The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once observed that the "safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. " In "The Cave and the Light," Arthur Herman extends the citations to include Plato's renegade student, Aristotle.
Mr. Herman is one of those writers whose appetite for ideas and command of narrative drama make them a companionable guide through the thickets of intellectual history. Often, as in "How the Scots Invented the Modern World" (2001), he advances a bold thesis that readers can take or leave without diminishing their enjoyment of the story he unfolds. In "The Cave and the Light," he seeks to explain the metabolism of history with a single master idea: the perpetual struggle or "creative tension" between the ideas of Plato—which he says emphasize the ideal at the expense of the actual—and those of Aristotle, whose philosophy remains rooted in experience and everyday life.
It might seem odd to search for "the soul of Western Civilization" in the work of two philosophers from the fourth century B.C. In the pantheon of Dead White European Males, are there any specimens more deeply interred? But Mr. Herman takes the reader on a rollicking trip from classical Athens to 21st-century New York to make the case that "everything we say, do, and see" has been shaped—"in one way or another"—by the ideas of Plato or Aristotle.
And what were those ideas, exactly? Mr. Herman turns to Plato's allegory in Book VII of "The Republic" to explain. Socrates compares the lot of most men to bound prisoners in a cave. A fire behind them casts a play of shadows on the wall in front, and these shadows they naturally mistake for reality. As Yeats said in "Among School Children": "Plato thought nature but a spume that plays / Upon a ghostly paradigm of things."
Imagine the prisoner set free. His eyes would be dazzled first by the fire and then, as he emerged from the cave, by the sunlight outside—a world of ideal forms, the true reality. This journey upward, says Socrates, is like the "upward journey of the soul" from the deceptive realm of the senses to a realm of timeless if abstract certainty. For Aristotle, by contrast, the world wasn't a shadow-filled cave but a provocation to curiosity, a place to be investigated for itself. Mr. Herman several times quotes his declaration that "the fact is our starting point."
Mr. Herman is an able storyteller, and his many vignettes—about Euclid and Archimedes, about Luther (who believed Aristotle's work was the doing of Satan) and Newton, about Aristotle's influence on the American Founders and the fatuous idealism (Mr. Herman cites Plato here) of Woodrow Wilson—are entertaining and often illuminating. I am not sure that Aristotle played as big a role in the thinking of Friedrich Hayek as Mr. Herman suggests, but his account of Hayek's insights about the way centralized government stymies freedom are arresting and as pertinent today as they were when Hayek wrote in the 1940s.
Between them, according to Mr. Herman, Plato and Aristotle divide the world. Interested in modern science and technology? Aristotle's your man. Meanwhile, Plato is "the spokesman for the theologian, the mystic, the poet." Aristotle, Mr. Herman says, inspired modern economics, Plato, the Reformation. "One gave us the U.S. Constitution, the Manhattan Project, and shopping mall"—that would be Aristotle—"the other gave us Chartres Cathedral, but also the gulag and the Holocaust."
If you were brought up short by mention of the gulag and the Holocaust, you aren't alone. "The Cave and the Light" glories in that sort of hyperbole. Do environmentalists offer a "manifestly Platonist" reply to Aristotle? Is it true that without Aristotle there would have been "no Steve Jobs"? It seems a stretch, and I couldn't help thinking of one writer that Mr. Herman doesn't mention, Bishop Butler, the clear-eyed, 18th-century philosopher who observed that "everything is what it is and not another thing." The problem with Hitler wasn't Plato, nor are terrorists inhabiting "the scariest depths of [Plato's] cave." Their caves feature AK-47s, not shadows.
Overstatement notwithstanding, what makes "The Cave and the Light" so enjoyable is Mr. Herman's command of that most uncommon virtue, common sense. "Balance"—what Aristotle called sophrosune—stands at the top of his list of virtues. And although he insists that sanity and balance require the spiritualizing impetus of Plato as well as the pragmatic outlook of Aristotle, it is clear that he harbors a partiality for the latter. Mr. Herman doesn't mention Cardinal Newman, but I suspect he would appreciate Newman's comment that, about most things, to think like Aristotle is to think correctly.
Early on, Mr. Herman cannily observes that "one of the most crucial differences" between Plato and Aristotle is that Plato is backward-looking, Aristotle forward-looking. It is striking, for example, that Plato should describe knowledge as a sort of anamnesis, "recollection." There is something deeply nostalgic about Platonism: homesickness elevated to metaphysical longing. Aristotle, though, is at home in this world. "All men by nature desire to know," he says at the beginning of the "Metaphysics," "and the proof of this is the delight we take in our senses." For Aristotle, the senses don't so much beguile us, as in Plato, as they provide a window on the world and hence a means of liberation.
"Human beings," Mr. Herman rightly says, "build their lives around the future, not the past." That might seem like a thoroughly Aristotelian sentiment. But it is worth noting that, in Plato's Allegory of the Cave, Socrates not only describes an ascent from the realm of illusion to the sunlit uplands outside but also notes that those who make the ascent must return: "You must go down . . . to live with the rest and let your eyes grow accustomed to the darkness." Which is to say that Plato isn't the thoroughgoing Platonist he is sometimes taken to be.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" (http://johnbrownnotesandessays.blogspot.com/2017/03/notes-and-references-for-discussion-e.html). Affiliated with Georgetown University (http://explore.georgetown.edu/people/jhb7/) for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."