of beauty in the fine arts.
As used originally by the ancient Greeks, the term philosophy meant the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Philosophy comprised all areas of speculative thought and included the arts, sciences, and religion. As special methods and principles were developed in the various areas of knowledge, each area acquired its own philosophical aspect, giving rise to the philosophy of art, of science, and of religion. The term philosophy is often used popularly to mean a set of basic values and attitudes toward life, nature, and society—thus the phrase “philosophy of life.” Because the lines of distinction between the various areas of knowledge are flexible and subject to change, the definition of the term philosophy remains a subject of controversy.
Western philosophy from Greek antiquity to the present is surveyed in the remainder of this article. For information about philosophical thought in Asia and the Middle East, see Chinese Philosophy; Islam; Buddhism; Daoism (Taoism); Confucianism; Indian Philosophy.