Feeding the Monster
The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization
By Arthur Herman
Random House, 2013
After most revolutions tire of fighting their enemies, they begin executing their friends. Having led the “Terror,” Saint-Just stepped to the Guillotine. Trotsky’s final reward came in the form of an ice pick to the ear. The National Review stalks GOP party meetings in search of “Republicans In Name Only” (RHINOs) whom they can declare outside the “Big Tent” and target for defeat. American conservatism may claim many enemies on both sides of the isle, but in his new book, The Cave and the Light: Plato vs. Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization, American Enterprise Institute scholar Arthur Herman argues that they have focused far too much on modern targets. Herman’s previous worked sought to rehabilitate Joseph McCarthy. Here he has bigger fish in mind. Now he sets his sights on ancient greatest thinkers. Using a blizzard of charges from the calumnious to the absurd, Herman struggles to explain why all that is dangerous in modern thought, from Communism to radical Islam, finds its roots in the work of Socrates’ chief student, Plato, even as all that is right (Capitalism, freedom, etc) springs from Plato’s chief student, Aristotle. In this simplistic dichotomy can also be found the central flaw of Herman’s thesis; few readers with much familiar in his portrait of either of these ancient thinkers, let alone his often specious summaries of the great philosophers who came after them.
Refugees from Philosophy 101 will recognize the first portion of Herman’s argument: from the Agora forward one can trace most philosophical disputes back to Aristotle’s rejection of his teacher Plato. Yet for Herman this 2,400 year old disagreement is fundamentally Manichean: everything good, beautiful, and light arose from Aristotle, while all that is pernicious, destructive, and dark can be traced back to Plato. If that argument appears simplistic, it sounds no less so after 700-plus pages. In Herman’s construction, Aristotle is “the father of modern science [and] logic… [who] looks steadily forward,” while over on the dark side, “Plato…[spoke] for the theologian, the mystic…One gave us the US Constitution, the Manhattan Project and shopping malls. The other gave us Chartres Cathedral but also the gulag and the Holocaust.” Aristotle is nothing less than Jefferson’s intellectual grandfather. And Plato fans? “Pol Pot [and] the Ayatollah Khomeini…[a] huge admirer of Plato’s Republic.” Kohmeini’s favor must for Herman be particularly important, earning as it does more than one mention. And if this were not enough, he further poisons the pot by naming a variable rogues gallery as Plato fans: Robespierre, Marx, and – for good measure – Hitler. Thank goodness for us, Aristotle came along to rescue us from Plato’s clutches:
Plato looks constantly backwards, to what we were, or what we’ve lost or to an original of which we are the pale imitation or copy…Aristotle, by contrast, looks steadily forward to what can we can be rather than what we were. His outlook is by its nature optimistic: “The universe and everything in it is developing towards something continually better than what came before,” including ourselves. It is truly a “philosophy of aspiration,” and for Aristotle the world we make for ourselves continually reflects it. In that sense, Aristotle is the first great advocate of progress – and Plato, creator of the vanished utopia Atlantis, the first great theorist of the idea of decline.
Only the very cautious reader will note this passages red flags with regard to Herman’s method. The quotes used come not from Aristotle but from Bertrand Russell’s much criticized A History of Western Philosophy. Yet, as often as not Herman favors controversial secondary sources that fit his program and shows little patience for wrestling with complex original texts.
On the page, Herman’s Aristotle is funhouse-mirrored into an unrecognizable Jeffersonian caricature. Consider for example his assertion that “Aristotle concludes that power belongs best with the people [my emphasis].” This claim would no doubt come as a surprise to many, not least of all Aristotle. For Aristotle no one political scheme was “best.” Instead he divided governing schemes into three categories: Monarchy (rule of the one), Aristocracy (rule of the few), and Polity (rule of the many). Each possess strengths and weaknesses. Aristotle then further divided these into the “virtuous” (which strive for the “common advantage) and the“deviant” (where those in power serve not the general interest but only their own). He lays this scheme out in Book III of The Politics: “Tyranny is a kind of monarchy which has in view the interest of the monarch only; oligarchy has in view the interest of the wealthy; democracy, of the needy: none of them the common good of all.” As for “Polity,” for Aristotle the rule of “the many” is hardly popular sovereignty as understood by any democrat, whether modern or back in ancient Athens. His “many” was not our many. Ancient Athenian democracy was far more democratic than any modern state that embraces that particular term. In Athens citizenship included every militarily trained Athenian male over age eighteen. Unlike our system of delegated political power, every Athenian citizen could count himself among the assembly and cast his own vote on any matter of legislation or policy. Athenians likewise distrusted delegation of judicial power and juries could consist of as many as 6,000 members.
