In the seventh episode of High Noon, Inez Stepman speaks with Spencer Klavan. Klavan is the associate editor of the Claremont Review of Books and the Claremont Institute’s online publication, The American Mind. He’s also the author of an academic publication, Music in Ancient Greece, as well as a translation of the Book of Isaiah. Klavan hosts a popular podcast, Young Heretics, where he explores, through the lens of the Western canon, “truth, beauty, and the stuff that matters.”
Stepman and Klavan discuss why the Western classics have fallen out of favor in the academy, America’s relationship to Western civilization at large, and what the canon has to teach us about our modern crises.
Do the classical virtues have a place of honor in modern life? Why are we suspended between cheering dysfunction and demanding perfection when it comes to our bodies, but not our souls? What do death, Aristotle, and Kim Kardashian have to say about one another? Tune in to find out.
High Noon is an intellectual download featuring conversations that make possible a free society. Inviting interesting thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum to discuss the most controversial subjects of the day in a way that hopes to advance our common American future.
Welcome to High Noon, where we discuss controversial subjects with interesting people. This week we’re lucky enough to have as our guest Spencer Klavan. Spencer’s the associate editor of the Claremont Review of Books and the Claremont Institute’s online publication, the American Mind. He’s also the author of Music in Ancient Greece which I believe was his PhD subject of expertise and the author of the translation of, from of the book of Isaiah. So he knows plenty about ancient languages, including ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, which we’ll talk about.
So he’s an old-school academic with all the attends in a positive sense to that word. He’s also the host of a wildly popular podcast where he explores through the lens of the Western Canon, from your materials here, Spencer, “Truth, beauty, and the stuff that matters.” So welcome to High Noon.
Thank you so much for having me. I’m always glad when I hear that read back and I’m like, oh, yeah, I remember that. That is actually something that I said sometimes it’s like, what did I mean? But yeah, it’s such a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me on.
I think the first question I’m going to ask you is really an obvious one for somebody with a podcast, for putting to talk about the Canon, the Western classics. I mean, how do you define the Canon? I’m not asking you to list off every book or track that you’ve spoken about. But what are the qualities of a book or a philosophical track that make it a candidate for the Canon and what makes something like this, something that people still find worthwhile even millennia after they were written?
It’s funny, I was just talking about this on the show, because I did an episode about David Hume, who was a philosopher that I really don’t like very much at all. And it was the first time really, there’s so much in the Western Canon that is rich and sublime, and there’s so much that I love that it’s been easy to do this show for a year now and only do people I like, but eventually, as, in order to be honest, you have to present folks who disagree with folks, you don’t think are very good. And that does raise the question. Like if it’s not just a matter of personal taste, how can I tell what a great book is? So typically the elevator pitch that I give is, this is the use or the cultural products of Athens and Jerusalem and their cultural inheritors.
So this includes actually, for example, some Muslim interpreters of Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, but these two pillars, one of which feeds out into Christianity, Judaism, of course also produces the Jesus movement, which becomes Christianity. And Athens during the fifth century BC basically, I mean, it has other stuff before then going on, but during the fifth century Athens, it goes through this tremendous cultural flourishing, the products of which we’re still living with. I mean, Socrates is the person that people point to, but Greek tragedy and all this stuff. And so that then speaks to your next question, which is, how do you tell if a book, or a painting, or a person belongs?
And the answer there is really that time is an important factor here. I actually can’t tell you, people ask me all the time, like what books are going to be in the Canon that are being written right now? And I can’t tell you that—in some ways because time does funny things to people. And for the 300 years, since somebody like David Hume has existed, he has not only shaken the foundations of Western philosophy, but inspired a bunch of incredibly passionate debate from people who disagreed with him just as I do. I mean, Immanuel Kant is a great example of this, another big name in the Western Canon. And so, these two pillars, which do fuse together in the outpouring of Christianity through the Roman empire, the late Roman empire is like the exporter of Christianity as indeed it was the exporter of Greece as well. Polonius the historian says that the Romans were really good at cultural appropriation.
This was maybe the best thing they were best at was like finding things that other people did well. And so, yeah, like these gradual exports over time that stamped themselves into our souls. If we grow up anywhere near Europe or America, or indeed this point it’s becoming increasingly global. The important thing to understand here is that you’re studying things that you can’t escape. Actually is no jettisoning of these works, and you can hate them the way I hate David Hume, but you have to know them and you have to know that they exist and why. So that’s how I shaped the podcast and what I talk about.
Of course, please the Claremont Institute and Leo Strauss, Athens and Jerusalem, and the products of thereof, but that’s an answer that is increasingly controversial today. You said that essentially these are the products of particular civilizations that had lots of contact, as you mentioned about translations in the Muslim world. And how these ideas impacted on those, essentially the borders of what might be termed either Europe or Christendom or the west. Those borders are hotly contested and debated to this day. But that in itself is now a controversial stance to claim that the products of this particular civilization are uniquely worth study, or at least worth studying in additional detail and with additional hours spent engaging with for our particular civilization. Isn’t that discriminatory, exclusionary, even racist?
Yeah. I think I call it all of those things. So I assume that it must be those things. Yeah, we’ve learned-
Always believed the comment section.
Always, I’ve read it religiously. No, I actually never read comments at all. I shouldn’t say that because people should keep commenting in the hopes that I will read things. No, the yeah, I mean, we’ve been taught, I think, to associate love of one’s own traditions with chauvinism and racism and all those nasty isms that you describe. And that happened for a number of reasons. One of them, I think, is that the 20th century saw a lot of excesses of nationalism and what happened. I mean, everything that is good, this is a central principle, really, of Western philosophy: everything that is good can be carried to excess and to extreme.
And so we’ve seen a lot of the excesses of nationalism; we’ve been reminded again and again of what happens when a love of one’s own voyeurs over into tribalism. But it has to also be said that, because of certain political projects—most notably social Marxism in this country—that has really been caricatured, we have been basically gulled into associating, loving the traditions from which you come and being proud of and delighting in your history which is something that everybody has to do if they want to survive because there’s no escaping your history. This is the thing: there is no escaping what you are, where you come from. We’ve been gulled into believing that, that is inherently bad by caricatures dumb caricatures of what it means to love the west.
