Review – The Cave and the Light (2014)

First of all, the TL;DR: The Cave and the Light (by Arthur Herman) delivers an engaging and nuanced history of Western thought from its roots in Classical Greece up through the wars of the 20th century. While I in disagreement with some of the author’s stylistic choices and interpretations of ancient works, overall Herman’s unfolding of our intellectual history is an informative and delightful journey.

The Review:

The Cave and the Light is likely to be of great interest and pleasure to the educated reader – but not the over-educated – and of little interest to anyone else. Herman provides an informative and often enthralling narrative view of Western history in support of his thesis: that all of Western thought can be categorized under either Plato or Aristotle. The recurring use of Raphael’s School of Athens to describe his understanding of Western intellectual history during his account (as well as on the volume’s cover) portrays Herman’s viewpoint quite succinctly.

One of the work’s greatest strengths is that each chapter is organized such that the focal intellects are often framed as a protagonist or hero. by doing so Herman helps to provide the reader with a more sympathetic understanding of these persons of the past on both intellectual and emotive levels. However, Herman often steps too far into narrative. Instead of strictly holding to writing a popular history both entertaining and scholarly, he chooses to present a storyteller’s “what-if” scenes based upon the historical accounts. Sometimes I found these scenes to be engaging but most often they reduced my interest in the person of interest. I often found myself wanting to skip the narrative and jump to the meat of the person’s thought. Blending the boundary between historical fiction and history was an interesting experiment, but I believe it was unsuccessful.

The generally approving voice used when highlighting each thinker or tradition of thought was quite well done. Herman manages to remove himself and his own opinions from the accounts of the thinkers. (I believe that he leans Aristotelian on his Plato/Aristotle model, but I don’t feel sure about that claim – and when writing history, this reduced bias is a positive.) As a reader I felt able to feel the ebb and flow of history between the two Greek titans in part because each chapter’s account affirmed the focal thinker’s beliefs.

Unfortunately, the dichotomy presented begins to falter once the account reaches the modern era. In general, the atomic scientists are generally presented as under the “Plato” heading and striking back against Aristotelian scientific principles (keep in mind that Aristotelian science has already been set aside for several hundred years at this point) because of the sensible/insensible divide which arises. The account of mathematics-based scientific data is very interesting – and leans Platonic – but I was left unconvinced that the atomic physicists were closer to system-building Platonists than empirically-focused Aristotelians.

Further, I disagree with Herman’s interpretation of Plato’s work – it is important here to emphasize that this is disagreement; Herman’s argument is clearly well-researched and contemplated. These are the best types of account to find. The dispute between the book and I likely arises from which dialogues we each prefer. Herman heavily references the late dialogues – in particular the Timaeus, Laws, and Republic (which appears to be a blend between early period and late period Plato), and my focus often lies on the earlier (such as Apology, Crito, Phaedrus, and Protagoras). In addition, I personally believe that the attempt to consider the Platonic corpus as one body of thought is dangerously misguided.

I found that The Cave and the Light shines most brightly when discussing the period from the fall of Rome until shortly following the Renaissance. Perhaps this was simply because of a thousand-year gap in my own knowledge, but from my perspective Herman presented change upon change and development upon development within the Western mind during the Middle Ages. He granted me a new perspective on the commonly-named “Dark Ages;” one with wonderful intellectual vigor and curiosity. Herman’s picture was not of a Europe dominated by an oppressive Church, but rather a Europe in which various monastic orders sought to preserve and improve upon the fading knowledge of their ancestors.

The most fascinating conclusion which Herman draws is that the flourishing success of Western civilization in the modern era is precisely because of the tension between the “Plato” and “Aristotle” camps throughout its history. Tension between two broad ways of thinking about the world – mystic and scientist, group and individual – is what he claims brought about our active and diverse culture and advancements. At the same time, it is responsible for many of the terrible tragedies which we have inflicted upon ourselves and upon other peoples throughout the world.

My conclusion is that this book is probably worth reading for most persons interested in how our culture became what it is today. While I disagree with some of Herman’s positions and interpretations of authors and works, he nonetheless succeeds at presenting his argument with lucid prose which is enjoyable to read. If you have little or no interest in Western history, this book is not for you.


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