One such Athenian mass jury condemned Socrates to death for expressing thoughts with which the majority disagreed. No surprise then that Plato and Aristotle alike saw free wheeling Athenian democracy as dangerous. Yet Herman considers only Plato’s distrust for mass rule. Contrary to his argument, however, Aristotle likewise saw the masses as lacking the proper virtue to rule. As he clearly states in Book VII of The Politics, “The citizens must not lead the life of mechanics or tradesmen, for such a life is ignoble, and inimical to virtue. Neither must they be farmers, since leisure is necessary both for the development of virtue and the performance of political duties.” Thus Aristotle’s understanding of citizenship isa far cry from either that of Ancient Athens or our modern liberal image. Even mass citizenship, for Aristotle, means citizenship by a particular elite. Whether by ignorance or duplicity, Herman is all too willing to exploit such linguistic confusion around such terms to further his argument. Nor is this the end of Herman’s efforts to prettify Aristotle and demonize Plato.
Intent on dragging these ancient thinkers into every modern dispute, Herman conflates Aristotle with capitalism (and, of course, Plato with communism). While Aristotle saw the ownership of private property as ennobling and Plato saw great inequality between classes as a pernicious source of social friction, it is anachronistic to associate either with modern capitalism. Modern capitalism depends on far more than mere ownership. Neither thinker would likely much understand our modern belief in a natural right of property ownership. Yet Herman will have none of such fine distinctions. Consider for example, his description of the multitudinous virtues of a middle class Eighteenth-century English merchant:
Far from creating a poltroon, the Eighteenth Century saw the world of commerce creating a man who might have stepped out of the pages of Aristotle’s Ethic. This was someone intellectually alert and morally centered, regardful of others by habit and therefore not inclined to extremes of behavior…Above all he is inclined to be tolerant of others [my emphasis], whether they are Christians or Muslims or Jews.
A reader must wonder whether our merchant’s Catholic neighbor– denied the right to own property until 1788 and enfranchised only in 1829 – would share Herman’s rosy assessment. Such simplified schemes, however, remains essential to Herman’s “history” of ideas: from Aristotle through Locke to the Framers flows all the “right” ideas, all realized – apparently– through the ennobling virtues of capitalism and private property. And private property is what inspires those dangerous shadows which lurk in our culture’s darker corners: Plato and his intellectual children.
In Herman’s tracing of Plato’s “dangerous” thinking, he borrows liberally from Karl Popper. Herman, like Popper, sees Plato’s flaws arising from multiple points, though primarily the Philosopher’s anti-empiricism. For Plato, “truth” is deduced not through observation but through pure reason. The world exists not as a series of competing opinions, as in a democratic forum, but as an absolute, an absolute only recognizable if the world is properly understood. Of course, one can delete Plato’s “truth” and replace it with a system built around racial superiority or class conflict, which is how Herman, and Popper in The Open Society and its Enemies, lay everything from Auschwitz to the Gulag at Plato’s long-dead feet (not surprisingly, Herman never mentions that the second volume of Popper’s work traces other modern evils back to Aristotle).
Not that Herman’s simplistic division of Plato and Aristotle is wholly baseless. On the contrary, readers will recognize his view of their central conflict, with Plato’s method of understanding reality through pure thought against Aristotle’s reliance on empirical observation. Here again, however, in demonizing the former and polishing the latter, Herman fails to properly understand the strengths and weaknesses of either man’s system. Certainly, one of Aristotle’s contributions to thought is the importance of systemic understanding gained through observation. Aristotle’s scheme, however, falls short in its dismissal of innovation. Just as understanding the point of biology is to allow one to maximize understanding and utilization — but not improve — of the animal’s structure, so Aristotle understood the city. By analyzing various constitutions one can pick and choose from among their features; for Aristotle, however, imagining that one can come up with something wholly new is pure fantasy.
Yet Herman fails to understand the syncretic light thinkers have derived – and continue to derive – from mixing Plato and Aristotle’s contradictory world views. Consider the American Framers who Herman would place squarely in Aristotle’s column. Following Aristotle’s method they derived their understanding of government through empirical inquiry: the experiences of the 13 colonies and states, Great Britain’s Parliament, the failure of the Articles of Confederation, republics both extant and ancient. The Framers’ aspirational understanding of rights, however, was pure Platonic universalism: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Likewise, when Martin Luther King Jr. offered his dream of universal justice, he was drawing from a Platonic understanding of an ideal for which humanity must eternally strive.