I mean, when I say that I am an unapologetic lover of Western culture, what people immediately hear is that I think there’s nothing of value in other cultures, but I never said that, nobody ever said that it’s not entailed it doesn’t follow. In fact, there have been books that have guided me profoundly as a young man, the doubt aging notable, which are, I was just obviously does not fall under that purview and comes from a totally different tradition. But I think there are elements of Western culture, which have proven universal and not time-bound. And Christianity is a good example of an ideology of Western theology that at least aspires to be for everybody, for the whole world. But at the same time, there’s nothing actually wrong I don’t think with saying, this is my own, my native land.
This notion of ecophilia or whatever you want to call it has been very terribly run down. But the funny thing is that in the end, it’s actually your only option. You can learn to understand where you’re from and to endorse it and to complicate if you will, but also to accept it and love it, or you can self-destruct. And it seems that that’s the path that we’ve chosen. But I guess I just want to offer another path.
Yeah. Well, that path has been quite appealing to a lot of people. I mean, why do you think there has been such a huge response to your podcast? Not that you’re not a remarkable young man, and not that you don’t have remarkable things to say on your own right. But a large part of what you’re doing is essentially reintroducing your listeners to what was once considered a classical education. Why do you think that, that has been such a popular podcast? It’s a new form of media. It’s definitely very much part of the modern world. Why is it that this has connected so deeply with so many listeners?
Yeah. Beats me. I mean, people must have terrible taste. This was actually a huge surprise to me. I have to be honest with you because thank you, you’re very kind, but it’s true. The podcast has done very well. And I will tell you in truth that the Genesis of this podcast is essentially that I was out in the world writing and being a jobbing intellectual, and people kept saying to me, oh, you should have a podcast, you should have a podcast, because this is the thing, I guess that one does now. And as you say, it’s the hot, new, medium. Writer is like, not a career anymore. You have to build this whole brand. And so I was actually pretty resistant to it. I was like, what? There are so many podcasts.
Everybody has one, what am I going to talk about? And so finally I was like, all right, fine. If I’m going to do a podcast, then it’s going to be like, I’m going to make no apologies for just talking about the stuff I want to talk about. And frankly, the stuff I want to talk about, a super nerdy, I like, I’m a PhD in classics. I want to talk about Homer and the greats. And I want to just like really focused on them, in part because I find the fighting that we do about the classics really distracting. I mean, one of the first insights that generated this show is, we always argue whether Homer should be taught or whether Greek should or shouldn’t be taught. And we spend all that time doing that. We never actually read Homer, like even those of us who were arguing for the great books are being distracted from actually reading them and letting them shape our souls.
So I was like, all right, well, I guess I’ll just offer this podcast into the world. I’m sure nobody will listen to it. And the hunger that I discovered—I mean, this is what it was, it was just that people were being denied something. And as you say, what they were being denied is classical education. And so as I did the show, I learned that that was what it was, this was a classical education. I think it takes a certain the set of skills to present these texts in an exciting way, and to interpret them and uncover them. But it’s really just the skills that teachers have. And there are lots of good teachers out there, but why is this show the one that people say like, oh, I’ve been waiting for this show or whatever?
And especially I think why does it connect to people who are not typically thought of as like, intellectuals or whatever. I mean, I get a lot of wonderful notes that my favorite one notes are like, I’m on my tractor, and listening to you talk about Homer, or I’m going to the gym or whatever, all these things. I really do believe that this stuff has been so unfairly maligned, and it’s been maligned both weirdly as too stupid and too smart for people; on the one hand, it’s just dumb, atavistic, chauvinist, racist, white people celebrating our own self. But then on the other hand, it’s thought that you can only talk about it if you have several advanced degrees. And to me, neither of those things is true at all.
And as you say, to be obvious, I mean, before the, hey, hey, ho, ho Western Civ has got a go of the ’60s and ’70s, before that, it was assumed that these were rich materials and that’s something to say to everybody, not everybody goes off and learns Latin and Greek. Not everybody like spends his free time reading Plato religiously, but everybody can grasp something from this. And people have been so starved of this on purpose. I mean, they took it away from us. They genuinely did say like, no, we can’t talk about this for all the reasons that you suggest: it’s racist, it’s homophobic, it’s evil. And it’s the opposite of all those things. It’s food for the soul. So, yeah, I think it’s really is as simple as this was a thing that until very recently, everybody acknowledged was good for everybody.
And then that was basically scuppered, canceled, and it just took the digital revolution to make it possible again, to democratize this, to offer it to people. I mean, it’s a remarkable, it’s amazing miracle that you can just start up a podcast, grab a mic, and start like ranting into it about Aristotle. That’s like really cool, you know?
As we’re having this conversation just a few days ago, Princeton officially dropped the Greek and Latin requirements for their classics majors. It seems to me a little bit self-refuting to have a class of classics major where you try to drop Greek and Latin, because they are exclusionary or racist and then not have that same judgment apply inevitably to the entire major itself. But is this what’s going on? What happened to the academy? And what happened to universities as a place to learn as you say that these great texts as food for the soul? As something that really should be studied everybody should study and has something to offer to people whether they agree or disagree with any particular concept in it.
I mean, how did our academies move so quickly away from that idea? I think specifically in America. Because I know you went attended Oxford and it’s not that politics there aren’t necessarily in the UK are any better or worse. I tend to think they’re a little worse, but there’s all kinds of comparisons that could be made about the respective politics, but the classics seemed to have clung longer in the academy in Europe and in the UK than they have in America. Do you know why that is? And generally, what is your opinion on the direction of the academy. Is it salvageable in America, or does everybody who has something worthwhile to teach, just need to get a podcast?
