The World You Want or the World You’ve Got: A Review of The Cave and the Light

Many of the courses I teach—covering philosophy and the history of Christianity and its beliefs—require a novice-level introduction to Plato and Aristotle. More often than not, many of my students have not heard of Plato—let alone Aristotle—and even when they have heard the names, they’ve never heard of concepts like the allegory of the cave or form and matter. In the The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization, Arthur Herman (author of How the Scots Invented the Modern World) introduces the hell out of Plato and Aristotle.


The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization by Arthur Herman
Random House, 2013
704 pages (hardcover).
Source: Literati
Available: Amazon

Anyone reading The Cave and the Light will come away with a panoramic history of the influence of both thinkers on everything from philosophy to theology to politics. Herman has produced a highly accessible, but lengthy history covering two and a half millennia of volleying between Plato and Aristotle on whether the most important things are to be found in the eternal reality of the world of forms or in the grounded and material world—the world you want or the world you’ve got.

“On the one side there is Plato the idealist,” writes Herman, “who became the guiding spirit of Western idealism and religious thought….On the other side stands Aristotle, the man of science and common sense, who points earthward in contrast with Plato’s gesture toward the heavens.”

If anyone is to understand one of the greatest influences on Christianity, they must understand it’s many platonic precursors. Clearly the writer of Hebrews, for example, breathed the same (likely Alexandrian) air as Philo and Paul’s interpretive approach to the Old Testament has a lively, hellenistic flare. It is also true, however, that not all praise can go to Plato. Other intersecting historical trajectories from the ancient Near East are equally important.

Once into The Cave and the Light, however, it becomes clear that Herman’s focus is an introductory (howbeit, large) survey, not a comprehensive tome.

“This book will show that Plato and Aristotle are alive and all around us. Their influence is reflected in every activity and in every institution, including our universities and laboratories and governments, as well as on the Internet. They have taken us to the moon and probed the innermost secrets of the human heart. And contrary to modern misconception, their influence served to abolish slavery, not only in the West but around the world, and to grant equality to women.”

He offers a delightful introduction to an impressive list of historical figures, from philosophers to theologians to artists to scientists. Some we expect to get attention, such as Ockham, Thomas, and Galileo. Others are B-characters whose roles help to establish the place of important figures, such as Erasmus Darwin, the father of Charles Darwin. “He took his first name from the sixteenth century’s most famous humanist and gave his surname to the nineteenth century’s most famous scientist,” writes Herman.

The Cave and the Light weaves in and out of personal biography, social context, and intellectual history. But like so many introductions—and I can say this as one often writes and teaches on this level—there is opportunity to miss the trees for the forrest. Distinctions between reformers and wings of the Reformation itself were undersold. It may be an unavoidable evil.

Still, the narrative of The Cave and the Light is clear and well-written—in the tradition of similar volumes, like Thomas Cahill’s Hinges of History series (see my review of Cahill’s Heretics and Heroes.) And there are many points where Herman offers corrections that, while existing in the academic literature, are less prominent in volumes intended for a wider audience. For example, the scientific revolution, while not entirely without theological conflict, was threatened more by the prominence and authority of Aristotle for scholasticism. This provides a partial correction to the oversimplified conflict thesis which reads the history of science through the lens of its conflict with religion, an area of research for me currently (see my review of David Cannadine’s The Undivided Past). One might note, however, that Herman’s strong Plato versus Aristotle theme as an historical framing presents it’s own conflict thesis problem.

Herman attempts to sprinkle in modern cultural references to connect with the reader, but there are points where the analogies seems forced.  For example, Herman writes: “Descartes’s answer was confident and pat. God was the omnipotent Legistlator who has made everything and installed all the necessary rules that govern the universe, including the laws of mathematics, rather the way the manufacturer installs software on a new Android. Then God steps aside and lets His creation ‘do its thing.'” Clearly, he’s in need of checking for updates on his phone, especially since Heartbleed. Given the subject and how well The Cave and the Light reads, these everyman remarks strike me as awkward and unnecessary. 

In the end, though, The Cave and the Light is a lively, insightful, and educational read, worth the time of anyone seeking a baptism into the long conversation between Plato and Aristotle found in their legacies. As every first year philosophy student learns, Alfred North Whitehead said that “European philosophical tradition…consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”—Arthur Herman would insist on adding “and Aristotle.”

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