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National Review Online


The West's Dynamic Tension

December 16, 2013

By Brian C. Anderson

This book is unfashionably ambitious history, with a sweep and drama worthy of Arnold Toynbee. It tells the story of Western civilization--a term Arthur Herman uses without irony - as an ongoing struggle between the philosophies of Athens’s giants, Plato and Aristotle. The rivalry of their worldviews, manifesting itself in different nations and across time, has given the West its unequaled spiritual and scientific dynamism, says Herman. The two thinkers’ influence "is reflected in every activity and in every institution" of our lives.

The Cave and the Light opens with the trial and demise of the "first philosopher." Condemned to death by his Athenian enemies for corrupting the city’s youth, Socrates took the lethal hemlock, fulfilling his death sentence, without fear. His final lesson, delivered to his assembled followers, overcome by the imminent loss of their teacher, claimed that everything we see around us, or taste, or hear, is only a wan reflection of a higher, more "real," reality; so, too, are all the virtues and things we admire and find beautiful. After his physical body died, Socrates believed, his spirit - he was, claims Herman, the first to assert the existence of "an individual rational soul" - would at last gain full access to that invisible, perfect universe. Socrates could then contemplate the True, the Good, and the Beautiful as they were in themselves, not as inferior copies. Why, then, should a lover of wisdom, as he undoubtedly was, be afraid of death, however unfair the charges against him?

Rejecting Plato’s philosopher rulers, Aristotle also explored how citizens can flourish in a free society, taking turns ruling and being ruled. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics "may still be the single most decisive influence on our modern understanding of politics, morals, and society," writes Herman, while Aristotle’s Politics "marks the birth of a democratic individualism that draws its pragmatic principles from sometimes hard-won experience." Aristotle founded his own school, the Lyceum, to further his doctrines; it lasted until the Roman general Sulla conquered Athens in 86 b.c.

Over hundreds of pages, vaulting from early Christianity to the Middle Ages to the Renaissance to the Reformation to the Enlightenment to the total wars of the 20th century, Herman narrates the influence of these rival philosophies in Western history. We meet Stoics and Skeptics, Euclid and Archimedes, Saint Paul and Saint Thomas Aquinas, Plotinus and Boethius, Bacon and Ockham, Luther and Erasmus, Machiavelli and Locke, Newton and Einstein, Thomas Jefferson and Karl Marx, John Dewey and Karl Popper, and many more important figures - all seen as advancing or reacting to Plato or Aristotle, and often captured with a deft biographical miniature. Like Herman’s earlier histories, which include the classic How the Scots Invented the Modern World, The Cave and the Light displays the author’s impressive erudition and his clear and forceful style.


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