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Review: Spencer Klavan’s “How To Save The West”

Being a classicist and student of Greek philosophy, Klavan turns to his education to solve these philosophical dilemmas.”

If one were to place Pat Buchanan, Andrew Sullivan, former Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a room together, they would fight—a lot. It is unlikely that the aggressively partisan, outspoken, and incompatible ideas in that room would be conducive to accomplishing anything or emerging with any new agreements. However, the one thing on which they would all likely agree is that something is wrong. 

For moderates and populists alike, this seems to be one area of consensus. The actual problem is less clear. Is there too much populism or not enough? Too much capitalism or not enough? Too much technocracy or not enough? The chasm between views renders any meaningful discussion of solutions nearly dead and empowers radicals to turn up the heat further.   

This question of what is wrong is a primary concern for Claremont Review of Books Associate Editor Spencer Klavan, who tries to offer a complex prognosis for the unstated question of modernity’s failure in his new book How To Save The West: Ancient Wisdom For Five Modern Crises, which was published last month. 

Much in the spirit of Allan Bloom’s enduring 1987 work The Closing of the American Mind and Ross Douthat’s insightful 2020 book The Decadent Society, Klavan approaches the subject of modern society’s dissolution as an academic exercise, drawing on the works of Plato, Aristotle, St. Jerome, and Thomas Aquinas to diagnosis what he believes are the central problems plaguing our world and, thus, threatening civilization itself. 

Klavan outlines five current philosophical crises, which he describes as outward signs of deeper problems churning under the surface of society. These are “the Reality Crisis,” “the Body Crisis,” “the Meaning Crisis,” “the Religion Crisis,” and “the Regime crisis.” The book is structured with calls and responses, with chapters laying out the nature of each problem followed by a prescription from the classical understanding of these concepts. 

As he argues, the West has entered a period of moral nihilism, in which truth and reality are less important than power and identity. This degrades our political discussions down to the level of sophistry and cynicism. Technology only makes this worse, with modern figures such as Mark Zuckerberg offering us more and more means to escape objective reality by creating virtual reality technologies like the Metaverse

Being a classicist and student of Greek philosophy, Klavan turns to his education to solve these philosophical dilemmas. If we are trapped in the ignorance of the Metaverse, where reality and existence offer us an endless dopamine drip in exchange for a meaningful life, the solution is to rip off the virtual reality headset and step into the light of the sun. To this point, he writes: 

“Plato’s cave is the original metaverse, and we are already living in it. The forms as they really are come into focus only by long study and careful reasoning. We can only climb out of the cave if our soul, and our reason, see beyond the things that change to the things that stay the same: truth, justice, and beauty.”  

The only problem, to paraphrase T.S. Elliot, is that humankind cannot bear very much reality. The difficult questions of antiquity—the nature of consciousness, the relationship of the body and soul, and the like—are left now to technocrats and moral relativists. Without a rightly understood objective morality, we are watching the horrific growth of cancerous anti-human philosophies that aim to destabilize our grasp on reality itself. 

“If we become fully free from the constraints of physical form, if we can develop the technology to feel whatever we want, then we really will become nothing more than a sort of computer-programmed robot, experiencing sensations that signify nothing; joy will be an electro-chemical occurrence, unrelated to falling in love or holding a newborn child,” says Klavan. “Dissolve the boundaries of your body, and you dissolve the boundaries of yourself,” he continues.  

Misorienting the relationship between the body and soul creates a culture of post-human idealism and utopianism—what some early Christians would call Gnostic heresy. Sociologists and activists have come to view the human body as an imperfect vessel or a burden against the nature of our identities. As one TikToker Klavan quotes put it, “I’m not body-positive. I’m not body-neutral. I’m body-negative. I want to be vapor…cause, like, gender? Humiliating. An ache, a pain? Needing to sit down? Spatial awareness?…Every day, I wake up, and I’m subject to the burden of embodiment. Disgusting.”  

As Klavan says, “By definition, the posthuman kind of excellence comes at the expense of our humanity—it rids us of the unique kinds of joy, sorrow, and triumph that come with being the rational animals we are. This is the old fantasy yet again—the fantasy that by breaking free of our body’s constraints, we will liberate the divine spark within us to have free reign over space and time.”  

This is not to say that Klavan believes science has nothing to say or no place in our understanding of the world, merely that it should not trump moral wisdom. We cannot ignore 3,000 years of collective philosophical understanding in facing modern questions. Science can help us, but it must be understood within a framework. 

Klavan closes the book by contemplating the collapse of Western Civilization and the American Republic, wondering if these post-human ideas have sunk too deeply into the body politic to stop an inevitable tragedy. Can we escape Plato’s Metaverse? Can we find the wisdom and beauty of reality hidden behind the material world? 

The book concludes on an ambiguous note, given that these crises are ongoing. His only solution to the challenge of a decaying American Republic is to “think smaller, not bigger,” acknowledging that the individual alone is not powerful enough to right the ship of state. We do have the power to be better neighbors, to teach our children better lessons, and to educate ourselves. Individually, we can connect ourselves to the great culture of the West, even as the world spirals out of control.

For those familiar with Klavan’s work, his book is somewhat of a retread, albeit more plainly structured and laid out than this previous work. When Klavan began his podcast The Young Heretics in May of 2020, its release coincided with the height of the #DisruptTexts movement and The 1619 Project amid the furious summer of rioting and violence that erupted in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd. At the time, English teachers proudly flaunted removing Homer from their curriculums for being “trash,” continuing a long line of thought that says Western Civilization must be destroyed and replaced.   

The Young Heretics briefly received considerable attention for being something of an antidote to this brand of insanity. Klavan openly sold the show on the tagline “We’re reading Homer and screw you,” promising that the show would be, first and foremost, a chance to teach people through classical education. Theoretically, the best medicine against deconstructionist sophistry is a solid foundation in Western literature and spirituality. 

And this is very much what he accomplishes with gusto in How To Save the West. Klavan is no political radical, despite his work for the enduring tradition of doomsaying his bosses at the Claremont Review proudly carry forward. His final answer to questions about societal breakdown is much in line with Jordan Peterson’s famous admonition to “clean up your room.” He believes that we can create truth in our own lives even as the world descends into chaos, fixing the world one bedroom at a time—or one copy of Homer at a time.   

Even so, it is always tempting to ask for more answers and more precise solutions in light of the chaotic world we live in. Klavan’s work is an excellent personal balm, but a balm of Gilead is more needed than ever before. At some point, this needs to translate into deeper change, lest we be dragged back into the cave against our will by the proponents of this brave new virtual world. We must admit that it is challenging to sell Homer to a younger generation deprived of the more profound realities of life, especially one already deeply bound in Plato’s Metaverse.

Tyler Hummel is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tennessee. He can be found on Twitter @AntiSocialCriti

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