Plato vs. Aristotle

Joel Gehrke gives an interesting review and discussion of Arthur Herman's The Cave and The Light: Plato versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization over at the Federalist.

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 ...

I enjoyed the review and the book sounds pretty good, though Gehrke points out some problems with the argument.


Grim said...

His interpretation of Islam is historically inaccurate. Aristotle was associated with Islam at its height. Islam turned away from Aristotle with the rise of the Sufi movement, which began to become popular around the time of Averroes' death (indeed, as an old man, he met 'the great master' of Sufi Islam, Ibn Arabi, who was then a young man).

Sufi Islam is one that we Westerners tend to think of as relatively inoffensive (and certainly, compared to modern reformation movements like Wahhabi Islam, it is). It tends toward mysticism, which means setting aside the intellectual in favor of a direct experience. Unlike Plato, whose followers often also turned to mysticism, the idea is to encounter the ineffable rather than to find a way to understand it. Thus, as Sufi Islam became popular, Muslim leaders stopped thinking so much. The result was a society that slumped and stagnated in terms of technical progress, but that was probably not hideously unpleasant to live in.

Not to lay all of the blame for Islam's long slumber at the feet of the Sufis. There were two major catastrophes for Islam's intellectual side in the same period. The first was the West's reconquest of the great centers of learning in Spain, which led to the recovery of much of Aristotle by Western thinkers. The other was the Mongol Horde, which destroyed the great centers of learning in the east. Islam as a civilization was tremendously impoverished by these twin blows.

Tom said...

I debated whether to put this comment here or under my Chesterton's fence post, but it seems a better fit here.

I vaguely remember an argument by Bernard Lewis, I think, about a third factor that caused Islamic stagnation. In Islam there is a belief that the whole body of believers cannot go wrong, so whatever they accept over time must be OK. This allowed several centuries of natural development. However, in the ... 12th century? I forget, but around there, the imams declared that Islam had reached perfection and therefore any new development was necessarily an error. The community could go wrong. This stopped the development of the faith and is one reason Islam today is having such a difficulty adapting to the modern world.

If I remember correctly, of course.

Grim said...

That's roughly correct. You're talking about the closing of ijtihad, which was a move that Averroes argued against strongly.

He didn't win, though.

james said...

I have the impression that the closing of ijtihad was in part a reaction to movements like the Sufis. Thought was going in too many directions, some of them semi-secular and some favoring experience over praxis, like the Sufis.