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

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

The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization by Arthur Herman is a detailed account of historical philosophy in Western civilization. Herman earned his PhD from John Hopkins University. He has taught at several universities including Georgetown. Herman also won the Pulitzer Prize for his book Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age.

Western philosophy with its roots deeply set in ancient Greece and names familiar to all: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. It’s modest beginnings with Socrates volunteering to drink hemlock as it is better to suffer a wrong than inflict it. His faithful student carries on and Plato keeps Socrates “alive” in his dialogs. It is Plato’s student that rises and breaks from him: Aristotle. The painting The School in Athens by Raphael shows the two great philosophers, center stage among many other philosophers. Plato is pointing to the heavens showing that all perfection, all knowledge and virtue, comes from above. Aristotle, pointing to the earth all knowledge is experienced. The other philosophers are discussed in the book, but clearly the two who made the greatest impact in the West were Plato and Aristotle. 

From Greece, we are taken to Rome and to early Christianity and through Medieval Europe. There is a battle between Aristotle and Plato. Plato worked well into the early thinking of the Church, but Aristotle did not fit as well but provided a realistic description of earth. Plato’s perfection in heaven and corruption on earth fit well with Christianity. Aristotle was science orientated. The story continues through the Middle Ages and into the Enlightenment. The French Revolution and Rousseau, all leave their mark on history and the story expands to Mill, Hegel, and Marx Then Modern times bloom in science with Darwin, Maxwell, and Einstein. Plato and Aristotle move through Western history competing for dominance only hitting a speed bump at Nietzsche, before moving ahead again. It moves through the rise of America and two bloody world wars to the current world situation. All these events and all this this history are connected back to a thought experiment of shadows on a cave wall. 

The Cave and the Light is an outstanding book covering the history of Western Philosophy. I have highlighted and noted more passages in this book than I have another book since graduate school. My background in philosophy mostly limited to political philosophy as and undergraduate and graduate student. I was pleasantly surprised to see an accurate portrayal of Machiavelli and that his support for a republic as well as his major work The Discourses on Livy, rather than the basic “ends justify the means” of the Cliff Note version of The Prince. The writing flows well,everything is connected, and concise. Herman provides sixty-seven pages of notes and a very useful eighteen pages of bibliography. This is an excellent read and reference book for those interested in Western Philosophy . Although it is not needed a basic background in history and philosophy is helpful. The Cave and the Light is a must read book: Five stars.

1 Comment

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One response to “Book Review: The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization

  1. Great Review. Halfway through the book now. The author is not trying to convince us to view the world in the dichotomy he presents, but rather to present a broad intellectual history in that context. From other reviews I ascertained that the authors motive is to eventually denounce Plato as the cause of many totalitarian regimes, while praising Arostotle as a bastion of moderation and capitalism. Time will tell if the author is genuinely arguing this. In any case, the book is an enjoyable broad sweep of history in philosophical context, and offers an interesting way to understand thinkers throughout time.

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