The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman; Random House, 704 pages ($35). It is, no doubt, characteristic of our era that when this book was published in late October 2013, it barely jostled the consciousness of what remains, in our time, of literary consciousness. It is, to understate feloniously, worth a great deal more attention than that, even at this late date.
The subtitle of the book is “Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization.” If that, somehow, doesn’t give you the book’s floor plan, the opening of the book’s preface will suffice nicely: “An editorial in the New York Review of Books recently asked: ‘do the Classics have a future?’ The real question is: Will the classics ever leave us alone? This book tells the story of how everything we say, do and see and has been shaped in one way or another by two classical Greek thinkers, Plato and Aristotle.
“Far from being ‘dead white males’ they’ve been powering the living heart of Western culture from ancient Greece to today.”
Let’s cede some unease at this early point. Minimally sophisticated readers of the New York Review of Books know that it’s not quite accurate to call any article within a publication an “editorial.” And certainly our era’s ability to mash every subject into a sporting template – where a “versus” battle is going on and therefore a possible winner to be checked against the Vegas oddsmakers – is enough to make anyone move on down the bookshelf.
What follows by the historian who won a Pulitzer Prize for “Gandhi and Churchill” is a brilliant history of Western Civilization’s essential polemic from those essential figures in the painter Raphael’s representation of Plato and Aristotle in the “School of Athens” right up to 9/11 and the financial witches’ sabbath of 2008.
In his lens, says Herman, for instance “what went wrong with Muslim culture, then and later, was that it wound up getting too much Aristotle too soon, which deprived it of growth and dynamism.”
Obviously, a 700-page history couldn’t possibly be more reductionist than this. But, on the other hand, a good argument could be made that what’s here is where Western knowledge begins.
– Jeff Simon