America Still Needs Athens and Jerusalem

Review: 'The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great' by Ben Shapiro

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• March 31, 2019 5:00 am


Ben Shapiro's 10th book, The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great, concerns itself with Western history, where it came from and where it's going. It's the latest in a line of recent releases from public intellectuals, all troubled by the same paradox: We live in the wealthiest and most technologically advanced society in recorded history, and, at the same time, one of the most unhappy ones.

Books in this genre tend to blame the West's woes on one of two failings. Some say Western society is ailing chiefly because of a departure from its religious roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition. These include such polemics as Rod Dreher's The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017), Cardinal Charles J. Chaput's Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World (2017), and Anthony Esolen's Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (2017).

Then there are the more worldly pundits, arguing that the West's problems flow from an abandonment of a political tradition born in Periclean Athens and baptized in the miracle of Washingtonian America. Jonah Goldberg's Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy (2018) makes this case in its purest form, and, as if held to a kaleidoscope, produces a number of near reflections: on the left, Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018), and on the right, Nebraska senator Ben Sasse's The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance (2017).

Shapiro throws his lot in with both major narratives. But rather than simply lamenting the loss of religion and a shared political tradition, he upholds the "twin poles" of Athens and Jerusalem for making the West great in the first place—and says that they can continue to keep it great. The God of Judaism and the God of Christianity coupled with the wisdom of Aristotle, according to Shapiro, form an outline for human flourishing: "Happiness, then, is comprised of four elements: individual moral purpose, individual capacity, collective moral purpose, and collective capacity," Shapiro writes. "If we lack one of these elements, the pursuit of happiness becomes impossible; if that pursuit is foreclosed, society crumbles."

But unlike Patrick Deneen in his poetic jeremiad Why Liberalism Failed (2018), Shapiro does not believe that Western society has already crumbled or that "what is needed is the application of Machiavellian means to achieve Aristotelian ends," as Deneen concluded during a recent lecture in Washington, D.C. Nor does Shapiro consider the state of 21st-century America with the skeptical eyes of the manifesto writers who recently signed an open letter published in First Things, calling for new modes and orders to replace the "warmed-over Reaganism" of the American Right.

Shapiro focuses more on the positive parts of American culture. He proposes that the best way to preserve a path for human happiness in the United States is to uphold the model for society laid out in the Constitution and the Federalist Papers, which Shapiro asserts are "not yet surpassed in political thought." The Founders married the tradition of Athens and Jerusalem, Shapiro writes. This union allows a community to arise centered on mutual betterment of human beings through a trust in God and family. It also upholds individual freedom, but tempers personal interests with intermediary institutions.

It's an earnest case and one deeply concerned with handing on traditions from one generation to the next. Shapiro invokes Reagan's famous line that "freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction" and appends it with his own explanation: "I think that the history of Western civilization shows that our parents live on in us—that when we accept our past, when we learn the lessons they teach us, when we recognize their wisdom even as we develop our own, we become a link in the chain of history."

And when Shapiro leads his readers on a tour of these chain-links, he makes no bones of his opinions: Machiavelli, Spinoza, and Nietszche are bad all the way down, because they didn't believe human happiness should be the ultimate purpose of human society. Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas are good, because they do.

If this seems like too brief a treatment to several millennia, that's because Shapiro doesn't intend to be the next Edward Gibbon. He admits up front that in The Right Side of History he is "giving great philosophers shorter shrift than they deserve, and simplifying issues for the sake of brevity." This book—like Shapiro's podcast or college campus tours—isn't a political tract. It's a handy street guide for arguing the goodness of Western values in a culture he believes is bent on destroying them.

To really understand Western society, Shapiro writes, readers can't just accept the pith of pundits, they should "pursue further the specific ideas that interest you, with people more expert than I, in more detail."

It's a welcome statement of humility—and it reveals Shapiro understands the role of a good teacher. It is not his job to inject knowledge into the minds of his pupils—he can only guide them toward studying in the light of the Western tradition.

In other words, he's a beacon.

Published under: Ben Shapiro, Book reviews