Posted: August 13, 2019
s Notre-Dame cathedral was burning, conservative columnist Ben Shapiro made what should have been a rather bland and unobjectionable remark on Twitter. He said: “Absolutely heartbreaking. A magnificent monument to Western civilization collapsing.”
Catholics could have quibbled that Notre-Dame is actually a monument to the Blessed Virgin Mary and her son Jesus Christ, or at least that it is only secondarily a monument to Western civilization. But it was liberals who objected to Shapiro’s use of that phrase, “Western civilization,” and later, his invocation of “Judeo-Christian heritage.” Online critics immediately pointed to all the terrible things French Catholics did to Jews in the Middle Ages, as if to argue against the very notion of a unified Judeo-Christian heritage, or to suggest that Western civilization is nothing so much as a series of crimes against oppressed and marginalized peoples.
Despite its absurdity, the exchange was a perfect manifestation of what’s gone wrong in Western civilization: liberals becoming outraged at the suggestion that Notre-Dame—even as it was engulfed in flames—is anything but a symbol of oppression, and especially outraged that Shapiro, an orthodox Jew, would have the chutzpah to say otherwise. (Next we’ll no doubt be hearing about how the Louvre is a monument to income inequality and the Eiffel Tower is an oppressive symbol of toxic masculinity.)
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It would be easy to laugh at this sort of thing if those who espoused it weren’t so damn serious—and if there weren’t so many of them. Sadly, this narrative of the West as an oppressive, racist, misogynistic, violent civilization that must be dismantled and disowned has come to dominate not just the academy but vast swaths of the cultural landscape, from Hollywood to Silicon Valley to professional sports. Shapiro has been thinking about how it has come to this, and a month before the Notre-Dame fire he published The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great—a title that almost seems designed to provoke outrage on the Left.
But Shapiro’s aim isn’t to outrage, it is to educate, and we are obviously in dire need of some remedial education. Not that long ago there would have been no need for a book like this. Had it been published even a generation ago, a 200-page summary of the roots of Western civilization and the calamities that befell it in the 20th century probably would have seemed rather redundant. At best, it would have been useful perhaps as a text book for a high school Western Civ class, or maybe as an extended bibliography for a Great Books reading course. As far as books about culture, history, and politics go, it would hardly have been noticed.
Instead, Shapiro’s book was an immediate bestseller, debuting at number one in nonfiction on the New York Times’s bestseller list and hitting number one on Amazon the day after it was released. Its success says less about the merits of the book (though it is a fine book) than it does about the state of our culture and, specifically, the state of education. Shapiro, a frequent speaker on college campuses where he is both adored and reviled, no doubt knew his primary audience for The Right Side of History would be young people who have just enough knowledge of history to know that they’ve been shortchanged, if not completely misled, by their schools. He acknowledges as much early on, noting, “As of 2010, not a single top university required students to take a course in Western Civilization; only sixteen even offered such a course.”
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No wonder, then, that by simply laying out a succinct defense of Western civilization, it is as if Shapiro has burst forth with a long-lost manuscript revealing ancient secrets, or discovered a forgotten formula for human happiness. His book has struck a chord, not because what it says is new, but because what it says is old—and true. The same might be said of the popularity of Jordan Peterson, whose lectures have captivated young people all over the world largely because they present a cogent defense of things many young people have been taught are indefensible: the virtues of masculinity and femininity, moral truth, religious devotion.
That so many young people seem to be encountering these ideas for the first time is itself evidence in support of Shapiro’s claim that “we’ve spent the last two centuries carving ourselves off from the roots of our civilization.” All our modern notions of reason and science, he says, were built on “deep foundations,” and “we’re tossing away what’s best about our civilization because we’ve forgotten that those foundations even exist.”
To uncover these foundations for readers who are largely ignorant of them, Shapiro marches through thousands of years of intellectual history, from Plato to Thomas Aquinas to Friedrich Nietzsche, at last coming down—way down—to contemporaries like Ezra Klein and Steven Pinker. Any survey of this breadth is necessarily going to shortchange the great philosophers along the way, and certainly there are gaps and omissions in his narrative. But Shapiro is less concerned with presenting an encyclopedic account of the history of philosophy than with telling a story about how the massive edifice of Western civilization was built and why it’s now beginning to crumble—or rather, why it’s being purposefully torn down.
