Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Book Report: THE CAVE AND THE LIGHT by Arthur Herman (Random House, 2013)

It's been quite a while since I've read a book as enlightening as this.  Arthur Herman (HOW THE SCOTS INVENTED THE MODERN WORLD) walks us through the history of Western civilization on the twin shoulders of Plato and Aristotle, who might be described as the "ultimate dead white males."  The two philosophers' disagreements over the nature of reality and how best to understand the world continue to echo today.  While I fully realize that Herman's disputatious dipole can't be used to explain every subsequent current in Western thought, it does provide a useful framework through which to understand how philosophical systems grew, flourished, declined, and/or adapted over time as they attempted to co-opt and/or synthesize the Platonian and Aristotelian worldviews.

Though Herman certainly does not short-shrift Plato's successors and carefully lays out the good and the bad consequences of the two Greeks' philosophies, it's not hard to detect a subtle Aristotelian bias.  The best evidence of this is the inclusion, amidst a list of the very heaviest of philosophical hitters, of Ayn Rand.  One of Herman's previous books covered the theme of the "heroic entrepreneur" as it related to American war production during World War II, so I do see how Rand's thinking along those lines might have appealed to him. 

This would be an excellent "companion" book for a high-school or college course on "good old Western civ" or just a good, browse-able read for anyone seeking to further their liberal education outside the walls of academe.  I think that I'll be revisiting it more than once.

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