Young Heretics host and The American Mind editor Spencer Klavan rejoins the pod to discuss his new book How to Save the West: Ancient Wisdom for Five Modern Crises. Klavan sets hot-button culture war battles like gender ideology and the Metaverse in context of some of the most important philosophical questions grappled with by the greatest minds of the West: questions about reality, the relationship between body and soul, God, morality, and organizing the best regime.
Welcome to High Noon, where we talk about controversial subjects with interesting people, and I’m so pleased to have my friend Spencer Klavan back on the show, and for a very, very good reason, for round two. We’re going to be talking about his new book, “How to Save the West: Ancient Wisdom for 5 Modern Crises,” which you can get on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I don’t know, Spencer, if there are some un-big tech ways to access your book.
That’s a good question. I guess you could get it straight out of the Regnery website. That might be the like purest, the most… What is it called? Ethically sourced way to get my book.
Ethically sourced wisdom by Spencer Klavan.
I like that.
Spencer also is going to be launching a new version of his wildly popular podcast, “Young Heretics,” where he discusses the heritage of the West and translates it, much in a similar way as he has done in this very well organized book. I’m always… I know Emily Jashinsky said the same thing. I’m going to echo her here. I love a good organizational structure.
Really helps to get into some of the really dense and important, and some might say the most important questions that you are digging into in this book. Now before we get in, there’s five different crises that you situate in the modern world. Of course, there are an almost infinite series of crises human beings can create for themselves, but these five questions you say both have plagued civilizations of the past, they’ve plagued our forefathers in the West, and they plague us now in different ways.
But the implication there, of course, is that we are in crisis, or rather in a series of fundamental crises. So why do you think that we actually are in crisis? And one of the things you point to in this is that being in crisis is not a unique thing. And in fact, the West has been in a series of crises in its own very long history, going all the way back to the ancient Greeks. So the question is, why are we in crisis now? And how do we balance between, which I see you doing a lot in this book, how do we balance between the wisdom of the ages giving us a little bit of comfort, that this is not novel, and also not being complacent about the reality of the crises that face us?
Right. Okay. That’s really nicely framed, thank you. And thank you for the kind words about the book. The way to start here, I think, because you’re absolutely right, we’re capable of generating no end of trouble for ourselves. There’s really no end of crises if we look for them. And the word crisis is all over the news all the time. Every day it feels like you wake up, there’s a crisis in the supply chain, there’s a crisis… It’s one of the most overused words, you might say, in our media discourse. And so it’s worth probably at the outset defining what I mean by that word.
In Greek the verb “krino” means I judge, or I make a decision. And so more than just something that is really bad or that might cause us to panic or whatever else we might mean by crisis, a crisis in this foundational sense is a time for choosing. It’s a point where you have to make a decision between two fundamentally irreconcilable ways of looking at the world, ways of doing things, or what have you.
And at that level, these philosophical crises that I’m addressing in the book, things like what is a human being, what is our place in the universe, the reason that we’re up against those right now, I argue in the book, is because of the way our technology is changing, and because of the way we seem to be entering into a new phase of our relationship to one another and to the universe and to ourselves and all of that.
And so all of these small-c crises, if you like, that we’re seeing on the news all the time, I’m arguing these are really tremors or tip of the iceberg or whatever metaphor you want to use for the deeper, big-C Crises that we’re up against, the very fundamental foundation level questions. And there’s actually something really comforting to me in that, to start addressing your second question, which is if these are crises that have been around forever, if they’re baked in, if you like, to the human condition, then we’re not actually alone. It’s very easy to feel at this stage in our history as if everything is unprecedented. All this technology, the trans extremism, pick whatever you like, it all seems to have come out of left field suddenly overnight, and there’s no precedent for it.
But actually, if you understand them as outward signs of something deeper and older, then we have a much richer tradition to draw from. We have this long history of discussion and debate in the West. Athens and Jerusalem, the two great pillars of our civilization, Greek and Roman philosophy, Jewish and Christian scripture, these things come together to offer us a lot of very helpful and I think sane, clarifying answers to some of these foundational questions. Like the first one, the crisis of reality. Is there such a thing as absolutely true and false or not?
And so that does lead us into this, are we just going to sit back and relax and feel okay, that everything is always going to be fine, because this is perennial? Or are we going to light our hair on fire and say, the very foundations of our civilization are unsettled and forces beyond our control are working to crush us under the wheel of history? To me, both of those attitudes are very unhelpful and also very easy to slip into, the extreme despair of pessimism and the extreme complacency of optimism.
What I’m basically proposing in this book is that both optimism and pessimism are predictions about the future, about whether you think what’s going to happen is going to be good or bad. And one thing that the history of the West teaches us is, you genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. But you do know that hope is always a worthwhile thing, because hope is something that doesn’t actually depend on, I think things are going to turn out well tomorrow. It depends on reaching back into precisely this long tradition that we understand ourselves to be a part of, reaching into the wisdom of the past, asking how we might embody it in the here and now, and trusting that, in the long view of history, that effort will not be poorly spent, it will be well spent. In fact, the best thing that we can do, and the only thing really that we can do, whether things go well or badly, our job is basically the same, and that’s to carry this light.
That’s a good place to start. You mentioned the first crisis you deal with, the crisis of reality. And you have this great phrase in here about intuitions, our intuition that, “There is an outside, and there is a real.” And you compare it to The Matrix, where there is this sense that, once we know that all these people are plugged into a machine and feeding the machine and all of the sensations that they’re experiencing in their life are false, there’s a sense of dystopian horror about it. Do you think all people have that intuition? And this seems, as you say, the crisis precipitated by technology, where it becomes more and more possible for us to imagine not only something as technologically still for us out of reach as actually good plastic surgery to “change sexes,” but we can easily imagine popping off arms and legs, melding with the Metaverse, having a digital life that is more real, or seems more real, than reality itself.
