Every humanities undergraduate has been told that Western Civilization is little more (or less) than a series of commentaries on the often-clashing ideas of Plato and Aristotle.
In The Cave and the Light, Arthur Herman takes this truism and expands it into an informative, often compelling intellectual history.
Herman states the central thesis at the very beginning of the book:
The battle between Plato and Aristotle raged on into the modern age, molding the outlook of Galileo, John Locke, Isaac Newton, Louis XIV, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It lived on in the age of Romanticism and in the thought of Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, and Friedrich Nietzsche. It shaped modern science and the cold war. It still determines how we think about human nature and global warming.
And, a little bit later:
In the end, it is the enduring tension between these two different worldviews that distinguishes Western civilization from its predecessors and counterparts. It also explains the West’s perennial dynamism as a culture, and why at times it presents such a confusing dual face to the rest of the world. The West has been compassionate, visionary, and creative during certain periods of history, yet dynamic, hardheaded, and imperialistic in others—even at the same time.
Supporting these two claims — that Western civilization owes its shape and its dynamism to the unending struggle for intellectual supremacy between the idealism of Plato and the realism of Aristotle — occupies the rest of the book.
Perhaps the key difference Herman identifies between the philosopher and his pupil is that while “Plato’s philosophy looks constantly backward, to what we were, or what we’ve lost, or to an original of which we are the pale imitation or copy,” Aristotle “by contrast, looks steadily forward, to what we can be rather than what we were.”
Herman writes that “Plato’s Republic celebrates a communitarian ideal based on men’s dreams. It will give us Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx, but also Martin Luther King. Aristotle’s Politics, by contrast, will give us Thomas Aquinas and Thomas Jefferson, as well as Boss Tweed.”
On the other hand,
One could say that Aristotle had turned Plato on his head. Instead of the individual being a pale copy of a more real abstract form, the universal is less real (indeed only a copy) of the individual. This reversal left Aristotle’s philosophy with a built-in bias in favor of the individual: in science, in metaphysics, in ethics, and later in politics.
Herman illustrates the complex tensions between the world views of Plato and Aristotle by surveying every major thinker, and every major religious and political movement, from the Academy of Athens to today.
The Cave and the Light is an impressive display of scholarly analysis. It’s not easy to treat fairly in a few pages each the complex ideas and shifting themes of Augustine, Boethius, Scotus, Aquinas, Ockham, Luther, Erasmus, Galileo, Hume, Locke, and on and on. But it’s a task that Herman tackles fearlessly and conquers impressively.
Each thinker is boiled down to his core principles, and these principles are in turn slotted into their places in the tapestry that is the history of the struggle between Platonic and Aristotelian ideas. There is seldom any sense that a thinker has been shortchanged or an idea over-simplified.
If the reader knows little or nothing about intellectual history, The Cave and the Light will fill the gap. And if the reader knows (or presumes to know) the subject well, Herman’s book is worthwhile for the clarity and consistency of its thesis.
Herman’s accomplishment is to show us that the truism about the Greek dualism of Western civilization is correct and, moreso, how it is correct.