“The Cave and the Light”


This is a great piece of intellectual history. Looking now at the cover, I can see why few people would bother to read it or pay any attention at all. It screams “dead white guy” history. You know, the Classics; Greeks, Romans, Latin, marble busts of men with beards; words you don’t know the meaning too. There they are: right there on the cover. You assume you won’t understand it; it will be dusty and obscure.

Arthur Herman, however, nails the highly delicate balance between telling an engaging narrative and academically rigorous description of the various philosophical doctrines presented through the course of the text. For example, at one point Herman refers to Macedonia as “the Texas of ancient Greece”. Such a phrase would never appear in an academic work, yet we instantly know the ‘flavor’ of Macedonia and Macedonians. Herman then procedes to lay out a concise contextual history and then formally lays out Aristotle’s philosophical doctrine. It’s both informative and enjoyable. This is history at it’s most sweeping; 2500 years of western philosophy carried right up to the present day (Herman discusses Islamic fundamentalism and global warming).

I would very highly recommend this book simply because it teaches so much about how we (i.e., western civilisation) thinks about itself and the world. It’s the sort of book that will put a lot of things and references that you’ve noticed but may not necessarily have understood. Come on: you have to be at least a little curious as to the meaning behind “Platonic love” is? It would make a fantastic introductory book for a college philosophy 101 class.

It might help to think of Platonic or Aristotelian rather like sunglasses with different colour lenses. The Platonic mindset is idealistic, thinks in terms of the Big Picture and a bit introverted; Plato saw a higher world of perfect forms which all objects where imperfect copies of; he imagined a world soul and Prime Mover whose perfection created the world that we know. Plato’s political vision, captured in his The Republic, being based on ancient Sparta is – yes – a bit fascist – but the point is that it’s the original work of utopian fiction. Have you watched Starship Troopers? You can thank Plato for that. The Platonic “lense” yearns for a higher enlightenment and sees ways to make society and each individual better. Plato is concerned with communities, even at the expense of the individual. He is the great grandfather of both Karl Marx and Gandhi. Plato is the original dreamy intellectual.

Aristotle is the origin of empirical science. He’s the original biologist, a tinkerer; the original scientist more wrapped up in his own work to notice the outside world. It’s a world view that emphasises the importance of fact gained through experience. This is incredibly important and unbelievably powerful. The problem is that if you are looking through the world through a microscope, you should be aware that this qualifies you to only speak about what you see through your lense; you have implicitly abdicated knowing anything more. Thus, the Aristotelian personality is associated with a worship of things as they are: a recipe for stagnation and conservatism.

A good example is that Plato and Aristotle disagree on 5th Century BC Athens. This is the Athenian golden age; the birth of democracy and philosophy. Athens is democratic and mercantile and imperialist. Plato sees the inevitable decline; the grotesque cynicism of mob politics, and ultimately the futility and bullshit of it all. Aristotle, however, sees Athens as the perfect society.At first blush, this goes to Aristotle. Golden Age Athens is great: individualistic, high-spirited; the birth of so much, etc. But I think it gets more complicated that that. Obviously, nobody agrees with Plato that Sparta is the way to go. But that does not qualify Plato’s original insight: Golden Age Athens is still not all that great, and sure enough Athens is destroyed. And Aristotle’s views do not allow for any actual change.

Platonic criticism remains relevant even if its’ utopianism is misguided.

Herman does a great job of navigating the reader through these debates and perspectives.

There is a catch. A big one. One that got me very fired up. Herman does a great job until Chapter 22: “Starting Over: Plato, Rousseau, and Revolution”. This chapter broaches the Modern period, which is essentially the philosophical bedrock for how most of us think about our world right now. The Modern period/perspective believes in Grand Narratives, such as Progress, Democracy, etc. Technically we are in the Postmodern period, which explicitly rejects the idea of Grand Narratives, but to be fair, the number of people who believe this are small (I do count myself among them).

Herman, however, is a Modernist, and a conservative one at that. He also is follower of “analytic” philosophy, as opposed to “continental philosophy”; a viewpoint which directly works against his main thesis; that western civilisation is the creative tension between Platonic (“continental” or “critical theory”) and Aristotelian “analytic” philosophies. Thus, the last three centuries are presented as a highly biased narrative, full of cherry-picked facts and skewed perspectives, bordering on full-blown polemic.

Worst of all he does not tell the reader of his biases.

The heroes of the last hundred years for Herman are Hayek, Karl Popper, and Ayn Rand, a twisted and very odd section of thinkers if there ever was one. Where is Freud? Where is Sarte? Where is the Frankfurt School and their theories of totalitarianism? Where is Foucault? Where is Zizek? Herman blames totalitarianism squarely on Platonic thought as interpreted by Hegel and Rousseau, yet ignores the huge body of literature that makes a very persuasive argument that this is not the case.  Even the Great Depression is blamed on Plato/Hegel (via the Federal Reserve). What I don’t get is how he can get away with this, especially since Wall Streets triggered a depression regularly; Herman acts like the Great Depression is the only major recession that’s ever happened.

Herman rages against Nietzsche, yet praises Ayn Rand to high heavens despite admitting that she draws heavily from Nietzsche. Herman claims Hayek’s perspective that capitalism and the flow of money is essentially a form of information, yet ignores all the other things that the “flow of money” is as well: like social status, power, identity etc.

I still recommend this book; it is just that anyone who reads this needs to understand that you are getting a highly one-sided portrayal of the last several hundred years of history. Even at the end of the book, he is forced to concede that “Plutonists” might be on to something about global warming; he even says that Islamic society became backward because the the Platonic implies of their society was eliminated.

A great book, yet seriously flawed.


One thought on ““The Cave and the Light”

  1. I didnt think so much that the picture screamed ‘Dead White Man’s history’ as i thought it was more important to hear what the book was about and your opinions of the book.

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