[review] The Right Side of History

Francisco Plaza, PhD
Cathedral High School, Houston TX
Editor, Reality

A review of Ben Shapiro’s The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great (Broadside Books: New York, 2019).

We face an undeniable paradox in Western civilization. On the one hand, scientific and economic advances have allowed our material conditions to thrive far beyond what our ancestors could have imagined, and on the other hand, there is an increasing sense of alienation and despair looming in modern society, as suicide rates grow while fertility rates fall. In the Right Side of History, Ben Shapiro tries to make sense of this problem by answering two fundamental questions. First: what is Western civilization? Second: why are so many within it actively working for its dissolution?

The book is divided into nine chapters with a separate introduction and conclusion. In the introduction, Shapiro recounts recent events that led him to writing this book, particularly his campus tours which resulted in misguided college students attacking him for being a “white nationalist” for his defense of traditional Western values. The first chapter establishes the basic principles underlying the rest of the work, namely, that the purpose of civilization is to seek the common good, that the ultimate end of human life is happiness, and that human beings have the capacity to pursue these goods in life. Following this, the second and third chapter pair together as an exposition of Western values derived from Jerusalem and Athens, respectively. Next, Shapiro recounts the development of Western civilization from the birth of Christianity all the way to the twentieth century through chapters four through seven. While he critiques pieces of modernity along the way, he saves his fuller critique of the modern project for the eight chapter. In the ninth chapter, he continues his critique by examining the current state of politics, tracing its various movements (e.g. intersectionality, identity politics, gender ideology, cultural relativism) back to modern philosophy. Finally, in the conclusion, Shapiro ends the book with a summary of practical lessons we can takeaway from a study of Western civilization.

One of the best qualities of this book is Shapiro’s ability to treat significant yet complex ideas in a way that does justice to them while simultaneously rendering them accessible to the broader public. As academic philosophers, we are accustomed to reading esoteric tracts which could only be understood by specialists in the field. However, we also know as philosophers that philosophy itself is important for everyone, academic and non-academic alike. Philosophy seeks to answer basic existential questions that all must face at one point or another in their life: why am I here? What should I be doing in life? How can I be a good person? Indeed, one cannot avoid engaging with such philosophical questions on even the most basic level. In spite of this, it is easy for philosophers (having grown accustomed to arguing with other philosophers) to forget how to speak to the uninitiated. On the other hand, it is also very easy for non-philosophers, being unfamiliar with the arguments within the great tradition, to speak plainly in a manner that misses the mark. This is what makes a popular work in philosophy so difficult to write. The goal is to produce a work useful and appreciable to both philosophers and non-philosophers alike, but the end result is usually that it appeals to one or the other exclusively. Shapiro’s book, however, succeeds in this way. Perhaps for the academic philosopher it is nothing new, but it is undeniably useful as both a teaching tool to help us express significant ideas to the beginner, as well as a solid reminder of fundamental philosophical questions that matter to all.

The Tradition of the West

Shapiro begins with the first question (i.e., “what is Western civilization?”) by arguing that there are two pillars to Western culture: Athens and Jerusalem.[1] This is a traditional reading of Western civilization, particularly among conservatives, highlighting both the philosophical and religious beginnings of the West; Leo Strauss primarily comes to mind, as his influence is apparent throughout Shapiro’s work. Russell Kirk’s Roots of American Order also treats this very point, although the work is not referenced in Shapiro’s book. While Athens and Jerusalem begin apart from another, they come together in harmony through Christianity. After the fall of the Roman empire (the boundaries of which became the starting political body of Western civilization proper), Europe was scattered between feudal states and principalities, but it was united overall by the Roman Catholic Church. Through the Medieval era, European culture became Christian culture, and Western civilization itself became Christendom from a political standpoint.[2]

Interestingly, Shapiro acknowledges the centrality of Christian thought to the development of the West, but understandably given his Jewish faith, treats Christianity as an outgrowth of Jewish thinking itself.[3] This is also consistent with Straussian thought. Logically, the evangelists under this view were more like philosophers creating a school of thought instead of actual witnesses to a historical event. From a Catholic perspective, however, several problems arise.[4] For instance, while Shapiro treats Christianity as an extension of Judaism in certain ways, the Christian faith must be heterodox from the standpoint of Orthodox Judaism. However, for a Catholic, the rapid outgrowth of the faith along with its current predominance is very fitting if it indeed true. Moreover, the success of the West (seen as Christendom) in the world is also fitting as a sign of Christ’s divinity. It would not be fitting, on the other hand, for a heresy to produce something so great.

