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

To be clear, while the book begins and ends philosophically, its core is a straightforward work of intellectual history in which each major paradigm shift within the Western tradition, whether religious or secular, is described as being the expression in history of either the Platonic or the Aristotelian tradition or of some synthesis of the two. Thus, what Machiavelli “did in reality was to plug Aristotle’s formula for understanding civic liberty into Polybius’s time machine, the inevitable cycle of historical rise and decline.” To cite another example, Herman quotes Percy Bysshe Shelley’s celebrated if floridly narcissistic line about poets being “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” According to Herman, what Shelley actually meant was that poets were “Plato’s Philosopher Rulers in the flesh, for a world desperately needing the emanations of their genius”—a claim about which the fine old Scottish legal verdict, with which Herman, given all the hagiographical things he has said of the Scots, is surely aware, would seem to be the most generous response one can make: not proven. But to describe historical events is not the same thing as being a historian in any true sense of the word, just as writing sweepingly on a broad range of subjects does not make you a polymath.

THE PROBLEM with The Cave and the Light is not Herman’s unfortunate tendency to ignore the sensible adage, usually attributed to Mies van der Rohe, that sometimes less is more, and instead to provide utterly baseless “color” and novelistic details about the historical figures he is describing—grating as these often are. Examples of these abound, even if, for example, Herman cannot possibly know whether, as Michelangelo walked from his lodgings to the Vatican Palace in 1510 to work on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, whether Bramante’s workmen “appeared like shadows, as they yawned and stretched among the piles of masonry and coils of rope” in front of the unfinished basilica of St. Peter’s. Nor can Herman have the remotest idea as to whether Gerard of Cremona, who would go on to translate Aristotle’s On the Heavens into Latin, thus reintroducing him to the Western world, reacted to the Muslim call to prayer by thinking that it seemed “like an audial illusion, like the cry of a bird that you briefly mistake for a human voice” when he visited Toledo in 1140. And these are only two of many examples of such poorly grounded speculation.

A more serious defect is that Herman is an extraordinarily old-fashioned writer (not, to avoid misunderstanding, because he is a man of the political Right: so is John Lukacs and his work suffers from no such infirmity), and an even more defiantly retrograde thinker. Herman’s practice as a historian is a throwback to what nineteenth-century German academics called Geistesgeschichte—that is, history conceived of almost exclusively as the identification and description of the “spirit” of the times. It is actually almost refreshing, if not very serious, to read a work from which material history as practiced by such great historians as Fernand Braudel and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie—the history of climate, of agriculture, of migration—is so singularly absent and in which great men and great (or terrible) ideas all but exclusively determine the course of events. At times, Herman can be quite shameless about this, as when, in his chapter describing the rise of Christianity in the Roman world, he blandly opines that “today, historians point to social and economic factors to explain Christianity’s amazing spread. But the key factor was its skill in seizing the high ground of Greek thought, especially Plato.”

To call this an impoverished and partial account not only of Christianity’s encounter with the classical world but also of Western civilization more broadly is about the kindest possible way to put the matter. This can seem almost poignant given that his general tone—and at least some of the way he chose to frame his thoughts—suggests that Herman’s purpose was to defend the West against its detractors both at home and abroad. But by insisting that everything that has happened in the West since Aristotle’s death is in one form or another indebted to the legacy left by him and by Plato, Herman does the tradition he is so determined to uphold no favors. Quite the contrary. Herman’s own discipline, history, owes everything to the Greeks but little or nothing to Plato or Aristotle. As the great Oxford classicist Sir Moses Finley pointed out in his 1965 essay, “Myth, Memory and History,” Aristotle, though he “founded a number of sciences and made all the others his own, too, in one fashion or another. . . . did not jibe at history, he rejected it.” Finley goes on to quote the passage in the ninth chapter of the Poetics in which Aristotle says, “Poetry is more philosophical and more weighty than history, for poetry speaks rather of the universal, history of the particular.” Both Plato himself and the Neoplatonists were even more dismissive. And, again, as his remark about the eternal renewal of the West suggests, it is hard not to feel that, almost in defiance of his own vocation, Herman shares this view to an uncomfortable, not to say embarrassing, extent.

