This book is unfashionably ambitious history, with a sweep and drama worthy of Arnold Toynbee. It tells the story of Western civilization––a term Arthur Herman uses without irony — as an ongoing struggle between the philosophies of Athens’s giants, Plato and Aristotle. The rivalry of their worldviews, manifesting itself in different nations and across time, has given the West its unequaled spiritual and scientific dynamism, says Herman. The two thinkers’ influence “is reflected in every activity and in every institution” of our lives.
The Cave and the Light opens with the trial and demise of the “first philosopher.” Condemned to death by his Athenian enemies for corrupting the city’s youth, Socrates took the lethal hemlock, fulfilling his death sentence, without fear. His final lesson, delivered to his assembled followers, overcome by the imminent loss of their teacher, claimed that everything we see around us, or taste, or hear, is only a wan reflection of a higher, more “real,” reality; so, too, are all the virtues and things we admire and find beautiful. After his physical body died, Socrates believed, his spirit — he was, claims Herman, the first to assert the existence of “an individual rational soul” — would at last gain full access to that invisible, perfect universe. Socrates could then contemplate the True, the Good, and the Beautiful as they were in themselves, not as inferior copies. Why, then, should a lover of wisdom, as he undoubtedly was, be afraid of death, however unfair the charges against him?
Socrates’s greatest student and literary immortalizer, Plato, illustrated this idea of two realms — one illusory and material, the other ideal yet intensely real — with the Republic’s famous allegory of the cave. Unenlightened, the allegory goes, men lived in grotto-like darkness, mistaking mere shadows for reality; only philosophical reflection could shine a path out of the cave and toward the burning light of rational truth. This powerful vision, Herman argues, became “the guiding spirit of Western idealism and religious thought,” finding “its strength in the realm of contemplation and speculation.” But in The Cave and the Light’s account, it also encouraged political madness, as fanatics from Robespierre to Lenin sought to achieve, through the rule of “philosopher kings” — an idea first mentioned in the Republic — the perfection of the ideal (as they saw it) in the messy complexity of the human world. Countless numbers died as a result.
The Athenian Academy, which Plato founded in 387 b.c., lasted, in one form or another, until the sixth century a.d., propagating the Socratic and Platonic philosophy. Its most famous student, though, rejected key parts of the school’s approach. If Plato emphasized a transcendent realm, Aristotle intensely engaged with the world around him. Whether it was political regimes or household economies, the life cycle of gnats or the guts of chameleons, Aristotle was constantly observing, classifying, and exploring. Herman rightly deems him “the true father of science and scientific method.” Many scientific terms used today — genus, species, hypothesis — were Aristotelian in origin.
Rejecting Plato’s philosopher rulers, Aristotle also explored how citizens can flourish in a free society, taking turns ruling and being ruled. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics “may still be the single most decisive influence on our modern understanding of politics, morals, and society,” writes Herman, while Aristotle’s Politics “marks the birth of a democratic individualism that draws its pragmatic principles from sometimes hard-won experience.” Aristotle founded his own school, the Lyceum, to further his doctrines; it lasted until the Roman general Sulla conquered Athens in 86 b.c.
Over hundreds of pages, vaulting from early Christianity to the Middle Ages to the Renaissance to the Reformation to the Enlightenment to the total wars of the 20th century, Herman narrates the influence of these rival philosophies in Western history. We meet Stoics and Skeptics, Euclid and Archimedes, Saint Paul and Saint Thomas Aquinas, Plotinus and Boethius, Bacon and Ockham, Luther and Erasmus, Machiavelli and Locke, Newton and Einstein, Thomas Jefferson and Karl Marx, John Dewey and Karl Popper, and many more important figures — all seen as advancing or reacting to Plato or Aristotle, and often captured with a deft biographical miniature. Like Herman’s earlier histories, which include the classic How the Scots Invented the Modern World, The Cave and the Light displays the author’s impressive erudition and his clear and forceful style.
The dynamic tension between the Platonic and Aristotelian worldviews — one pointing to heaven, the other pointing to the world; one rationalist or mystical, the other empirical — finds a particularly productive resolution in America, the “Common Sense Nation,” as Herman deems it. He turns to Alexis de Tocqueville as a guide to the Aristotelian America: “Americans are more addicted to practical than to theoretical science,” the Frenchman observed. “They adhere closely to facts, and study facts with their own senses.” The Pilgrims are Herman’s paradigmatic American Platonists, reaching for the divine and filled with fervent hopes of making their new home a shining “city upon a hill” (to use the famous phrase of the Puritan John Winthrop). The balance between these tendencies “lies at the core of the American ‘genius’ for high-minded purposeful action that Jefferson noted,” Herman writes — a genius that “has dazzled, puzzled, and exasperated foreign observers ever since.”
The West witnessed the birth of a new and destructive intellectual current, which remains forceful today, especially on campus, with the publication of Nietzsche’s first book in 1872. Whatever separated Plato and Aristotle, the two philosophers agreed on reason’s importance — “both assumed that distinguishing truth from falsehood was man’s most important mission, and that his mind was the surest guide for doing it,” as Herman puts it. For Nietzsche and his acolytes, by contrast, the will was what was crucial; we created our own values, our own “truths,” and imposed them on the ceaseless flux of experience. Reason has no purchase in such an anti-Platonist, anti-Aristotelian universe. Herman shows where this “death of reason” leads.
Herman’s pursuit of his thesis at times leads him to ignore or downplay significant distinctions. Machiavelli may have been more Aristotelian than Platonist, but to see him simply as an updated Aristotle in defending civic freedom and empirical sensibility, as Herman (following J. G. A. Pocock) does, is to de-radicalize the Florentine’s dark and cynical art. And is Aristotle really a “bourgeois” thinker, as Herman asserts? The author’s judgment about particular thinkers is usually sound, but it isn’t infallible: He describes Rousseau as a lightweight, for example — Allan Bloom and Bertrand de Jouvenel certainly didn’t think so, to say nothing of Tolstoy — yet he devotes several uncritical pages to Ayn Rand.
But any book as bold as The Cave and the Light is bound to provoke disagreements and contrary assessments of particular individuals and eras. Herman has given us a wonderful introduction to the intellectual history of the West. In a saner era, it would be on every college freshman’s reading list.
– Mr. Anderson is the editor of City Journal and the author of Democratic Capitalism and Its Discontents. He is also the editor of the recently published The Beholden State, a collection of essays on California.