To Read Is to Fly

“To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.” 
― Alberto Manguel


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The Cave and the Light; Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization - Arthur Herman I definitely am not the right audience for this book. I struggle with sweeping historical surveys at the best of times. I always want more context, more quotations from primary sources, more in-depth analysis than is realistic for a sweeping survey covering thousands of years of history in 700 pages. So you should take my reactions to this book with a grain of salt.

There are many aspects of Herman's book that are laudable. He has extensive endnotes to show that he has done thorough research in the history of Western philosophy. I tend to balk at premises such as his -- the conflict between Plato's championing of the ideal and Aristotle's focus on experience formed the foundation for much of Western thought through the 20th century -- but it is true that both Greek philosophers' influences have loomed large. Herman is also writing for a general audience, not for an audience of academics, and there's a good chance that his style and approach will attract many general readers, and in turn may lead them to more in-depth forays into Western philosophy.

In the end, though, in spite of these strengths, I was disappointed by this book. Herman does spend some time presenting limited historical context for the philosophers that he studies, but the context is quite limited and pales compared to the Plato versus Aristotle paradigm. This is likely my training as a social historian skewing my response, but I worry about reductive paradigms, and in the end the Plato versus Aristotle paradigm seems quite reductive to me unless it's balanced by an equal attention to how philosophers from past societies combined and transformed other influences as well. Again, Herman does this to some extent, but I would have liked to see much more of this.

Herman also tapped into some of my pet peeves in writing. He tends to end each chapter with a strong pronouncement along the lines of "Soon would come Philosopher X to {make some sweeping transformation in Western thought}." I know this is a typical approach to writing surveys -- have a juicy hook at the end of each chapter to prepare for the next one -- but I prefer more understatement. Also, Herman regularly presents physical descriptions of philosophers who are always running through their towns or pacing through studies and then beginning to write. Again, I know this is supposed to provide color and interest for general readers, to make them feel like they are in the presence of the philosophers, but since the descriptions don't go beyond appearances, I don't think they add much.

Readers who are quite familiar with Western philosophy are not the target audience for this book. They will likely be frustrated by the quick coverage of philosophers' writings and theories. I do think this is a book to which generalists and newcomers to philosophy will gravitate and enjoy. I hope that it leads them into more detailed studies in philosophy.

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