To Save the West, Leave the Cave

COMMENTARY Conservatism

To Save the West, Leave the Cave

Apr 12, 2023 8 min read

Former Director, Simon Center for American Studies

Richard was Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies and AWC Family Foundation Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse is only the latest attempt to give us a puppet show that dazzles us, leading us astray from who we really are as tangible human persons. Jordan Siemens / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Spencer Klavan’s How to Save the West: Ancient Wisdom for 5 Modern Crises identifies five crises he believes are plaguing the West.

The only way out of the Cave is to know that our soul is made for light “not made by man,” a light that does not control us...but is the ground of everything.

Klavan notes that man cannot be forced into belief, but if we want “art and human life to have significance [we] should want to believe in God.”

Spencer Klavan’s How to Save the West: Ancient Wisdom for 5 Modern Crises identifies five crises he believes are plaguing the West and slowly undermining America: Reality, the Body, Meaning, Religion, and Regimes. Klavan argues that beneath the change, the chaos, and the whirlwind of our lives, there is a logos, a deep-seated reason and logic that informs everything. If we embrace it—and it requires work and courage to do so—we will find the truth about ourselves and what we should do with the time we have been given. And, he argues, this gift comes to us from the wisest of sources in Western thinking.

His voice throughout the text is measured, eloquent, often hopeful, and humble. In the introduction, he states that “the most important battleground in the culture war is the one most often forgotten. Within every human soul, within every family, within every day, there is a battle being fought over what principles, what beliefs, and what rituals will be accepted, taught, and passed on. In that fight, you are the last line of defense.” Klavan doesn’t counsel war, though. Instead, he urges study, reflection, and virtuous action within the context and web of relationships and community that fills your life.

We should ask at the outset: What is the West, and does it have the resources to save us? Isn’t “the West” just an intellectual construct? Klavan responds that the West “encompasses the vast and complex inheritance of ‘Athens’ (the classical world) and ‘Jerusalem’ (the Jewish and Christian monotheists of the near east). … The shared cultural products of those civilizations, and the grand adventures they have inspired, are sources of hard-won and transformative wisdom that we would be fools to deny.” More specifically, Western “threads of continuity… stretch back through time and space.” They include, “Cicero, Frederick Douglass, Aeschylus and Shakespeare, Saint Jerome and Julian of Norwich,” among others, providing us the “ideas and masterpieces” speaking to people across the world. Perhaps one of the greatest embodiments of Western learning today, Klavan notes, is Cardinal Robert Sarah, the humble Catholic prelate who hails from Guinea but speaks the language of faith and reason beautifully, instructing many of his European and North American clerical brothers in the foundational teachings of their civilization, which too many of them have shamefully discarded or ignored.

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Considerable disagreements and tensions across major periods and thinkers also mark the West’s path. For example, Klavan remarks on the unreal philosophy of Karl Marx that reduced the human person to the merely material. This was a profoundly wrong turn that eliminated the dignity of human consciousness and freedom. For this reason alone, Marxism must be rejected. The Western mind gives us the vitality and capability to surmount error and “face our new and frightening age.” Heightening the crises identified by Klavan are the emerging opportunities and profound burdens of “Tech” that are now increasingly manipulated by a host of companies, in partnership with the federal government, to control the minds and choices of American citizens. In one stirring formulation, Klavan notes that “it should not be taken as ‘inevitable’ that our data will be sold to the highest bidder, our children will be addicted to online porn, and our lives will be lived in the metaverse.” We should remind ourselves that “if you’re in the metaverse, then someone else is outside, controlling it. Who? And to what end?” Indeed.

But the Tech problem sharpens our focus on how we have lost the notion that there is a reality that we did not make and to which we should turn for our true measure. Why can’t we make our own reality? And if nothing is true but thinking makes it so, then why should we be surprised when science, politics, and education become tools used by the powerful few to express their sovereignty over the many?

Klavan underscores that we are always tempted to turn away from reality because of its seemingly unyielding demands on our thoughts and deeds. At the heart of Western philosophy is this question: Is there “some shared, stable, objective basis for understanding what is true, moral, and real”? To answer it, Klavan recalls Socrates’ contests with the Sophists, whose specialty was to turn any argument, no matter how error-filled, into the winning argument for gaining power.

The Sophists built on the sophisticated relativism of fifth century B.C. philosopher Heraclitus, who famously observed that everything visible changes—“all things are in flux.” In Plato’s Theaetetus, Socrates said that Protagoras was the wisest of the Sophists, whose teaching ultimately amounted to the notion that man is the measure of all things. The outcome of Sophism, Klavan argues, is Thrasymachus’ classic statement in the Republic that “justice is nothing other than what is good for the powerful.” The debate over reality gets to the very heart of society and how we will live together. Socrates would be put to death for exposing the folly and ignorance not only of the Sophists but also their students who had become Athenian officials. As Klavan observes, “Athens’s crisis of reality was everywhere, just like ours: to a man, practically everyone in power had abandoned real wisdom for the sake of personal gain.” Plato, he notes, wanted to prove that the Athenians had grievously erred in condemning Socrates, and to do that he had to prove that everything wasn’t in flux.