Do all people have this intuition? Or, this is something I wonder about a lot, is it a personality trait to feel horror at this idea, and/or do you have to have a sense of the real and the joy of real life? And if you’re deprived of that from a young age, say the kids who grew up during this pandemic, and who are already trending towards the digital seeming more real, they don’t have friends, they’re not interacting with a lot of actual live human beings. Is this an intuition, or is this just generational, or could we imagine a humanity without it? I’m sorry, that’s a lot of questions.
Yeah, I actually really [inaudible 00:08:59] question. It’s sort of like, is this the taste for cilantro? Most people really like cilantro. It’s a great garnish. And apparently for a select number of people, it just tastes like soap. And you’re basically asking, is the felt sense of an absolute truth, is that like cilantro? Some people are born deaf and dumb to it. Or even worse, and this is the possibility I do raise in the book, could you be trained out of it? Could a whole generation be basically raised to distrust or not even to feel the affection that I have and you have for the homely, local reality of our being in space and time? Just having bodies and getting up in the morning and seeing the sun and eating food and sensing that these things are, even if they’re not exactly as we perceive them all the time, nevertheless worth connecting with as believing in [inaudible 00:09:53] real, and that they exist outside of us and these sorts of things.
And one way into this that I take in the reality crisis section is, you start with the Facebook announcement that Zuckerberg said, we’re turning this into Meta, and now you’re going to be able to engage with your friends, not simply through a screen, but through goggles that make it look as if the world around you is basically whatever you collectively decide it’s going to be. And leaving aside for a second this particular technology, because it’s not really about Facebook, Meta, it’s more about an attitude toward the world. That attitude that it would be good to dissolve the boundaries of true and false is, as you say, typically expressed in dystopian fiction. The Matrix, even something like WALL-E, Ready Player one, the term metaverse itself comes from this novel Snow Crash, which is certainly not a happy prognosis about the future of the world. It all basically boils down in these stories to, either reality has gotten so dreadful that we have to escape into this virtual world, or reality itself has been commandeered by powerful people who have interests of their own, and so they’ve forced us into this virtual reality world.
And one thing I suggest here is that, when the stories of a culture repeatedly present a certain view of something, like that dissolving into a virtual reality, that view that this is bad or scary and gross to do, that’s not an accident. It’s actually expressing something that goes deeper than just your preference or mine. I think it was Jung who said that myths are public dreams. And this is kind of what I mean when I say that, when we tell the same kind of story…
Or a public nightmare. A recurring public nightmare.
Exactly. Yes. Right. The virtual reality. And it gets even more profound when you contemplate the fact that the first ever virtual reality dystopia is actually Plato’s cave. In Book VII of the Republic, famously Plato’s Socrates embarks upon this image, this famous image of people shackled to the wall of a cave, and all they can see is the shadows projected on the wall by sophists and politicians and deceptive nogoodniks. And Plato’s contention is, we’re basically born into this condition, and all of philosophy simply involves trying desperately to find our way out, to see the true light of the sun outside.
And so what this suggests, I think, is that it is possible to educate, to train this, to drill this out of people, and some of what you are very often… I think you’re really good at pointing this out and insisting upon this to conservatives, that the new generation is being subjected to some of this and it’s going to have real consequences. Plato begins, introduces this image of the cave by saying, compare our education and our state in respect to education to this situation. So he’s basically saying, this is a matter of training to a certain extent. But he’s also saying that it’s not purely arbitrary whether you’re looking at the shadows or whether you’re looking at the sun, that they have a different qualitative feel to them. And the human apparatus is such that, even if it’s been drilled out of you, you do have a felt sense of deeper reality when you see it.
And I think that is probably a true enough thing about human nature that it’s not totally extinguishable. If the world soviet state ever came into being, would it truly be able to eclipse all light from outside its borders, à la 1984? Or would there always be this just irreducible human spark of feeling like, no, other people are real, truth and falsehood are not just what the parties say they are? My sense is that the reason for accumulating all this evidence at all is to say that that still exists and can still be appealed to, even in a very degraded age. But it’s certainly hard, and you’re not wrong to worry about generations that have been trained out of this.
So that leads us to the second of your… And these blend into each other, I think, because… And I can almost feel in the book how, for example, you’re trying to keep certain questions of theology separated out, but the question of reality is of course related also to the evidence of our senses and being embodied. And so in both of these questions, I guess I want to ask you what the role of suffering is in this. Because you said there are two ways we enter the metaverse in this collective nightmare, and one is by being forced in, because there are other interests. In The Matrix, the machines need our… They dominated us and they needed our Soylent Green. But the other one more realistically, seemingly for our current moment, is that real life becomes so unbearable that it becomes very difficult to defend. In other words, that reality is difficult to defend because it causes us so much suffering. I think at some point you bring up in this book the idea that people reject… And maybe you were quoting someone else, I can’t recall, but that people reject too much reality.
Yes. T.S. Eliot. Mankind cannot stand very much reality.
Right, exactly. So how do we defend reality in the face of suffering? I guess think of The Matrix guy who says, “I just want a really nice steak. I don’t want to know about the stakes of this war. I don’t want to live outside The Matrix. I just want to be rich and have a delicious steak every day. And if that’s in the Matrix, so be it.”
Yeah. This is the hardest sell, I think. I think it’s why the book begins here. If I had to say, why’d you begin with reality? It’s because this is really the first, most fundamental question, and it’s also the one where it’s most easy to sympathize with people that just want out, with that guy that just wants the steak. What I’m arguing in the book is that reality of the kind that involves suffering, that kind of reality and meaning are inextricably bound to one another. You can’t have meaning without at least the possibility that things can go badly. And so there are always, I think, going to be some people that would rather just not take that deal. And you don’t need digital technology to make that clear, because things like opium addiction exist. It’s always possible to find somebody that says, I would rather have a cloud of unknowing descend about me than simply suffer through the pains, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
But it’s also the case that we can always see, and already again before digital technology, we can see that there is always a way in which we are made weak and small by that exchange. And from the inside of that opium addiction or virtual reality fantasy or whatever, from the inside, it might be possible to construct a justification for yourself that this is better. At least I don’t have to suffer. But even those of us that have seen addiction, lived with addiction, even been through addiction, will know that there’s also a voice in the back of your head that says, this is a raw deal. It’s not actually worth the cost.
