The Cave and the Light - Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization - Arthur Herman

Plato’s path—sees the world through the eyes of the religious mystic as well as the artist. It finds its strength in the realm of contemplation and speculation and seeks to unleash the power of human beings’ dreams and desires.

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. “The fact is our starting point,” he said, and meant it.

Socrates got an unjust death sentence. When his disciples discussed freeing him he responded:

To break the law, he told Crito, even a law that he knew was unjust, would be wrong.

one must not do wrong even when one is wronged. By doing wrong, a man did injury to his soul. Doing right, by contrast, makes his soul healthy and strong.

Plato made Socrates into the single most influential thinker in history

“Thales signaled a major change in Greek thinking and world thinking. A new, rational way of understanding reality was born, as opposed to one tied to myth or religious ritual”

“The world is a living fire,” Heraclitus is supposed to have said, while his most famous sayings of all, “All things change” (Panta rhei) and “You cannot step into the same river twice,” make him the father of relativism: a relativism that teeters on the brink of embracing chaos”

the cryptic commandment issued by the Oracle at Delphi: Know thyself. Socrates was merely asking the next obvious question. What is the self? Who is this self who is observing all this change going on ”

Most people retreat from uncomfortable truths about themselves. They dismiss these occasional insights into reality (“I’m wasting my time playing video games all day” or “This job makes me a peddler of lies” or “Politics is a farce”) as impractical or unrealistic and subside back into their mundane existence among the shadows in the cave.

H. L. Mencken once said that conscience is the voice that says, “Someone might be looking.” For Plato, that someone is the higher self

No one can ever know true Justice or Beauty in his mortal lifetime. He can, however, make the search for that higher knowledge his life’s work, just as Socrates did.

Our soul already knows the answer, that is why we can get there by the socratic method. Applying reason to refresh our memory.

figure out for himself that the area of a square is proportional to the second power of the length of the sides.

As the condemned man, Socrates spoke last. He remained quietly defiant. He warned the jury that his ultimate responsibility was not to them, but to his conscience, or what he called his “inner voice”: his own soul.

Socrates insisted that it was better to suffer wrong than inflict it

The fact that Athens had sentenced Socrates to death was more than an unjust act. It was final proof that human institutions were flawed by their nature, even those ostensibly concerned with democracy and justice, because they are all based on opinion and illusion

Aristotle is no woolly-minded, dreamy-eyed philosopher. He is the realist and empiricist compared with Plato the mystic and idealist. Aristotle believed his teacher’s dismissal of the material world as a realm of illusion and error was a major mistake, and he devoted himself to analyzing that world in all its rich multiplicity. If Plato tells us to leave the cave in order to find a higher truth beyond the senses, Aristotle retorts: Don’t be in such a hurry. What happens in that cave is not only important, but the only reality we can truly know.

Aristotle’s overriding conviction that philosophy must necessarily be an open book, with everything as clear, organized, and straightforward as possible even for the slowest student.

He was the first to use the observation that ships sailing out to sea seem to vanish over the horizon hull first, then masts and sails, to draw a far-reaching conclusion: that the earth must be round.

Aristotle believed that the goal of political institutions was man’s improvement rather than his perfection

Plato’s outspoken admiration for Sparta reveals a lot about his ultimate political agenda. That state’s regimented and austere values (Sparta was more of a collection of agricultural villages than an urban city) stood in sharp contrast with sophisticated, freewheeling, commercial Athens.

Spartan citizens were not allowed to use money, practice a trade, make a statue, or write a poem. Neither are Plato’s Guardians in the Republic.


On Archimedes, siege warfare, the attack of Syracuse, in Greek hands, by Rome, the new ruler of the Mediterranean.


On Cicero

“Advice is judged by results, not intentions.”




“Constantine would be the emperor who would finally make the world safe for Christianity”

Saint Augustine


“Philosophy as “a preparation for death” was no moot point for Boethius. Soon after he finished the Consolation, his guards led him away. He was forced to kneel on the stone floor, and a cord was tied around his temple and across his eyes. On Theodoric’s order, the executioner wound the cord tighter and tighter until the Roman’s eyes popped loose from their sockets. Then, in unbearable agony, he was bludgeoned to death with iron rods.”

“Life is bound to be stormy for the virtuous man, Boethius wrote, whose “chief aim in the sea of life is to displease wicked men.” In those rough waters, we want Socrates on our bridge.”

“Abelard concluded, “no one can believe something which he has not first understood”



Gerard translates Aristotle from Arabic to make them available once again to the Christian West.