Well, I’ll start with Princeton, and then I’ll try to draw out of that to some answers to these other questions, which you raised, those are so important. And on which books have been written by the way. So we’ll do our best. So, right, Princeton canceled the requirement for students to learn Greek and Latin in order to do their version basically of a major in classics. And the first thing probably to say is that people should read Greek and Latin and translation. Nobody has any argument against that. And in fact, as more people should read Greek and Latin in translation, and nobody should feel that they have to be experts in these languages in order to get something out of a translation of the Odyssey. I mean, none of these things are up for dispute.
What’s up for dispute is the nature of the discipline of classics itself as you suggested. And really what this degree is in essence is like the last vestige of a tradition that goes back to the medieval period and before, which is the tradition of the university. I mean already in the year 1000 before Oxford and Cambridge and the University of Paris really came into their own, there was centuries-old tradition in the Muslim world and in Europe, mostly in clerical situations in churches of studying these texts that came down to us from antiquity and studying them in their original languages. And most importantly, talking about them in Latin. This is the famous idea of the lingua franca and the word university, vniversitatis is a Latin coinage describing like everybody, everybody can come. Once you pay the price of admission, which is mastery of these languages, it no longer matters where you’re from.
This is a revolutionary idea that we take for granted, this global community of people who come together around the great search for truth. But this is being invented at this time. It’s being vented using a common tongue. If you want that, you’re always going to have something of that kind. If you want to be part of that great conversation, you got to learn the language in which it’s conducted. The simple fact is the Princeton classics department doesn’t believe any of the stuff that I just said anymore. I mean, and this is something that’s been going on for years. It’s not dust. This is the latest development, this cancellation, but Princeton has this professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta, who’s been prominent for a while. There was a big splashy profile of him in the New York Times.
And much of the department’s public-facing language now reflects the idea that classics is inherently a participant in the system of whiteness, in the system of oppression. And in part that’s because it’s exclusionary the idea being, if you don’t have money and you don’t have a class and you haven’t been raised in the right way, you don’t come to school knowing Latin and Greek. And so then you’re at a disadvantage. Well, first of all, I’ve taught students like that. And it’s true. It’s not fair, but there’s always going to be that one price of admission. And the point of Latin and Greek is, this is the one price of admission. Once you learn these things, it doesn’t matter where you came from. Why’s this happening? Why is the discipline basically self-destructing turning inward on itself to undermine its very foundations?
There are a lot of answers to that question. I would say though, that like, and this is aligned. I trot out somewhat flippantly is like, this was done on purpose and it was done by comedies. And this is part of this turn this social turn of Marxism. And as you say, specifically in America where the existence of a robust middle class made it difficult for economic Marxism to take on, that you couldn’t really convince people that they were oppressed according to socioeconomic class. What did you do? Well, Antonio Gramsci, Herbert Marcuse, these names that people toss around the burden of their thought, at least in America, is that you do social consciousness raising. I mean, the invention of things like white privilege comes from Noel Ignacia and the people who participated in this second wave of Marxism.
And really we’re not just seeing that at the academy, we’re seeing it everywhere. We’re seeing it on the streets with BLM. We’re seeing it I think inform a lot of the LGBTQ plus star plus IAA, whatever. I mean, these are tactics that are invented in some ways on the streets by inheritors intellectual inheritors of cultural Marxism. And part of the point there is to make people, I mean, to instill a logic which, carried to its conclusion, will basically cause the great institutions of the west to self-destruct, which is what they are doing.
It seems to me that rejection, which I think you rightly characterize as having jumped the walls of the academy and become endemic really to every facet of our institutions, of our culture. You can’t live in the modern world without bumping up against that rejection. Here in America, it takes the shape. Primarily I think as opposition to the American regime. The founding and as you say though, it also includes for example, the opposition to learning Latin and Greek and reading Aristotle and Plato. Why do America’s domestic critics see America as an extension of that Western regime? Are they right to say that? Then what is the relationship between the American regime and the classical? How are we as Americans connected to that tradition? How are we perhaps a particular branch of it or is there some tension there? What’s our relationship as Americans, as citizens of a very new country relatively speaking in world history, what’s our relationship to the classics and the ancients?
This is how I can tell that you are a friend of Claremont, because of course, this is the question that vexes scholars in general of the American founding, but it’s one that Straussian Sinclair monsters are fixated on. And so stipulated at the outset that, I am not the spokesman of Straussianism or of the Claremont Institutes. I mean, I have my own take on this. Others may think differently, but it has been puzzling me recently that, or I’ve found it noteworthy that opponents of woke opponents, you might say of classical antiquity don’t even really seem to know what exactly it is about classical antiquity they don’t like. And this is a phenomenon that you see in general in revolutionary movements that several degrees generations away from the founding of the movement, people are just going on autopilot.
But an example of this is Heather Levine, who I believe I have her name right. She’s this Massachusetts public school teacher who tweeted recently, got fervor for tweeting: Very glad to say, we got the Odyssey canceled. I’m just part of a hashtag disrupt texts. It’s this idea that whiteness needs to be rooted out of our, whiteness, by the way, meaning everything bad. Whiteness needs to be rooted out of our curriculum. Now, whiteness this is not a concept in the ancient Greek world. The Greeks were not white. They were kind of brownish, and for what it’s worth. And I was trying to figure out like, does Heather Levine actually know what her problem is with the Odyssey? And I think the answer is probably no. I think genuinely there is just now a self-sustaining logic of things that are celebrated, things that are thought to somehow belong to this culture.
And within this culture are bad and things that are outside are good because marginalization. I mean, these sorts of thoughts and ideas are, in some ways, even more deep in Marxism than class analysis. They’re marginalized versus central distinction it’s like, if class analysis as the matter of the content of Marxist thought, then good marginalized versus evil central is the form of Marxist thought. And it’s turned out that, that form is applicable up along a lot of different axes. So the first answer to your question is, I think that America’s domestic opponents are attacking America on a basis which teaches them to think about things in terms of outsiders and insiders, and to want to destroy those are the perceived as insiders, but the larger question—whether they are right—that there is something uniquely or distinctly American about Western civilization, or maybe better the other way around—whether America is Western and counts as part of Western civilization—I mean, my answer to that is, is an emphatic yes. And the counter argument to me is essentially that enlightenment-era liberalism, which America is sometimes thought to represent—personal Liberty, personal autonomy—represents a radical break, actually, from the traditions of Athens and Jerusalem, because those traditions have always understood polities and people as woven inexorably into a political fabric as not autonomous, as not personally, individually free. And this idea that government exists to protect your rights. This is actually an aberration. I mean, I’m thinking here of somebody like Patrick Deneen. Now, it seems to me as if America represents the perfection of a series of ideas that was going very badly wrong during the same time that America was founded.