And there’s a dynamic that I identify in the book that, when these offers are made, these offers to eliminate suffering, to transcend suffering by abolishing reality, the structure of the offer is always, here’s this thing that we’re doing now that’s making us sick and lethargic and unhappy, but if we extend that thing to infinity, we’ll be blissful, that will make us happier than we could ever possibly imagine. So happiness is at the bottom of one more beer glass, or it’s in one more heroin needle, or it’s in one more surgery, or it’ll be rendered once we finally have the right detail in our virtual reality goggles.
And the reason that that deal never materializes is because actually… And this is the great Christian insight, I would argue, and Jewish also. Actually our suffering is essential to the nature of our being as meaningful human entities. It’s not that anybody would want suffering or would wish suffering on other people, but it is fundamentally redemptive. Suffering has this redemptive character, if you believe that it comes along with significance, consequence, that you have meaning and worth precisely because your actions can have good or bad consequences. Those two things are bound up together. And so if you ever actually were able to dissolve those boundaries of reality, what you would get would actually not be joy, but just a kind of diffuse emptiness, just a kind of anesthesia.
And that’s really what you see people actually getting out of this deal. You can see people getting sadder and more lethargic and staying at home and playing video games for hours on end. And that stuff, it might have a certain pleasant numbness about it, but I think that actually people are increasingly aware that it really doesn’t sell. It doesn’t actually… I mean, even the Metaverse is not doing well for Zuckerberg, for Facebook, precisely because we crave more than just not suffering. We crave actual significance, consequence, heroism, and all these things take place in the world of reality and suffering. And you have to ultimately say to people, you can feel good all the time, or you can feel I guess not bad all the time if you want, and that will degrade you and make you small, and you’ll basically flop around meaninglessly in your little apartment. Or you can have a life of adventure, heroism, joy, love, and all these things will come at the cost of free will and suffering. And that’s the ancient trade-off.
So to move into this next crisis of the body, which I think again is related to what we’re talking about, and one of the most unavoidable sufferings of the human condition, is the degradation of the body, that we feel that we have a consciousness, and yet our bodies decay, our bodies are going… We know we are conscious of mortality, we’re conscious of becoming undignified and disgusting, as Houellebecq would put it, and we’re conscious of that fact. But we have a very bizarre, and I think you describe it, if you didn’t I’m going to, schizophrenic relationship to our bodies now in the current culture.
So on the one hand, we have this digital perfection of… You point to a world of TikTok filters or highly unrealistic photographs, images of the body, and this hyperfixation I would add to this American youth culture, and an allergy to aging far beyond what I think previous generations had. Nobody likes to get older, nobody likes to age, but we seem to have a particular obsession, hence the Instagram face and 29 year old girls desperately trying to avoid turning 30. So the schizophrenic part of this is, of course, then we have ugliness held up as an ideal. On the one hand, this unchanging perfection that is not attainable, and on the other hand, totally giving up on the meat suit altogether. Your slovenly guy in the basement playing video games that you were hinting at, or transgender cover girl, or the obese woman in workout attire that’s on half the billboards in Manhattan. So why do we have this schizophrenic view towards our bodies, and what are some of the ancient sources that you can point us to, to prove that this mind-body problem is not new to us?
Yeah. I think this is a really good example of a set of problems which, viewed through the narrow lens of modernity, looks like a chaotic stream of random and totally insane events, but viewed through the long vision of the tradition, in view of Western history writ large, starts to cohere into a very central and primal thing that we’ve always been dealing with. And that is, as you say, our discomfort with just having bodies at all.
It’s funny because I wrote the book before the high noon of AI that we’re currently experiencing, with ChatGPT and these ultra-realistic filters, but a lot of the stuff that’s in the book can be really, I think, meaningfully and quite easily applied to this new development, that our AI is getting so much more advanced. Like, for instance, when people started using that TikTok filter that makes you look like a teenager, and a lot of folks had real, it looks like, crises, personal emotional crises, over seeing their lost youth, understanding that they would grow older and older and eventually die. And part of it is just that we live in a culture that has never broken this news to people.
GK Chesterton famously said that before you get the good news, you have to get the bad news. In other words, before you understand that Christ has redeemed the world from sin, you have to understand that the world is in sin. And it’s very easy to deny this in a very comfortable, hyper-technological age. But death is a good example of the bad news. People can stave this off or ignore it, and if there’s no cultural means of transmitting this tragic fact, this difficult truth, then it’s going to come slamming down on you some other way.
And so similarly, we live in a culture that denies that there’s anything other than the meat suit about us, that talks about human beings as if we were chemistry sets in meat sacks. And so when it becomes clear that those chemistry sets are deficient, that they’re breaking down, then suddenly something in us rebels, and we have this sudden feeling or realization that no, I’m actually… I’m not just this decaying, decrepit flesh, I’m not this uncomfortably male body. I’m more than that. I’m my gender identity. I’m a divine spark. I’m a disembodied being floating free of all this flesh, and I should be able, indeed, I should have the right to do surgery and cosmetic alterations and all sorts of digital or technological upgrades to myself to reflect this fact.
And so in some ways, you’re up against just this very, very old sense that we are actually more than flesh, and this rebellion against the death of our bodies, which we understand is a kind of loss, or not just part of the natural course of things, but something that shouldn’t be this way. The Christian, of course, way of describing this is original sin, that there is actually something broken about the world, which was created good, which has fallen short. Peachy Keenan, who’s one of my dear friends online and also a great writer, she wrote a response to my book that I really liked about age dysphoria, that I have news for the transgender people, actually everybody is trapped in the wrong body, and it’s a body that’s getting older and older every day, and that we all feel very uncomfortable about this, and we wish that we could float beyond it.
