Saturday, November 13, 2010

Philosophy and Theology in Raphael's "Stanza della Segnatura"

In his book God and Morality: A Philosophical History (2009), John Hare argues that morality is impossible without religious belief--particularly, some kind of theism. In developing his reasoning, he tries to show the importance of theism for the moral philosophy of Aristotle, Duns Scotus, ImmanuelKant, and R. M. Hare. In doing that, he criticizes me for not seeing the theism in Aristotle's teaching. I have responded to this criticism in a previous post.

Hare also argues in this book that Raphael's frescoes in the Stanza della Segnatura--particularly, the School of Athens and La disputa del sacramento--illustrate his view of the relationship between Greek philosophy and Christian theology.

A good website for viewing these frescoes can be found here.

Since I have long been fascinated by Raphael's frescoes, I would like to offer an alternative reading of Raphael's artistic rhetoric in these frescoes. I will lay out my thinking in four steps. First, I will raise four general questions. Second, I will offer a brief survey of the frescoes in their political, philosophical, and theological circumstances. Third, I will summarize Hare's interpretation. Finally, I will answer the general questions, while also answering Hare.

There are at least four general questions that we might raise about Raphael's frescoes.

1. How do we judge the rhetorical persuasiveness of a painting as a visual argument?

2. Can such painting teach us something that we could not learn in any other way? Or is painting at best only an illustration of ideas derived from intellectual activity outside of the art of the painting?

3. How persuasive is Raphael's visual argument about Greek philosophy?

4. How persuasive is Raphael's visual argument about the relationship of Greek philosophy to Christian theology?

Raphael arrived in Rome in 1508 at the age of 25. The frescoes were painted between 1508 and 1511. These were originally designed to adorn the walls of the personal library for Pope Julius II. It is unlikely that Raphael's education in philosophy and theology was extensive enough for him to design the Stanza della Segnatura by himself. He probably followed a program designed for him by a humanist scholar. Hare thinks this was Egidio da Viterbo, a prominent orator and Augustinian in the papal court. But I think Christiane Joost-Gaugier makes a good case--in Raphael's Stanza della Segnatura (2002)--that Raphael's program was designed by Tommasio Inghirami, the papal librarian. In any case, whoever helped Raphael was deeply influenced by the Renaissance humanist thought of Pico della Mirandola, Marsilio Ficino, and other Christian Platonists who were trying to unify Platonic philosophy and Christian theology.

Julius II was Pope from 1503 to 1513. He was one of the Renaissance popes during the period of moral and political corruption in the Vatican that provoked the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses to the door of the Church at Wittenburg in 1517. The gross decadence of the Church became especially apparent with the pope before Julius--Alexander VI, the father of Cesare Borgia, who turned the Vatican into a personal source of wealth, power, and mistresses.

One dramatic example of those calling for moral and religious reform of the Church was Girolama Savonarola, a Dominican friar in Florence. His sermons moved the Florentines to establish a Christian Republic. But when he called for a Church Council that would remove the Pope, because he was no longer a true Christian, the Pope excommunicated him and demanded that he be punished. In 1498, he was hanged and burned. He thus became Machiavelli's best example of an "unarmed prophet" who was ruined because he relied on religious belief without military power to enforce his religion.

Julius II came to power with the promise of reforming the Church, but he never fulfilled his promises. He was preoccupied with expanding the political power of the Papacy by fighting wars to secure the power of the Papal States in Italy, which brought factional violence to his fellow Christians.

Machiavelli spoke of Julius as showing "impetuosity and fury" in his military leadership (Discourses, III.9). He was also impressed by Julius's boldness in removing Giovampagolo Baglioni as tyrant of Perugia so that he could replace him with a ruler who would support the Vatican. Julius showed his furious courage in walking into Perugia with his Cardinals, but with only a single guard. Baglioni could have killed the Pope and all his Cardinals. Baglioni was a vicious man who had murdered his relatives and taken his sister as his incestuous lover, but, amazingly, he did not dare to kill the Pope, and he allowed the Pope to lead him away. For Machiavelli, this illustrates how "very rarely do men know how to be altogether wicked or altogether good." Baglioni was wicked, but not wicked enough to secure the glory that would have come from killing the Pope (Discourses, I.27).

