The Cave and the Light:
Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization
By Arthur Herman
Random House, 704 pages
The world is full of secrets hiding in plain sight. Perhaps the greatest of those pertain to the Classics. If it is true that ideas have consequences, then the present contours of our civilization were drawn in Athens and Rome. Yet interest in the Classics—both popular and academic—is at historic lows. The Cave and the Light, by the popular historian Arthur Herman, pounces at this opportunity. In Herman’s telling, all of the past 2,500 years of history are the product of an ongoing debate between Plato and Aristotle. The rise and the fall of the Roman Empire, the Inquisition and the Reformation, the Enlightenment and totalitarianism—all are really versions (not just products) of either Platonism or Aristotelianism, and all the intellectual giants on whose shoulders we stand were either expanding on, or responding to, Plato and Aristotle.
I write of Herman’s “telling,” not of his “thesis” because he only makes a cursory effort to prove his conception is true. Instead, he simply assumes it is and just tells us the story. This is refreshing and welcome, allowing us to skip the endless meta-debate about what really drives history—ideas or great men, economics or demographics, or perhaps technology. And since that can never be resolved, Herman is perfectly justified in picking the answer that gets him to where he’s going.
Herman brilliantly pulls off that most challenging of tasks—presenting complex ideas and history in an utterly engaging way. The Cave and the Light is an improbable creature: a 704-page tome on the history of philosophy that is also a page-turner. Herman’s prose is light-footed, yet he almost never sacrifices either historical or philosophical rigor.
He tells us of these giants on whose shoulders we stand. We travel through Athens, Imperial Rome, the Medieval universities, Quattrocento Italy, Enlightenment Scotland, and Revolutionary Paris. We are told their stories and the story of the world around them. Herman weaves together anecdote (did you know the word dunce stems from the ridicule heaped on Duns Scotus, or that Rousseau had groupies?), biography, world history, and intellectual elucidation into the story of our civilization.
Herman must also be praised for confronting and debunking historical caricatures that have grown encrusted over time. He points out that Thomas Aquinas, far from being a doctrinaire parrot of Aristotle and medieval dogma, is an inescapably modern thinker, with his reconciliation of reason and faith and his view of justice arising from a rational understanding of human nature; these ideas are as relevant today as any. He makes clear that the Catholic Church did not try to suppress heliocentrism, nor did it jail Galileo for promoting it. Herman does not whitewash the anti-Semitism of Martin Luther or the creeping totalitarianism of John Calvin, and he dispenses with the notion that Communist bloodlust was not intended by Karl Marx. His account of the rise of the global market economy, and its positive influence not just on living standards but morality, is impeccable.
As with any Grand Theory of History, it’s easy to poke holes in Herman’s, and it occasionally leads him astray. At times, he settles for the simple characterization of the horoscope: The description of the Sagittarian matches you because it will match anyone, and with some semantic gymnastics it is possible to find links between any thinker and any other. At one point Herman seems to argue that Plato was a pessimist, and the Romantics were pessimists, ergo the Romantics were Platonists; this is far too easy.
More seriously, while it is undoubtedly true that Plato and Aristotle deeply influenced Christianity, Herman misses that Christianity did not just add to their legacies, but transformed them. Plato’s vision of the material world as a shadow of a greater, numinous world is an eerie omen of Jesus’s Kingdom of Glory, but in Christianity it is not men who crawl out from the Cave but the Savior of Light who comes down and rescues them, which changes everything. Plato understood that the cave-dwellers would kill the bringer of Light, but Christianity does not leave it there; we Christians believe Christ rose from the dead and shone the Light into darkness. Plato thought only a select few could rise to the Light, but Jesus brings it to all (a metaphysics pregnant with political consequences, for he who has eyes to see). Yes, Aristotle invented metaphysics, but Christianity applied it to its personal God, building a sturdy ladder between faith and reason. Christianity brought its radical new ideas to Plato and Aristotle, joining and elevating them.
Herman also goes wrong when he hails Aristotle as the “father of modern science”; he was really an obstacle to it. Aristotle insisted that the goal of science is knowledge of the ultimate cause of things. But the genius of the scientific method is precisely that it jettisons that dictum: True science, we now know, advances human knowledge by ignoring ultimate causes and focusing on testing empirical hypotheses. This idea comes from neither Plato nor Aristotle; it was genuinely new when it became the operating conception of the Renaissance, and it transformed the world. (The point of Galileo’s famous experiments on the fall of heavy and light objects is not that he was right and Aristotle wrong; it’s that Galileo got the answer right by empirical experimentation, and Aristotle’s imposed reasoning from first principles led astray not only him, but generations of “scientists” who took after him.)
Herman is at his most strained when discussing the Enlightenment, because it is the period when Plato and Aristotle, while still necessary, are no longer sufficient to account for everything. Try as he might, Herman fails to root the idea of universal, individual human rights in Greece, because it was genuinely novel in the 18th century. He gives Kant only a cursory and partial overview, perhaps because to explore that giant is to find out that the Enlightenment really did go beyond Greece. (Why he gives more space to the asinine and inconsequential Ayn Rand is anybody’s guess.)
No book is without shortcomings, and any story of 2,500 years in 700 pages has to take shortcuts. Herman’s keystone point, that Plato and Aristotle have more influence than we can imagine, even today, is surely right.
Given the amount of ground Herman covers, readers already steeped in intellectual history will still learn a thing or two; they will see new takes on familiar ideas (and shake their heads once in a while). But it is for those who are not, particularly the young, that this book might prove invaluable—not as a final word on Plato and Aristotle, but, on the contrary, as the first step in the exploration of our civilization’s greatest secret treasure.