There is a parallel between the prosperity of Jerusalem in the Old Testament when the Jews stay faithful to God and the prosperity of the West when it remains faithful to Christ. The Catholic may argue here that, essentially, Western culture has triumphed insofar as it has been animated by Christianity, which is useful and good simply because it is true. Moreover, many of the recognized fruits of Western civilization from the university to Gothic architecture stemmed directly from Christian principles. Could these same fruits have arisen in a purely Judaic context? It seems that Shapiro side-steps this question by claiming the fruits of Christianity itself as an extension of Judaism. But if Christianity is basically a Jewish heresy, why would it have produced such great fruit at all? From a Jewish standpoint, it would seem that the majority of the West has strayed from the Law inasmuch as it has been overtaken by Christianity. Moreover, from a Catholic standpoint, heresy has dire consequences. Heresy is falsehood, it only breeds confusion. Falsehoods rise out of a fundamental separation from reality, and as St. Thomas noted (following Aristotle): a small error in the beginning will lead to a great one in the end.[5] If Christianity is heretical, and if the West rests upon Christendom, does this not doom the West entirely? Would it not make more sense to argue that the West was set for its current failures in its acceptance of this heresy rather than 1500 years later with the Enlightenment? This is especially perplexing when one considers the arguments that the underlying problem with the Enlightenment by and large was its abandonment of Christian principles specifically. Even if these principles share a commonality with Judaism, there are still substantial differences between both religions, ones which extend even beyond the chasm between Catholics and Protestants.

Regardless, Shapiro actively tries not to dwell on such differences between Judaism and Christianity, choosing to focus instead on what they share in common, especially as it relates to Western values. Putting aside the eschatological details, it is at least clear that both Christians and Jews believe in the God of Abraham, that this God is one, that all goodness stems from this God, that this God interacts with human history, and that God’s will reigns from the beginning to the end of history. Not only this, but history itself has eternal meaning precisely because of God’s interaction with us in time. Christians and Jews alike share a hope in God’s eternal justice being carried out in the end of time, regardless of the present injustice in the world. Putting it simply, Christians and Jews believe that the good will win out in the end. This is what gives the title of Shapiro’s work (i.e., The Right Side of History) an interesting double-meaning (beyond the “right-wing” pun). While this title parodies the use of the phrase by secular progressives, consciously or unconsciously following in the footsteps of Hegel, Shapiro also makes an important case for how this phrase can be repurposed in a meaningful way.

To be on the “right side of history” only makes sense from the religious context noted above:

The attitude of historical progress, coined by the Jews and adopted by Christianity, drives Western civilization as a whole. … If history has a direction, it does so only if we have faith in a God who stands at the end of it, urging us forward.[6]

History itself, as a series of human events, does not have any inherent meaning alone.[7] There is no guarantee that the next generation will surpass the previous one in every way; human history is more complicated than that. The ebb and flow of a civilization’s progress in history is such that we may make strides in one area while regressing in others. For example, the abolition of slavery in the West was a commendable move forward, while the legalization of abortion is a regrettable step backward. Perhaps our forefathers were not as scandalized by slavery as they ought to have been (if they were at all, in some cases), and we may think of them as barbaric for that. But it is worth considering how barbaric they would think of us today if they knew that our society legally treats the murder of one’s own child as a human right.

With all this being said, we can begin to see that history is not as straightforward as we would like it to be. Not every current trend is worth pursing, not every move in culture is a good one. Perhaps before moving forward, we should make a concerted effort to see first what is behind us. Moreover, while it is one thing to learn from the mistakes of the past, it is also valuable at the same time to consider the good that existed before us, handed over by tradition. It is easy enough to throw tradition away completely, but to do so also destroys any good that came with it. These are the basic lessons Shapiro has to offer that are so crucial for our age, especially for the young, as too many people in the West seek to throw away their own tradition in haste without any real replacement.

