Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Review: 'The Cave and the Light: Plato versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization' by Arthur Herman

I love reading about philosophy. Growing up in quite an intellectual middle-class family in Europe, there was a lot of attention on developing opinions and understanding how European culture had developed. But still, there is a lot that I don't know and I have always looked for a book that would bring different strands of philosophy and history together in an understandable way. That book is The Cave and the Light and it's been an amazing read. Thanks to Random House and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 24/09/2013
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
A magisterial account of how the two greatest thinkers of the ancient world, Plato and Aristotle, laid the foundations of Western culture—and how their rivalry shaped the essential features of our culture down to the present day
Plato came from a wealthy, connected Athenian family and lived a comfortable upper-class lifestyle until he met an odd little man named Socrates, who showed him a new world of ideas and ideals. Socrates taught Plato that a man must use reason to attain wisdom, and that the life of a lover of wisdom, a philosopher, was the pinnacle of achievement. Plato dedicated himself to living that ideal and went on to create a school, his famed Academy, to teach others the path to enlightenment through contemplation.
However, the same Academy that spread Plato’s teachings also fostered his greatest rival. Born to a family of Greek physicians, Aristotle had learned early on the value of observation and hands-on experience. Rather than rely on pure contemplation, he insisted that the truest path to knowledge is through empirical discovery and exploration of the world around us. Aristotle, Plato’s most brilliant pupil, thus settled on a philosophy very different from his instructor’s and launched a rivalry with profound effects on Western culture.
The two men disagreed on the fundamental purpose of the philosophy. For Plato, the image of the cave summed up man’s destined path, emerging from the darkness of material existence to the light of a higher and more spiritual truth. Aristotle thought otherwise. Instead of rising above mundane reality, he insisted, the philosopher’s job is to explain how the real world works, and how we can find our place in it. Aristotle set up a school in Athens to rival Plato’s Academy: the Lyceum. The competition that ensued between the two schools, and between Plato and Aristotle, set the world on an intellectual adventure that lasted through the Middle Ages and Renaissance and that still continues today.
In The Cave and the Light, Herman lays out his argument for how Plato and Aristotle have influenced Western civilization, as well as the consistent debate about the human soul. What has always fascinated me is how philosophy is both very abstract and far away of daily life, yet also suffuses our daily life. One of my favourite Disney songs starts with a Nietzsche maxim, for example. Many of the thoughts which were so revolutionary and groundbreaking decades and centuries ago are now everyday common sense, and so it's almost shocking to find out just where these thoughts and assumptions originate. And sometimes finding out just where they come from can change how you feel about those thoughts as well. A philosopher who is both brilliant and deeply misogynistic, a philosophy that seemingly leads to freedom only to end up in tyranny. How do you reconcile yourself to a thought process that requires bloodshed? Reading philosophy, discussing it, broadens your mind in a way that is fascinating, and tracking the debate around the soul and purpose of humanity in The Cave and the Light is fascinating.

Herman seems to favour Aristotle's reason and liberty over Plato's mysticism, as do I, but he never lets his own preference override his narrative. From each corner we got both the most inspired of artists and the worst of crimes. Plato gave us the Romantics and their sublime poetry, but also Goebbels' 'big lie' and and Robespierre's terror. Aristotle inspired major advances in science from Archimedes' inventions to the industrial revolution, but also led us to the atomic bomb. Herman prevents his journey through Western civilization from becoming boring or tedious by infusing it with humour and fascinating insights. Socrates' death, Archimedes' inventions, von Humboldt's journeys through South-America, all of these are described beautifully, bringing these figures from the past to life. Despite being long, almost 700 pages, The Cave and the Light never feels like a chore. As such, it would make for a perfect addition to any philosophy syllabus.

In a final chapter, Herman takes a look at the West now, highlighting three key events that may shake Aristotle's hold over us. 9/11, the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 and the economic crash of 2008; each has left a fundamental mark on Western culture and has raised a whole new range of debates about where it is we are heading. Capitalism and consumerism is being criticised again, especially in relation to the younger (my) generation, while many young people feel a strong disconnect. The falling down or fading away of many "pillars" from our past, such as Christianity and many other traditions, has left a bit of a hole in our soul. Herman suggests a change back to Plato's mysticism, to a new connectedness with the spiritual and the natural, may be coming. As I said, this book is a great read, captivating and engaging, laying bare the connections between people and thoughts across centuries. Herman is the kind of academic writer who manages to infuse his own enthusiasm into his writing and thereby into his reader, inspiring them to go beyond his own writing and do their own research.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

Although philosophy isn't for everyone, The Cave and the Light is a key text to understanding how the Western world came to be shaped, why we think of things the way we do and where we might be heading. Herman takes the reader through our history in a way that never feels dull. For those interested in philosophy and Western culture, Herman's book is a must-read.

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