The definitive sequel to New York Times bestseller How the Scots Invented the Modern World is a magisterial account of how the two greatest thinkers of the ancient world, Plato and Aristotle, laid the foundations of Western culture—and how their rivalry shaped the essential features of our culture down to the present day.
Plato came from a wealthy, connected Athenian family and lived a comfortable upper-class lifestyle until he met an odd little man named Socrates, who showed him a new world of ideas and ideals. Socrates taught Plato that a man must use reason to attain wisdom, and that the life of a lover of wisdom, a philosopher, was the pinnacle of achievement. Plato dedicated himself to living that ideal and went on to create a school, his famed Academy, to teach others the path to enlightenment through contemplation.
However, the same Academy that spread Plato’s teachings also fostered his greatest rival. Born to a family of Greek physicians, Aristotle had learned early on the value of observation and hands-on experience. Rather than rely on pure contemplation, he insisted that the truest path to knowledge is through empirical discovery and exploration of the world around us. Aristotle, Plato’s most brilliant pupil, thus settled on a philosophy very different from his instructor’s and launched a rivalry with profound effects on Western culture.
The two men disagreed on the fundamental purpose of the philosophy. For Plato, the image of the cave summed up man’s destined path, emerging from the darkness of material existence to the light of a higher and more spiritual truth. Aristotle thought otherwise. Instead of rising above mundane reality, he insisted, the philosopher’s job is to explain how the real world works, and how we can find our place in it. Aristotle set up a school in Athens to rival Plato’s Academy: the Lyceum. The competition that ensued between the two schools, and between Plato and Aristotle, set the world on an intellectual adventure that lasted through the Middle Ages and Renaissance and that still continues today.
From Martin Luther (who named Aristotle the third great enemy of true religion, after the devil and the Pope) to Karl Marx (whose utopian views rival Plato’s), heroes and villains of history have been inspired and incensed by these two master philosophers—but never outside their influence.
Accessible, riveting, and eloquently written, The Cave and the Light provides a stunning new perspective on the Western world, certain to open eyes and stir debate.
Praise for The Cave and the Light
“A sweeping intellectual history viewed through two ancient Greek lenses . . . breezy and enthusiastic but resting on a sturdy rock of research.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Examining mathematics, politics, theology, and architecture, the book demonstrates the continuing relevance of the ancient world.”—Publishers Weekly
“A fabulous way to understand over two millennia of history, all in one book.”—Library Journal
“Entertaining and often illuminating.”—The Wall Street Journal
In his sweeping new book, historian Herman (How the Scots Invented the Modern World) contends that Plato and Aristotle had vastly different conceptions about the world, and that the various followers and interpreters of each thinker, throughout the ages, shaped the course of Western civilization. According to Herman, Plato views "the world through the eyes of the artist and religious mystic," using intuition and ideals to understand the workings of the world, while Aristotle "observes reality through the... eyes of science," using reason and logic as guides. Beginning with biographies of each thinker and unusual facts, the book traces the rise and fall of their respective philosophies. While Plato was dominant in the ancient world, with St. Paul linking the philosopher's idea of the forms to early Christianity, Aristotle, through Thomas Aquinas, was prominent in the Middle Ages. While Aristotle's authority caused science to stagnate in the Middle Ages, Plato's ideas especially those described in The Republic were sometimes used to justify totalitarianism, influencing 20th-century communism, fascism, and Nazism. Examining mathematics, politics, theology, and architecture, the book demonstrates the continuing relevance of the ancient world. 46 illus.
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My new favorite book and one that I am sure will always be my favorite from this point forward.