The ongoing impact of Plato and Aristotle

9780553385663Think two Greeks who died more than 2,300 years ago have little to tell us about today’s political climate? Arthur Herman asks you to think again. The history professor and best-selling author devoted his latest book, The Cave and the Light, to the proposition that Western intellectual history during the past two millennia has consisted largely of reactions to the key ideas promulgated by Plato and Aristotle.

The argument can come across at times as overly simplified, but Herman reminds us about some of history’s most important political and intellectual developments. He also warns us about key problems linked to an overreliance on either of history’s two most famous philosophers.

History shows that too much Plato brings s rigid dogmatism and an elitist arrogance — which, as Karl Popper pointed out and as the word saw in the age of Hitler and Stalin and Mao, easily slides into totalitarianism. The twentieth-century successors to Aristotle, the voice of enlightened liberal Europe, forgot how to defend themselves and allowed the totalitarians, with their passionate intensity and contempt for debate, to goose-step into power. The catastrophes of the twentieth century arose not because men argued too much but because they gave up arguing at all.

Such are the perils of too much Plato. Too much Aristotle, on the other hand, ends in the narrow-minded sterility that dominated the scholasticism of the Middle Ages, in which everything is reduced to rote formulae and habit and individual creativity is stamped out. A complacent behavioralist calculus begins to govern social and political relationships, fellow human beings become abstract unknowable ciphers to be manipulated at will. …

… It is the balance between living in the material and adhering to the spiritual that sustains any society’s cultural health. Other civilizations and religions — India, Egypt, China, Buddhism, and Islam — have confronted these same issues throughout their histories. They erected their own cultural edifices to deal with them. The problem has been that the West’s material drive and dynamism — the product of the same creative tension described in this book — has tended to reach out and pull down those older, more stable edifices, the traditional guarantees for social and psychological survival.

This, far more than any financial meltdown, is the real enduring crisis of the modern global system.

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