14 January 2014

The Cave and the Light

There are two sorts of scholars in the world. There are the scholars who write books with conclusions like, “And so we see that these four potsherds found in section G27 of the dig are probably better placed in the LH III period rather than the LH II Period.” And then there are the scholars who write books with conclusions like, “And so we see that all of history is driven by three factors that explain absolutely everything that has ever happened in the world.”

Now the former sort of book is usually boring to read, but far more accurate because the author has a much more modest goal in mind. The latter sort of book is usually popular and accessible, but because the author is starting with a broad and sweeping assumption, individual facts may get lost in the attempt to make everything fit the big picture. The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman is the second sort of book.

The main thesis of The Cave and the Light is that all of Western history has been shaped by the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, and that we still have a lot to learn from these two philosophers today. I agree wholeheartedly with this proposition. The problem is that Herman overreaches himself many times in the book in an attempt to show that each generation literally comes back to Plato and Aristotle and that these two are the most influential men in all of Western history. I’m not so sure of that.

I’ll start with the book’s strengths and move on to its weaknesses. To begin with, this book was loads of fun to read. I enjoyed every minute of the romp through cultural and philosophical history, and was sad every time I had to put it down. Herman is a gifted writer with the ability to draw readers’ attention even to seemingly mundane philosophical issues. He has also read and studied broadly as is evidenced by the massive, and massively helpful, bibliography at the end of the book. Those who know me well know that I’ll keep even a disappointing book on my shelf if it has a good bibliography. Finally, Herman is a great debate partner. Even though there were many times I disagreed with him, I didn’t feel put off. Rather I felt engaged to try to formulate what about his argument I disliked and what I would have said differently. The margins of my copy are full of blue ink now. Unlike some writers who come across as pompous and overbearing, Herman’s prose feels open for conversation.

All that said, I don’t know that I would recommend this book to just anyone. Herman is so intent on casting every philosopher in human history as either a Platonist or an Aristotelian that several actual facts get bulldozed along the way. To pull out just one example, he wants to show that Thomas Aquinas was “aware of a larger world around him, and he was fascinated by it. By joining the Dominicans, he would see how the other half lived, people from a variety of lands and speaking a variety of languages...” He then quotes Thomas Aquinas and comments, “…Aquinas wrote, ‘All I have written seems to me so much straw compared to all I have seen and what has been revealed to me’ Aristotle became his compass for figuring out how to understand that larger world.” I was dumbfounded when I read this. Most people who are familiar with Aquinas will immediately recognize this quotation. When Thomas writes, “all I have seen and what has been revealed to me,” he is referring not to the physical world around him but to a mystical vision he had received that caused him to evaluate all of his Aristotelian efforts as mere straw in comparison. So Herman takes an Aquinas quotation of a, what Herman would call, “Platonic” nature and uses it to support the “Aristotelian” nature of Aquinas. Likewise, he gets a lot of things wrong about the Crusades and the Middle Ages in general. Herman equally misunderstands the medieval Catholic doctrine of salvation (saying that every man owes a debt and that that debt is paid down by baptism and penances until the person gets to go to heaven) and Luther’s doctrine of the bondage of the will (saying, in essence, that Luther denies the existence of free will on a metaphysical level and casting Luther as something like a fatalist. For the record Luther was not arguing about the idea of free will, but rather the more concrete question of whether the will of a sinful man can be free, being in bondage to sin.).

Moving toward the modern world and away from the world of classical education in which one would expect Aristotle and Plato to have a big influence, he becomes even more grasping, and sometimes it feels as if he has to do mental gymnastics in order to show every conflict in modern history as a reiteration of the debate between “Aristotelianism” and “Platonism”.

In the end, The Cave and the Light fails to be wholly compelling. The ground on which it is based, a sharp dualistic divide between Plato and Aristotle, is tenuous. Yes, Plato and Aristotle used different methods to pursue their philosophical ends. However, they also agreed on many points and Aristotle did not wholly rebel against his teacher to the extent that Herman seems to think he must have. The heart of Christianity is not simply a refurbished Neo-Platonism, all science and progress in the world cannot be attributed to Aristotle. There is no way to say, as Herman does, that Booker T. Washington was “Aristotelian” in nature and “Martin Luther King, Jr.” was Platonist. Or for that matter that Martin Luther was somehow “Platonist” and that Erasmus was somehow “Aristotelian”. This book was fun to read, contained many gems for those willing to look for them, and offered an enjoyable opportunity for me to flesh out my own thinking on many issues. However, the broad brush with which Herman paints and the overly generalized pictures of historical conflicts prevent this from being a book I would read again soon or regularly refer to.

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