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Plato vs. Aristotle: True, But Not True Enough

Scuola di Atene by Raphael.

A teacher of unprecedented brilliance pitted against the student who repudiated his master, their relationship developed into a rivalry with repercussions that continue to this day: Plato and Aristotle. The greatest Greek philosophers provided the theme of Arthur Herman’s new book, The Cave and The Light: Plato versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization.

Herman sets out to show that the debate between these two thinkers, who lived about 400 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, provides the distinctive, even governing, feature of Western civilization.

“One path – Plato’s path – sees the world through the eyes of the religious mystic as well as the artist,” he writes in The Cave and the Light. “The path of Aristotle, by contrast, observes reality through the sober eyes of science and reveals the power of logic and analysis as tools of human freedom.”

Western civilization depends on both for its vigor, according to Herman. “It’s the constant tension between these two ways of seeing the world – the material versus the spiritual, the practical versus the insightful-intuitive side – it’s the creative tension, like the drawing of a string of a bow, that creates the dynamism that’s been so characteristic of western culture throughout its history,” he said during a Nov. 12 presentation at the American Enterprise Institute. “The periods of time in which one side or the other tends to win out, those are times of stagnation and decline.”

Herman narrates the last 2,400 years of Western history in terms of this contest. Early Christians such as St. Paul and St. Augustine relied on Plato for “the conceptual spine” of their faith, he said, and this relationship accounts for the religion’s rapid spread. Aristotle ended Plato’s hegemony in the 12th century when Thomas Aquinas relied on his ideas to reconcile natural reason with divine revelation. Aquinas’ singular achievement was “the fusion of Platonized Christianity with Aristotle’s science of man.”

“But it doesn’t stick, it doesn’t hold – because it can’t,” Herman said at AEI, during a lecture and discussion with Alex Pollock and Charles Murray of AEI and the Hudson Institute’s John Weicher. In the book, he offers the Reformation and the Renaissance as Platonic repudiations of the arid Aristotelian scholastics.

And so the story of Western culture seeking a balance between Plato and Aristotle goes, to and through the settlement of the New World and founding of the United States.

“American exceptionalism is about achieving that kind of a balance,” he said. “You have people who come with this highly Calvinistic belief in the creation of a perfect community, which they inherit from Plato . . . But, at the same time, also, the [Aristotelian] idea of liberty – religious liberty but also political liberty.”

Plato comes off as the more dangerous of the two thinkers, although Herman allowed that “the legacy of both is ambiguous.”

The argument

Their disagreement, and Herman’s problem with Platonic thought, arises from their respective views of God and nature.

Plato conceived of the world of human existence as a mere copy of the divine order in every way, from the earthly trees (which stand as images of the abstract Form of the tree) to the justice administered in human courts (nothing but a pale imitation of divine justice). A beneficent God (who is the ultimate Form from which the universe is copied) “demands from us not worship through ritual and sacrifice, but our mind’s assent to the lays and principles He has laid out for His Creation,” as Herman puts it in the book.

Muslim culture stands as a cautionary tale. Islamic intelligentsia treasured Aristotle long before Aquinas; indeed, Western Christians received access to “the Philosopher” (Aquinas’ name for Aristotle) through the use of Arabic texts.

This idea leads to Plato’s vision of the ideal society as one governed by a Philosopher Ruler, one of the rare few who truly understands those principles and can order human society in accordance with them. Herman regards the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth-century (along with their more moderate cousin, American progressivism) as bat-faced children of Plato. He believes that they demonstrate the danger of Platonic thought triumphing too completely over Aristotle.

“I have historicized the historicizers and shown that the whole race/class/gender approach . . . is in fact itself the product of precisely the same kind of battle and precisely of one side – particularly the Platonist-Hegelian side, the Marxist side – having in a sense dominated and taken over the intellectual discussion,” Herman told the AEI assembly.

Aristotle inverted Plato’s view of the world because he regarded God as the Unmoved Mover who caused all things to exist. Thus, true knowledge comes from studying the created order and particular things within that order. “This reversal left Aristotle’s philosophy with a built-in bias in favor of the individual: in science, in metaphysics, in ethics, and later in politics,” Herman writes.

Such an individualist philosophy appears more congenial to American politics, but has its dangers. Muslim culture stands as a cautionary tale. Islamic intelligentsia treasured Aristotle long before Aquinas; indeed, Western Christians received access to “the Philosopher” (Aquinas’ name for Aristotle) through the use of Arabic texts.

Unfortunately, “the Islamic mind turned its back on Plato,” Herman writes. “[I]t wound up getting too much Aristotle too soon, which deprived it of its growth and dynamism. Aristotle’s scientific and logical treatises became the basis of a fossilized orthodoxy in Arab culture, dry and lifeless and unchanging over the centuries.”

Not so in Western Europe, Herman says, because of Martin Luther, who thought excessive fidelity to Aristotle had led the church into error.

“When I started in this project, Aristotle was, I have to say, the guy I was pulling for, particularly when thinking in the political realms and the impact that Plato’s view of politics has had, the destructive role it’s had in the 20th century,” Herman said at AEI. “But I also ended up pulling for Plato, because I understood that degree in which that heroic willingness to stand and say this is true no matter what – Martin Luther, ‘here I stand, I can do no other’ – you need that in a culture.”

“I, too, want Plato in there as sort of the loyal opposition, but in the minority,” AEI scholar Charles Murray said to describe the desirable balance between Aristotelian and Platonic ideas.

Murray praised Herman for providing an antidote to the “nonjudgmentalism” prevalent on so many contemporary college campuses.

“It portrays throughout history the ways in which all progress has depended on people making judgments,” Murray explained, judgments about ethics, aesthetics, science, and the like.