So, what exactly then is it that we can learn from the Western tradition? Shapiro boils this down into four central elements derived from Athens and Jerusalem: “individual moral purpose, individual capacity to pursue that purpose, communal moral purpose, and communal capacity to pursue that purpose.”[8] This is a central theme in his work that is crucial to understanding not only what makes the West what it is, but the genuine truth that it has to offer. Now, it is important to note that all of these elements can be found in both the ordered state of Athens and the transcendent religion of Jerusalem, but it is through the harmony found between the two that Western civilization flourished. For Christians and Jews there is a clear individual and communal purpose based on God’s commandments, and there is an assurance in justice that human beings are capable, and therefore expected, to live up to this as best we can. On the other hand, for the Greeks, their treatment of human nature gives us the details necessary to understand the personal structures behind the human will (thereby showing us exactly how the human being acts in the world and how we are capable of pursuing the good), while at the same time deriving an understanding of human virtue and vice based on what human nature is in and of itself. With Greek teleology, we are also given a sense of individual and communal purpose. The pursuit of virtue in the individual and the polis is a fulfillment of our nature itself. Still, even though the natural, unaided reason of the philosopher can help us to understand our nature and purpose in this life, it is religion that elevates us properly into the realm of the eternal, of the transcendent.

The Crisis of Modernity

Explaining what the West is all about is difficult enough, but Shapiro does not end his treatment there. The other key topic in Shapiro’s work concerns what philosophers like Eric Voegelin, Leo Strauss, Jacques Maritain, and Karol Wojtyla (St. John Paul II), among many others, refer to as the “crisis of modernity.” The philosophical turn that produced this modern crisis began largely with the Enlightenment. This is challenging to address because as inhabitants of this modern world, we are living in a society that is mostly a product of Enlightenment thinking (more specifically, the British and Scottish Enlightenment for America). There are many features of this movement that we take for granted today (individual rights, for example) which we enjoy on a daily basis. Because of this, it does not seem fair to say that everything in the modern world is bad, yet the undeniable crisis of meaning in our time is a direct result of the modern turn. As stated before, the truth will lie somewhere in the middle – some things are good, other things are not.

For the most part, the prevailing narrative even for many conservatives is that the Enlightenment was a clear move forward and that what preceded it was barbaric in comparison. Indeed, it is difficult to disabuse the modern mind of the notion that the Enlightenment prevailed over the so-called “Dark Ages,” and that modernity itself is a successful “reboot” or “update 2.0” of the West. Here, Shapiro cites Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West and Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now as examples of this pro-Enlightenment view.[9] On the other hand, one can also notice Catholic thinkers on the other side who regard the modern project as being completely doomed from the start, such that the only possible move forward is a complete undoing of modernity itself (Alasdair MacIntyre and Tracey Rowland come to mind). Refreshingly, however, Shapiro takes a more nuanced approach between both extremes.

The core of Shapiro’s argument regarding the Enlightenment is this: “most Enlightenment thinkers still operated off the moral assumptions of Judeo-Christian values as well as Aristotelian teleology – their intellectual engines were running on the fumes from a gas tank they had already purposefully emptied.”[10] Considering the progression of modern philosophy, this is a poignant critique. If we read Locke in conjunction with the vestiges of Biblical values and an Aristotelian sense of nature (as well as Natural Law), then we can make it work. It cannot stand over time, however, when stripped completely of these underlying assumptions found in the air of the times through culture. This was precisely Shapiro’s challenge to Sam Harris:

The neo-Enlightenment view is that Enlightenment ideals would have come from anyone using reason, and just happened to spring up in a particular place and time. How strange, then, that Pinker and Shermer and Harris and I agree on nearly all the same values – values that arose in the Judeo-Christian West alone, that spread from there outward, and that relied on the words of revelation and the application of Greek teleology.[11]

These values came directly from what built the West to begin with. If these pillars are destroyed, the whole edifice crumbles. Even beyond this, however, is that as products of Western culture, we cannot shake these foundations from our core without ceasing to be Western. It is a case of all or nothing in the end. If one likes the sense of individual rights in the West, then one must also accept that which produced this understanding to begin with. Otherwise, there is no true intellectual justification for this belief. It should come as no surprise, then, that the further modernity goes in this direction, the further each generation moves from these principle values. This can only go for so long before a substantial change occurs, and the West ceases to be entirely, giving rise to something completely different. Putting it another way: this is how we can begin with Locke, but still end up with Peter Singer. It is frightening to think what else could lie ahead, especially when we consider that the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century were a product of modern thinking taken, in many ways, to its logical conclusion.