The reason that this is a crucial section of the book is because it illustrates that this is an ancient thing. It’s an ancient problem. It goes back at least to the Neoplatonists, who are disciples obviously of the great philosopher Plato, but it’s probably older than that, this sense that I’m something more than this flesh, but what? What is it? And the modern answers available are basically like, you are your online avatar, you are your demon self or pup self identity, you are your pronouns. And the ancient answer that I think is worth recovering from the tradition is that what you actually are is an embodied soul. This is an Aristotelian insight, but it’s picked up by Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica among other places, that your body actually isn’t a mistake. And your soul, your spirit, your identity beyond your body, that’s not an illusion. You’re not a meat sack, and you’re also not a floating disembodied spark. Your flesh is the language for something that is more than flesh.
And if that’s true, then you actually have a saner, healthier relationship with yourself and with what you are, even though there’s still going to be pain, still going to be tragedy. There’s going to be pain no matter which of these courses you take. That’s the secret that nobody tells you. You’re going to get old, or if you do these surgeries, there are terrible consequences. And so the question is really, how can I make peace with what I am? And I’m arguing in the book that the best way to do that is to understand yourself as a kind of language, that your body is the letters and syllables in which the soul is written. And this isn’t something to be shucked off or wished away. It’s actually something to be lived into and delighted in, and all of the joy and all of the satisfaction that our modern gurus will promise you in this other route, all of that joy is actually to be found in the here and now, as you already are. You just have to live into it.
It seems like there’s a second half to our modifications of ourselves. There’s these plastic, or one might call them melding with technology, which is really what making yourself in into or imagining that you eke some kind of divine spark out of nothing, and that’s what you’re listening to, in shaping the clay of your body yourself. There is of course the genetic side of this question, which you also get into. You talk about modifications that restore function to the human body that is naturally there. You talk about a cochlear implant, for example. And you’re not a naturalist or a Luddite, and you say it’s fine, this is in fact wonderful. Nobody would argue with the invention of glasses, except I guess Christian Scientists do. But anyway…
But you can accept such modifications as glasses and cochlear implants because they restore some kind of natural function. And my question for you is, is there really as sharp a line there as you’re intimating? In other words, the line between being, for example, a genetic dwarf and being short is not actually a perfectly… The world isn’t split into perfect pathologies and natural functions.
So something came to mind from the movie Gattaca on this, which is when they conceive of the second child in this… This is a world in which we can manipulate genes, but it asks a more complicated question. So when they conceive the brother that’s supposed to be the perfect child genetically, you could conceive a million times naturally and never get such a result. In other words, it’s not completely fake, but it is unnatural. You’re getting the best genes from both your parents, that perhaps in nature would require a million monkeys on a million typewriters. We can now be Shakespeare of our own genetic code. What wisdom from the ancients and also from more modern Western philosophy is there to address this possibility, now that it doesn’t seem wholly impossible with regard to technology?
Yeah. I think you’re absolutely right to ask that question, and I’m glad you raised it because you’re right. None of these questions in the immediate… When they actually boil down to this or that question, what are you going to do with this baby that you are about to have? They’re never quite so cut and dry as philosophers would like them to be, or maybe as I would like them to be. And there are always going to be edge cases and exceptions.
I think I talk about this in the introduction to the book when I say, there’s trees and there’s bushes, but there’s really large shrubs that would almost count as trees, and then there’s stunted trees that you might think of as a bush. And these things always are going to exist. Every word, every concept is going to have fuzziness around the edges. It doesn’t actually mean there’s no such thing as a tree or a bush. We can actually identify essential features of those two things, even though we know that in the world there is an infinite variety that makes it impossible to ever rule out any one situation.
So you’re right, these things are going to become more and more concrete, and then they are going to become more and more messy, because this is one of Aristotle’s great insights, that when things become real world human problems, they lose some of the specificity that they’re able to have in the pure abstraction of mathematical or philosophical thought.
So you bring to my mind a controversy that unfolded recently around this guy Nick Bostrom, who shows up in the book, but this was after I wrote the book. He got into this kerfuffle, one of these old cancel culture kerfuffles about, I think he had said something impolitic on a Listserv back in the day, and then people started yelling at him, and he published this very weird apology letter where he said, yes, this was wrong of me to say, obviously all races are equal, valid and beautiful and special, but what do I believe about eugenics? Kind of unprompted, just a total own goal, just here’s my thoughts about eugenics. But it’s obviously on his mind when he thinks about these things, because the unstated premise of that logical leap is, currently this guy is on the forefront of science that’s going to make the Gattaca reality possible. And then where will all our nice liberal pieties go?
And he says, old eugenics was very bad, they did a lot of nasty things, Hitler did all these terrible things, and so did American progressives and whatever. But there’s a new eugenics that is good and responsible, and it means talking with parents about what kind of baby they’d like to have. And you think, where does that line get drawn, Nick? There’s just a real lack of clarity about this.
And here is what I would say that the ancient sources can bring to this. I certainly am not going to sit here and say that I have the answer to every possible permutation of changing human genes, changing human behavior, I can say in every case that I know the right answer. What I can say is, before you undertake to change or alter something, you need a standard of the good. Because if you’re going to make a change, it’s either going to be for better or for worse, or it’s going to be completely neutral, in which case, why are you making the change at all? So people make changes to things because they think they’re improving that thing. And before you know whether something is good for something, you have to know what kind of thing it is. So if I’m going to make a change to a corkscrew, presumably I’m going to make it better at taking corks out of bottles, and I’m going to do things to that corkscrew that I would not do, say, to a horse in order to make it better at being a horse. The reason for this is that the nature of a thing and the good of the thing are bound up together.
