Lessons from ‘The School of Athens!’ that Qom and Al-Azhar need to learn

A very significant work of art, on the whole, charting the course of human intellectual development! There is an ongoing debate on reconciliation of philosophy with theology, and reason with predestination – the twains shall never meet. This war of ideas have been part of human intellectual struggle from bygone times. Lessons from ‘The School of Athens!’ will help Qom and Al-Azhar to learn why they need to bow to the demands of the contemporary world if they want to avoid a mammoth failure that is facing them. “And those whose hearts are fixed on Reality itself deserve the title of Philosophers.” Plato is quoted on School of Athens Painting by Raphael.

The School of Athens!’ impresses me the most. I have reproduced it here as a topic of this discussion today. The School of Athens was painted by the 27-year old Raphael for Pope Julius II (1503-1513). Raphael started to paint in the Stanza della Segnatura a fresco showing the theologians reconciling Philosophy and Astrology with Theology. Donato Bramante of Urbino, the architect of Pope Julius II, introduced Raphael to Pope Julius II (1503-1513), a young native of Urbino. So enthusiastic was the pope when he saw the fresco that Raphael received the commission to paint the entire papal suite. Desires are one thing, but actions are other. Within 100 years of this commissioning, the fact is that minds never changed; the Papacy was bent on elimination of free thought.

One Pope encouraged Raphael to paint in his own suite the concept of reconciliation of Philosophy with theology but the after Popes never put any concepts of this painting in practice. It took it back in no time to turn back the liberty. Pope Clement VIII favoured a guilty verdict, recommending a sentence of death Giordano Bruno (1548 – February 17, 1600). His cosmological theories went beyond the Copernican model in proposing that the Sun was essentially a star, and moreover, that the universe contained an infinite number of inhabited worlds populated by other intelligent beings. Cardinal Bellarmine, demanded a full recantation, which Bruno eventually refused. Bruno was declared a heretic, and told he would be handed over to secular authorities.

Pope Urban VIII asked Galileo to stand trial on suspicion of heresy in 1633. Galileo Galilei, an Italian, played a major role in the Scientific Revolution and supported Copernicanism. Galileo’s championing of heliocentrism was controversial within his lifetime, when most subscribed to geocentrism . Galileo has been called the “father of modern observational astronomy“, the “father of modern physics” the “father of science”, and “the Father of Modern Science”. According to Stephen Hawking, “Galileo, perhaps more than any other single person, was responsible for the birth of modern science.”

The painting contains the portraits of all the sages of the world shown disputing among themselves in various ways. The original name of the fresco actually is Causarum Cognitio (Knowledge of Causes) but it is called School of Athens from a 17th century guidebook. The Fresco of Raphael’s School of Athens is a masterpiece of Art. Plato and Aristotle as Central Figures walking in a drifting manner through the Lyceum. The angle is such that this point is between Plato and Aristotle stressing the significance of these two persons.

To an almost equal distance between Plato and Aristotle Raphael placed Euclid and Pythagoras. Many believe that the hand gestures of Plato and Aristotle indicate diverse ways of undertaking metaphysics. Plato points to the heavens and Aristotle to the earth. Plato is holding a book: Timaeus, one of his most celestial and abstract dialogues. Aristotle is holding his Nichomachean Ethics, a rather terrestrial treatise.

Raphael was member of a philosophical circle in Rome that was focused on merging the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, whose differences endangered to continue into the Renaissance. Florence, for example, was a hotbed of Platonism, Milan was overconfident of its Aristotelian worldliness.

Primitive minds are bent on destroying human free logic and reasoning. It is a human trait, once belief in deities become physically powerful, reason is the first casualty, the second being faculty of enlightened philosophy. Suffocated societies of the Middle East are not a result of the lack of democracy, but a lack of free thinking and tolerance. The software of most of these backward societies is not conducive to the demands of modern age. A contaminated software will not let the hardware work right.

When West endured these icons of Gods, it remained trapped in the dark ages; Renaissance in the West ascended once papal dominance suffered a mortal blow. Similar treatment is required for the autocratic structure that keeps the political Islam in control of minds. The separation of state from theology is an eternal prerequisite and truth. Today these very icons of God rule a billion faithful; most very confused as to why the worlds are passing by as they watch in utter daze and disbelief. Free your minds and free your people and destroy what needs to be destroyed, if one needs to see any evolution. We need to revisit our ingrained prejudices. If one is a real seeker of truth, it is necessary that at least once in our life we doubt, as far as possible, all things. Rene Descartes wrote that once you seek knowledge you become aware that you had accepted from our youth, many false opinions for true.

Bruno announced on his fire bed “Maiori forsan cum timore sententiam in me fertis quam ego accipiam (Perhaps you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it).” On February 17, 1600 in the Campo de’ Fiori, a central Roman market square, “his tongue imprisoned because of his wicked words” he was burned at the stake.

Galileo later defended his views in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which appeared to attack pope Urban VIII and thus alienated him and the Jesuits, who had both supported Galileo up until this point. He was tried by the Inquisition, found “vehemently suspect of heresy”, forced to recant, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. It was while Galileo was under house arrest that he wrote one of his finest works, Two New Sciences. Here he summarized the work he had done some forty years earlier, on the two sciences now called kinematics and strength of materials.

Our past actions teach us what is grave for the future. Persecution of thought is a merciless crime that kills initiative and development of human intellect. Dark ages descend upon any region when they persecute free will and reasoning; regions today overwhelmed with the onset of dark ages have similar traits, they persecute their free minds relentlessly.

