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The West’s Dynamic Tension

by Brian C. Anderson
The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization, by Arthur Herman (Random House, 704 pp., $35)

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?