Like many an engineer who got nary a whiff of a liberal education, I’ve spent the last 35 years trying to make up for it through my own reading. Charting a course through history, economics, and literature has been relatively easy. But making sense of the conflicting schools of philosophy without a roadmap has been vexing—until the right book came along to finally help put all the pieces in place.
That book, The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization by Arthur Herman, should be standard reading in every Philosophy 101 course, and on the short list of “must read” books for any educated adult. Herman lays out the competing dynamic between Plato’s mysticism and Aristotle’s empiricism, which has driven over 2,300 years of history.
For the first of these 900 years, the Schools of Athens laid the foundation of Western thinking, with Plato’s Academy becoming the model for every monastery, university, and totalitarian regime. Meanwhile, Aristotle’s legacy bequeathed to us capitalism, the scientific method, and the American Revolution.
As history has ebbed and flowed, we’ve seen the influence of each school wax and wane. Plato’s theory of decline and yearning for a vanished utopia informed the inward turning of European societies following the collapse of the Roman Empire —“the Cave”—while Aristotle’s faith in human potential and vision for continual progress fueled the Renaissance and Enlightenment—“the Light”. Along the way, Herman lays out the contributions of subsequent philosophers, who echoed one or the other of these themes, both through their teachings and through the deeds of the societies that embraced them.
One of the book’s most important threads is the impact these two schools had on the evolution of Christianity, including the Catholic Church’s efforts to harmonize faith and reason and the relative importance of good works in this life vs. entry into the next. The balance tips back and forth from Augustine to Aquinas, culminating in the rupture of the Protestant Reformation, before we are carried through to Max Weber and the Protestant work ethic.
But the heart and soul of the book, providing enough food for thought to last a lifetime, is the contrast of Platonic excess and Aristotelian hubris. The former gave us not just sublime art, but also tyrants from Robespierre to Adolf Hitler. The latter gave us not only Adam Smith and the industrial revolution, but also the atom bomb.
Herman’s delineation of the difference between a subjective reality crafted by elites, vs. an objective reality informed by direct observation is punctuated by a brilliant quote from Benito Mussolini: “It is not necessary that men move mountains, only that other men believe they moved them.” Thus, Plato’s “noble lie” through which rulers control producers leads to Josef Goebbels’s “big lie.”
While it’s clear that the author is a champion of Aristotle’s reason, liberty, and Athenian democracy against Plato’s call to faith, Spartan obedience, and rule by philosopher-kings, he sounds an important warning about the “fatal conceit,” to which Aristotle’s heirs often succumb, citing the work of F. A. Hayek, an important thinker though not normally included in the pantheon of philosophers. “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”
And then at the end of the book, rather than indulge in a bout of Aristotelian triumphalism, Herman leaves the door open for Plato’s leavening influence. Perhaps Herman believes there really is something ineffable out there—or he has taken to heart the advice of Voltaire, who did not believe in God but hoped his valet did “so he won’t steal my spoons.”
Read it yourself and be the judge.