“The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great” by Ben Shapiro
“The West” is not a phrase that Protestants frequently use. Of course, part of the problem is the way President Trump sullied the idea in his 2017 speech in Poland in which he used “the West” to stand for a common civilization shared by both Poles and Americans that included politics, history, and artistic expression. For Peter Beinart, at The Atlantic, Trump’s speech was a clear instance of white nationalism since in Poland “the West” stood for religion, land, and race. “To be considered Western,” Beinart wrote, “a country must be largely Christian (preferably Protestant or Catholic) and largely white.” Even before Trump, Protestants did not use “the West” much in political or religious narratives. One simple reason is that Protestantism upset the applecart of European history and launched the modern era with its substantial revision of medieval patterns. As such, Roman Catholics have more invested in “the West” than Protestants thanks to the relative youth of Protestant churches. While historically-minded Protestants trace their lineage back to Luther and Calvin and sometimes jump back to Augustine and then to the Bible, Roman Catholics look to Aristotle, Rome, the papacy, and the Holy Roman Empire for precedents. Where you find the ancient near East in any piece of “the West” is another question altogether and raises the possibility that Protestants—thanks to their study of Scripture—look more to the ancient Israelites and the early church for their place in history than Roman Catholics who look to Greeks, Romans, and medieval popes and theologians.
Another group of thinkers for whom “the West” looms large is American conservatives. Ever since Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences (1949) and Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind (1953), Americans on the right side of the political spectrum with more than electoral victory on their minds have understood their task as one of situating conservatism in the traditions of “the West.” This involves at least figuring out what to do with the Greeks, Romans, and later Christians, and then situating the Enlightenment and American founding in the West’s evolution. Such cultural genealogy becomes a tad tricky when connecting the ancient and medieval worlds on the one side, to the United States, a novos ordo seculorum (new order for the ages), on the other. Can an enterprise as modern and liberal as the nation that began in 1776 also be an outcome of the medieval and ancient worlds? Anyone with a conservative disposition living the United States wants to say, “yes.” That answer is likely less compelling for Protestants who already have reasons for seeing discontinuity in “the West” thanks to the Reformation.
Such ambivalence is likely even more true for Jewish Americans thanks to the anti-Semitism that afflicted so much of European history. And yet, Jewish-American conservatives, like the popular syndicated columnist and radio show host, Ben Shapiro, feel obligated to follow the conventions of intellectual conservatism. That duty involves creating a narrative of “the West” that defends its achievements (especially the United States). Jonah Goldberg, a popular conservative writer for National Review, recently came out with Suicide of the West, a book that defends the Enlightenment and classical liberalism against identity politics, populism, and nationalism. Close on its heels is Shapiro’s The Right Side of History. His sub-title pretty much sums up the book—How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great.
The above window into the world of intellectual conservatism may seem excessive, but any reader familiar with the banter of conservative media personalities has to wonder about the need to write a book that relies on political theory and historical judgment instead of simply repackaging Tweets and op-ed columns. Shapiro begins as a philosopher with a definition of happiness that includes moral purpose, and the capacity to pursue it both for persons and communities . “Flourishing societies,” he writes, “require a functional social fabric, created by citizens working together—and yes, separately—toward a meaningful life” . Such truisms are hardly objectionable nor are they particularly profound. Next, Shapiro puts on the historian’s hat and traces this idea of happiness first to the ancient Hebrews (with Christians universalizing some of Judaism’s central claims), and then to Greek philosophers such as Aristotle who developed the idea of natural law. The West combined the best of the Judeo-Christian heritage with the Greek’s high regard for reason to produce science, and reason-based government (democracy). The fusion of theology and philosophy fell on hard times during the so-called Dark Ages but recovered with Aquinas and scholastic theology. From there Shapiro turns to the main figures of the scientific revolution and modern political theory to explain the United States’ roots. “This long philosophical journey” came to fruition in 1776 with America as “the first nation to be crafted based on philosophy.” The founders were “devotees of Cicero, Locke, of the Bible and Aristotle,” all “clearly visible” in the Declaration of Independence.
Shapiro’s narrative is not all positive or cheery. He acknowledges that philosophers have challenged the synthesis that produced America. Dissenters such as Machiavelli, Hume, Leibniz, Voltaire, Kant, Darwin, and Nietzsche—imagine encountering these figures’ ideas on talk radio—sowed seeds of skepticism and relativism such that human autonomy trumped both theism and natural law. In some ways, the differences between the American and French Revolutions characterized the divide in the West. The result was that “romantic nationalism, collectivist redistributionism, and scientific progressivism” undermined the philosophical and religious traditions that had informed the American Founding . War with the Nazis and Cold War with Communism saw the West prevail over tyranny, but the synthesis of Judeo-Christian religion and natural law emerged shaky. Since 1950, scientific outlooks have advanced but at the expense of religion and meaning. In his last chapter, Shapiro critiques “the return to paganism” that has accompanied cultural Marxism, critical race theory, transgenderism, and the politics of identity. The disregard (at best) or rejection (at worst) of the West’s traditions has taken meaning away from ordinary Americans, only to be filled by tribalism. And for Shapiro, the alt-right’s or the Antifa’s substitutes for “the West” are destructive of “the civilization that has granted us our freedoms and right, our prosperity and our health” .
The solution Shapiro recommends is a formulaic restatement of the ideals with which he began the book. Parents, teachers, and other leaders need to teach the next generation that life has purpose, that meaning is attainable, that the West is unique, and that western civilization embraces everyone. If Americans teach this, they will “be truly deserving of God’s blessing, and fit to proclaim liberty throughout all the land” .
For readers unfamiliar with the philosophical and historical narratives that inform the post-World War II conservative movement, Shapiro may be a useful introduction. Even more helpful, though, are other authors such as Russell Kirk, Christopher Dawson, Yuval Levin, Niall Ferguson, Roger Scruton, and Jonah Goldberg. Those same readers may also need to pay attention to the way that Christianity in general and Protestantism in particular fits into the narrative of “the West.” For Shapiro, who glosses the narrative in broader strokes than others, Christianity is the religion that brought together the Greek, Roman, and Hebrew backgrounds and forged a civilization that with the advent of modern politics, science and technology, and commerce dominated the world. That perspective is largely true, especially after the conversion of Constantine and Christians’ access to power. The Eastern and Western churches developed differently in their spheres, and Protestants continued to reflect on politics and culture in ways similar to Roman Catholics. Like their predecessors, Protestants for at least three centuries after the Reformation persisted in using Greek and Latin authors from antiquity for the basics of education, and they used Greek philosophy, Roman Law, and ancient political theory to understand human reason and social relations. Of course, the Reformers used the Bible in their approach to learning and society. But their return to the Bible was much about reforming the church than improving higher education or preserving civilization. In the wider world of statecraft, universities, science, and commerce, Protestants typically worked with most of the ideas already in place. In the work and ministry of the church, however, the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions that made the West distinct were mainly peripheral.
Whether brushing up on the cultural streams that informed the West will restore the United States to its former greatness is certainly debatable. Shapiro’s point that the political traditions of the United States (both personal liberty and stable government) owe a great deal to the cast of characters running from Plato and Aristotle down to Locke and Jefferson is correct, and it is hard to imagine a similar set of results with a different set of cultural interlocutors. And yet, Protestants well know (or should) that the history of salvation is not the same as the West’s storyline. Figuring out how to do justice to the West’s remarkable—even if far from perfect achievements—while maintaining loyalty to Christ and Scripture is the great challenge for any Protestant who wants to be part of the conservative world in which Shapiro is a star.
D. G. Hart teaches history at Hillsdale College and the Novakovic Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.