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The Divided School of Athens

6:00:00 AMHannah Bruckner


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Pick a side.
This common phrase is not a new concept. From elementary school kickball teams, to politics, we’ve all found ourselves having to pick sides at one time or another. However, I must admit that I found it intriguing to find this theme emerging in a book that I had recently picked up comparing and contrasting the minds of Plato and Aristotle. Being relatively new to the realm of philosophy, I suppose that I always approached these two giants with the naiveté of a child; I always thought: Hey, what’s the big deal with their differences? I can just choose what I like from Plato, and what I like from Aristotle, and reconcile them and move on with my day. However, by reading Arthur Herman’s The Cave and the Light, I feel as though I should follow suit with all of the centuries of great thinkers since the time of Plato and Aristotle and pick a side. The battle line for Herman seems to be drawn quite clearly: “mysticism versus common sense; religion versus science; empiricism versus idealism: The School of Athens is in fact an allegorical painting about two contrasting but highly influential worldviews that have shaped our world, in a perpetual struggle for the soul of Western civilization” (1).

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For Herman, Plato represents the mystical, religious, and idealistic. This stems from Plato’s myth of the cave and his resulting philosophy flowering from this image. The world in which we live, for Plato, is simply a world of illusions and shadows while the realest realm is the one in which the perfect exemplars of every thing resides. It is not exactly a stretch to see how such a philosophy can simply have the label “idealistic” slapped on it by someone too quick to dig deeply into it. Aristotle, then, represents common sense, science, and empiricism.  With his upbringing in the household of a physician, it’s easy to understand how the young Aristotle was fascinated in the natural world around him. His philosophy was the result of what can be observed in the natural world. (2).
What happens when naïve people such as myself try to reconcile the two schools of thought?  Well, Herman proposes that “each time, the old antagonism reasserts itself and the battle is renewed from generation to generation, century to century” (3).
There’s something about this proposed war that leaves me uncomfortable. In what I have learned in regards to philosophy in the last few years, I can’t say that I have ever found a single school of philosophical thought about which I can say with certainty that I perfectly and completely adhere to every iota of that particular school of thought, whatever it may be. I don’t think philosophy is so rigid that I can only love Aristotle while disregarding Plato, or vice versa. Philosophy seems to be a bit more organic to me than that. Afterall, if we look around at the world in which we live, can’t we say that it is both a mystical and logical, religious and scientific, empirical and idealistic reality in which we find ourselves? Surely, there are many people in the world today, like Herman, who would assert that these poles can never exist in unity. But I would argue otherwise.
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If we were to look at the men and women that we uphold as being the greatest of Saints, such as Augustine, or Aquinas, or Catherine of Siena, wouldn’t we see an incredible amount of balance in them between the poles of mysticism and logic, or religion and science? It is the people who heroically lived lives of common sense and faith in things unseen that we revere as being the greatest of men.


Religion and science. The invisible and the concrete. The Saints are people who seemed to grasp that both Plato and Aristotle were hitting on different facets of the truth.
Of course, there are many things remaining that can’t square up, such as Plato’s and Aristotle’s views on the political realm as outlined in the Republic and Politics respectively. This is to be expected. I am not arguing that the two thinkers can ever be reconciled with one another entirely. It just won’t work. I’m simply arguing that it may be far too simplistic to simply label yourself as a Platonist or Aristotelian if you are sincerely searching for Truth. What if they got some things wrong? They certainly cannot both be entirely right on every subject as that would leave too many contradictions behind. In that case, shouldn’t we be willing to dig deeper to discover where the Truth is found in both men?
So, shall we pick a side?
I strive to be on the side of Truth, wherever that may be found; especially if it can be found in bits and pieces on both sides of the battlefield.  I’m not afraid of getting my hands dirty, and neither should you.




Image One  - The School of Athens
Image Two  - Closeup of Plato and Aristotle in the School of Athens
Image Three  - Plato’s Timaeus 
Image Four  - Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

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