And so when you start to ask, what kinds of alterations are good or okay to do ourselves, for instance, is it okay to put in cochlear implants, the frame of reference that you use has to be, what are we? What are human beings? And if your answer is that we are embodied souls, and that our nature is to seek virtue and to do good in the light of the cardinal virtues, courage, wisdom, prudence, then you’re going to have at least a template for understanding what kinds of questions you might ask and answer. And then you would add in, I would propose, the crucial issue of human freedom, that we are also inherently beings whose choices are meaningful because we have individual personal agency.
Those ingredients are better ingredients, I would argue, for good answers to this question, than the meat sack chemistry suit answer, or the meat suit chemistry set answer, which basically says, we’re just a heap of physical attributes. It’s already becoming clear that that philosophy delivers a host of very horrific alterations to children, babies, adults, you name it. And so even if I don’t have all the answers, what I’m proposing here is that I do have the right set of questions to be asking. What’s a human being? The answer to that question is well answered in ancient philosophy, and that is we are embodied souls whose purpose is to seek virtue. In any given question about human alteration, that I think has to be our starting point.
Yeah. And it’s a point I haven’t heard anyone make as explicitly as you, that actually in all of these conversations about human transformation, virtue never even gets brought up. Why haven’t we asked, can we alter our genes to make us more altruistic? These questions, it’s funny that they just don’t get raised at all in this conversation. We’re only talking about increasing our IQ or increasing our physical prowess, just an instructive and glaring hole in the conversation that I think, as you’re right to say, points to a lack of understanding of what actually a good human constitutes.
Yeah. That’s very well put. And let me just also add that a consequence of that is that, in all of our conversations, good, bad, and transhumanist, about making these changes, there is actually a set of values implicit in anything that anybody says. It’s always smuggled in that it would be better for us to be smarter, better, faster, or stronger. And my case is, it might actually be good for us to be smarter, better, faster, stronger, I’m not against that idea, but if our only idea about humanity is that strength and speed are our goods, are our highest virtues, then we’re going to end up with actually not a beautiful, sophisticated, enlightened future, but the most rudimentary, tribalist, angry, brutish, short, and violent kind of future, because we’ll have an idea about human beings that basically reduces us to apes.
Yeah. There’s no room for protecting the weak in such a philosophy, implicit. You’re right, maybe this is the tie-in between the progressives and Nietzsche, but it’s an interesting one, and I had never thought about it quite that way even after reading it. So hopefully people will listen to the many interviews that you’ve given about this book, and for additional wisdoms contained in it.
The next crisis that you move into, which I think again, this is all tied together and it is nicely tied together in the book as well, but the crisis of meaning, in which you bring in the mimetic impulse of humanity, and whether we are copying anything higher, or are copying each other, just an endless circle of reflecting nothing back to each other. And it’s in this crisis section that you discuss, I think, primarily art. And so there’s some interesting things you say here about art and the subjectivity, among them that the people who, for example, tape a banana to the wall and declare the meaninglessness of art, and consequently of life, have no basis on which to demand representation for all of their preferred minorities. If art is meaningless, why does the little Black girl need to see herself in the Little Mermaid?
Right. Why indeed?
It’s a good question. So why don’t you lay out some of the arguments that you’ve made, and where you got them from, about the meaning inherent, or why art does require meaning? Because I think these two questions as you put them together, the question of meaning in life is… We’re asking the same question when we think about whether art requires a meaning.
Yeah. I’m glad that you think these are all one crisis, because it might have been Emily… You mentioned Emily Jashinsky. It might have been Emily who said to me, these are basically all one crisis. And I think that’s true. I think that the book unfolds naturally along with my own train of thought, and that’s because really all of these things are interconnected. It’s one benefit of thinking in terms of the tradition rather than in terms of the news cycle.
And this chapter, the Crisis of Meaning, was the chapter that most surprised me. When you write a book, some chapters basically come out how you expect, some chapters totally surprise you with the logic inherent in their ideas. And this was the one that I thought, wow, it’s interesting that I’ve ended up talking about the culture wars in my section on human meaning. But actually they’re connected by this ancient idea of mimesis, which is this idea that art and even human activity reflects the world back at itself.
And Aristotle says that mankind is the most imitative of the animals. He is [foreign language 00:42:09]. That is, wherever we go, we see people reacting to one another in these mirror ways. Kids in preschool learn by repeating things that are said to them, or even on the playground they might mimic one another, to make fun of each other, or they might put on little mini plays and play pretend. And these are all ways of basically holding a mirror up to the world and to one another.
And art, as it’s traditionally understood, does this. And one of the things that I argue in the book is that not realizing this about art is a way that both conservatives and leftists get the culture wars wrong. We don’t always understand what we’re doing in the culture wars, which we’ve been fighting now for decades. We’ve been fighting over what kind of art should be in schools, what kind of books should be read, what kind of movies, and so on and so forth. And typically this debate, this war, is represented as the left just wants no holds barred, anything goes, depict sex, violence, whatever, and just let a thousand flowers bloom. And the right is always shaking its finger and scolding and saying, no, you need to only show sanitized, prettified depictions of the world.
But actually, if you look at what people are really fighting about right now, they’re not fighting that way at all. The left is extremely censorious about art, and has very definite views about what should and should not be shown. They’re just not the same views that as conservatives have. This whole thing about representation is a great example. There must be, in movies, a certain number of LGBTQIA+ people. In fact, the more the better. And the whiter your movie is, the worse it is. These are moral claims about how you depict the world, because one of the left’s greatest strengths is they understand that art has power to mold the intellect.
In some ways, I’ve never quite thought about it before, but this is a way of answering your question about, do people intuitively have a sense of reality? Yes, they do. They’re born with it. But people also can have their sense of reality shaped by the way they see the world depicted, because this representational impulse is so deep within us. And so the left wants to seize control of the means of artistic production, precisely in order to shape people’s understanding of the world so that it looks like their understanding. The right sort of wants to do that too, and I think we’re getting wiser about this. What we really want is art that displays the world as it is in reality.
