In his 11th thesis in his famous “Theses on Feuerbach” (1888), Karl Marx famously said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” This phrase has been interpreted in several ways by both Marx’s critics and his fans, but one salient reading is that Marx saw philosophy leading fundamentally toward revolutionary change.
For earlier Marxists, the goal was principally economic (although the early seeds of the sexual and cultural revolution were sown by Marx and his followers). However, in the post-Trump era, the focus of many on the left has been a cultural revolution that would leave (the wealthiest “progressive”) capitalists in charge of the economic system while allegedly creating a more “inclusive and tolerant” form of capitalism.
One of the key elements of this “cultural Marxism” is the eradication or at least modification of the foundation of Western thought, including and especially the classical traditions of Greece and Rome. Since Western civilization is fundamentally sexist and racist, this thinking argues, so also rotten are its intellectual foundations in the thought of the ancient Mediterranean.
One individual who has provided a robust defense of the West’s classical tradition is Spencer Klavan. He is an associate editor of The Claremont Review of Books as well as the features editor for The American Mind. He is also the host of the “Young Heretics Show” and the author of the forthcoming “How to Save the West: Ancient Wisdom for 5 Modern Crises.” He recently penned the forward to a new edition of “The Stoics.” So I asked for his antidote to postmodern decay.
Jesse Russell: What do you see as the primary crisis in the West today?
Spencer Klavan: The West’s primary crisis, which occupies the central portion of my book, is the loss of our ancestral faith. Friedrich Nietzsche saw it coming in “The Gay Science.” In the most famous passage he ever wrote, the “madman” wails over the death of God because he can see what no one else can see: that the belief in a creator consciousness is the foundation stone upon which all our moral axioms rest. Without it, our morality looks very different. We end up trying “to become gods ourselves.”
We like to think this isn’t the case. We think we can get by on just “niceness” or on the “common decency” that supposedly animates all civilized people and teaches us that “all men are created equal.” But the central truths of the West aren’t “self-evident” in that purely natural sense. They don’t just occur to us out of the blue. In fact, most people throughout history have not believed in human equality. We believe in it, or we used to, for a very specific reason: because we believed it was endowed in us by our creator.
As Nietzsche saw, if you take that belief away, the old morality might endure for a little while among those who have “blindly accepted what has been labeled right since childhood.” It’s a kind of moral inertia. But eventually, the confidence of the old ways will fade, and you’ll regress to a kind of neo-paganism — the paganism we see in, for instance, our blind worship of abortion and euthanasia as triumphs of a god we call “progress.”
You don’t have to become a practicing Christian overnight. But you can’t preserve the ideals of the West without some belief in their logical premise, which is the existence of a Creator God.
Americans (even conservatives) are notoriously progressive. What do you think we can learn from the ancient world?
When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the American shipyards, he observed a conviction among the sailors there that “the finest ship constructed today must be useless after a very short time.” My friend James Poulos likes to point out that this is a fundamentally American sensibility. Tocqueville said that the American “hastens towards an immense grandeur which he dimly conceives as the goal of humanity.”
In that sense, yes, we’re progressive. In its best expression, this amounts to a kind of cosmic optimism: History is going somewhere, and it’s somewhere good. But of course, as we know from the eugenic excesses of the formal progressive movement, there’s an extremely ugly version of progressivism too. Consider, for instance, Woodrow Wilson’s “Study of Administration” and the arrogant assurance of the late 1800s that mankind had moved beyond all this representative government stuff. Too slow! Too inefficient! That’s “progressivism” in the nasty sense.
I think what makes all the difference is where you position yourself in respect to history. Wilson and the progressives always thought of themselves, implicitly or explicitly, as the managers of history; they stood outside and, through some kind of divine vision, saw where the future was headed. And if the deplorables didn’t like it, then they’d better get out of the way or submit to being crushed under the great march of “progress.” Obama used to talk this way all the time — whenever he invoked the “arc of history” to suggest that only regressive troglodytes could dare oppose his policies.