Machiavelli lamented that the "wicked examples" of the Papal court had destroyed the Roman religion by not preserving the religion as established by Jesus, and this had ruined Italy by depriving it of its religious support for political order (Discourses, I.12).

In this situation, Raphael's art became a tool of papal propaganda in promoting the glorious display of Julius's grandeur.

The ceiling of the Stanza della Segnatura is divided into patterns of four (a divine number for the Pythagoreans--four elements, four directions, etc.). Over the four walls of the room are four female personifications of philosophy, poetry, jurisprudence, and theology, which indicate the four divisions in the books of the library. Over the School of Athens, the motto is "knowledge of causes." Over the Disputa, the motto is "knowledge of divine things."

The School of Athens represents philosophy on the east wall, while on the west wall, the Disputa represents theology.

The perspectival center of the School of Athens highlights Plato and Aristotle, posed so as to suggest that they are opposed to one another--Plato being more "vertical," while Aristotle is more "horizontal"--and yet the balanced symmetry of the painting suggests that they are complementary sides of the same dualistic reality.

In the center of the Disputa, the Host is at the center of the Eucharist.

Some of the human figures in the paintings are easily identified, but many are not. There are 44 books in the paintings, some clearly identified by their titles, while others are untitled.

Plato's vertical gesture seems to be fulfilled by the vertical movement in the Disputa from the Host through the Holy Spirit dove to Jesus to God the Father and the highest Heaven--as if to suggest that the ascent to Heaven and return to God is the fulfillment of Platonic philosophy.

The Church's theologians had been divided over Plato and Aristotle. Among many of the early Church fathers--especially, Augustine--Plato was seen as the pagan philosopher who foreshadowed Christian theology by his teaching that philosophy was a contemplative activity of ascent to the divine. Plato's Timaeus was combined with the Bible to support the Cosmic Model of the Middle Ages ("The Great Chain of Being").

Aristotle's writings were largely lost in medieval Christendom. But in the 13th century, Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas led a revival of interest in Aristotle.

Renaissance philosophers like Pico della Mirandola argued for Plato and Aristotle as unified in their complementarity--Plato stressing the immortal side of human beings as contemplators of the divine, while Aristotle stressed the mortality of human beings as embodied animals. Christianity could then be seen as the fulfillment of Greek philosophy through the incarnation of Jesus and the ascent to Heavenly contemplation of God.

Hare uses his interpretation of the Stanza della Segnatura to support his argument for a divine command theory of morality. He claims that we need to bridge the "moral gap" in our experience: we have an intuition of our moral duty, but we are unable to fulfill that duty without God's assistance.

For Hare, the School of Athens suggests the theistic longings of the Greek philosophers, which unites Plato and Aristotle. Plato's theological cosmology in the Timaeus is echoed in Book 10 of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, where the highest human life is said to be the contemplative beholding of the divine.

According to Hare, this theistic morality and philosophy of the Greeks finds its completion in Christian theism. Christian theism as depicted in the Disputa improves upon Greek philosophic theism in three ways. First, the two semicircles in the Disputa depict a clear separation between the supernatural and the natural realms. Second, we see that God cares for human beings and moves toward them through the Son and the Holy Spirit. Third, what we see most clearly is Jesus as the visibly incarnate union of the divine and human.

Here's how I would answer the four general questions.

1. How do we judge the rhetorical persuasiveness of a painting as a visual argument?

We might consider painting as employing the rhetorical technique of metaphor--an artistic "likeness" of something. Then we would have to judge the truthfulness of the "likeness."

Don't we often see visual metaphors in philosophic texts? Consider, for example, Plato's "divided line" and his image of the cave in the Republic or his "ladder of love" in the Symposium.

In the case of Raphael's frescoes, we have visual references to many philosophers and theologians, and so we can judge the accuracy of these references.

We also have references to 44 books, some of which are clearly identified--Plato's Timaeus, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Euclid's Elements, Augustine's City of God, the Bible, and others. So we can judge the plausibility of how these texts are presented. (Books became especially important in the Renaissance because of the new technology of printing presses.)