I think too often we represent our political program as, there shouldn’t be any depictions of violence and sex. They shouldn’t be explicit. And really what we’re saying is, we shouldn’t be lying about violence and sex. We shouldn’t be depicting promiscuous sex as if it’s fun and cost free. We shouldn’t be showing children these disturbing images before they’re ready to fully process the truth of them, rather than treat them simply as symbols on a screen. And this is a very reasonable, in fact, ancient request to make of artists, that they not distort and deform people’s vision of reality. But the problem, of course, is that we’re up against a crazy ascendant left that wants its distorted crazy vision of reality on every TV screen in every home. And so it’s very easy on the right to just react against that and say no, basically shut it all off, cancel every possible streaming service. And really what we need to be doing is saying, we actually have better art to make, truer art.
This is one reason why I love, for instance, what the Daily Wire does, is they actually go out there and make stuff that depicts the world as they see it, and I believe they see it more truly. And so this sort of thing… Ultimately our question is always, what is behind our depictions? What are we depicting? Are we depicting a kind of imaginary fantasy that we’re trying to shove people into against their will? Or are we depicting the world in the fullness of itself as it is, because we believe in truth and reality? That’s the question of meaning.
And here I hear echoes of that guy who’s not your father, Andrew Klavan, who said on this podcast in relation to his own book about poetry, essentially that the right is often too focused on creating role models in art rather than reflecting the real. And I think that you’ve clarified that admirably in this book, and I think you’re completely right. I think there has to be a fight, for example, to depict the realities of sex in art, rather than in a morally didactic way to, for example, depict how it can go wrong. That is in itself a depiction of a truth about sex in a way that I think is more meaningful than a schoolmarmish disconnection from the culture.
But there’s another axis, I think, within this art that you point to, that I think the right often gets wrong, I agree with you that the right often gets wrong, and that’s representation versus realism. So you write about how poetry, for example, is trying to better represent an image or emotion by using words almost as a medium. Actually, I think your example is a poem about Anne Boleyn, and if he had merely said, if this poem had merely described, I saw a pretty girl at the party that I couldn’t have because she was chosen by the king, that would not convey what he does through words and metaphor.
I guess here my question is, what do you think about more abstract forms of art? Because I was in the MoMA yesterday, and I realized that I had been a stupid and bullheaded conservative in refusing to go to MoMA, but not entirely, in the sense that it seemed to me that there was some crucial turning point sometime in the 1970s where you really get this aggressive meaninglessness. Whereas in earlier forms of even modern art, abstraction itself is not the enemy. And I feel like too often you hear conservatives say, modern art is BS because there’s too much abstraction and therefore there can’t be meaning. Where do you fall on that debate? Do you need something realistic, or at least tending towards realistic, to reflect something true? Or can we sometimes reflect something that is true better through something that is representational or abstract and not realistic?
It definitely depends on what you mean by truth and reality. And this is one place where art I think can get stuff across that nothing else can. That’s part of the case that I make for art in the book, if you like. And you mentioned that Wyatt poem about Anne Boleyn, it’s this little capsule of things that have no expression in language any other way, because you can’t actually describe them in physical, scientistic terms. And so we have this idea that we really inherit from the scientific revolution, that the only way of telling a truth is to say physical facts. And art is the great refutation of that attitude, because it conveys things that can’t be charted anywhere on a brain scan, that can’t be neatly boiled down to the definitions of individual words, and yet undeniably are real, our loves, our desires, our passions. These things exist for us, and they are captured in art as nothing else can.
So the other day on Twitter, I went on this tongue in cheek rant about Andy Grammer’s song, “Honey, I’m Good,” which is one of my favorite modern songs. And it’s about not sleeping with a girl at the bar because you’re married, or in a committed relationship or something. And the song, “Honey, I’m Good,” is like, you’re really great and I would like to go home with you, but I’m not going to. And I was arguing, only sort of facetiously, that this is a modern masterpiece because it does something for fidelity that no conservative argument or facts or figures or anything, nothing else could do that. Only this song, which is fun and sexy and adventurous, can portray fidelity, marital fidelity, as what it actually is, which is one of the chief joys of life, that it has this thrill to it that is above anything you’ll get out of a one night stand. And that’s actually one of the hardest things to do in art, is to get across the fact that virtue is an adventure. But that’s also one of the things that only art can do.
So now you have this question. Obviously in the second half of the 20th century, something happens that makes people feel that the only way they can get across what’s going on for them is to scramble the preexisting forms, and to put things onto canvas or onto paper that have no real relationship to the forms and order that we experience in everyday life. And it’s not impossible to me for some of that to work. I would say though that the thing where you’re trying to get away from form altogether, which is what I understand by true high abstraction, just never put anything in front of the eyes that can be neatly interpreted as having some kind of form, I think that is a fool’s errand. I think living in a purely abstract world… The analog for this in music would be pure atonality, just no frame of reference for any one note as related to any other. Ultimately that is going to destroy the possibility of meaning altogether.
I do think there’s forms of abstraction that can riff on or show moments of breakdown, chaos, despair. That’s what abstraction should do at its best, I think, is to portray and convey what it means when meaning falls apart and breaks down. But as such, abstraction for me is always parasitic upon formalism. So if you’re going to break the traditional metrical forms in poetry, for instance, there’s no reason for me to care except because those forms exist and they convey certain meanings to me. And so when you break them, I think, something is being portrayed to me about an exception to the rule or a breakdown of meaning or something, there’s some kind of experience that I’m supposed to have that basically communicates things falling apart. And that’s definitely a great use for abstraction. I just think that this whole idea that abstraction in itself is going to be a standalone artistic movement, the reason that that has never really carried favor with the public is because it’s actually a contradiction in terms. It’s like saying, I want to communicate something to you without any form of communication. It’s a logical contradiction.
