The Limits of Reason

Michael Metzger

Human flourishing requires recognizing the limits of reason. I was recently reminded of this in viewing four of Raphael’s frescos.

Kathy and I just spent two weeks in Italy. We enjoyed a guided tour of the Vatican, including the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Roman Catholic Pope and Bishop of Rome. Upstairs, the residence has four rooms. The fourth (and most famous) is the Stanza della Senatura (“Room of the Signature”), the study and library of Pope Julius II who signed many papal documents within its frescoed walls.

Raphael Santi painted the room’s four frescoes. They’re laid out facing one another, depicting the connection between faith and reason. The first is La Disputa, painted between 1509 and 1510 (click the link to be wowed). Raphael next painted The Parnassus, representing the arts. His third was probably The School of Athens. After completing these three, Raphael painted the Cardinal and Theological Virtues.

Many folks are familiar with The School of Athens. Few, however, recognize it is surrounded by three other frescoes situated to remind viewers of the limits of reason.

The School of Athens depicts Greek philosophy, known for seeking “the good, the true, and the beautiful.” School depicts “the true.” Plato and Aristotle take center stage. Plato is pointing up. Aristotle holds his hand down. Plato is holding the Timaeus, where he describes how the world around us is just a shadow of a higher, truer reality that is eternal. Aristotle disagreed. In his left hand, he holds his Ethics. The only reality is the one that we can see and experience. Hence, he holds his right hand down.

But what many overlook how Plato and Aristotle are walking toward the fresco on the opposite wall, La Disputa. It depicts “the good.” In a scene spanning heaven and earth, Christ holds center stage. Below his feet is an altar where the Eucharist is celebrated. In communion, we “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8). Truth is experienced as good.

The School of Athens and La Disputa are flanked by The Parnassus, where Raphael depicts the arts as promoting “the beautiful.” It is in music and poetry and images that we imagine the good and true as beautiful. The fourth painting, the Cardinal and Theological Virtues, depicts the fruit of embracing the good, the true, and the beautiful.

The frescoes depict how the Christian faith completes the best of philosophy. They remind us how the point of rationality is to prove the limits of rationality. We can recognize truth, but embracing it requires imagining it as good and beautiful. Goodness and beauty order our loves more than truth and reason. It’s a critical distinction since we are what we love.

The limits of reason are most evident in Lucifer, the devil. He recognizes the truth—Jesus is God. But he doesn’t see Jesus’ commands as good or beautiful, so he doesn’t do them.

I’m an example of the limits of reason. Jesus says to not worry (Mt.6:25-34). I do worry. He says Don’t complain. I often do (ask Kathy). Gallup surveys indicate most Americans are examples of the limits of rationality. Over 90 percent of Americans purport to believe in God and most claim to follow Jesus. But in terms of “unethical actions, crime, mental distress and disorder, family failures, addictions, and financial misdealings” our behaviors are equivalent to those who don’t attend church.[1] Christians claim to believe Jesus’ commands are true, but few behave as though they as good and beautiful.

We’re part of Western faith traditions that rely mostly on one fresco—The School of Athens. We believe people can reason their way to the faith.  The Room of the Signature tells a different story. Raphael’s The School of Athens is the third fresco he painted. It followed The Parnassus, the second fresco, highlighting the arts. This order might be providential. Next week, we’ll explore how three of the most effective apologists of the 20th century relied more on the arts and imagination than logic and reason. They recognized the limits of rationality. It’s probably why they remain popular to this day.

Stay tuned.


[1] Dallas Willard, Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (HarperCollins, 1998), 209.


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  1. Mike, you wrote “Goodness and beauty order our loves more than truth and reason. It’s a critical distinction since we are what we love.”

    G & B order our loves better or more often or they don’t but they should, compared to T & R? We are what we love? We’re not God but we’re a little more godly, you mean?

    I’m thinking of a Gulag camp: T & R might guide my own survival, but G & B might guide me to love my fellow prisoners and even my guards, and might raise everyone’s boats toward flourishing, if my example sets off imitation of G & B. Is this what you have in mind?

  2. As Vladimir Soloviev, that great Russian Orthodox apologist for the papacy always taught, the most important point is unity, the indivisible reality revealed in all four frescoes: for truth to be fully true in the proper sense, it must be real, i.e., it must be incarnated as goodness, and as such, its form is beauty, which simply reveals and radiates the glory of truth and goodness, glory of the the Word, the Creator, in and through his material creation: in a word: the Kingdom of God.

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