Thanks to Plato and Aristotle

Written by:  Wendell Krossa

Having blasted poor Plato through the modern era- , Hegel, and into Marx- Herman ends by reviving the poor bugger and re-establishing the importance of the Plato/Aristotle tension to Western identity and creative dynamism.

He notes how Islam missed the creative tension of the West, between speculation and science.  He argues Islam got too much Aristotle too soon and that deprived it of growth and dynamism. With Aristotle they got fossilized orthodoxy, dry and lifeless.

He moves on- despite the repeated crises of capitalism, our economies are impervious to prediction or guidance, yet on average we enjoy a rising trend of overall improvement and prosperity.  This results from free markets and creativity.  It is about creative engagement in the world not being cogs in a collectivity.

Returning to the creative tension between Plato and Aristotle (after recounting the historical arguments of Plato and Aristotle on finding truth), he says that Aristotle argued that we arrive at truth through the analysis of the material world, much as the modern scientist does.  By contrast, Plato becomes Western civilization’s spokesman for a quest for truth and knowledge outside and beyond our immediate material reality.

He then reminds us that too much Plato brings rigid dogmatism and an elitist arrogance and easily slides into totalitarianism. But too much Aristotle ends in the narrow-minded sterility that dominated the scholasticism of the Middle-Ages, in which everything is reduced to rote formulae and habit and individual creativity is stamped out. In this universe, avoiding pain and maximizing pleasure become the only valid measures of right and wrong. We then enter the credit card culture of the shopaholic and the megamall of the Kardashians or Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.  The Enlightenment virtues of affluence can decay into a mindless consumerism devoid of any deeper meaning or spiritual connection to life, says Herman. Human beings end with constant, restless boredom.

His conclusion- it is the balance between living in the material and adhering to the spiritual that sustains any society’s cultural health. He notes the examples of restored spirituality in China, and continuing spirituality in India and elsewhere.  Islam misses this with a cultural and psychological void. Here his analysis seems a bit weak and yes I think he misses the potential profound influence of the Jesus breakthrough.

But he continues that the answer is to rediscover the creative tension and sense of balance that the West has.

He ends noting the Greens are embracing more of Plato in response to Aristotle’s world, emphasizing collective responsibility, self-sacrifice, and moral rather than material comfort and consumer choice. Whatever their problems he offers that they do point to an important truth- that a world built on getting and spending is not enough. There are other values, spiritual needs that also require satisfaction and priority on our agenda. So the tension between our material and spiritual selves has always been there, embedded in Western history by Plato and Aristotle. And our world still needs its Plato alongside Aristotle.  Both, he says, are indispensable to our culture and our future, perhaps to all futures. Whether we call it yin and yang or right brain versus left brain, the tense tug of war is all pervasive.

Final quote: “But it is particularly fundamental to our Western identity.  Thanks to Plato and Aristotle, the variation is endless with one giving rise to the other in a never-ending, ever-ascending circle of renewal… the end result of consensus, of all thinking with one mind, is stagnation and worse.  Indeed, tension and renewal are our identity”.