A SECOND DIFFICULTY with the book is its woefully superficial and—if not wholly in tone then certainly in substance—dismissive treatment of the centrality of Judaism in the formation of Western culture and politics. In Herman’s account, it was Plato whose works “provided a framework for making Christianity intellectually respectable [in the classical world], while Christianity in turn gave Plato’s philosophy a shining new relevance.” There is no doubt that the history of its interaction with classical culture is central to the early church—even if Herman is at his vulgar worst when, apparently in all seriousness, he observes that the “forerunners of the stereotypical nuns with steel rulers are Plato’s Guardians in the Republic.” Herman does devote some passages to the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher, Philo. But, to appropriate the title of one of Leo Strauss’s most important books, Athens is omnipresent but Jerusalem all but absent from Herman’s account of Christianity’s rise, even though, as Strauss wrote, “The Platonic statement taken in conjunction with the biblical statement brings out the fundamental opposition of Athens at its peak to Jerusalem: the opposition of the God or gods of the philosophers to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the opposition of reason and revelation.”

This is a grave and telling error both historically and philosophically. Instead of a polarity between Plato and Aristotle, Strauss posed what the great French political philosopher, Pierre Manent, has correctly characterized as a different polarity. Plato and Aristotle (not Plato or Aristotle) are on one side of this dichotomy, but it is Judaism and not philosophy that is on the other. Herman discusses St. Augustine in considerable detail, but what he focuses on is what he calls Augustine’s “final authoritative fusion of Neoplatonism and Christianity,” which would “have a sweeping impact on Western culture for the next thousand years and beyond,” even if, four hundred years later, in what even for Herman is a crass low stylistically, Aristotle would “strike back.” Manent’s version is rather different. For him, Augustine co-opted Plato for his own purposes, rather than, as it so often seems reading Herman, being co-opted by him. Anyone tempted by Herman’s reductive account would be well advised to read Manent’s entire essay, which appeared in First Things in 2012. In it, he wrote:

For Augustine, Christianity confirms these two separations while overcoming them. He presents Christianity as the resolution of the two decisive breaks of human unity: the Jewish and the Greek. The mediation of the God-man Christ allows the unity of mankind to be restored while each human being is made capable of sharing in the truth enacted by Jewish life as well as the truth discovered by Greek philosophy. Jewish life and Greek philosophy, two very different ways of finding one’s way toward the true God, prepared humanity for the decisive step only God could take.

We are a long way from Herman’s dire simplicities about how Augustine’s City of God represents “a kind of Platonic ideal.” As Thorleif Boman pointed out more than half a century ago in his magisterial study, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, the Jews of the Roman Empire of that period “defined their spiritual pre-disposition as anti-Hellenic.” To be sure, had the early Christians chosen to expunge all traces of their faith’s Jewish roots, Herman’s account of what he calls the “thoroughgoing synthesis between Christian revelation and ancient reason, between Plato and Jesus” would be dispositive. It was this that the second-century bishop Marcion had pressed for, proposing an alternate canon beginning with an expurgated version of the Gospel of Luke and the ten Epistles of Paul. But the Marcionite project that opposed the God of the Old Testament to Jesus as revealed in the New Testament failed, and with it so did the attempt, as the English Biblical scholar Sydney Herbert Mellone once put it, to propose the advent of Jesus as “an entirely new event, with no roots in the past history of the Jewish people or of the human race.” One can fairly assert that historically relations between institutional Christianity and the Jewish people have been nothing short of catastrophic. But this does not mean that, to cite Boman again, “the question of the formal and real relationship between Israelite-Jewish and Greek-Hellenistic thinking” was any less of a “live problem” for Christianity and the church, as one might infer from the scant attention Herman pays to the role of Hebrew thought in the shaping of Christian dogma and the formation of the Christian commonwealth. And even if one views Augustine largely as a Christianized Neoplatonist, as Herman apparently does, the relevant tension, to use Herman’s preferred term, is not between Augustine’s Neoplatonism and some Aristotelian alternative, but between that Neoplatonism and the Jewish tradition out of which Christianity had come.

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