😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
In this comprehensive view of the last 2,500 years, Arthur Herman sets out to prove his contention that the history of Western civilisation has been influenced and affected through the centuries by the tension between the worldviews of the two greatest of the Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. And for this reader at least, his argument is a convincing one.
The book covers so much in terms of both philosophy and history that a full review would run to thousands of words. Happily that’s not going to happen here, dear reader. I will simply say that, from knowing virtually nothing about philosophy, I now feel as well informed as if I had done an undergraduate level course in the subject.
Herman starts way back at Socrates and brings us right up to the philosophers of the late twentieth century. He begins by giving a fairly in-depth analysis of the chief insights of both Plato and his former pupil Aristotle, using Plato’s metaphor of the cave and the light to show how their views diverged. He shows Plato as the mystic and idealist, believer in the divinity of Pythagorean geometry, advocate of the philosopher king, believing that the route to the light of wisdom is available only to some through contemplation and speculation and that these few should set rules for the rest to follow. Aristotle is shown as the man of science and common sense, believing that there is much to be learned from an examination of life in the cave itself and advocating that all men (sorry, women, you’ll have to wait a couple of millennia) should be involved in government with the family at the heart of society.
Herman takes these rival viewpoints (which I have grossly oversimplified and can only hope that I’ve got the basics approximately right) and shows how each has achieved ascendancy at different points in history. And what a journey he takes us on! The fall of Greek civilisation, the Roman Empire, the birth and rise of Christianity, the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Revolution and on past the rise of totalitarianism to the end of the Cold War. Phew! At each step along the way, he discusses the leading philosophers of the time, linking the chain of development of the various schools of thought back in a continuous line to one or other of Plato and Aristotle – occasionally both – and showing how the thinkers of the time affected the politics of nations. To my personal delight, he pays considerable attention to the Scottish contribution to the Enlightenment.
This is not just a history of philosophy and philosophers though – like philosophy itself, it covers just about every area of human interaction. The book provides the clearest overview I have ever read of the rise and development of Christianity, the divisions and schisms, the beliefs of the various factions. Herman leads us through from the Old Testament, St Paul, St Thomas Aquinas, Abelard, Erasmus – well, you name them, they’re here. He tells us about the people as individuals as well as their beliefs, so we learn about their backgrounds, where they were educated, whom they were influenced by and whom they in turn influenced.
On politics, amongst many other things, Herman writes in depth about the philosophers of the French Revolution, the founding of the American constitution and the rise of Nazism and fascism. He convincingly argues that the twentieth century history of the parallel rise of democracy and totalitarianism was seeded in the divide between Aristotle and Plato over two millennia earlier. Again the links in the chain are carefully connected – from Plato to Karl Marx, from Aristotle to Karl Popper.
The third main strand is science, and again Herman leads us through the ages, showing the close interconnection between the development of science and philosophy, together with the influence of scientific advancement on religion and politics – and vice versa.
Herman’s writing style is amazingly accessible considering the breadth and depth of the information that he conveys. He doesn’t over-simplify, but explains clearly enough for the non-academic to follow his arguments. My review suggests that he treats each of the strands separately, but in fact he tells the story in a linear fashion, weaving all the strands together, so that a very clear picture is given of the different stages of development of each at a given point in time. At points where it might all get too confusing, he takes the time to repeat the basics to put them into the context of the period he’s discussing, meaning that this poor befuddled reader didn’t have to keep flicking back to remind herself of who believed what.
There is so much in the book that I found this review particularly difficult to write. If I have given any idea of how impressive I found it, then the review has worked. That’s not to say I didn’t disagree with Herman from time to time. On occasion I felt he was stretching his argument a bit too far, perhaps, and once or twice he would make a sweeping statement completely dismissing conventionally held views in favour of his own. And towards the end I felt he was perhaps allowing his own political viewpoint to show through a little too much, in favour of ‘Aristotelian’ capitalism as opposed to ‘Platonic’ socialism for instance (though he pulled that back a little in his conclusion). But the very fact that, by the end of the book, I occasionally felt in a position to question his stance showed me how much I had gained from reading it. Not the lightest read in the world, but for anyone who wants to understand the fundamentals and history of Western philosophy, highly recommended.
Arthur Herman has been a Professor of History at various universities in the US and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his book Gandhi and Churchill.
(Phew! Made it in less than 1000 words – just! Apologies!)
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.