This division between the empirical and the reasoned likewise occurs when readers engage in the age-old argument of which of these thinkers is closer to the “modern” view. At first glance, Herman seems correct that it is Aristotle. A closer examination, however, breeds doubt. Where Aristotle defends women’s subordination as nature’s dictate, The Republic implicitly recognizes the potential for gender equality. In a passage subject to much academic debate, Plato’s Socrates reasons that women of each class should engage in the same mental and physical training as men. The same problem can be seen in Aristotle’s praise for the virtues of slavery (an often cited antebellum justification for that ‘peculiar institution’) juxtaposed with Plato’s belief in the universal quality of human reason. Perhaps the strongest example of the potential found in mixing these intellectual rivals comes from one of the thinkers Herman most despises, Jean Jacques Rousseau.
For Herman, Rousseau is nothing less than Plato’s most dangerous disciple. Rousseau is the man responsible for the Terror of the French Revolution, anarchism, Communism, Nazism and just about every other ill – impressive work for the son of a Genevan watch maker. Focusing on Rousseau’s most famous book, The Social Contract, Herman argues that Rousseau follows closely in Plato’s footsteps. “This was Plato in the raw, the unflinching moral absolutist who denounced the corruption of his native Athens and admired the austere warriors of Sparta. It was the would-be Philosopher Ruler who wanted to banish the arts and private property…” Now it is worth pausing here to note that, far from imagining himself as a “would-be Philosopher Ruler,” Plato seems to have shown no appetite for engaging in politics beyond his academy, his only foray coming when as an old man he served as adviser to the king of Syracuse and his son’s tutor. Moreover, even a cursory read demonstrates that Rousseau argued for a state not ruled by a king on high, but of free citizens engaged in self rule. Nor did Rousseau’s method rely on Plato’s pure reason. From the beginning of The Social Contract Rousseau draws on empirical evidence to support his understanding of the “state of nature” even as his ideal society borrows liberally from his native city-state of Geneva. Even the work’s most famous line demonstrates the power found in utilizing both Aristotle and Plato: “…taking men as they are and laws as they may be…,” an extraordinary mix of empirical examination and aspirational reason! Unfortunately Herman chooses not to engage Rousseau’s actual thesis, but instead settles for his usual salvos of character assassination, shoddy analysis, and outright misrepresentation (as when he falsely claims that Rousseau’s ideal state will abolish private property), all as part of his broader assault on Plato.
Herman’s use of Rousseau to attack Plato (and vice-versa) demonstrates the core of his book’s shortcomings:he condemns thinkers he doesn’t like by attacking them for not being modern, even as he beatifies those of whom he approves by drowning them in a sea of anachronistic modern thought . Instead of trying to understand Plato and Aristotle in their own ancient context he seeks to drag them into our peculiar modern left-right political dichotomy, the former always in his scheme on the wrong side even as the latter is in every sense on the right. Consider for example his argument that sets Plato up as the grandfather of the modern welfare state:
Hegel is the true godfather of the nanny state, or welfare state – with Plato standing beside him at the baptismal font. Unemployment insurance, health and safety regulation, minimum wage laws and aide to dependent children, the income tax and federal deposit insurance: all these become justified as the State acting to protect us from ourselves, because the State is our Better and Higher Self.
Of course, one might look to the actual origins of the welfare state in Bismarck’s realpolitik efforts to counter his social democrat opponents or, as described in President Lincoln’s more generous practical thesis, that “The legitimate object of government is, to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves – in their separate and individual capacities.” In such a formulation, the welfare state is no Leviathan, but instead the reflection of the members of a community acting collectively in purist of what they see as their individual self interest.
Herman, however, colorblind in his worldview, only perceives the world through the lens of a black and white conflict. In this duelist construction every thinker must be understood in the context of our current argument, their particular context merely incidental. Yet dismissing ancient thinkers for their failure to share our world view or understanding them exclusively as progenitors of our ephemeral disputes leaves the modern reader intellectually bereft, albeit feeling smugly superior. It tautologically condemns ancient thinkers for the sin of being ancient. One does not further his or her understanding by projecting our modern and post-modern ideas backwards onto thinkers for whom they would be somewhere between inconceivable and absurd. Instead of bending philosophers’ works to suit our particular tastes by dragging them into our now, we do better extending our imagination in an effort to appreciate them in their own context. Yes, this demands a challenging feat of imagination. At the same time, It forces us to wrestle with the thinkers of the past instead of burying them.
Jordan Magill is a freelance writer making his Open Letters Monthly debut.