How to Save the West: Ancient Wisdom for 5 Modern Crises
By Spencer Klavan
(Regnery Publishing, 256 pages, $30)
“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” wrote George Santayana. In his stirring new book, How to Save the West: Ancient Wisdom for 5 Modern Crises, Spencer Klavan addresses both parts of Santayana’s warning. He employs his deep understanding of classical, medieval, and contemporary masterworks toward staving off the fall of Western Civilization as we know it, being too late for the decline. It is impressive enough to be an expert on these tomes, but Klavan takes his expertise to a higher level — applying the right lesson to the modern universe. Such as how the West’s current precarious state resembles the last days of the Roman Empire.
In a brilliantly visual connection, the book depicts Saint Jerome witnessing the barbaric sacking of Rome in 410 AD, he having just completed a Latin translation of the Bible that would sustain Christian influence and governance through the imminent “Dark Ages.” “The history of the West,” Klavan writes, “is a story of disaster after disaster, and of people who took care to save what they could from the flames.” Modern western-hating academia fans the flames. Klavan cites a tweet from an actual ninth-grade public school teacher: Hahaha — Very proud to say we got the Odyssey removed from the curriculum …!
The author’s greatest feat in How to Save the West is crystalizing his esoteric knowledge of even the most complex thinkers from Socrates to Stephen Hawking into a clear, comprehensible guidebook that both analyzes their contributions and puts them in perspective. So that even people who have never heard of Heraclitus (“everything visible changes”), Lucretius (“particles interact randomly”), and Polybius (anacyclosis, “the cycle of regimes”) — or the more contemporary Yuval Harari (Homo Deus), Auguste Comte (The Course of Positive Philosophy), Willian Paley (Natural Theology) — may feel able to converse about them after reading the book.
For instance, Klavan illuminates the concept of Plato’s Cave in Republic, and explains how it could be regarded as the original metaverse. Then, he chillingly references press photos of a Meta-touting Mark Zuckerberg strutting past headset-wearing participants. “On the inside, they are experiencing wonders untold,” Klavan writes. “From the outside, they look like the people in the cave: slack, immobile, and captive.
The beautifully written book is divided into five crises, all with modern impact: the crisis of reality (the choice between objective truth and relativism), the crisis of the body (whether to accept our physical form or try to transcend it), the crisis of meaning (from art and culture to science and pop philosophy), the crisis of religion (science versus theology pertaining to who we are and why are we here), and, finally, the crisis of regime (will America buck history or collapse like previous empires). Each is richly presented, featuring great influencers both positive and negative with respect to today.
The reality crisis — the conflict between the real and the imaginary — may seem like an obvious canard. But, as Klavan explains, the internet age has put considerable weight on the latter side. What Socrates and Plato merely conceptualized has become for many people a way of life, made more convenient and attractive every day. Soon, Klavan warns, more and more may choose the Matrix over the rougher, tougher outside world.
The body crisis is the logical yet older extension of the reality conflict, exploring how much of man’s essence is his physical body as opposed to his mind and/or spirit. Klavan’s book describes how that dichotomy was one of the great points of contention between Plato, a philosophical spiritualist, and his most famous student, Aristotle, more of a corporealist. Klavan falls squarely in the Plato camp, stating, “Our bodies are the medium in which our soul lives.” Naturally, he ties the issue to the exploding gender dysphoria explosion depressing today’s youth, and the deliberate obfuscation of physical beauty. His case in point — Lizzo.
On the crisis of meaning, Klavan stresses the importance of words to the subject. He provides a lovely example — a sonnet by Sir Thomas Wyatt (Whoso List to Hunt) about short-lived queen Anne Boleyn, whom he loved and saw right in front of him. How her expression said to him, “Noli me tangere [“touch me not”], for Caesar’s I am/And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.” That beautiful passage captured for posterity Wyatt’s moment of impotent passion.
Regarding the crisis of religion, Klavan contends that all the popular liberal ridicule of theology and championing of science from Francis Bacon (Novum Organum, 1620) and through the Enlightenment until today has indeed eroded faith yet cannot evict it. “We have not replaced religion with science,” Klavan declares. “We have only turned science into a kind of religion — and the most primitive kind at that.”
According to the book, the Machiavellian Left has raised America’s regime crisis to the threat level, and the Right has been slow to the fight: “For conservative reactionaries, revolution remains a last resort. For Marxists, it is always and everywhere the only solution.” But Klavan does reveal how to save the country — and which ancient text will help assure it.
“Salvation will not come from one grand election,” he explains. “It will come gradually, among people doing the daily things that have always built the West: starting families, going to church, working, saving, investing, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and comforting the afflicted.” How to Save the West reminds us just how wise those words are.