book review

The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization

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The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization

The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization
by Arthur Herman
Random House, 2014, 676 pages
Reviewed by T.J. Nelson

A ll of Western philosophy, said Alfred North Whitehead, is but a footnote to Plato. In this grand history of Western ideas from Plato to Hayek, Arthur Herman has now added 676 pages of history to that expanding footnote. Western history, he says, has been profoundly affected by the ancient Greeks.

The most monumental event of ancient times was, of course, the fall of the Roman Empire. While others portray it in military, religious or economic terms, Herman sees it as a consequence of philosophical ideas passed down through great thinkers like Polybius. Based on his reading of Plato, Polybius predicted Rome's fall, and it became, says Herman, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Herman's emphasis on great thinkers makes this a people story, and the great thinkers, with their personal ambitions, foibles, and untimely endings, make the book far more accessible to students than the usual fusty treatment of history as a complex thread of intertwined events.

The story of great thinkers leads, for example, to the neoplatonist John Scotus Erigena, translator of Pseudo-Dionysisus's Celestial Hierarchy. Erigena's teaching appointment under King Alfred the Great was, says Herman, cut short by his students who, frustrated by his lessons, stabbed him to death with their pens.

But there were some who were both thinkers and doers, like the brilliant Peter Abelard of Paris, whose fascination with thinking about Aristotelian logic as a way to understand the precepts of Christianity was surpassed only by his enthusiasm for doing 17-year-old daughter of William of Champeaux. Needless to say, this got him in big trouble, but he was clever enough to get out of it, and it was his thinking that led to his undoing.

Herman calls Saint Thomas Aquinas the one Christian thinker whose system can stand beside those of Aristotle and Plato. The goal of Aquinas's dialectic was to reconcile the Church's teachings with those of the ancient Greeks. Herman credits Aquinas with bringing natural law into religious culture, as shown by Aquinas's most famous statement “Grace does not replace nature, it perfects nature.” Yet his weak area was science. Had Aquinas absorbed more of Aristotle's scientific expertise, Herman says, he might have averted the great clash between Christianity and science that was to follow. As it was, three years after his death, Aquinas's teachings were banned along with those of Aristotle and Averroës, the Spanish Muslim philosopher.

Most of these stories are familiar, even to people who never studied the classics, but even here Herman gives details that some people might not know. Everyone knows about Machiavelli, for example, but not everyone knows that he was even more pessimistic about free societies than Polybius was about the Roman Empire. Freedom, he wrote in Discourses, leads to wealth; wealth leads to arrogance, arrogance leads to instability, then betrayal of principles, and finally disaster. The truth of this has been demonstrated in democracies from Athens to the British Empire.

According to Herman, the struggle between the empirical approach of Aristotle and the aristocratic philosopher-kings of Plato, who rejected democracy as a form of mob rule, is reflected in the struggle today between the descendants of Plato like Karl Marx, and the descendants of Aristotle like Friedrich Hayek. Yet for early scientists like Galileo, Aristotle, not Plato, was their biggest obstacle.

Herman's case seems overstated; philosophy may not drive history as much as intellectuals like to think. Not every monarch is a Neoplatonist, and not every advocate of democracy is a follower of Aristotle. Calling the Louis XIV era the era of Neoplatonist kingship, as he does on page 352, is a big stretch.

But it's difficult to overstate the stature the Greeks held. Even up to the mid-20th century, Latin was a required subject in American high schools, and ancient Greek was routinely taught. Students read not just Homer and Xenophon, but Cicero, Virgil, Plato, and Aristotle, and it became part of the common cultural vocabulary. Many books from that period contain quotes written in Greek, and assume the educated reader can read them. It's as if students today were forced to memorize every line out of Star Wars, and they all walked around saying things like “I find your lack of faith disturbing” and “Do, or do not. There is no try.” Don't laugh. It could happen.

Even if ancient Greek philosophy is rarely taught nowadays, its ideas are still part of our intellectual world. Even those who have no clue who Plato was are affected by his ideas subliminally, just as they still feel the imprints of the Inquisition and the Black Death in our culture. As I tell our students, the reason we use rats in science has much to do with the Black Death, whether we recognize it or not. The reason we have science at all has even more to do with Aristotle and Plato.

Reviewed on this page

The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization
by Arthur Herman

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may 28, 2015