Interesting. I may have to think about that one, as with many things, but I want to move on to the next crisis that you identify. And again, all of these things underlie each other. This is the crisis of religion. And you talk about the role that science has taken on, more akin to priests, that science has busted beyond the empirical questions and its limitations, to be the only source of truth. And this has changed discourse into an infuriating game, I think you used the word game as well, positioning your positive commitments as scientific or objective truth. Maybe you can call it, instead of Game of Thrones, it’s a game of axioms. And this seems to constitute our very frustrating politics and philosophy.
Is this just life after the death of God? In other words, is there way, a way out, to actually posit something in this game? Or does it require a full-fledged religious revival? In other words, is the only way out of the death of God, and then therefore death of all meaning, is the only way out religious revival, or are we going to have to in some self-aware way posit something?
Yeah. Is it a change of the heart that’s needed, or cognitive, or some sort of argument? Here’s the first thing I would say. The reason that science has become a kind of religion is because, as you say, it’s billowed out to lay claim to every form of truth. Nothing is true if it’s not scientifically true. And likewise, things that are not scientifically true are flatly not true. And part of the problem with this is that even science operates using tools that science itself has not proven, axioms, first principles. And good philosophers of science know this. They don’t come from scientific observation, they inform scientific observation.
So if I say, I know that the Earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around, you say, how do you know that? You say, because you can look through a telescope and you can see certain things. Even when you start to say those things, there’s a whole laundry list of premises that science didn’t demonstrate, it just takes for granted, like for instance, that the way the angle of incidence of light at your eye is indicative of something about the distance that it can be refracted, and so forth. Without getting into minutiae on this, even when we do science, we operate with extra-scientific ideas.
I would propose that the only kinds of truths that we can actually collectively agree on and say, these are absolute, they don’t depend on your standpoint within any one… Those truths are going to be more than material, more than physical, that we’re going to be talking about things like justice, love, virtue, all the stuff that we’ve been talking about today, which are beyond mere matter. And even when we try to talk about mere matter, one of the reasons why we’ve gotten so crazy about it, is because we actually have to have something that is not material in order to talk about that.
So we’re going to have to drop this charade that we can get by on just atoms bouncing around in a void. I just don’t think that’s working for us. I don’t think it coheres intellectually. And it ends us up in this position where we’ve just staked out whatever little ground we want to claim within the chaos of nature and said, this is truth. And that’s actually just what paganism is. That’s the old argument against paganism, is that it’s really just picking a particular force of nature or a political force or a person, a king, and banking on that and saying, I’m betting on this horse, and this is going to rise up and eclipse and swallow up all other realities. But it never quite works, because nature, in order to cohere, needs something from outside of nature.
So is it a religious revival when people begin to believe in more than matter? Really that’s how basic this question is. Yes, I do think there has to be a change of the heart that leads us there, but I also think that that change of the heart is in some ways already occurring, and that people don’t find it satisfying to think of themselves as atoms in a void or as chemistry sets in meat sacks or whatever. This actually leads us into despair, and we know that it doesn’t work, and we know that all the most important parts of our experience don’t live in this purely material domain.
And so really what I say in the book is, what you really need is not a confession, but a surrender. What we really need is to regain a certain amount of confidence in our own felt sense that there is more to life than stuff. And that is maybe, if anything, it’s a political change. It’s people getting the confidence to say, in the teeth of whatever elite scolding they may face, no actually, The Science, capital T, capital S, is not all there is, and I won’t worship at its altar.
Yeah. The end point of the alternative is this famous story of the university student proclaiming his nihilism and setting himself on fire. So as you say, all of this has contemporary political meaning. I would even say it has very sharp political meaning, and you blend those things very well in this book. You’re interchangeably going back and forth between Plato and Aristotle and the questions that they confront, and our modern political crises. And so this all brings us to the last question, which is the crisis of the regime. You have quite a bit of hope for us, I think, on the crisis of the regime and of Western tradition’s ability to regenerate itself after the destruction of nations.
But I want to ask you about something that has been bothering me as well, and that’s the mere materialism that springs… Marx is every bit part of the Western tradition. And so the question then, and I think you quote Whittaker Chambers in a letter to William F. Buckley, writing essentially that communism springs from the capitols of the West. In other words, it’s not because of this deviation from man’s history in Russia, the Bolshevik Revolution, but that Russia simply responded earlier, for any variety of number of historical reasons, to something that is being born across the West, is in some sense the child of the earlier Western tradition, even if bastardized. So I guess the question I want to ask you here is, is the West now the trans flag, and will we become an evil empire?
The GAE, right? The Global American Empire, which just exports that aesthetic atrocity, the trans flag. I think this is a really smart objection to anybody that would want to say the West is worth saving, is the West is what got us into this mess. I would say this. You’re right, Marx is a Westerner. He’s operating in a Western mode of thought and critique, and there are good arguments such as that made by Tom Holland in Dominion, that really what he’s doing is just developing a Christian ethic to its extremes, without any of the Christian metaphysics that have made Christian ethics bearable historically. Christian ethics only works because it’s nested within its metaphysics, and when you take that metaphysics away and then push all the moral claims to their extremes, like blessed are the poor and therefore we should eat the rich, it becomes this actually horrific hellish contortion of itself.
So I might quibble and say that Marxism is a perversion of Western thought, but even so, it’s a perversion that arose for discernible, identifiable reasons. And so I would take the point, a lot of what we’re up against, a lot of what we’re facing, is uniquely Western, even in its corruption and its problems and its excesses. But it’s not a foregone conclusion, I would suggest, that that’s the end of the story, that that’s the stopping point. I actually think that we are at the end, the terminus of something, with the extremities of materialism, and that what we’re really seeing is something that began with the scientific revolution, that when the world began to look newly intelligible as a series of laws, predictable laws, it became very easy to fall victim to a kind of idolatry which says, and those laws therefore just are the reality of things, it’s all just billiard balls bouncing in space. And you can chart a logical progression to the end point of that is drag queen story hour and the Global American Empire.