Yes, it is true that personal Liberty without any counterbalance or that any idea of the common good without any idea of law and order and this anti-religious sentiment. You see those go terribly wrong, right around the same time as the American Revolution, especially of course, in the French revolution. So we know that there were these kinds of byways veering off of the Western tradition during this time. But there’s also inherent in the West there’s an idea about how you reform and how you grow and how you move into the next phase of things. And this is really important for us right now, because we’re up against all these unprecedented challenges digitally, and not all of them are leftist, the digital revolution and challenges, our sense of ourselves as human beings.
We’re going to have to figure out some way of dealing with that. And the question is, how can you tell if tradition is a major part of how you celebrate things? How can you tell when something new is also good? And the metaphor that I keep coming back to, which is everywhere in Lewis and Edmund Burke and all of these great thinkers who address this, is that of a tree. You can tell when a tree sprouts a new branch that it belongs to a tree, and you can tell when something is totally separate from the tree. And you can tell, because the tree is a kind of thing with a kind of nature. And even if the thing that comes next out of the tree is a flower, which looks nothing like the rest of the tree, you can see that that’s growing organically.
And so to me, what Americans did in 1776 and there about is—and they said this—they were asserting the rights of Englishman in a holy new context. And that’s the thing, again, that we have to remember, like, just as the digital era has transformed our context, the new world transformed people’s context. Machiavelli said this, he said, I have to invent a new political philosophy because there’s a whole new world out there. And to me, what the American founding fathers did, and why I love the founding so deeply, is they figured out how to port the west, the great traditions of the west, the religious property, the sober sense of honor and duty, into a world where people were yearning to be free. And that’s very beautiful.
You’re really anticipating the thing I was going to ask you next, because I was going to ask you about how we balance or evaluate that enlightenment tradition and values like liberty, pluralism, tolerance; and how we balance that with tradition with the common good. But I guess I still want to ask you to refine that a little bit further. How do you tell if it’s a flower or a tumor, I don’t know what the equivalent of that is with a tree I’m not a horticulturalist. And so how do we evaluate whether a new branch is healthy or good? Even if it does stem from certain antecedents as virtually all developments do have accepted at the beginning of the universe, perhaps, they can have [inaudible 00:28:39].
Yeah. Open question, but yeah.
No, but as all things do stem from some antecedent. How do we tell which ones are the flowers and which ones are a diseased branch or an aberration? By what standard can we evaluate our traditions and say these traditions are good, they are a new application of universally true ideas? And which ones are a flawed application or bad ideas that will lead to an immense amount of suffering or to a disease that’ll eat away at the whole tree at the root is, I think we’re really seeing now you keep referencing self-destruction. That’s really what’s happening. We’re eating away at the foundations that grew the whole tree.
That’s right. And I think it’s a really, I mean, it bears, we’re finding, it’s a question that we could puzzle over, I think together for many months, this metaphor of figuring out whether something is good or bad, the way that you of evaluate tree is from the Bible. By your fruits, you shall know them. And the idea there is actually that there’s a lot of stuff that we can’t evaluate and judge in the way that exactly you’re suggesting, we can’t always tell. I mean, a lot of this is about the Bible. It’s about personal morality. You can’t always tell what’s going on in somebody’s heart, what they’re thinking silently, but you can see the outward manifestations of those things. And so patience, chastity, charity, long suffering, these things are fruits that bespeak good roots.
You can’t produce those good fruits without good inner roots. And so, in order to perform that evaluation for a person or a society, you have to recover something that I think we are very uncomfortable talking about. And that is an assertion that we know good from bad. It strikes right at the heart of things. This idea that we actually have a flawed but real set of perceptions that enables us to see things that are good. We know, and this is why I often ask people who come at me with sort of random woke stuff, like, how’s that working out for you? We know that that being increasingly infertile increasingly addicted to SSRIs, we know that like having blue hair and mutilating yourself, it’s harsh perhaps to say, but these things are bad.
They are immiserated, they make people miserable. And so in order to make that claim, we have to simply say, that’s self-evident, which of course is a founding concept in our country to begin with. So if we can’t say that certain things are self-evident and certain things are self-evidently good, then we’re not in the country we thought we were anyway. And so, people get very antsy when folks start talking about the common good, because they think that this necessarily automatically means that what you want is for the Pope to rule America. I mean, there’s like a real strong association in people’s heads between common good, conservatism, and some backwards-looking theist—like—autocracy. And there’s some of that out there, but not that much, actually. I mean, really what people mean when they talk about the common good is abolishing this fiction, which is not an American, it’s not a founding fiction—it’s actually an imposition—this fiction that we can do politics together without pronouncing on good and evil. And that we’re totally incapable of pronouncing on good and evil. In fact, of course, all regimes depend on pronouncing on good and evil. Why is murder outlawed? Because it’s bad. At a certain point, if you do that toddler thing and you ask why and why and why, eventually you’re going to get like, well, because this is bad or because this is good. And I think that’s really missing from evaluative politics. And it is the answer or the root of the answer to your question.
I think another aspect of what we’re talking about is jettisoning, I cannot say that word-
It’s a bit long.
Jettisoning something that like objective standard of what’s good and bad in favor of something that’s more internal, like authenticity that if you are expressing yourself authentically, that’s the most important thing, the relationship between your expression in the world and your interior self; it’s not by the fruits. It is more that everybody has to call fruits, whatever is authentically expressed in yourself. I would say to mix all the metaphors that we’ve been using. You have written something that I want to read real briefly for our audience, just a paragraph or a sentence or two:
Our modern obsession with authenticity, meaning in essence, never filtering one spontaneous thoughts and impulses obscures the fact that discipline does not amount to disingenuousness.
