There is no question that Western civilization is by far the most successful and prosperous civilization there has ever existed; it is the birthplace of modern rights and freedoms, the bulwark against pernicious powers and ideologies, and represents the zenith of human ingenuity. Both its champions and detractors agree on this much; where they disagree is about how the West got to this point.
“Scientific rationality! Secular humanism! Freedom from religion!” bellow Steven Pinker and his ilk from the ivory towers of modern academia, not forgetting to add that any role played by religion in getting us so far was not a necessary one.
“White supremacy! The Enwhitenment! Colonialism! Imperialism!” the detractors cry out from their mother’s basements or the offices of the New York Times.
Ben Shapiro stands outside both camps in The Right Side of History. He is certainly not one of the West’s detractors. Yet, while being one of its champions, he does not join the ranks of Pinker, Dawkins, and Harris in their war cry of “Enlightenment now!”, for he is convinced that they have not dug deep enough to discover where the real roots of the West lie. In taking the stand that he does, I read his book as a response to two camps– the anti-Western rhetoric of the far-left and the secular narrative perpetuated by modern academia.
The Foundations of the West
While scientific rationality did play a role in building the West, Shapiro argues that the foundations of the West lie deeper; it lies in the wedding of faith, represented by the city of Jerusalem, and reason, represented by the city of Athens. Jerusalem teaches us that every human being is created in the image of God, while Athens teaches us that human beings have the capacity to explore and understand the world around them. It is the marriage of faith and reason, he says, that built science, human rights, democracy, prosperity, peace, and beauty; it alone has stood as a bulwark against pernicious ideologies, and every civilization that has rejected both Jerusalem and Athens has failed to emulate the West’s success and has often driven itself to destruction.
The Goal of Human Life
Shapiro starts with the same question that Aristotle asks in his Nicomachean Ethics: What is happiness? The Judeo-Christian response is that happiness involves living in accordance with God’s will, while Aristotle’s own response is that happiness (or eudaimonia, as he termed it) involves living in accordance with one’s function as a rational being, that is, living a life of virtue. Putting the two answers together, Shapiro concludes that the human goal, which we often identify as happiness, is founded upon moral purpose and virtue. More specifically, the pursuit of happiness consists of four essential elements: individual moral purpose, individual capacity to pursue that purpose, communal moral purpose, and communal capacity to pursue that purpose. Only a right balance of these elements, he says, can result in a successful civilization.
A Sparknotes-esque Summary
With these foundational ideas set out, Shapiro proceeds to outline an intellectual history of the West, showing how each of these four elements came to be through the marriage of Jerusalem and Athens. He walks us through the core principles of Judaism, Aristotelian teleology and natural law, Greek democracy, the rise of Christianity, the scholastic period, the Enlightenment, and the rise of classical liberalism. All this, he says, was undergirded by a firm belief in Judeo-Christian values and an emphasis on teleological reasoning, and culminated in the founding of the United States of America. Conversely, he walks us through events in civilizations that rejected either one of Athens or Jerusalem, demonstrating how they resulted in pernicious ideals like romanticized nationalism which led to bloodshed and endless violence.
While these ideas did not take over the West entirely, they did leave their mark, giving rise to both scientism (or the almost-religious faith in science to provide all answers, including those of morality and meaning) and the ironically-labelled ‘progressive’ movement of the modern day. The West is more divided than ever, and along lines that the Founders would never have dreamt of.
He ends with a call to return to the Founding vision and to the values that were borne out of the wedding of Athens and Jerusalem. More importantly, he asks us to promulgate these values to our children via four fundamental truths that I find worth repeating:
- Your life has purpose. (Or the value of individual lives via the purpose endowed on it by our common Creator.)
- You can do it. (Or the ability of a human being as the bearer of God’s image to act in the world and change things for the better.)
- Your civilization is unique. (Or the need to value the vast number of factors that went into creating the most prosperous civilization in history, and the importance of defending this civilization.)
- We are all brothers and sisters. (Or the need to recognize that we are stronger if we fight alongside one another as members of the same civilization, rather than give in to those who seek to divide us for their own gains.)
If we do so, we will help the next generation recognize the true reasons for the greatness of the West– it all begins with a tale of two cities.
Things That I Liked
I’m a bit of a Shapiro fan, so I’ll only say what I liked best in the book, rather than bringing up every good point he made.
His starting point was perfect; by beginning with happiness or well being as the ultimate goal of human life, he was starting from a point that is widely accepted by secular thinkers as the goal, and is also generally accepted by religious thinkers as our goal (albeit interpreted as living in accordance with God’s will, which is what truly makes us happy).