But the other thing that’s true is, in actual science, even as we speak in real life science, the unsustainability of materialism is also becoming clear, because it was always a fallacy to say that there’s no role for the human mind in science, it’s just objective and it happens outside of our consciousness. Everything that we experience is mediated through our consciousness, and that means that mind has a role to play in science just as much as anything else. And so the fact that quantum physics is currently beating its head against exactly this problem, and that actually the shadow of God is looming in all these scientific ways, suggests that there may actually be a revival coming down the pike in the Western tradition, just as we’re currently facing a low point or a trough in Western wisdom.
And the last thing I would say is, if that revival is to come for us, it will come out of a recovery of old truths that we’ve been passing down and gnawing on and wrestling with since Athens and Jerusalem. It’s not going to come from some extraneous, extrinsic, just let’s do something else, let’s scrap Socrates and Plato because they got us in this mess. You can make that argument about anybody. You can always trace the roots of dysfunction back to some good thing, because the world has fallen and things fall apart. But we’re not going to get back, we’re not going to recover any sanity, by simply jettisoning the tradition altogether. What we’re going to have to do is dig into our roots, find out where we went wrong, and restore some of the old truths that we lost while uncovering some of these new scientific truths.
That’s why it’s important to deal with the Western tradition at all. That’s why I wrote the book in some senses. It’s not that there aren’t problems with all of these ideas, it’s not that human life is ever going to be neatly solved, but the thing that’s going to get us out of this mess is the ancient verities. It’s not some random novelty that we’re going to invent from elsewhere. Our help comes from within.
That would be a nice way to wrap this up, but for the fact that I have one more question for you that maybe doesn’t follow quite the structure of your book, but you touch on at different points throughout it, and something that’s very close to my heart in terms of what I find important in life in a real way, and that is the dilution or belittling of friendship and love. In the context of the regime, the formulation of this might be something about the large republic and civic friendship and the difficulty of maintaining civic friendship in a large republic, but there’s also a personal or individual version of this. How to keep friendship and love meaningful, and by which you point out exclusionary, in an age of ubiquitous social media. In other words, if everyone knows everything about anyone, what is friendship or love?
This is a really important… It’s where the book ends, and it is where my work is going to go. I think as the years roll on, I’ve become kind of obsessed with this fact, and maybe you can tell me if there’s a language you know of that fixes this problem. But in English, I’ve become obsessed with the fact that there’s not a good word for somebody that you like and have a great relationship with, and actually you’re totally satisfied with your relationship with this person, there’s a lot of mutual satisfaction, but they’re not your friend. That is to say, you don’t count them among the people to whom you might turn with problems, that you wouldn’t think of them immediately to share intimate details of your life. And we have these words like colleague or associate or acquaintance, and they all feel cold or insulting. If you called somebody your colleague or your acquaintance, they would feel like they’d been somehow downgraded in your estimation.
But what that means is that we have to expand our word friend out to everybody. And since friendship is a kind of love, we have to be constantly saying that we love everybody, with the result that we don’t have a good definition or understanding of what real friendship is. Philia, in the ancient Greek sense, that is friendship love, this desiring of the good and love of the good in the other person and for the other person, in and of itself, is a very rare, precious thing. It’s also the stuff of life. It’s the way that we connect to one another, the way that we build political communities.
And so I think the very first thing has to be thinking smaller, and thinking smaller in terms of the size of your circle of friends, but also therefore in terms of the size of your political communities. Yes, we’re a big nation, but we actually operate according to these little platoons, these neighborhoods that are not conducted online, that actually have to confront real life, human sized problems.
Aristotle’s image for this, which I still think is the best, comes in the course of his arguing against Plato about communism, about the sharing of all property in common. And he says, if you take a little bit of wine and you dilute it in a big jug of water, you don’t get a big jug of wine, you get a big jug of water with an imperceptible wine splash in it. In just the same way, if you take your love and you just spread it around to “the world,” I love the world, or if you try to save the world, if you try to love the world, you won’t actually get more love, you’ll get less. And so the way to really do friendship, the way to really do politics, the way to really do love, is to enter into the human sized space of face-to-face interaction. That’s where love lives.
If anybody says, I love God, but he loves not his neighbor, he is a liar. Why? Because God for us can very easily become this gelatinous abstraction, and we’re very capable, believe me, I know, we’re very capable of saying “I love God, I’m a servant of God,” and then we go out into the world and we do and say the most atrocious things, sometimes in the name of that very idea, because we haven’t drawn that crucial Christian connection between love of God and love of neighbor. That’s why that connection is there. It’s to say, actually all your virtue, all your salvation, is bound up in this fleshly human sized thing that you are in conversation, in communion with, other human beings. And that’s one reason why the digital revolution has been so unsettling. But it also means that the key to gaining a little bit more mastery over our technology is in re-rooting ourselves in the here and now, in what they call meatspace, face-to-face, person-to-person interaction, which is the root of all real love.
With that, Spencer Klavan, thank you so much for joining us on High Noon today. Spencer is the author of “How to Save the West: Ancient Wisdom for 5 Modern Crises,” which I highly, highly recommend that you read, along with his work over at American Mind at the Claremont Institute. He has a new podcast coming out to succeed Young Heretics, also on the heritage of the West over at Daily Wire. And I would describe him, I think, as a one-man library of Alexandria for a bereft age.
But don’t set me on fire.
Thank you so much, Spencer, for coming on. It’s been a pleasure.
Thank you, Inez. This was wonderful. Really appreciate it.
And thank you to our listeners. 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. Be brave, and we’ll see you next time on High Noon.