What we can learn from ancient insight on this score, then, is this: If history is rolling forward, then we’re all in it. No one man can grasp the reins and muscle things his way. You have to gradually move the ball forward by rational deliberation and persuasion. The ancient art of phronēsis — “prudence” — is the moral faculty of discerning what’s right in the here and now, not according to some grand fantasy you have about “the arc of history.” As I argue in the book, drawing in large part on Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics,” you’ll do much more good if you pour your attention and your efforts into the here and now rather than fantasizing about your place in some grand narrative scheme.
In your discussion of the Stoics, you mention that they emphasized the fundamental humanity of all humans. Why do you think that in our own era, people have returned to an often ferocious tribalism?
Well, it comes right back to what I said above about God. The Stoics, as I explain in that introduction, arrived at their rather unusual belief in human equality because they believed in a single god, whom they called “Zeus” or even “the Logos,” governing all things. This enabled them to claim, as Aratus wrote in his poem the Phaenomena, that “we are his offspring” — all of us.
If you don’t have that common ancestor, then why should men be equal? They’re certainly not equal in ability or strength. It takes theology to reveal the truth that we are all brothers and sisters because only in heaven do we have one father. That’s made explicit in the letters of Seneca and the Handbook of Epictetus, which you’ll find in “Gateway to the Stoics.”
How is it possible to maintain a strong cultural identity while valuing other cultures and living harmoniously with humans from different backgrounds?
No one was better about this question, in my opinion than Edmund Burke. You read “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” and then you hold that up against what he says in his “Speech in General Reply in the Impeachment of Warren Hastings.”
Burke is holding two truths delicately in balance. First, all moral convictions have a history. They don’t just drop down from the sky. They come through us through centuries of striving and reasoning, gradually built in the working out of tradition. So we should cherish that tradition and the “little platoons” where we are schooled in it.
But, when confronted with the abuses of the East India Company and the excesses of the British Empire, Burke was moved to proclaim that morality is not “geographical.” In other words, the truths that we access in and through our traditions don’t change just because we encounter other people from other traditions. Incidentally, Churchill’s essay on “Consistency in Politics” from 1932 is a great reflection on how Burke balanced these two beliefs.
In Isaiah 60, the prophet has a vision of all Earth’s many peoples coming to Zion from afar. Jerusalem, the holy land, “will drink the milk of nations.” But all the different cultures retain their local customs, goods, and traditions because they are each capable of expressing the fundamental truths of God.
In other words, absolute truth is capable of many different expressions. But it always comes to us embodied in the wisdom of history and tradition — so we can never just abandon or reject our past because it doesn’t measure up to our pure and perfect notion of the disembodied good. The good — just like the human soul — is always embodied.
Some people are turning to Stoicism in place of Christianity. Do you think Stoicism has the capacity to satisfy humankind’s religious needs?
I’m afraid I don’t. It’s a start — C.S. Lewis said of Wordsworth’s poetry that it was enough for “the man coming up from below.” I think Stoicism is a bit like that — as I write in my foreword to “Gateway,” it’s a better foothold against the atomization of modernity than most of today’s trendy ideologies. But it has a big problem, which is what some philosophers call “corporealism.” That is, if the Stoics aren’t outright materialists, they nevertheless believe that there is nothing beyond this cosmos, this world, where everything that exists is a physical body. God is co-extensive with the universe, a thin fire pervading a world made of bodies, and that’s all there is.
And you can see in his “Meditations,” Emperor Marcus Aurelius struggles so hard to find in a purely corporeal world a reason to seek virtue, even if there’s nothing after this life. I think that would probably be enough if virtue did indeed carry its own rewards, as it should in an ideal world. But the great Christian insight is that the world is not ideal; it is horribly broken, and there are injustices within it that only some future state or infinite bliss can answer for. If you can’t believe in that future state, in something beyond this life, you’ll struggle to make sense of things.