Monday, January 5, 2015

The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization

Here is the briefest description I can provide for the philosophies of both Plato and Aristotle: Plato is other-worldly, Aristotle is this-worldly. Plato walks with head upturned desiring to describe the timeless, perfect realm of Ideas. Aristotle crawls in the grass and mud eyeing all the unique details and wanting to place everything in its proper category.

In describing the history of the human endeavour to make sense of the world, of our desire to know what the world is and who we are and how these two fit together, one could do much worse than submit the names of Plato and Aristotle as perennial options. Arthur Herman in his book The Cave and The Light accomplishes something I value—in fact it is something I look for in all good non-fiction—to make the reader conscious of a perspective that is always present but remains unarticulated or unilluminated the way shadows are all around us but never attended to by our thoughts until we focus on them. Plato and Aristotle are the permanent shadows of our thinking.

Herman’s argument is that the philosophies respectively propounded by these two great fathers of the Western tradition are more than just the creative musings of two talented thinkers grappling with our ignorance. More fundamentally Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies represent two facets of the way we can make sense of the world. That is to say, our brains are unavoidably Platonic and Aristotelian in nature. If the brain were a coin each philosopher would claim one side. This is deep DNA level stuff. That Plato and Aristotle are influential goes without saying. Alfred North Whitehead, a notable British philosopher, had famously claimed that all philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. Herman suggests that same claim can be made of Aristotle’s writings. But to suggest that Plato and Aristotle somehow represent fundamentally how we can understand the world is an argument I have not heard before.

The book examines the intricate dance between these two great ways of thinking about the world. Herman submits that any time one philosophy should dominate over the other you’ve got problems. Too much Plato brings with it rigid dogmatism and elitist arrogance. For example, the Neo-Platonists, like Porphyry, thought they were the only ones in possession of the true path to fleeing the tomb of the body. Too much Aristotle and you have narrow-minded sterility and not seeing the forest for the trees; just read even a smidgen of late medieval scholastic philosophy, which was heavily influenced by Aristotle, and you’ll get the idea. To the Yin-Yang concept of the Eastern world which its devotees say one must keep in balance to have a harmonious existence, the West offers up the necessity of a proper equilibrium between Plato and Aristotle. Interesting.

I have to admit I like the argument. I have studied a little philosophy and the book presented a new opportunity for me to think back to all those books, treatises and essays I have read. After some reflection I believe Herman is correct. Where a philosophy seems to falter or demonstrate a less than rigorous logical and experiential line of reasoning can be profitably attributed to a failure to adequately deal with the tension between the Platonic and Aristotelian strands within the philosophy. Take your pick: Descartes, Hegel, Kant, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Hume, St. Augustine, Locke. All of them can be read with an eye for this defect. 

While reading the book I imagined myself a Philosophy-Doctor treating philosophy-patients who showed signs of too much love for Plato with an antidote of Aristotle and vice versa.  What’s the cure for a too high esteem of Plato’s Republic, simple, read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. If you enjoy philosophy this book is a must read. If you are interested in the history of ideas and in western culture generally you will also enjoy this book.

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