Could you elaborate that you wrote that in the Claremont Review of Books, you we’re reviewing a book about the relationship between the founding and classical antiquity, but authenticity seems to be in all kinds of ways. And we could list a lot of the applications of this, the new standard that has really replaced an honest evaluation of good and bad that as you say, leads to a backstop of buys that modern humans just can’t see them to countenance or answer.
Oh, my gosh. Inez, you’re like the ideal reader. This is like, what makes these throwaway comments? I’m sure you know this experience, what makes these throwaway comments and then hopes that that is like the thing that people took away. But yeah, I’m really glad you’re asking about this because I think this obsession with authenticity and associating authenticity not with something like sincerity with not concealing things or lying. But with just having no filter of everything that comes to me spontaneously and organically, that’s what needs to be out there in the world, because that’s my truth.
My lived experience. This is my truth. All of these things that people say all the time. I mentioned that books have been written on these topics. One really great book to help understand this is Carl Trueman’s, the rise of the modern self. And Trueman has basically associates this development, not only with cultural Marxism, but with therapeutic culture and with Freud. And Freud is like a big elephant in the room that we haven’t really talked about yet in part, because he’s harder to deal with because first of all, he was a genius. And second of all, he was also terribly hostile toward a lot of the things that I want to love and endorse, God, for example. And so he’s a complicated figure because he was observing, I think some very true things about the way the human psyche works, I mean, including, for example, that we do have these internal repressions that we need to find ways of dealing with.
And that sex is very important. I mean, these are things that if he was observing and putting his finger on at a time when maybe people were not allowing that to be said, And so this is one thing that when good societies become scared of talking about things that they know to be dangerous, then people who will talk about them when even if those people are worse. And Freud is a good example of this. And the Freud in turn is basically the turn toward believing about yourself. That what is within is true, and what is imposed on you by society is unnatural false, and constructed. And from this line of thinking, you can see how we get any number of things, including, for example, the idea that gender as a construct.
Because of course, we’re not all born naturally inhabiting our gender roles. We are born with an aspiration to inhabit the gender roles that society teaches us, from one generation to the next that, well, maybe men aren’t born with guns in their hands, but they are as a population born with aspirations to courage. And so society develops over many generations, these traditions for teaching people about those things. And Freudianism basically comes along and says, well, that’s inauthentic. That’s unnatural the thing that, that sweeps away secretly and people don’t realize this, but that’s sweeps away is the great Aristotelian Maxim that man is a political animal. And people think that that means that man, like naturally needs to engage in city council or something. But that’s not always talking about at all.
I mean, the polis which is the, just a community, a political community of people living together and making rules for, there’s no such thing as humans who live together and don’t do that any three, four or five people that live in a space for an extended period of time will develop rituals, habits, customs, traditions, mores and that tells you that actually ritual and habit and tradition is not an imposition. It’s not fake. It’s actually something that we use to fully humanize ourselves and to fully humanize the generations that come after us. And so Freud has deprived us I think of being able to endorse that, of being able to simply to say, yeah, I don’t actually naturally want to, oh, I don’t know, start a family, but my society is strongly encouraging me toward that.
And I feel this desire, this natural human desire to live into that expectation. And we’re taught that that’s oppressive, that that’s evil, that that’s wrong, but there’s no oppression or force really involved, especially not in modern society. Ironically, this Freudian idea that we have to scrape away everything that all these accretions and get down to the heart of what we naturally are actually deprives us of a lot of our natural survival mechanisms, a lot of our natural impulse to live together in community to form continuity across time. It’s really pernicious when you think about it. And it’s also exhausting. How much effort does it take to spend every five minutes of your day internally analyzing about whether or not what you’re saying is really what comes to you naturally, or whether it’s something your mother said like 20 years ago, people do this forever and it freezes us, I think.
Yeah. This was something where as an atheist, just find myself again and again, aligned with religious conservatives. And that I just have not observed that our interior feelings or emotions when given full range of expression constantly that’s the life of a toddler. And it’s also, as you say, it’s immiserating. I don’t see in the real world that this actually brings a lot of happiness to people, which is why it drives me crazy that this therapeutic language has infected our politics, even you’re referencing Freud, but it seems a slightly more modern phenomenon to take the language of psychotherapy and apply it to well beyond the therapist’s couch. To apply it to our modern politics, to have Congress women using that language of trauma and the language that you wouldn’t think about, I think even maybe 15 years ago used often for the course of political debate or even, I think people would be a little ashamed even with not incredibly close friends right now is for an audience of millions of people on the internet and even within our most serious politics that we do together.
But another problem you’ve reminded us of some of the classical wisdom on has been how to think about the problem of being in a body, to be embodied, to have both a mind, you would say a soul and to be inside this meat casing, we call our bodies. And recently in the American Mind, there was a fantastic, highly recommend this. There was essentially a series of essays from different contributors, including yourself on this problem of how we ought to think about our bodies. So you wrote in the American Mind a piece on so-called body positivity. And the link that between these seemingly contradictory poles and impulses in are simultaneously endorsed by our society. One is for example, that it’s actually right and good to surgically dissect our bodies if they don’t match our perceived internal selves.
But at the same time, we’re told that the appropriate response to what were once considered negative, but actually well, within our control aspects of our body like for example, obesity, those ought to be embraced as our true selves that are unchangeable, that should be embraced as something very essential to our identity. So you write quote, it seems the more we live online, the more we’re tormented by the site and stench of flesh, yet our efforts to transcend matter whether ancient or modern render us neurotic and sick. So what do the ancients have to say about, say minor sex transition, or an on the flip side, Kim Kardashian and body positivity.
