How to Save the West: Ancient Wisdom for 5 Modern Crises
By Spencer Klavan.
Hardcover, 256 pages, $29.99.
Reviewed by Auguste Meyrat.
Charting the decline of the West is something of a popular pastime for conservatives. Even though people today live in relative abundance, there is good reason to think that this abundance will not last much longer and may even be a problem in itself. So much of the Western population is utterly unprepared to address the growing challenges of political corruption, cultural decay, and economic collapse that all pose imminent threats to the Western way of life.
There are four ways to react to this dilemma: (1) do nothing and tell everyone to turn those frowns upside down; (2) prepare for the worst and tell everyone to bunker down; (3) propose a multitude of policy solutions that will solve all the world’s problems; or (4) take a step back from the problems, place them in the proper context, and simply become a better, wiser person capable of handling the coming changes.
Most writers will do some variation of the first three options, but Spencer Klavan distinguishes himself by exercising the last option. In his new book, How to Save the West: Ancient Wisdom for 5 Modern Crises, Klavan applies his extensive knowledge of classical literature and the Western canon to properly frame today’s challenges and help people take appropriate action. Unlike other writers warning of Western decline, Klavan is hopeful as well as practical in his analysis. More importantly, despite his lofty academic background, he is humble and accessible in his approach to his subject.
Before delving into the five crises plaguing the West, Klavan appeals to modern readers who have learned to avoid and even fear the classics. As such, he explains that there are certain truths that have not changed over the centuries, and that there are “different parts of the tradition [that] become suddenly relevant at different times.” Furthermore, the texts he references are not only reserved for self-proclaimed intellectuals, but for all people: “[the great texts] have something to say to you—something about your mind and soul that will help you raise your kids, manage your household, and build your career.” However, lest people think Klavan’s book is yet another defense of the canon, they can rest assured that he lives up to his promise to save the West, not his cherished library of old books.
The first crisis that Klavan discusses is the “Crisis of Reality.” Naturally, he brings up the rise of social media as well as that of virtual and augmented reality platforms like the Metaverse. He points out that these products of false reality are predicated on the shallow notion that “it would be a good thing to make human experience largely virtual.” Accompanying this mindset is a kind nihilism that truth is whatever one makes of it and that those with power (in today’s case, Big Tech oligarchs) are the ones who determine truth. Far from liberating humanity, the forfeiture of reality makes them slaves to whoever dictates the terms: “Let truth go and you will not be set free: you will be cast into a war of all against all.”
To illustrate what’s at stake in the crisis of reality, Klavan discusses Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the “Original Metaverse.” The allegory depicts humanity chained up to a cave wall, looking at shadows and mistaking those shadows for truth. The philosopher is the one who escapes this captivity, makes it to the cave entrance, and sees the world beyond. When he returns to tell others about what he saw, no one listens to him. As he relates this allegory, Klavan is not above showing many parallels to recent movies like The Matrix, Ready Player One, and Wall-E.
While fun to think about, the devolution of human beings into passive consumers of false reality is a crisis requiring a response. It is not enough to note the connections between our world and Socrates’ cave. After all, left alone, societies that lose their grip on reality (i.e., ones that are collectively brainwashed to hope for a utopia) can lapse into the worst degradations imaginable. Therefore, Klavan urges people to “take the red pill” (a popular metaphor for rejecting a false manufactured reality) and listen to their “primal instinct that warns [them] that there is something deeply wrong about erasing the distinction between reality and fantasy.” In other words, people in the developed world must unplug from the fantasies and keep fighting for the truth whatever the consequences may be—anything less will ultimately result in an unexamined life not worth living.
This theme of fighting for truth carries over in the section discussing the “Crisis of the Body.” In the same manner that people are encouraged to enter the Metaverse, they are also encouraged to ditch any belief in a soul. Ironically, this disregard for the soul leads to a disregard for the body. Whereas Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas asserted that the body was a material expression of the soul, people today treat the body as a machine to be manipulated. As evidence, Klavan quotes Pippa Garner, a “transgender performance artist,” who declares, “I see the body almost as a toy or a pet that I can play with.”
This conception of one’s body results in a host of problematic ideas, most notably the idea that one can change one’s sex to suit his/her/their preferred gender identity. Because this thinking denies the role of the body in defining one’s identity to begin with—“Your flesh, for all its flaws and failings, has something to say about who you are”—it is guaranteed that it “will make us miserable.” For this reason, people must accept their bodies, which means accepting their masculinity or femininity and achieving the respective standards for bodily excellence. True happiness is found when people do what they were made to do.
