Spencer Klavan’s “How To Save the West: Ancient Wisdom for 5 Modern Crises” is simply not what I was expecting. It impressed me at every turn. I don’t know why – maybe because of the provocative title, maybe because I associate Klavan with conservative politics – but I was expecting a popularized political diatribe with some obeisance made to classical sources. That is not what I read.
Instead, it is a masterful employment of the best of our Western fathers to address the very real issues that threaten to undermine Western civilization in our day. This is exactly how the classics should be used. If we had the texts employed by Klavan read and studied in our schools today, we would not be facing the destruction of culture in our time.
Klavan addresses real issues, ranging from the “body crisis” exemplified by such pathologies as the trans movement and furries to the “crisis of religion” that recently manifested itself in the pretensions of Anthony Fauci and his acolytes attempting to dictate the religious principles of scientism to the American public. But Klavan never addresses the crises of our era flippantly. He takes these issues seriously, and he gives philosophical and reasoned articulation to our own intuition that there are things going terribly wrong among us.
As someone who has studied the classics all my life, they continue to surprise me in the seemingly endless depth of practical wisdom that applies directly to everyday life. Klavan makes this case for reading the classics better than I’ve seen in almost anyone for a very long time.
He shows how the wisdom of Plato and Aristotle, the reflections of Herodotus and Thucydides, the poetry of Homer and Vergil, Dante and Shakespeare, have already addressed and answered the great questions of our time. What is truth? Why do I inhabit this body? What is the meaning of life? Is there a God and why does it matter? How can so fractured a nation survive?
Though the problems we face are often related to technology and other aspects of modernity, we are not really facing anything new. From the relativistic sophists who promoted the idea of “might is right” in ancient Athens to the presumption of Platonists in the first centuries A.D., who imagined the body was a prison which the soul needed to escape, we have already faced the crisis of reality and the crisis of the body.
As I read this book, I often noted the relevance to questions in my own life. It was amazing that Klavan entered into conversations I had just had with my children a day before and brought clarity to questions such as why we couldn’t stand the new Marvel movies or why the current theories of the origin of life are so deeply dissatisfying and even irrational.
But Klavan not only diagnoses problems. He offers solutions. Especially in the last chapter, I was impressed to see not some grand and unworkable panacea proposed, but the simple and obvious conclusion of the entire book – the answer is local. It involves us normal people, living like life matters, like we love our community, and living to serve our families, churches, neighbors, and communities.
However, this requires us to escape from the internet and the other stressors that have no actual bearing on your life (sorry, Fox News). When you cut these needless and confusing pressures out of your life, the answer to our thriving and to saving the West lies in the simple action of a husband loving his wife and a father loving his children, in talking to neighbors about stuff that matters, in going to church, and acknowledging the necessary fact that God exists and that there is an objective good.
I wanted more from Klavan’s book by the end, but perhaps this is unfair. I felt the same way after reading C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity.” Great books provide an entrance, but ultimately do not provide all the specifics my soul craves for. This I suppose is simultaneously the merit and deficiency of this kind of book.
It is not meant to be sectarian. It won’t tell you to be a Lutheran or a Baptist. It won’t tell you to vote Republican. It won’t try to convert you to a specific creed. It’s a general appeal to acknowledge the objectivity of truth, the existence of the soul, the meaning of life, the need for religion and God. “How To Save the West” argues for these things beautifully and convincingly. But there is no conversion experience to be had here, no draw to confess in the end, “I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting.”
This broadness of appeal prevents a more specific treatment of the crisis of marriage and family within the book. Klavan touches on it more than once, but it is possibly the greatest issue facing us today. With a recent poll suggesting that only 23 percent of Americans under 30 consider having children “very important,” and with the birthrate and marriage rate plummeting, we are seeing the attack on marriage that has obsessed liberal and Marxist minds for centuries finally entrenched in law and popular culture.
The problem needs to be addressed as a severe crisis in its own right and the special target of assault by leftists who wish to dismantle the nuclear family (as Black Lives Matter announced publicly in 2020). Wanting to dismantle the concept of mom and dad and children, as Klavan notes, is not a new idea — Plato dreamed it in his Republic to an extent — but when it is actually being carried out it is a recipe for utter annihilation, as Caesar Augustus saw already in the early years of the Roman Empire.
So also, while we literally see the crisis of the body in the transgender and the furry, we need also to see a body crisis in the modern abandonment of the “natural use of the woman” and the “natural use of the man” described in Romans 1. This abandonment of natural law now extends far beyond issues of birth control or homosexuality and into the ethics of creating babies in laboratories and storing them on ice.
Klavan hits on this in discussing how the nature of a woman’s biology speaks to her motherly instincts, but I wanted to hear more from him on what the nature of the body means for marriage, family, and procreation. If a man is designed for a woman and a woman for a man, and this to produce life, should we not act this way and embrace it also as our great Western heritage?
Regardless of this oversight, the book is consistently impressive. Several times while reading Klavan’s book, I had to put the book down just to take in the enjoyment of the insight he imparts. It is that good. The book itself is an argument for the renewal of classical education. We need it in our schools. This is wisdom that we have been fools for neglecting. I would recommend reading as supplemental to this book the similarly themed book by Anthony Esolen, “Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture.” Together, the two make an excellent argument for a renewed focus on family, God, and community among us, guided by the wisdom of the classical tradition.