In The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman we are swept away into a 2000+ year walk through Western civilization. We start with Ancient Greece and our two ‘protagonists’—Plato and Aristotle—and observe how their ideologies and beliefs about the world influenced other brilliant minds.
We clearly see how these two philosophers affected the Romans, the Catholic Church, the Renaissance and Revolutions among many other influential events. The thesis of this book suggests that their worldviews were so influential that most of history’s greatest figures were inspired by one of the two, often loathing the other.
Take Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He was moved by Plato’s vision of a utopian society as laid out in The Republic. Rousseau believed in the concept of the ‘Noble Savage’ and believed government must overhaul the current state to bring about the ability of the people to return to their true nature.
Edmund Burke, on the other hand, could only shake his head as he watched France burn across the Channel.
Edmund Burke has dubbed Rousseau the ‘insane Socrates’ of the French Revolution. Even before the reign of terror, Burke saw in revolutionary France a tragic playing out of the Platonist temptation to perfect society through reason alone while ignoring human nature as Aristotle and the Enlightenment had defined it, in order to make us into something better.
This dichotomy between Aristotle’s and Plato’s view on government is essential for this book and world history.
Think of it this way: In America, our country was founded on the ideals of the Enlightenment inspired by Aristotle. That man should be free from the oppression of government and be permitted to live unencumbered.
Yet, the supporters of Plato would argue that this type of society leads to decadence and hedonism. Look at American society today, with degeneracy and hedonism rampant. The ideal’s laid out in Plato’s Republic would not permit this, and would create a controlling government that would create a strong, virtuous people.
Both sides certainly have their point, which is why they’ve been so popular throughout history.
A Broad Overview with Many Interesting Anecdotes
One of the criticisms of this book is that the book is too broad. That’s an accurate statement, but I actually prefer this breadth. It fits perfectly with the theme of the book, that is, analyzing Plato’s and Aristotle’s influence on prominent historical figures. Covering this much ground is essential.
Additionally, this approach means he will hit on many interesting anecdotes of historical figures. One of my favorites he discusses is the Galileo affair.
Much of the Scientific Revolution was in fact inspired by Plato. His Theory of the Forms, Love of Geometry, the Heavens, and man’s pursuit of truth to escape the allegorical ‘cave’ inspired a desire to achieve an understanding of the world through science. These figures owed their work and inspiration to Plato as it was his idea that the universe must be tied together by a set of profound laws, such as planetary motion, which kept the cosmos functioning.
The book is written in a way where the two men’s ideals are put head to head. There are a number of excellent examples where both sides make excellent points, however, you may find yourself being more fond of one philosophy over the other.
For me, I found myself agreeing with Plato in many instances. His lofty idealism is intriguing, and I sympathize with his thoughts on government, especially looking at the modern Western world. That said, Aristotle always brings us back down to Earth with his realism and common sense attitude.
In fact, Herman even points out in Raphael’s famous ‘School of Athens’ photo that adorns the cover (see above), we observe that Plato points to the Heavens, whereas Aristotle levels his hand towards the Earth.
This is such a powerful, yet simple explanation of the schism that occurred between these two.
It’s little bits of wisdom like this that are found so frequently without the book. Just one more reason to give it a read.
It is a lengthy read, covering a lot of ground, but is quite a good overview of Western civilization and philosophy.
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