There is more to the world than what we sense it to be. And perhaps this is why, Klavan intones, we are frequently unsatisfied with the world. Socrates and Plato departed from the Sophists on this point. They built their philosophy on the bedrock of reality, which is knowable by ensouled human beings capable of thought, abstraction, and reflection that enables them to know the Good. Our thinking is not exhausted by mere sensory data from matter. With our soul, we can think in “the intelligible realm, the realm of things like numbers and goodness. Things we can only perceive with the soul.” Plato’s argument about the Forms and how they relate to our world was rejected by Aristotle in favor of form and matter and causality, but both thinkers built on a knowable reality that man did not create.

To highlight the perennial debate between reality and unreality, Klavan points to Plato’s famous Cave allegory in the Republic, where a group of people are unknowingly manipulated by others with various artifacts. Nothing is real in the Cave, but the people believe otherwise, and Socrates concludes, “They’re like us.” The only way out of the Cave is to know that our soul is made for light “not made by man,” a light that does not control and cajole us but is the ground of everything. But this takes work. We must desire truth, accept that we were wrong, and leave behind the comfort of others’ leading us for their narrow purposes.

We are always facing the problem of the Cave. Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse is only the latest attempt to give us a puppet show that dazzles us, leading us astray from who we really are as tangible human persons.

Klavan asks the obvious question in his next chapter, on the body: If the soul is so great and it can know the true, the good, and the beautiful, what need is there for the body? Doesn’t the body just bring us down, a slave that won’t obey its master? Can’t we just make it our good instrument? That is certainly the contention of the transgender movement. Pippa Gardner, a transgender performance artist, reasons that “I see the body almost as a toy or a pet that I can play with.” More wisdom from Pippa: “I am an inside and an outside. I see them as one inside the other. … I’m at a point where the exterior part is not behaving as well as it should, and the interior part is aggravated by that, saying, ‘come on!’” Unreal. In a related vein, the body positivity movement wants to extol obese bodies as worthy of our praise. We are now subjected to marketing campaigns featuring overweight people who are beautiful, we are told. This is an overreaction to the problematic glorification and sexualization of beautiful bodies that once traditionally filled marketing ads. Both depictions of the body widely miss the mark.

Can anyone save us from this body of death? Against what Mary Harrington refers to as “biolibertarianism,” or the attempt to view our bodies as instruments or mere cases that we can discard and replace, Klavan returns to Aristotle’s argument that “though everything is made of matter, there are certain truths about matter that are not material.” Among these truths is causality, form and matter, soul and body, which necessarily exist together, not apart. The purpose of the body, Klavan argues, “is to live a conscious life.” We are matter, bodies: This is material cause. Formal cause is the plan for our shape. Efficient cause implicates the one who made us. And final cause is the reason we exist. We did not descend into a body with our soul, rather “we are blood and bone and sinew, given shape by an organizing principle; we are matter arranged in just such a way that it is self-aware. That consciousness, what Jerome called the divine spark, is neither an accidental by-product of our physical existence nor a dreamlife self which deigns to operate a body of which it has no need.” Consciousness is what our bodies do in fact. This body-soul union means we are mediated beings, avoiding materialism and dualism.

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If we are sure that there is a reality and that our bodies are formed for multiple purposes, the highest of which is rationality and contemplation, then there is meaning to our lives that isn’t arbitrary. How might we express it? Klavan moves the discussion in the later chapters to art, God, and politics as endeavors where human beings can bring their highest contributions and create lives in common with other people that fully express man’s glory.

Art is never for the sake of just art, as many artists of various kinds now claim. Nor does it exist to exalt transgression or endless rebellion. Even Camille Paglia, who has praised pornography in certain parts of her writing, gets this right when she states, “In the twenty-first century we are looking for meaning, not subverting it.” We need art, Klavan notes, that “tells the moral truth about the world—including its bleaker aspects.” For this reason, we keep returning to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth for their full expression of man’s lusts, depravities, and weaknesses, while also pointing toward their opposites.

The author does not shy away from where this might all lead: God. Klavan notes that man cannot be forced into belief, but if we want “art and human life to have significance [we] should want to believe in God.” Otherwise, the source of that significance seems impossible to locate. Man remains fundamentally a being fired by a sense of the divine. Religion can be dismissed, but it returns through the back door. Klavan wonders if this best explains the captivating hold identity politics has on many people. Its attempt to place in the state the ability to invoke sacred meaning by bestowing on certain groups a hallowed status of victimhood errantly fills something deep within us.

Relatedly, it became common during the COVID wars for Anthony Fauci to be frequently depicted in sainted garb, as a holy medical man. Progressives wanted the separation of church and state to result in our civil institutions both ruling over us and controlling the method of our thought and practice. This encroachment on holy ground is surely wrong. As Klavan intones near the end of How to Save the West, “Classical liberalism, republican liberty, and even the American Constitution: none of it was meant to survive on its own. They are jewels set in a crown.” And that crown is upheld by a “Creator.” We must live in the light of the eternal truths “handed down to us by our ancestors,” and then we have a chance to save the West and our country.

This piece originally appeared in the Acton Institute