What would Plato and Aristotle have to say about our world if they suddenly reappeared?
That is the question that popped into my mind as I finished reading Arthur Herman’s 2013 book, The Cave and the Light. Would they be astonished and what things would amaze them? What things would cause them to slowly shake their heads, hung low from slumped shoulders?
The book is longish — 570 pages — but this is forgiven because it covers 2,400 years of western history and many of the kings, philosophers, Popes, artists, and scientists in those millenia.
Roger Kimball in his review in The Wall Street Journal wrote
Mr. Herman is one of those writers whose appetite for ideas and command of narrative drama make them a companionable guide through the thickets of intellectual history. Often, as in “How the Scots Invented the Modern World” (2001), he advances a bold thesis that readers can take or leave without diminishing their enjoyment of the story he unfolds. In “The Cave and the Light,” he seeks to explain the metabolism of history with a single master idea: the perpetual struggle or “creative tension” between the ideas of Plato—which he says emphasize the ideal at the expense of the actual—and those of Aristotle, whose philosophy remains rooted in experience and everyday life.
It might seem odd to search for “the soul of Western Civilization” in the work of two philosophers from the fourth century B.C. In the pantheon of Dead White European Males, are there any specimens more deeply interred? But Mr. Herman takes the reader on a rollicking trip from classical Athens to 21st-century New York to make the case that “everything we say, do, and see” has been shaped—”in one way or another”—by the ideas of Plato or Aristotle.
And what were those ideas, exactly? Mr. Herman turns to Plato’s allegory in Book VII of “The Republic” to explain. Socrates compares the lot of most men to bound prisoners in a cave. A fire behind them casts a play of shadows on the wall in front, and these shadows they naturally mistake for reality. As Yeats said in “Among School Children”: “Plato thought nature but a spume that plays / Upon a ghostly paradigm of things.”
Imagine the prisoner set free. His eyes would be dazzled first by the fire and then, as he emerged from the cave, by the sunlight outside—a world of ideal forms, the true reality. This journey upward, says Socrates, is like the “upward journey of the soul” from the deceptive realm of the senses to a realm of timeless if abstract certainty. For Aristotle, by contrast, the world wasn’t a shadow-filled cave but a provocation to curiosity, a place to be investigated for itself. Mr. Herman several times quotes his declaration that “the fact is our starting point.”
In my undergraduate days I had read a number of the books covered by Herman’s journey through time such as Plato’s Republic and Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. But expecting someone to crack open a copy of Republic is perhaps asking too much in these time-pressed days (and truth be told I doubt I would have read Plato unless it was required reading for a course). But Herman’s book not only summarizes the core ideas of these thinkers, he does so without dumbing them down. He also provides a fair amount of context to make these distant times more contemporary.
For example, the section on a thinker named Polybius who lived in Rome around 167 BCE, and his forecast (in The Histories) of the inevitable breakdown of their Empire are eerie to the modern reader, especially in light of what is happening around the world today:
Polybius went back to the Republic, where in Books VIII and IX Plato gives us his most trenchant analysis of politics as it actually works, as opposed to the utopian ideal he outlined earlier in the work. Socrates warns his listeners that every political system that fails to live up to those ideal principles must eventually be overtaken by an inevitable cycle of decay and collapse. It is a chilling story, made more chilling by the sober, matter-of-fact way Socrates tells it.
For example, Socrates explains that the dissolute freedom of democracies like that of Athens, “which treats all men as equals whether they are equal or not,” must lead inevitably to moral corruption, civic disorder, and mob rule. He implicitly dismisses Aristotle’s notion that a system based on the idea that those who rule are ruled in turn, if only by the rule of law, will ever work in practice. Instead, democratic man “lives from day-to-day, indulging in the pleasures of the moment” and refusing to accept any order or restraint, including the restraint of law. The chaos that results will lead inevitably to one-man rule, he says, in order to restore calm.
At first, one-man rule will be respected and even invested with the legal trappings of kingship. However, “the man who tastes a single piece of human flesh,” Socrates says, “is fated to become a wolf.” As the ruler’s appetite for power grows, kingship, too, “degenerates into its corrupt but associated form, by which I mean tyranny.” Tyranny triggers resentment, revolution, and violent overthrow again. Out of the rubble of the rule of One emerges the rule of those who have led the revolt against it, namely a jealous and self-interested aristocracy.
Yet this, too, eventually decays into something corrupt and ugly, namely the naked rule of the rich, which breeds a bitter wave of resentment among the underprivileged masses. According to Plato, society now splits “into two factions, the rich and the poor, who live in the same place but are always plotting against each other.” When this class struggle reaches its climax, the poor rise up in their massive numbers to claim power for themselves, and so “democracy is born” again.
And so it goes, at least according to Plato. As he explains it, the same dreary process repeats itself over and over, an endless cycle of political decay, revolution, and renewal without end or purpose. This is the dismal cycle, the Republic explains, that all those condemned to live in the cave are fated to repeat. It is this cycle, that only rule by philosophers can ever interrupt or break.
For the Romans, Polybius argued, this had to be a sobering wake-up call. His Histories subtly transformed Plato’s cycle from a specific theory of government into a general theory of history. This pointless cycle, “described in greatest detail by Plato,” Polybius wrote, had evidently doomed Greece to impotence, as the free city-states of Greece had yielded to the power of Alexander and the Macedonians, which then decayed into warring petty kingdoms and acrimonious intercity feuds, making Rome’s rise to power inevitable. Could Rome expect to evade the same fate? Mixed constitution or not, Polybius regretted to conclude it could not.
Sooner or later, doom would come to the greatest empire in the world.
Were he around today, perhaps Polybius would be a consultant and as a consultant perhaps he might create some sort of PowerPoint slide of his political cycle. Where in the cycle are we today? For example, where is the U.S? Is America at the transition between the chaos of the end days of democracy and the phase of one-man rule? Or are we well into the phase where there are two factions, the rich and the poor, engaged in a growing class struggle that eventually will lead to democracy?