His juxtaposition between the values of ‘Jerusalem’(or the values of faith), and the values of ‘Athens’ (or the value of reason) was fantastic. Throughout history, we have seen an overemphasis on one of the two- there are the fundamentalists who put faith over reason, rendering faith blind, and there are the rationalists who put reason over faith, thereby rendering reason impotent. It is in the marriage of Jerusalem and Athens, in the binding together of faith and reason, that we find true harmony, for these two ideas are “inextricably intertwined” (217).
The juxtaposition of the values that drove the American Revolution with those that drove the French Revolution was my favourite part of the book; the former functioned through a careful combination of faith and reason, of Judeo-Christian values and the values derived from Athens, while the latter idolized reason and abhorred faith. It was this rejection of Jerusalem’s values that ultimately led to the devaluing of the human individual and the violent spiral that the French Revolution went down in.
This last point also supports a great rebuttal that Shapiro makes against the likes of Steven Pinker, who claim that the philosophers who influenced the French Revolution had nothing to do with the real, reason-only Enlightenment; they’re conveniently dismissed as ‘counter-Enlightenment’ thinkers. Shapiro points out that it is fallacious to dismiss them as such, and that reason was never valued more for itself than it was during that time, complete with desecrated churches becoming Temples of Reason dedicated to the Cult of Reason.
In general, Shapiro’s breadth of knowledge in the classics of Western philosophy and political thought shines through every page of this book. While there are a few moments where a philosophy student like myself might go, “Huh, that’s a bit of an oversimplification,” he has done a marvelous job at communicating these ideas via a popular level book and connecting them together to demonstrate how each of them play a crucial role in building and holding together what we refer to as ‘Western civilization’.
A Thing That I Disliked
As someone else rightly pointed out here, Shapiro doesn’t seem to be a big fan of the Protestant Reformation; he definitely doesn’t see the many benefits it brought to Western civilization, and I think that’s a pity.
Outside of some traditions, the vast majority of Protestants do not venerate any of their fore-bearers as saints, least of all the very-flawed leaders of the Reformation. Yet, one cannot also deny the contributions that the Reformation made to the development of the West and the impact that it had on generations since, whether it be in the realm of education, politics, or culture.
Consider the greatest piece of English literature ever written– the King James Version of the Bible, whose unique turns of phrase have been inadvertently introduced into common parlance. Until the Reformation, the Bible was not available in the English language. Given that the available Latin Vulgate was in a language that the layperson could not understand, the corrupt Church of the day took advantage of its congregants, encouraging practices that were clearly designed to benefit itself. Any attempt to translate the text of Scripture to the English language was immediately shut down and the translator killed. It was the English Reformer William Tyndale who took it upon himself to translate the Scriptures from the original Greek and Hebrew into the common man’s English and have it published. In the process of his translation, he literally invented several words and phrases that we use today and they were first used in the text of his translation; these include ‘beautiful’, ‘atonement’, ‘scapegoat’, ‘Passover’, ‘peacemaker’, ‘industrious’, ‘modesty’, ‘congregation’, ‘overseer’, ‘salt of the earth’, ‘my brother’s keeper’, ‘let there be light’, ‘the powers that be’, ‘a law unto themselves’, and ‘the signs of the times’. In fact, Tyndale is often referred to as ‘the architect of the English language’. Almost 80% of the King James text preserves Tyndale’s original text, and the resultant book was something that even atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins acknowledge to be foundational to Western thought.
What was it a product of? The Protestant Reformation. Does it get even the briefest mention in Shapiro’s book? No. Instead, we’re informed that the Reformation helped in the rise of “religious fundamentalism”, which became “an obstacle to secular learning.” (A bizarre claim, as the article I linked above points out, given that America’s greatest universities were also a product of the Protestant tradition.)
The Reformation had several other positive consequences for the West, including the spread of literacy, the gradual betterment of the treatment of women (Luther’s doctrine of the priesthood of all believers was a massive step up from Aquinas’ view of women as “misbegotten or defective”), and the separation of church and state. Unfortunately, for a fair treatment of most of the above, one will have to look some place other than Shapiro’s latest book.
Notwithstanding my disappointment with his treatment of the Reformation, Ben Shapiro’s The Right Side of History is a book that I will wholeheartedly recommend. I’m not sure if I can call it his magnum opus just yet, (after all, he has a long life to live and at least two presidential campaigns to run), but it is certainly the best book I’ve read this year. An intellectual history of the West and self-help text rolled into one, it’s worth both your money and your time.
SPECIAL THANKS TO ERIC NELSON AND HANNAH LONG OF BROADSIDE BOOKS FOR PROVIDING ME WITH A REVIEW COPY.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of other authors at Cogent Christianity.