We meet Aristotle today in CoPhi. Finally, a guide who can really help us begin to make our way out of Plato’s cave. Plato won’t do it from his rationalist prototype armchair. Nor, despite his Republic/Book VII homage to the great gadfly, will Plato’s Socrates. Dreaming of transcendent perfection doesn’t make it so, and as much as I love asking questions, there comes a time for provisional hypotheses.
What we most need, and get, from Aristotle is a different metaphor. Pace Plato’s metaphysics, we don’t know ourselves to be benighted cave-dwellers, blinded by the very material that composes not only our habitat but also our perceptual selves.
We do know we’re standing on a planet full of facts and relations, in a realm of process and change, in (cosmic-calendrically speaking) the pre-dawn of intelligent human inquiry. We do know we need more light.
Aristotle’s the guy who first thought to bring a candle, in the form of an intense practical curiosity about everything before us, and an indefatigable interest in analyzing, cataloging, comparing, and reflecting on all we see. It’s not that we’ve got to climb out of a terrestrial hole, into the empyrean light. We’ve just got to clarify the immediate environment, carefully noting how things are, admitting our finite fallibility, anticipating our empirical errors, correcting them as we go.
So I will again encourage ambitious students to consider the ongoing epic of our western heritage, and will confess my partiality to the candle-bearing empiricists as against those rationalist denizens of darkness who say we’ll never have our eyes opened so long as we’re still staring at the cave wall they consider this earth to be. I side with those who say there’s plenty of truth to discover and tell about life here on the ground. Light will be cast, by those who light a candle.
Another sturdy candle was lit when Arthur Herman published The Cave and the Light a couple of years ago and wrote in the preface,
Instead of trying to rise above mundane reality, Aristotle believed the philosopher’s job was to explain how the world works, and how as human beings we can find our proper place in it. There is no cave; only a world made of things and facts. “The fact is our starting point…”
As it should be, on my view. But I hesitate to endorse the rigid-sounding dichotomy Herman then pins on the classic schism between empiricists and rationalists, sorting them into the camps of science, logic, and technology on Team Aristotle, and theology, mysticism, poetry, and art on Team Plato. That’s too neat, too black-and-white. Good empiricists are open to the experience of wonder, mystery, poetry, and art. Good rationalists like facts and gadgets too (see Rebecca Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex).
It’s finally just a question of emphasis and attitude: how do we frame our condition, where do we think shining a light might take us? To Plato’s (or anyone else’s) Formal heaven? Or to a deeper appreciation of the meaning and possibilities of life on earth? It’s a great question.
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