Western Civilization's Life Coach

January 8, 2014 Topics: PhilosophySociety

Western Civilization's Life Coach

Mini Teaser: A new survey of Western thought begins in bombast and ends in triviality.

by Author(s): David Rieff

Arthur Herman , The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization (New York: Random House, 2013), 704 pp., $35.00.

ALBERT EINSTEIN is said to have recommended that “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” It is an injunction that Arthur Herman would have been well advised to heed when he embarked on the writing of his latest book, The Cave and the Light . But then oversimplification has been at the heart of Herman’s enterprise from the outset. Anyone who has already extruded works such as The Idea of Decline in Western History , To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World , Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age , Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II and How the Scots Invented the Modern World is clearly not someone in whose imagination either nuance or complexity can be assumed to occupy much psychic space. Instead, Herman is a serial extoller, a panegyrist whose attention is periodically seized by one great man (Winston Churchill or Senator Joseph McCarthy, upon whom he lavished an admiringly revisionist biography) or a great people (the Scots) or a great institution (the Royal Navy, American business), which he then presents as the explanatory key to the success and dynamism of the Western world, even if we epigones in the West no longer necessarily understand our own great intellectual, moral, political and technical inheritance.

Even by Herman’s own grandiloquent standards, however, The Cave and the Light is in a class of its own. It is a monument not to the importance of historical thought but to his own hollowness. He begins in bombast and ends in triviality. He is a self-appointed life coach for Western civilization.

AT THE OUTSET, he asseverates, “Everything we say, do, and see has been shaped in one way or another by two classical Greek thinkers, Plato and Aristotle.” That such wisdom constitutes little more than the conventional thought inculcated in nineteenth-century British public schools does not seem to trouble Herman unduly. This is in part because his project is to refute those in the contemporary West who, in his telling, dismiss these thinkers as “dead white males” and the classics as having no future. Herman at times in his book takes a break from his breathless romp through Western history and philosophy to settle scores real and imagined with the global Left—in this case, the cynical teaching assistant’s tag for History 101, “From Plato to NATO,” is literally accurate. But while he is a political conservative (currently a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute) and an admirer of both Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand, even he might have thought twice about the “grandeur that was Greece, glory that was Rome” approach.

This is where the second part of his thesis comes in, the one already limned in his book’s subtitle, where Herman posits that the conflicts in Western civilization ever since ancient Greece have their roots in the dichotomy between Aristotle’s vision of what he calls “governing human beings” and Plato’s philosopher-king. To be sure, Herman’s heart is unquestionably with Aristotle, as he makes clear in his broad praise for Rand’s aversion to Platonism and also in his description of Hayek at the end of his life watching televised images of the overthrow of Communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989. “I told you so,” Hayek tells his son, to which Herman adds, “So had Aristotle.” Given his political views, this Aristotelianism should come as no surprise. “Today’s affluent, globalized material world,” Herman writes, “was largely made by Aristotle’s offspring.” But while he not only greatly prefers Aristotle, but also taxes Plato’s intellectual and spiritual heirs with virtually every political tendency and historical development in European and global history that he deplores, Herman nevertheless insists that “our world still needs its Plato.”

In Hayek’s terms, and—to careen vertiginously down the intellectual and moral food chain—in Rand’s as well, such a view is anathema. Late in The Cave and the Light , Herman approvingly quotes Rand’s assertion that “everything that makes us civilized beings, every rational value that we possess—including the birth of science, the industrial revolution, the creation of America, even the [logical] structure of our language, is the result of Aristotle’s influence.” Hayek’s view was far more nuanced (but then, compared with Rand’s, whose wasn’t?), and he was less concerned with praising Aristotle than with rejecting Platonism. For as his denunciations of solidarity and altruism in his book The Fatal Conceit make clear, Hayek viewed Platonism as a kind of owner’s manual for totalitarianism and saw socialism as Platonism’s twentieth-century avatar, much in the same way that Karl Popper did. But unlike his intellectual heroes, Herman insists on Western society’s need for Platonism as well as Aristotelianism. Though he returns over and over to Platonism’s intrinsic faults, and, by extension, to its economic fatuities and the world-historical crimes to which it has given rise, from Bolshevism and the Gulag to what Herman calls Plato’s “American offspring”—a term capacious enough to include Josiah Royce, John Dewey, Woodrow Wilson and FDR—Herman is adamant that Platonism remains key to the West’s identity, and a necessary corrective to Aristotelian dynamism, with its constant, stupefying potential for change.

Pullquote: To say that one can understand all the major political events in Western history as somehow being expressions of the spirit of Plato or Aristotle really does stretch credulity.Image: Essay Types: Book Review