2. Can painting teach us something that we could not learn in any other way? Or is painting at best only an illustration of ideas derived from intellectual activity outside of the art of painting?

I'm not sure how to answer this question. But it does seem hard to me to see how painting teaches us anything that we couldn't learn from other sources.

3. How persuasive is Raphael's visual argument about Greek philosophy?

Raphael's depiction of the relationship between Plato's teaching in the Timaeus and Aristotle's teaching in the Nicomachean Ethics as showing both conflict and complementarity is defensible, and it certainly was a historically influential reading of these books.

But doesn't this overlook Aristotle's criticisms of Plato at the beginning of the Ethics? And doesn't this overlook the subtlety of the books? In the Timaeus, Timaeus gives a long speech without any questioning from Socrates (although Socrates does say that Timaeus represents the "peak of philosophy"). In the Ethics, the arguments in Book 10 for the divinity of the contemplative life are remarkably strange and contradictory (as I have indicated in some recent posts).

4. How persuasive is Raphael's visual argument about the relationship of Greek philosophy to Christian theology?

To me, this teaching is utopian in a way that fails to resolve the moral, political, and intellectual problems left to us by Greek philosophy. Let me offer just a few examples of what I have in mind.

At the center of the Disputa, we see the doctrines of Transubstantiation and the Trinity. But why should we expect that Greek philosophers would accept such miracles without skepticism? Don't even Christians disagree about these doctrines? After all, within a few years after Raphael's death, Christendom will be divided over such issues, and they will begin slaughtering one another in religious wars.

In Heaven, we see Abraham with a knife, which reminds us of his faith in being willing to obey God's command to kill his son Isaac. Doesn't this cast doubt on the moral teaching of the Bible? Don't we have to invoke a natural moral sense to correct this biblical story? Hare speaks about this "terrible story" (80). He refers to Duns Scotus, who tries to read Genesis 22 in the light of Hebrews 11: Abraham believed that Isaac would be resurrected if we were killed. But this is not clearly said in the Old Testament text. Moreover, there are other places in the Old Testament where human sacrifice is endorsed (Judges 11:29): Jephthah sacrifices his daughter to Yahweh to fulfill a pledge he had made to Yahweh to secure victory over the Ammonites. Here, then, is the classic problem for divine command theory. (Kierkegaard used the Abraham and Isaac story as an example of the "suspension of the ethical.")

Raphael depicts Heaven, but not Hell. Why not? Does he mean to imply that there is no Hell? If so, he would be denying a fundamental doctrine of orthodox Christianity, and he would be adopting the heresy of Origen.

If Raphael believes in Hell, and if he believes that most human beings will be eternally condemned to Hell, does this mean that the Greek philosophers and all those in the tradition of Greek philosophy will be in Hell forever? If so, doesn't this deny his attempt at reconciling pagan philosophy and Christian theology? Or would Raphael incline towards Dante's solution to the problem by putting the philosophers in Limbo?

Why does Raphael allow himself to be used as a propagandist for Julius II, as a time when the Church was morally and politically corrupt, and Julius failed to act to reform the Church? Is Raphael's utopian vision blind to the corruption of religious authority?

Hare thinks the face of Savonarola appears in the Disputa. But Hare doesn't acknowledge that Julius II failed to support the reforms called for by Savonarola.

Why doesn't Raphael give us some warning about what's to come with the Protestant Reformation? In 1512, at the first meeting of the Fifth Lateran Council, Edigio da Viterbo gave the opening oration in the presence of the Pope. He pointed to the bloodiness of Julius's wars, and he warned that the corruption of the Church had provoked scorn for the Christian religion and a split among believers. Why doesn't Raphael show the same courage in challenging Julius?

Greek philosophy offers us no escape from our moral, political, and intellectual imperfection as human beings. Plato's Republic attempts to construct a utopia in which we could escape our imperfections. But it fails. Any attempt to put the Republic into practice would promote tyranny.

Raphael presents Christian theology as fulfilling Plato's utopia in a supernatural utopia beyond the natural world. But it's hard to see how Christian utopianism is any better than Platonic utopianism.

Maybe Nietzsche was right: Christianity is Platonism for the common people.

Some related posts can be found here, here, and here.

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