Interview with Spencer Klavan
Ancient Wisdom for Modern Crises
Spencer Klavan is the author of How to Save the West: Ancient Wisdom for 5 Modern Crises and assistant editor of The Claremont Review of Books and The American Mind at the Claremont Institute. With a PhD in Classics, Klavan's literary expertise is aided by his knowledge of many languages, including Ancient Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. As a scholar who enjoys exploring how great works of literature provide valuable insights into today's world, Klavan hosts Young Heretics every Tuesday.
Spencer is one of our esteemed speakers at our March 11th virtual event, How Can We Save Rational Discourse: Philosophy & Politics.
How did you become interested in Philosophy?
I had to rack my brain to come up with the first time I read a self-styled work of capital P philosophy. I think it was Plato's Euthyphro, a dialogue I read in high school. That work has always gripped me for the way it dramatizes the thinking man's dilemma in a reflexively polytheistic society. Watching Plato's Socrates wrangle with the contradictions inherent in traditional Greek religion is a gripping, even an exhilarating experience. It has stuck in my mind ever since as both a record of where probing thought can lead, and a cautionary tale about asking inconvenient questions in a hostile world.
But the reason I had to rack my brain is because I don't think that was really my first engagement with philosophy in the truest sense of the word. I have this visceral memory from years before that, when I was 12. I took a copy of Richmond Lattimore's Odyssey on a trip to visit my grandparents in New York. It was the first "grown-up" book I had ever read, and I lay in a sleeping bag on the floor of their apartment late into the night, poring over it. Leo Strauss observed that Homer gives us Greek literature's earliest extant example of the word physis, "nature." In doing so he embarks with us on that great journey of understanding the world—he makes us feel with a thrill of excitement that we might grasp the reason, the logos, which threads through all creation.
Philosophy in that sense is everywhere, as Plato himself knew well. I think that ever since that day in my grandparents' apartment, I've been hungry for the sense it can make of things.
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He insisted that abstract forms—things like the shape of a circle or the soul of a living body—aren't just disembodied ghosts that float in some ideal realm. They're embodied features of things themselves, threaded through the world of matter and inseparable from it.
What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?
I think the philosophical idea that our generation needs most badly is "hylemorphism." It's a shame that it has such a forbiddingly complicated name, because it's actually a very powerful way of looking at the world. Hylē in Greek means "stuff" or "matter." Morphē means "shape" or "form." Put the two together and you get hylemorphism, a technical way of referring to what may be Aristotle's greatest insight. He insisted that abstract forms—things like the shape of a circle or the soul of a living body—aren't just disembodied ghosts that float in some ideal realm. They're embodied features of things themselves, threaded through the world of matter and inseparable from it.
You can picture something called a "circle," but you've never seen or even imagined a circle made of nothing. Aristotle says in De Anima (Book 3, chapter 8), that "thoughts are not images—but they never take place without images." In much the same way, our human soul is not a "ghost in the machine" but fact about our bodies, the formal cause that organizes our flesh and blood into something more than mere "stuff." It is the reality of our being alive.
As I elaborate in the "Body Crisis" section of my book, How to Save the West, this beautiful idea can rescue us from a lot of the alienation we feel from ourselves and one another in the digital age. We are not abstractions to be uploaded into a cloud, replaced by AI, or imitated in avatar form on social media. We are embodied souls, human beings whose home is in the here and now. It's a crucial insight.
I don't think the internet is an unmitigated evil. But I think it warps and distorts us if we mistake it for real life.
What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?
Log off! I don't think the internet is an unmitigated evil. But I think it warps and distorts us if we mistake it for real life. Digital technology is a supplement for real life, not a substitution, as Joshua Mitchell argues in American Awakening. Whatever use we may make of our technology, it will have to grow out of an embodied sense of ourselves in the here and now, which I think Aristotle can help us to recover—hence my insistence on hylemorphism. A good first step to recovering your sanity is to spend way, way less time online and way, way more time in relationship with people (and books!) in physical space.
Do you have a favorite quote that you use?
It's hard to pick just one, but here's a line from Iris Murdoch that I think sums up a lot of very urgent truths:
Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.
—Iris Murcoch, The Sublime and the Good (Chicago Review 13.3, 1959. Pp. 42-55, page 51).
What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?
Always, always, always go back to the primary sources! Reading secondary literature is great, and I hope that my work can shine some light for people on books that are harder to come at without a little tutelage. That's why I wrote How to Save the West. But you will always get more insight, and a richer understanding, from reading the great authors in their own words. Often times you'll find they're more lucid and accessible than they're made out to be. But above all they will help keep what C.S. Lewis called "the clean sea breeze of the centuries" blowing through your mind (that's from his introduction to Athanasius' On the Incarnation).
In any case, if you'd like more from me, I'm on Twitter at @SpencerKlavan, and I have a mailing list which you can sign up for here.
Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy, in Athens.
I’d feel staggeringly intimidated! But also electric with delight. My favorite kind of lecture to give is one with a lot of Q&A at the end, so I'd talk for a bit on the subject "can art be good for you?" and then try to get a discussion going. It's a topic I think Plato might have appreciated, given his lifelong love-hate relationship with the poets.
Don’t miss Spencer Klavan kick off our March 11th virtual event, How Can We Save Rational Discourse: Philosophy & Politics!