Support for the figure being Diogenes rather than Socrates has been found in the fact that he is prone, and alone, which seems to suggest Diogenes' status as an antisocial Cynic -- he also called himself a 'dog.' However, the painting seems to depict in chronological order in the development of ancient philosophy, of the viewer moves his or her gaze from foreground to background and from left to right. This would suggest that the figure is Socrates. The bowl besides the lying figure if it is Socrates could symbolically signify his drinking of hemlock also suggests the death of Christ. Raphael, a Neo-Platonist in his philosophy, thus gave particular importance to Socrates' martyrdom (Bell 1995).
The artwork, as a glorification of the human, is sublimely Renaissance in nature, and typical of the period but it is also unique in the way that it celebrates philosophers and their intellectual arts, not simply symbolic figures of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses or abstract values. It shows Raphael's willingness to honor the intellectual legacy of the classical past. The male figures even when they engage with people whom they could not have known in life, look like vibrant and real figures, negotiating what it means to be human and what it means to understand the world. The image is exciting, and makes learning and human inquiry a worthy subject of art, equally as much as beauty. Its title, the School of Athens, and its panoramic gaze on many eras suggest that this type of searching has occurred over a long period of time. Athens itself was a school of knowledge, and the classical world has much to teach us. The painting's attitude is what is innovative, as well as its detail and depth of perspective.
Underlining the new broad-mindedness of the period, classical iconography representing the search of man for the truth was even embraced by the Pope, not just by artists. This type of humanistic, anatomically correct representation would have been unthinkable earlier, both in its images as well as its iconography. It is still exciting art because it creates the feeling of being alive in ancient Athens, watching the embodied philosophers at work, and helps bring their thoughts to life. They are not beautiful, yet seem vividly alive and interesting to the eye. The challenging, puzzle-like nature of playing 'guess who' are the different philosophers adds to the visual delight of the painting. The painting is an intellectual puzzle as well as is about men who enjoyed wrestling with intellectual puzzles.
If an artist were to create such a work today, what type of representation would be created? Would it be a crowd of celebrities, like a Vanity Fair style magazine cover, or a representation of all of the American presidents interacting, across time and space? Raphael created his work when it was still considered possible to know 'everything' of value of the classical world and today knowledge is much more specialized -- there are fewer great and titanic figures. The closest thing the School of Athens in contemporary art is perhaps Judy Chicago's the Dinner Party, which is a feminist piece of sculpture bringing together famous women of history. In general, a painted depiction of great people would likely contain more women, and perhaps more controversial figures (Freud, Darwin, and Marx come to mind). But idealization has gone out of fashion, and that is why, although it still gives contemporary viewers pleasure, the type of painting genre in the spirit of the School of Athens has not been replicated.
Bell, Daniel Orth. "New identifications in Raphael's School of Athens." The Art Bulletin