Herman’s argument also serves as a corrective to some of the ham-fisted theses that have settled into conventional wisdom, such as the so-called conflict between science and Christianity.

“The conflict is not reason versus science, it is Plato versus Aristotle . . . I’m scrambling all those old dichotomies you’ve grown up with,” Herman said at AEI.


The Western Heritage

In submitting an alternative conflict thesis, however, Herman creates a new dichotomy that itself sometimes needs scrambling.

This begins with the rigid distinction Herman makes between Plato and Aristotle, who had different methods of knowing but also agreed on crucial ideas. For instance, Aristotle taught in his Nicomachean Ethics that “happiness is an activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue” – a statement that seems to undermine Herman’s contention that the followers of Plato, not Aristotle, find their “strength in the realm of contemplation.”

Elsewhere, Herman characterizes Plato as the locus of “righteous anger” at injustice – example: Martin Luther – while saying that “the dangers of the Aristotelian approach  . . . involve an acceptance of the status quo that can shade into timidity.” And yet, Aristotle shared Plato’s esteem for fortitude; in his Rhetoric, he described courage as one of the “forms of virtue,” second only to justice.

John Weicher discussed The Cave and the Light in glowing terms, but his remarks on Aristotle’s teachings on the division of labor also revealed the trouble with a too-rigorous adherence to the book’s categories.

“[Aristotle’s division of labor] gets laid out explicitly for the first time by Martin Luther, which is interesting because Luther was very much a Platonist,” Weicher said during the discussion period of the AEI event. “Luther believed that all vocations were essentially equal in the sight of God . . . So, us economists are very much Aristotelians – and I was rooting for Aristotle all the way through – but we are also Lutherans, which may come as a surprise to those of us, three of us, in the room that are economists.”

That’s not the impression of Luther created by the book. Herman portrays the German theologian as a relentless antagonistic of Aristotle and the Roman Catholic Church of the day.

“The just shall live by faith,” Herman writes while discussing Luther’s interpretation of St. Paul’s teachings. “In other words, no relic, no person, no priest, not even the pope himself, could absolve anyone from sin, because such forgiveness was beyond the power of any mortal creature.” That encapsulation of the German theologian’s teaching jars with the experience of Lutheran pastors around the world, who say “in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins” to their congregants on a regular basis.

“I have a high regard for private confession, for here God’s word and absolution are spoken privately and individually to each believer for the forgiveness of sins,” Luther himself wrote.

Herman’s flattened version of Luther reflects his larger thesis about Plato and Aristotle because it makes the reformer appear to agree more with John Calvin than he did; and Calvin appears in The Cave and The Light as a type of Philosopher Ruler of “the Swiss city of Geneva [which] rivaled Plato’s Republic in its single-minded dedication to an ideal of spiritual perfection.”  The observation plays into Herman’s contention that the Reformation amounts to a Christian pursuit of “the goal for all men that Plato had wanted.”

Another difficulty in crafting such a conflict thesis comes not from what gets put into the book, but what gets left out.

Take the Roman orator Cicero, for example. After allowing that Cicero “admired Plato more than any other thinker,” Herman discusses Cicero’s writings almost entirely by reference to his debt to Aristotle. Ultimately, he characterizes Cicero’s attempt to strike a “balance between the state and the citizen” merely as “Aristotle’s next major contribution to the Western political tradition.”

By the same token, Cicero doesn’t receive enough credit as an independent intellectual, one who did not merely derive his ideas from Greek forebears, but made his own substantive contribution to the Western heritage.

“The Romans mastered Greek culture . . . But they never went beyond it or challenged it,” Herman writes.

Herman’s system leaks at times, but it also provides an engaging distillation of much of the intellectual ferment that has taken place over the last 2,400 years.

The great English humanist, St. Thomas More, agreed – to a point. He thought it was fair to say that “the Romans wrote their philosophy in Greek or translated it from the Greek,” but only “if you leave out Cicero and Seneca.”

Cicero wrote one of his greatest works, On Duties, to his son (then a student in Athens) in order to teach lessons that he believed the boy would not receive from his Greek educators. On Duties enjoyed such lasting prestige that Johannes Gutenberg selected it as the second book, after the Bible, that he would copy on his printing press.

Herman mentions On Duties, but does not engage it as a notable work in its own right or acknowledge the singular contribution to the Western tradition made by Cicero in that letter.

(Still, Herman deserves credit for introducing his readers to Cicero at all. The editors of the eighth edition of the Norton Anthology of Western Literature didn’t bother to include anything written by this important philosopher.)

The scant reference to On Duties in the book suggests that Herman overstates his case when he contends that “much, if not all, [of the history of the West] lies in the perpetual struggle between Plato and Aristotle,” insofar as the thesis doesn’t accommodate such an important work.

“All systems leak because they are nothing but human creations, and wrong precisely to the extent to which human beings, by failing to consider their limitations, attempt to force their recognitions into symmetrical ‘laws’ and ‘systems,’” John Lukacs wrote in his book on Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past.

Herman’s system leaks at times, but it also provides an engaging distillation of much of the intellectual ferment that has taken place over the last 2,400 years. His vignettes touch on important, often forgotten personalities and events in Western culture that readers – and students in classrooms around the country – might not encounter otherwise.

“It’s practically a liberal education in itself to read this book,” said AEI’s Alex Pollock. It’s at least a one-volume bibliography for much of the best that has been thought and said in the Western heritage.

Herman tells readers of the enormous influence that Plato and Aristotle had over Western culture, a reminder that many students might never hear in a contemporary academic setting. To the extent that the two Greek philosophers appear to crowd other singular figures out of the Western heritage, though, The Cave and The Light makes an argument that is true, but not true enough.

Follow Joel Gehrke on Twitter.