Well, one of the point or the inspiration of that essay is exactly, as you say, that this is a very old problem, and there is no reason, or there is no totally satisfactory answer to it that you’re going to open some book and be like, ah, now I will not wake up tomorrow and feel a little bit too, like 10 pounds overweight, or feel like I haven’t gotten enough sleep. I mean, these things afflict us precisely because we are two things, or at least because there are two aspects of us. I mean, one of the things that I argue in that piece is that those two aspects ultimately are inseparable, but it’s sure an old idea that you could separate these two things from one another. And I think a reason why this is such an important thing to be talking about right now is because the internet and digital technology has really brought that discomfort to a head in a whole lot of ways.
First of all, because it seems as if what lives online is a kind of abstracted mind or soul version of us in the sense that we’re not physically present, but here are you and I doing this podcast together. And it seems as if we’ve just basically being ourselves into the ether. And at least there’s video on this one. But sometimes it’s like there’s not even that. And so you’re just come this disembodied brain in a jar, or whatever. And then as I mentioned the reason that the Kardashians are important here is that the other thing, digital technology lets some of us do at least is perfectly curate our bodies in a way that in real life they could never be curated. So we can use Photoshop. We can choose just the right angle to post on Instagram.
I mean, and we do this with our whole lives. And so we generate both this idea that the real stuff that’s going on is happening in this digital space where our bodies are left behind where we forget about our bodies and we construct this fantasy narrative about what those bodies and the real life is actually like that we then present to our very online friends. And so we look around and we think like everybody is having this perfect bodily experience except me. Like every time I log off, I just feel fat or I feel too skinny or I like whatever. And so I think, again, this is an old, old problem. Mostly people who spend their life thinking don’t want to have bodies. They want just to be purely connected with the transcendent, whatever reality of life.
And this comes to us, I think actually not from Plato if we read him well, but from people who very quickly in Plato’s immediate aftermath took Plato to an extreme Plato identifies this dual nature of humanity, the body and the mind or the body and the soul. And then people like Porphyry and Patainis basically take this to such an extreme that they just want to die. I mean, there’s really a heavy death cult aspect of this because ultimately, if you think that it’s your death, you’re going to be liberated from your body. And if you think that the body is just dragging you down out of your eternal purity the natural conclusion is like, let’s get out of Dodge as soon as possible. I suspect that a lot of what we are seeing among young people and especially actually I think young women that looks crazy to us older fogies, I mean, relative to gen Z. I am a millennial and therefore an ancient and I-
I’m a, what is now the geriatric millennial generation.
Oh, good. Yeah. The sub generation and the micro-generation of like really old millennials, and yeah, I mean, now there is this whole new up and coming group of people that basically live their whole lives online and they’re doing all this crazy stuff like they’re taking hormone therapy or just transgender ideation has skyrocketed. And in part, this is because the narrative has shifted to lionize, that sort of thing. But also, I mean, Abigail Shrier, who has interviewed a lot of the young people who’ve experienced gender dysphoria has really brought to the fore of the fact that a lot of this stuff just emerges seamlessly out of things like anorexia, which suggests to me that what this really is a extreme discomfort with the body among young girls who are having presented to them no feasible way to be in a female body that is appealing, but also not self-destructive. I think like this is real, real problem that the Kardashians bod is really the only model.
And then the only other option is this reaction against that, which is be fat, like be aggressively fat, like be endorse your a hugeness, because like nobody can tell you how to be. And this is a long-winded way of getting around to the ancient answer to this question, which is, you know what, your body is actually not an appendage. Your body is not something that your soul is just piloting for a little while, or even a meat suit, which is what you and I have now both called it in some capacity. The biblical tradition about this is, and then God formed man out of the dust and breathed into the dust, breathed into this like sculpture. And then man became a living soul. And we forget this, we think the God’s breath is the soul.
But the imagery there is actually, and I’m suggesting this, not really as like a, I’m not evangelizing you particularly here. I’m just outlining the way that Christians understand this. That a living soul is a duel complex, is a binding of consciousness. This is this incredible ineffable thing to flesh. And there is no version of us. There’s no actual that imaginary version of us is not a Christian imaginary version. We think of Christianity as positing that one day, we’re all going to float up into the air. It’s not biblical at all. It’s actually quite the opposite. I saw the new Jerusalem coming down from out of heaven to earth. I mean, the whole point of the incarnation really is that like, this is it, and what we’re about is aligning those two things.
What we’re about is basically getting our mind or our soul or whatever, into a place where it feels comfortable with the body as its outward expression, or as it’s as the thing into which it is encoded all of this. And there are classical versions of this too, that don’t rely on Christianity like Aristotelian hylomorphism form in matter. But when you talk about feeling comfortable in your own skin. That’s actually what we’re all going for. And so some version of feeling like, yeah, this is where I belong. I belong in this body and therefore I should make it my home in the same way that you would want your home to look attractive. You would want your body to be to the extent that you can. And it’s possible to be healthy, to be fit, to be an and not to view that as some external thing, but as like a spiritual quest. All of these things are things that we can recover and people are, I mean, this is why everybody’s lifting weights online all the time.
It’s like people are recovering this sense. And the trick I think is to do that in such a way. And actually you, and it was Alex Kaschuta and Helen Roy we’re in on Twitter going back and forth with me about this in a really helpful way, because my inclination is then to like flip in the other direction and just try to perfect my body. And try to like make my body because I want my soul to be perfect. I want my body to be perfect. And there’s a danger there, but it’s a better knife edge to be walking, I think, than this weird dissociative online thing that we’re doing.
Well. I think part of the reason we pointed out that there are dangers in that direction and you touched on this a little bit, but the word that kept going through my mind while you were talking was decay. The inevitable decay of the body it’s intimately connected to death. We don’t like to be reminded of the fact that our bodies ourselves will one day expire decay first become probably in most cases, unless you’re your James Dean and die perfect and young which most people do not want. We inevitably will become grotesque, disgusting and decay and then die. And this is something that in modern life is, obviously is inevitable, not just in modern life, but like we can avoid thinking about it in modern life in a way that was impossible for past eras.