Where do we go from here? Shapiro concludes by saying: “It’s not enough to make the case for the utility of the Enlightenment; the Enlightenment was the ground floor of the building, resting on certain foundational ideas and basic premises. We must shore up those ideas and premises if we hope to keep building skyward rather than adding weight to an already shaky superstructure.”[12] This is a good start, and it paves the way for a more detailed philosophical analysis of these ideas themselves. From the academic philosopher’s stand, this is a launch point for our own work on all the remaining nuance beyond the scope of Shapiro’s outline. Likewise, for the non-philosopher, this is both an introduction to the perennial truths of the West as well as an invitation for further reflection. More than that, there is also a call to action: “it is our job to carry on the tradition. It is our job to push the task forward.”[13] With this, Shapiro ends the book with four basic lessons he and his wife teach to their children; this is what everyone needs to hear and understand (coming back to the four elements of the West): “your life has purpose. You can do it. Your civilization is unique. We are all brothers and sisters.”[14]

[1] “We believe freedom is built upon the twin notions that God created every human in His image, and that human beings are capable of investigations and exploring God’s world. Those notions were born in Jerusalem and Athens, respectively. Those twin notions – those diamonds of spiritual genius – built our civilization, and built us as individuals.” – Shapiro, The Right Side of History, xxiv

[2] “We are now in a better position to understand what Christian civilization means. For in the past Christianity has played the same part in Western civilization as Confucianism did in China or Islam in the Middle East. It was the principle of moral unity which gave the Western peoples their spiritual values, their moral standards, and their conception of a divine law from which all human laws ultimately derive their validity and their sanction. Without Christianity there would no doubt have been some kind of civilization in the West, but it would have been quite a different civilization from that which we know: for it was only as Christendom — the society of Christian peoples — that the tribes and peoples and nations of the West acquired a common consciousness and a sense of cultural and spiritual unity.” – Dawson, Christopher, The Historic Reality of Christian Culture, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960, 35.

[3] “Christianity took the messages of Judaism and broadened them: it focused more heavily on grace, and successfully spread the fundamental principles of Judaism, as emended by Christianity, to billions of human beings across the planet.” – Shapiro, The Right Side of History, 21.
Also: “The birth of Christianity represented the first serious attempt to merge Jewish thought with Greek thought. The Christian admixture was far more Jewish than Greek in its vision of God and of man’s quest in the world, but it was also far more Greek than Jewish in its universality.” – Shapiro, The Right Side of History , 57.

[4] I will state briefly here that I share Esther O’Reilly’s concerns on Shapiro’s understanding of Christianity, so rather than rehashing those, I will simply invite the reader to also look at her review of Shapiro’s work: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/youngfogey/2019/03/book-review-the-right-side-of-history-by-ben-shapiro/

[5] De Ente et Essentia, Proemium.

[6] Shapiro, The Right Side of History, 35-36.

[7] “History in many cultures has no beginning and no end. Greek thought saw the universe as permanent and moving in circular fashion – history would recur, grow, and decay. There could be no vision of a progression in history, an inexorable movement toward a better time or Messianic era. Progress itself was, for many of the ancients, an illusion, or not even that: it was an idea that had no place in the rational universe.” – Shapiro, The Right Side of History, 28.

[8] Shapiro, The Right Side of History, 9.

[9] Shapiro, The Right Side of History, xviii.

[10] Shapiro, The Right Side of History, 106.

[11] Shapiro, The Right Side of History, 179.

[12] Shapiro, The Right Side of History, 210.

[13] Shapiro, The Right Side of History, 218.

[14] Shapiro, The Right Side of History, 215-216.

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