He begins where other recent commentators have begun, assessing why so many people in the West seem dissatisfied at a time when seemingly things have never been better. In fact, he argues, there are ample signs that things are not as good as they seem, and our material prosperity belies something rotten at the core of our culture: “We are in the process of abandoning Judeo-Christian values and Greek natural law, favoring moral subjectivism and the rule of passion,” Shapiro writes. “And we are watching our civilization collapse into age-old tribalism, individualistic hedonism, and moral subjectivism.” If things have not quite reached a crisis point it’s because we’re still living off the interest, so to speak, of our Western heritage. But the account is almost empty.
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Shapiro departs from writers like Jonah Goldberg and Steven Pinker, both of whom have tried recently to tackle these questions with unsatisfying results. Goldberg, in an unsuccessful attempt to defend Western civilization on the basis of a purely atheistic and utilitarian ethic, posits in Suicide of the West (2018) that the Enlightenment was a “miracle” that sprang forth unbidden from the atavistic superstitions of medieval Europe. And to keep the miracle alive we have to keep faith with Enlightenment rationalism, the font of all our prosperity. Pinker tries a similar trick in Enlightenment Now (2018), arguing that the Enlightenment was a break from the ideas that preceded it and that we can enjoy its fruits unencumbered by irrational appeals to religion and religious obligations. Science and reason are all we need to live the good life, secure in our material well-being.
Shapiro doesn’t buy it. “Pinker wants to pluck the fruit of the Enlightenment without stepping in the manure,” he writes, noting that in a 400-page book about the Enlightenment, Pinker never mentions the French Revolution. Shapiro also challenges Goldberg on why, if Enlightenment ideals are unnatural, the “miracle” should have happened at all, and why it is being undermined at this particular moment. The truth, again, is an old idea that’s fallen out of fashion: the Enlightenment, and by extension all of Western civilization, cannot be understood apart from its grounding in the Judeo-Christian heritage—that is, its basis in religion. Greek reason had to combine with revelation, and we can’t have one without the other. This is of course a tougher sell than the soothing platitudes of Pinker and Goldberg, but it is nevertheless true. The attempt to divorce not just religious faith but also religious imperatives from human reason and the governance of society has been disastrous. As Shapiro notes toward the end of his book, echoing a similar point by Sam Harris, “most of what constitutes human well-being at any moment will escape narrow Darwinian calculus, because most human beings are not driven simply by the dictates of procreation and survival and pain avoidance.” We aren’t mere animals that need only to be well-fed and kept safe; we are beings created in the image of God, without whom our souls can find no rest.
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Indeed, countering such popular but misguided notions about the Enlightenment might be the most valuable contribution of The Right Side of History. It’s all well and good that young people are drawn to iconoclasts like Peterson and Harris, but Shapiro is yet more iconoclastic in arguing that reason won’t be enough to save us—or even keep at bay the neo-paganism of identity politics and intersectionality theory. We’re going to need stronger stuff. That young people are also drawn to Shapiro we should take as a very good sign: they are open to an appeal to reason and faith.
Where Shapiro’s argument suffers is perhaps in his framing of what provides the foundation for happiness. He lists four elements: individual moral purpose, individual capacity, communal moral purpose, and communal capacity. The foundation of a successful civilization must be balanced on these elements, he says—and he’s not wrong. We’ve obviously neglected communal purpose in favor of an atomizing individualism, to say nothing of how we’ve all but destroyed the idea of a common morality.
But Shapiro perhaps overestimates the ability of atomized individuals to pursue moral purpose, whether individual or communal, in a society as bereft of solidarity as ours. He spends plenty of time talking about communal purpose and capacity, but not enough time talking about community itself, what it might look like and what place it deserves in 21st-century America. People who are morally adrift, who have no unchosen obligations or religious imperatives, are not going to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and start living lives of personal virtue all on their own. They are going to need something tangible—real connections to people in their daily lives, real obligations to their neighbors and relatives, real sources of strength and support when hard times come.
It’s true, as Shapiro writes in a too-short concluding chapter, that “[o]ur individual and communal happiness depends on us regaining the values we’re losing all too quickly.” But values alone won’t be enough, not for everyone. Faith without works is dead, as the Epistle of James reminds us, and by the same token ideas without works are also dead—and in fact those ideas, as Ben Shapiro leaves no doubt, are dying right before our eyes.