Where they lived with death day in, day out, even in the early American Republic, the number of children who died before the age of five and then by the age of 15, it was extraordinarily high. You could not live unmarked by death for 20, 30, 40, even 50 years as so many of us do in modern life, thanks to things that I’m very thankful for advancements in medicine. Advancements in technology, but those advancements have in some way allowed us to avoid the presence of death and avoid thinking about it and avoid grappling with it. Do our incredible advancements in this regard, leave us in some sense, blind and defenseless to life’s inevitable tragedies and how can the classics help us grapple in a way that will really allow us to accept these inevitabilities and to not allow them to sour both our lives or our souls or to work ourselves in incredible ways that are sometimes so pernicious in an attempt to avoid the inevitable.
That’s beautifully framed. And I think this is a great example of something that is good, that is not actually a corruption or an ideological assault, the way that I think cultural Marxism is. But nevertheless, poses, very profound challenges. I mentioned that I think digital technology is one example of this. I don’t want to erase digital technology from the world. I make my livelihood off of it. I think it’s great, but it really shakes us to our core and in all these ways that we’ve just discussed. And I think, the advances in medicine that you mentioned are similar in ways that we haven’t even acknowledged despite the fact that penicillin has been around for quite some time, like this is a phenomenon or the optimism that seems to me to emerge in the post-war era in this country this blight idea that there will now be perpetual peace seems to me to be underwritten in some sense, by the denial of death that you’re describing.
It seems as if, in order to believe that we’re all going to get along in order to believe that we’re going to bring COVID deaths down to zero, whatever else you think about COVID. We’re not going to bring in COVID desktops zero. And this is something that we’ve really been brought up face to face with in the past year. I think, as I’ve said, and you and I have discussed, Christianity is not the only answer to this problem, but at least it has an answer. And in order to have an answer to this problem, you have to know that it is a problem. You have to say the human body decays and dies. This causes us terrible grief. I mean, not just when it happens to other people, but the concept of it, the notion that it should happen at all, as I’ve just said, at some length, when our bodies are actually miraculous, beautiful things, they are souls made out of flesh and that’s so profound and so insane that the idea that it would nevermind decay, but be born broken.
I mean, there are terrible things that people are born with and suffer from, and then die young. This is an ugly, ugly truth to come to grips with. And despite the fact we have technologically made it very easy for many, for some people, for rich people, for affluent people in first world countries to ignore, we’ve made it very easy for people to ignore it. Despite that fact, we haven’t even moved one degree toward abolishing it. I mean, there’s no advanced in medicine or technology, over the history of human life that has ever reduced the death rate to anything under 100%. And so I guess what I’m coming around to saying here is just that to be a grownup society, to be grownup person, you need something that acknowledges and answers the fact of death. Personally, I know my answer, my answer is that this is not supposed to, I mean, this is how I know in some ways that this was not supposed to happen.
And therefore, even though we can’t possibly fathom what would ever make up for it, I think as Christians, we’re called basically to trust, this is our big leap of faith. Is that there’s something that will make up for it in the end. Other options are available. The stoic option, I think, is very sound and salutary. It involves cultivating a certain degree of composure and ataraxia in the face of it and the face of death and pain. The Buddhist answer, which is that total detachment is the way forward. This strikes me as an answer, but again, in order to make any of those answers, you have to first pose the problem, Life is suffering. There is this terrible suffering. And yeah, I think why wouldn’t you deny that if you can, we all want to look away from ugly truths and some of us have been able to, and unfortunately then they come around to bite you in a worse way.
I’m glad you brought up virtue and stoicism because the final question that I’d like to actually have one more after this, but this is the final substantive question I wanted to ask you. It seems that fortitude or courage is a virtue that we are having to reacquire in the course of our politics. What does a classical Canon suggest about fortitude or courage? Is there a difference between those two things? Is it a distributed attribute or a discipline to be learned? Is it an ideal? Is it something that people are simply born with, or not born with? And I know I’m throwing questions at you, but can it be used for good and ill? What do the classics teach us about courage and fortitude? Because I think that really is and as I’ve asked a lot of our other guests on this podcast, it really is in many ways the crux of what our moment comes down to.
Yeah. I’m so interested that this is something that you have been tracking as well, because I find on young heretics that my listeners teach me a lot every day and they teach me in part by what they continually ask questions about, do a mailbag segment at the end of every show. But I also hear from people on Twitter and whatever, and this issue of courage as a virtue is something that I mentioned in one episode early on and now have come back to again and again, fixates it obsesses me. I think that not to be that guy, but this is one of those questions that we can address really fulsomely if we think about the words that the Greeks used for the actual Greek language, I mean, this is another reason why you learn these things in their original language is that the people had ways of thinking about them that were encoded into their vocabulary.
And we’ll start, I guess, with virtue, which is at a far, far removed our way of expressing the Greek concept of arête, arête in Greek just means excellence. You can have arête at running, if you’re very fast, very fast runner has running arête. That’s not what you would call a virtue in English because when we use that word, what we mean is a very specific kind of arête, which Aristotle identified as ethike arête, ethical virtue. And that’s where we get our word ethics. Ethical virtue has to do with your internal, the dispositions of the soul. And so when you ask, is courage born, or is courage learned and trained? The answer is both in a very complicated feedback loop. And this is part of why it becomes such a problem when, as a civilization, you lose your grip on a virtue, on an excellence like courage.
It’s because all of us are born with different capacities, different gifts, different talents. Actually, I mentioned wanting a neat room, I’m terrible at that. I have just a constitutional deficiency at thinking about people’s comfort in my space and in my surroundings, that is something I have had to learn to cultivate over much time with much effort, other things like work ethic, discipline, other virtues come more naturally to me. We’re all born with a starter kit of the soul and habits and just natural inclinations. But in that process of learning a virtue of trying to train a virtue, and you must have help from early age. This is, of course we know this already now.