In this day and age, a leaf from the past is imperative. We should practice Socratic wisdom; there is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance. The only way we can improve ourselves is again through what Socrates said employ our time in improving our self by other people’s writings, so that we shall gain easily what others have laboured hard for. Any knowledge that puts brakes on opinion of minds beyond a certain point as the ‘will of providence’ creates barriers that stop development of intellect.

I have always insisted that people should study philosophy. Michel de Montaigne said “Since philosophy is the art which teaches us how to live, and since children need to learn it as much as we do at other ages, why do we not instruct them in it?” To complete this I will borrow from Jean Jacques Rousseau who wrote that plants are shaped by cultivation and men by education, everything we do not have at our birth and which we need when we are grown is given us by education.

Implanting fear of death and promises of eternal life is the most common tool that religion practices, it is a thesis of reason and logic.

Philosophers tread a way to remove fear of death and eternal damnation though dialogue. Redemption of our sins and wrongs through correct course of actions. Logic rejects sale and purchase of penance though ecclesiastical hierarchy. Today a Platonist or an Aristotelian thought helps enrich our treasures of collective wisdom that man has gathered.

I would like to touch a little on lost Schools of Stoics and Epicureans, the two schools of philosophy that suffered severe persecutions at the hands of the clergy, as reason, doubt and cynicism is an annoyance for deities. If something is to be recognized and discovered, it is essential that we visit Stoics and Epicurus. Diogenes is not as popular a name as Socrates, Plato or Aristotle, yet he is the uncrowned king of cynicism and the stoic culture.

Human wisdom and logic of sagacious over ages have become the currency and ultimate arbiter of truth. Questioning heavenly truths is not an easy rupture, to break free from the chains of ideological wastelands one needs to recognize reason and cynics. Stoics and Epicureans date from the Hellenistic period. For the Stoics, the goal of human life was to align one’s nature with the logical order of all things by refining pure reason. Through the tradition of dialectic, they aimed for ethical virtue and discipline. In sad or chaotic times, stoical patience has appealed to many people as a way of coping.

Epicureanism and Stoics met their nemesis: organised religious dogma under Christianity; once they gained power of Rome to eventually cruelly repress and destroy all other religions and schools of philosophy. Crushing free will and open minds is the best sports of all theologians from antiquity to now. Free will has always been subject to extreme of prejudices; one day Islam will also find its renaissance, one day Islam will have a Raphael who may try to reconcile thought of their free minds with dogmas that destroyed the sense of rationale within political extremists of Islam.

The Epicureans also valued restraint, but they were suspicious of excessively stylish intellectual debate, relying more on impressions of intellect to establish truth. Closing that life is simple and its truths easy to observe, they sought a life of minimum pain and maximum pleasure by rejecting outside pursuits in support of lasting inner values, like wisdom, honour, and peace of mind. Epicureans thought that humans do need real knowledge of their physical world, nature and the universe and even the most comforting myths are just not enough. Epicureanism was, in fact, seen as a dangerous foe by the early Christians.

Epicurus was known for his philosophical ideas about seeking happiness in life and avoiding pain. He further thought that death should not be feared (as it is the end of the human body and soul) and that the gods do not punish (the universe is infinite and eternal).

“Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.”

Epicureanism was based solidly on reason and reasoning, whilst Christianity was anchored on vigorously delicately laden things like fear of death and promises of eternal life that was of course based on promoting that very fear in the first place. Rationally minded people did very often favour Epicureanism to the strange religion of East that Christianity represented, as long as they were free to choose. Epicurus argued that when eating one should not eat too heavily, for it could lead to disappointment later such as the grim realization that one could not afford such delicacies in the future. Likewise, sex could lead to increased lust and dissatisfaction with the sexual partner.

Epicurus taught that oracles, omens, and dreams have no consequence and he discarded all ideals of immortality and mysticism. He believed in the soul and even suggested that the soul is as corporeal as the corpse. Epicurus rejected any likelihood of an eternal life, while still contending that one need not fear death: “Death is nothing to us; for that which is dissolved, is without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us.”

Diogenes the King of cynicism and the stoic culture lived in tatters, in a tube, ridiculing the people in power around him. He hated hypocrites. Diogenes never faltered on his fight against the vulgar sophistications of the social life and the clearest instance is described in the following anecdote of the moment when the philosopher met Alexander III:

“The king opened the conversation with “I am Alexander the Great,” and the philosopher answered, “And I am Diogenes the Cynic.” Alexander then asked him in what way he could serve him. “You can stand out of the sunshine,” the philosopher replied. Alexander was so struck with the Cynic’s self-possession that he went away remarking, “If I were not Alexander, I would wish to be Diogenes.” ‘You are defeated by the desire of victory, and you want to conquer the world.’

Alexander respected him greatly and identified in him the streak of genius. Alexander once asked him:

‘Don’t you fear me?’

‘Are you a good or a bad man?’ Diogenes asked back.

‘Good.’ Alexander retorted.

‘Then I don’t see any reason why I should fear you.’

‘Don’t waste my time. If you must find reason to waste your words and efforts for nothing, find a reason better than wasting my time.’ Diogenes practiced ridiculing the world in an attempt to bring man face to face with his follies which is highlighted by the most popular instance when he was roaming around the town in bright day light, with a lantern by his side. When asked what he was doing, he replied ‘I am looking for one honest man in town’. He said that “The foundation of every state is the education of its youth.” To tread a path of reason and logic one has to live a life based on a right view, right thought, right speech, right conduct, right vocation, right effort, right attention and right concentration. A difficult Buddhist combination of virtues but extremely human elixir for our future.

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