After some relatively tight reasoning up to this point, Klavan’s argument becomes somewhat strained when discussing the “Crisis of Meaning.” He frames these chapters as a response to the theory of memes posited by Richard Dawkins. In his book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins compares lifeforms which “propagate themselves in the gene pool by laying from body to body via sperm or eggs” to ideas which “propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process [that] can be called imitation.” According to Dawkins, ideas have no inherent meaning or value, nor do they have a point of origin. They simply come into being and spread among the population like a virus.
Klavan disputes this claim since it precludes moral and aesthetic standards that people use to evaluate and copy an idea. This leads to him analyzing works of literature and lines of poetry, utilizing Aristotle’s mimetic theory from the Poetics that “art imitates life.” This means that works of art adhere to some expectations of viewers and thus contain a moral vision and style. The success of art at meeting those expectations and achieving its inherent purpose allows people to judge whether the art is good or bad. Thus, there is something deeper than crude natural selection that makes an idea true or beautiful: “Our mirror neurons are no evolutionary accident but a key to what we are, the sign and substance of everything we were made to be.”
Part of the difficulty in these two chapters, besides delving into some fairly abstract concepts related to art and morality, is Klavan’s insistence on calling this a “Crisis of Meaning.” In light of what he discusses, it may be better to call this section the “Crisis of Art.” Doing so might have allowed him better to focus his argument and pick a lane between exploring either the morality of art or the meaning of art instead straddling both lanes and not really coming to a satisfactory stopping point.
Fortunately, Klavan regains his footing in the following “Crisis of Religion.” For Christians and other people of faith, the decline in religious practice has become all too familiar, particularly with the younger generations. For Klavan, much of this begins with the unconscious belief in the sciences being incompatible with religious belief. He shows that this does not add up since science must be based on belief in an intelligible universe, and an intelligible universe necessitates a belief in an intelligent creator (i.e., God).
Moreover, this misguided belief in science makes it into a kind of religion, complete with its own dogmas, sacraments, and saints: “We have not replaced religion with science: we have only turned science into a kind of religion—and the most primitive religion at that.” Klavan calls this new religion “neo-Epicureanism” since it essentially adopts the Epicurean idea of a meaningless material multiverse in an endless flux. Although this outlook is given a veneer of scientific objectivity, there is nothing scientific about it. It is empty and incredibly narrow, leading to unfulfilling lives and mediocre superhero movies. Rather than “desperately grasping at meaning and authority where there is none,” human beings are better served taking the leap of faith and believing in something that makes sense.
Finally, Klavan takes on the problem of politics in the “Crisis of Regime.” He considers the two questions most people have on this front: how bad is America’s current decline, and can it be reversed? Klavan answers these questions by offering some food for thought. First, he explains that all empires rise and fall, cycling through different forms of government in which power passes from one ruler, to a small group of people, to all people, and then back to one ruler. Rome stands out because it created a government that combined each setup, successfully maintaining a regime that spanned a millennium, yet even then, it also declined and fell like other civilizations.
Concerning the modern United States, Klavan characterizes it as an intractable oligarchy of elites who will continue squeezing the middle class and appropriating all cultural institutions indefinitely or be swept by a Marxist revolution. As an alternative to the status quo or bloody revolution, he proposes focusing on local affairs and cultivating “civic friendship” in which communities are organized around relationships and shared values rather than held together by legal definitions and limits. This means removing oneself from ideologies and tribes and attaching oneself to one’s neighbors and immediate surroundings. In his final chapter, he more or less reiterates this advice when he reviews all five crises one last time.
Altogether, Klavan has a fairly simple solution to the West’s complicated crises: keep it real. The modern world has made this prescription quite difficult to achieve, let alone identify, but Klavan’s book makes it at least possible. Moreover, he accomplishes this feat gracefully and concisely, covering so much ground in less than 200 pages. By weaving the great works of Western thought into his argument, he demonstrates the power that comes with reading such works and actually taking their lessons to heart. In this way, reading How to Save the West doesn’t only equip readers to save Western civilization, but to also save themselves and their loved ones from being swept away by the falsehoods.
Auguste Meyrat is an English teacher and senior editor of The Everyman.
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