Editor’s Note: Roy E. Perry deems the following review one of the most important he has ever written for “Underground Nashville.” We think you’ll agree. Mr. Perry, the self-described “amateur philosopher of Nolensville,” wrote book reviews for “The Tennessean” and “Nashville Banner” for thirty years.
BOOK REVIEW BY ROY E. PERRY
The cover of Arthur Herman’s The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization (2013) shows an insert of Raphael’s famous painting “The School of Athens,” in which Plato’s hand points to the heavens, toward the ideal forms of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, while Aristotle’s hand is lowered toward the Earth, to the empirical realities of the actual world in which we live. Herman’s thesis is that these opposing world views have been in conflict for two-and-a-half millennia, and continue to be so in our own 21st century.
Although the struggle of Plato and Aristotle—the two greatest philosophers of the ancient Greek world and perhaps two of the greatest of all time—may be characterized as the mystic and idealist (Plato) versus the realist and empiricist/scientist (Aristotle), both philosophers have their strong and weak points. Herman perceives the spiritual disciples of Plato to be Rousseau, Hegel, and Marx, and the heirs of Aristotle to be Voltaire, William of Ockham, John Stuart Mill, David Hume, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.
Plato’s approach is deductive—as when one sits in his or her easy chair and dreams up a priori “truths” that are considered necessarily and absolutely true. Plato muses concerning an alleged “true world” of Being.
Aristotle’s approach, on the other hand—with its strong affinity to biology and the natural world, similar to that of Charles Darwin at a later date—is inductive, involving the scientific method of observation, collection of data, classification, constructing hypotheses, performing experiments, and forming theories about our actual world of Becoming.
In the political realm, Plato’s Republic envisions a utopia in which everyone works together collectively and cooperatively. In the wrong hands, however, such utopias become like the dystopia described in George Orwell’s 1984. Herman, in fact, charges Plato and his disciples with setting the stage for Stalin’s communism, Mussolini’s fascism, Hitler’s Nazism, and Mao Zedong’s Red Guard. Utopian schemes, he asserts, often lead to the hangman’s noose, the firing squad, the guillotine, gulags, and concentration/death camps.
On the other hand—as Herman points out—St. Augustine admired Plato, pointing out that Plato was the pagan philosopher who came closest to the doctrines of Christianity. And Martin Luther made disparaging remarks about Aristotle, declaring, “I cannot avoid believing that it was Satan himself who introduced the study of Aristotle.”
Ranging through the history of Western thought, Herman looks at the ”Plato versus Aristotle” tension from the pre-Socratics to the Digital Age of the Internet. Curiously, he omits any discussion of the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, gives short shrift to Arthur Schopenhauer and Immanuel Kant, and makes no mention of the post-modernism of Jacques Derrida.
While many philosophical works are dry and boring, Herman’s narrative snaps, crackles, and pops with user-friendly portraits of the key figures of philosophical thought. It is replete with fascinating anecdotes and analogies, and occasional flashes of humor.
One weakness of Herman’s work—as other critics have pointed out—is it suffers from a “Manichaen dualism”—an ancient Gnostic religion that divided humanity into “Children of Light” and “Children of Darkness.” For most of his book, Herman’s neo-Manichaeism deifies Aristotle and demonizes Plato.
Surprisingly, Herman’s conclusion (see the book’s final chapter, “From the Cave to the Light”) reverses the thesis of the entire work. We must reject neither Plato nor Aristotle, Herman warns, but strike a balance between, or synthesis of, Plato’s philosophical idealism and Aristotle’s scientific empiricism.
Despite its flaws, The Cave and the Light is one of best one-volume surveys of philosophy available. To be sure, take what Herman says with a grain of salt, but profit from the author’s insights into the permutations of philosophical thought through the millennia, which has witnessed an uncanny clash of philosophical idealism and philosophical materialism.
Alfred North Whitehead once said, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Herman asserts this is only half true: that, in fact, it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato and Aristotle.
I recommend this book highly, giving it five stars out of a possible five. However, read this treatise for yourself, and make your own evaluation and judgment of its merits and/or demerits.
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David M. (Dave) Carew is writer/editor of “Underground Nashville” and the author of the novels “Everything Means Nothing to Me: A Novel of Underground Nashville” and “Voice from the Gutter,” both now available at Amazon.com and XLibris.com. Dave is also a freelance book editor, publicist, seminar and workshop leader, journalist, and advertising / marketing / public relations writer.
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