I mean, a lot of this stuff that I’m saying could be translated very easily into the language of genetics and psychology. I mean, these are ancient insights that Aristotle elaborates in the Nicomachean ethics, but many of them are, are born out by what we now know about we’re born certain ways, but also our upbringing is very important for education is very important. And so these are cultural matters that have to be passed on from generation to generation and parents and educators are a big part of this, especially when you find somebody who maybe doesn’t show courage just naturally, you need to train somebody and you need to do that in tough ways. Like, force them into sports and maybe like have them practice combat or whatever, all these things.
On top of which courage is actually extremely complicated when you think about it, because straddles that line between virtue, just as a kind of excellence, that’s morally neutral or morally blank, like foot racing, and then virtue as a kind of ethical excellence on the other hand which is itself we think of these as like being good at being human. The reason we’re so focused on the ethical virtues is because they seem to be essential to good humanity. And courage is a prerequisite. I mean, the reason why the loss of it is so damning for us and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn actually talked about this in, I think it was the ’80s. He said, there seems to be a deficiency of courage. You see this in the academy, the woke revolution, professors who won’t speak up. And of course that has a terrible knock on effects for students and so forth.
The reason this is so damning is because as C. S. Lewis famously said, courage is not a virtue. It’s every virtue at the testing point. And what he meant by that, I think is that in order to really have any other virtue like generosity, you have to have it no matter whether it’s scary to show it or not. Honesty, for example, you must be honest. And if you are only honest, when you’re not scared, then you’re not really an honest person. And so courage is this undergirding of all virtues. And yet what that means is that it can also be used in terrible ways. I mean, people can show courage and do terrible things. You mentioned to me off of mic, that Bill Maher was canceled for saying that the September 11 hijackers were not cowards. And this is something, again, a problem that vex is Plato it’s very old problem, but Maher has a point. I mean, there’s something that those evildoers show that we call it courage, call it fortitude, call it, whatever.
It’s that virtue that if properly applied, if directed toward the other virtues we celebrate as courage. And so I guess the distinction that I would make is between courage full-stop, which we know is an excellence, but isn’t necessarily a moral excellence and courage directed in service of all the other virtues, without which neither courage nor the other virtues can exist in any laudable form without one another. And I think, training that and getting comfortable training it as a necessity for everything else is one of the more important things that educators who care about this stuff can think about right now.
So if you are a person like myself, I would say robbed of those educators for much of my formal education. Where would you recommend that people begin engaging with the Western Canon with the classics besides of course, subscribing to young heretics?
Well, I think, we’ve talked about a number of things now on this show that can help the digital revolution, despite again, causing all sorts of problems for us has also really undermined the power of institutional authority. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s an excellent thing in an era when so many of our institutions are so corrupt. I mean, if we were living in the 1800s and Princeton, or, I mean, I’m not even sure when Princeton was founded. So I guess I shouldn’t say Princeton, but the great elite universities decided that they weren’t going to teach Latin and Greek anymore, or that they weren’t going to require language. It would be devastating. Now this news from Princeton comes out and everybody was emailing me about it. This was funny. Everybody kept saying like, are you going to comment on this Princeton thing?
And I was like, Princeton, like you still care about Princeton. And so there are these amazing resources that you can draw upon. The ancient language Institute is this very exciting new venture where people who want to learn Latin and Greek can study it. So that’s, if you’re interested in the language part of it, that’s a great place to start. There’s a new standardized test called the classic learning test, which basically aims to replace the SAT, which is now pretty thoroughly woke. And a lot of universities and colleges now take the CLT as a better test of whether students have been trained in these classical ideals. And if you go on their website, which I think is cltexam.com, you’ll find those colleges that like, or prefer the CLT, which in turn will tell you which colleges are still on the right track.
So this is, I guess, for people who are raising kids who are themselves thinking about where to go to college but then there’s people who come to this stuff later in life. And a lot of the folks who reach out to me about the podcast are in that position. And the first thing they say to me is like, I hear you talk about this stuff. And you’re so excited about it. And it seems so exciting. And then I go away and I read it, I find it completely impenetrable. And I really get that. I think that this stuff has a lot of, there are a lot of years between us and Homer and it’s not as accessible as all that, that you can just crack the spine. I mean, I think that one thing you can do, if you are having trouble with this stuff is read it with people.
I mean, people think of this as cheating or something, but a lot of these works were meant to be consumed and experienced in groups. The Illiad is a wonderful example. This is a communal performance that was going on, and now we have it in books, but it’s meant to be read aloud. It’s meant to be read together and discussed and part of how we form ourselves is in community. So I’m a big book club fan, especially now that there’s so many resources to form a great book clubs and the five books that I always tell people that they should start with. If you have not yet read them are the whole Bible, regardless of your religious beliefs, because in the king James translation it’s as influential as the complete works of Shakespeare in transforming the thought of the English speaking world.
And then, so then the next thing is the complete works of Shakespeare which is cheating because that’s a lot of books, but that’s number two. The [Aeneid 01:08:00] because of what it did to the genre of epic. And it will get you introduced to epic in general. The great Gatsby, because it is short and it will lead you into American literature, which I think Americans should know about how to read American work and Machiavelli either the prince or discourses on Livy. Because as I mentioned earlier, Machiavelli inaugurated what will then become political philosophy. So all of your listeners can now fight me on these recommendations as I’m sure they will because they’ll have it. But I mean, I don’t know, I’m a big into just like making lists and then working your way through them.
I think that a lot of what we’ve talked about has to do with talking about authenticity or not. Doesn’t really matter whether you like naturally want to read these things or not. If what you find is that you want to engage with the Western Canon, I think you do a fair bit of making lists and just reading through them and reading through them with people.
Spencer, thank you so much for coming on High Noon. You, listeners can find Spencer’s work at the American Mind at the Claremont Review of Books and his podcast the Young Heretics podcast. And thank you to our listeners. Thank you to you. High Noon with Inez Stepman is a production of the independent women’s forum. As always, you can send comments and questions to [email protected] Please help us out by hitting the subscribe button and leaving us a comment or review on Apple Podcasts, Acast, Google Play, YouTube, or iwf.org until then, be brave and we’ll see you next time on High Noon.