The Best of the West: Ben Shapiro's Examination of the Right Side of History (It's Lit #26)
It must have been around high school when I became struck with awe at the fact that I am living in the future. As smartphones became more prevalent, awareness of the rapid expansion of technology was unavoidable. I often wonder if every generation has had this feeling to some degree. Sure, technology is evolving now at a faster rate than ever, but to watch the growth of the automobile, or the refrigerator, or the television could have made any point in the last 150 years similarly awe-inspiring.
I could easily imagine this reverence existing for the past couple centuries. But what about earlier years? Did the American Revolutionaries feel like the development of our system of governance was a step into a utopian future? What about the scientists living during the enlightenment? When did all this human progress start? More importantly, why?
For the past couple months, I've been exploring Abrahamic texts, in addition to classics heavily inspired by them. This week I'm going to switch it up and talk about a recent release--perhaps for the first time since Essay #12! I recently read Ben Shapiro's new book, The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great. In this book, Shapiro takes the reader through 2000 years of history to argue that the great progress made in the West has been primarily due to the Judeo-Christian principles of higher purpose and Greek Principles of reason, concluding that we ignore these foundations at our peril.
The first belief that Shapiro claims was necessary for the development of Western Culture is the belief in a higher power, one specifically manifested in the Judeo-Christian idea of God. To believe in this God is to believe that humans are capable of transcending their station through following a system of values other than that provided by a king or ruler. Through building a relationship with God, humans can come to a place of individual purpose, improving themselves in ways other than that required by whatever state or kingdom they are a part of.
This narrative of individual ability and purpose is quite possibly my favorite part of Judaism. Shapiro highlights the Jewish claims 'that God was unified, that a master plan stood behind everything' and 'that man had a responsibility to pursue God and bring about a redemption of mankind' (20). This idea that no man is perfect is at once humbling and inspiring. Consequently, man can believe that his ruler is fallible and that, through cultivating a superior nature, he has the ability to create heaven on Earth through his own self-improvement. At its best, this narrative has allowed exceptional men and women to push the world forward through what they believe is right, regardless of the pushback they may feel from their peers and their nation.
It is partially this worldview that led to the creation of America. Shapiro invokes Locke, a Christian who believed that Natural Law provided 'a right to liberty, since we had the duty not to oppress' (84). Locke and his philosophy was instrumental in the foundation of America, a country intended to provide a land where man could be free without oppressing or being oppressed. Of course, whether America has ever come close to fulfilling this promise is debatable, but the reverberations of this idea have led to extreme human liberation around the world. Without the Judeo-Christian narrative of individual responsibility, Shapiro argues, man may never have been so inspired to revolt and create a society intended to be free.
In addition to these Judeo-Christian ideas, Shapiro argues that the West has benefitted exceedingly from the Greek reverence for reason. The Greeks basically believed that the universe had rules, and that the human process was to learn to discover and play along with these rules. He introduces Plato and Aristotle's concept of telos, that 'the value of an object lies in its capacity to achieve the purpose for which it was designed' (44). The idea of pursuing Telos sounds very similar to the idea of pursuing God. Because it was not necessarily divine, however, the Greeks assumed that this objective truth could be found exclusively through reason.
Once reason and Judeo-Christian ideas mixed, they were found to be rather compatible. For instance, Thomas Aquinas argued along the lines that 'if reason supports the notion of an intelligent God who crafts nature and stands behind its ever-present glory...then human beings can examine the natural world as a pathway to understanding Him' (68). The Bible clearly implies that humans can never understand all the mysteries of the Universe. On the other hand, it was never clear to me that we should avoid using what is at our disposal to understand the path to objective truth. In fact, it’s just that journey toward truth that has led to the most beautiful art and innovation that the world has ever seen.
I don’t have any reason to argue with Shapiro here. He certainly puts forward some of the best of Western philosophy. After arguing that reason and higher purpose have propelled the West forward, Shapiro demonstrates what has happened when other Western thinkers have attempted to abandon the foundations of Judeo-Christian values and reason. Just as with the God of the Old Testament, these transgressions were met with tragedy.
So first, what happens when thinkers have attempted to get rid of the idea of a Judeo-Christian God? According to Shapiro, this has often left adherents bereft of tangible meaning in their lives. Indeed, some philosophies claim exactly that—there is no meaning outside of our biology. Shapiro mentions Rousseau, who believed that humans were simply guided by their passions. Society removed man from his natural state and corrupted his human nature. According to Shapiro, Rousseau believed that ‘now that society had been created, human beings could only find happiness through an administration of the “general will”’ (113). As a libertarian-minded fellow, I can’t help but shiver at the idea. No matter how important the good of the masses may be, I never expect someone else’s definition of ‘general will’ to reflect the best course for society, and will fight tooth and nail against anybody forcing me to enact their own utopia. Without a concept of God, I could see how it would be easy for some more intellectual atheists to fall into such arrogant traps as believing they can perfect human nature through their own plans for the greater good.
Other philosophers believed that without God, meaning could be attained solely through reason. Kant, for instance, argued for a categorical imperative, that man should not transgress laws that, in other situations, may inhibit the safety or liberty of others involved. For instance, running a stop sign at an intersection, even with no other cars on the road, would be ultimately wrong, as making this exception could result in tragedy under other circumstances. Shapiro’s counterpoint comes in the form of a thought experiment—‘Is it really correct that we do a wrong whenever we lie, even to hide a Jew when the Nazi is at the door?’ (110). I don’t know enough about Kant to say whether that is a fair refutation, but that morality is slippery seems to be a salient point. Sometimes both morality and meaning seem to transcend any reason a human can come up with, possibly to an unachievable degree.
Though reason may not be able to completely address human meaning, its abandonment could result in even greater catastrophe than the abandonment of a God. As far as I’m concerned, reason is one of the greatest tools man has at his disposal. To do away with reason is to do away with progress itself. Rather than going into specific philosophers that have tried to abandon reason, Shapiro instead uses this section of the book to comment on the state of modern political discourse as he sees it.
Specifically, Shapiro argues that much of the culture today appears to value subjectivity over reason. For example, he quotes Donna Hughes, who apparently argues that ‘The scientific method is a tool for the construction and justification of dominance in the world’ (202). Shapiro doesn’t give much context to this comment, but I could imagine Hughes may have been referring to some of the horrible experiments that have been conducted in the name of science—perhaps the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis experiment or the use of phrenology to justify racism. In these cases, Hughes would be right to be skeptical of science. To denounce the method outright, however, is to denounce iPhones and air conditioners, vaccines and antibiotics. The scientific method, at its best, offers a relatively objective way to conduct progress. If it is used to pursue unethical experiments, its objective nature will ideally bring that to light. On the other hand, to abandon the method entirely as a tool of domination could mean, as Shapiro argues, an affront to Reason itself.
So where does this increased desire for subjectivity stem from? Shapiro argues that it is due in large part to a mid-century idea that self-esteem ought to be valued above all else, including reason. Though reason need not be abandoned for self-esteem to be important—Shapiro quotes Nathaniel Brandon, that ‘self-esteem could be achieved only through rational appraisal’ (195)—Shapiro posits that increasing the value of self-esteem has allowed it to take the place of objective truth, no matter how hard that truth may be to hear. He points out that ‘[R]eason, in fact, is insulting. Reason suggests that one person can know better than another…Reason is intolerant. Reason demands standards’ (184). These standards, when evoked in the face of someone’s unreasonable ideas or conduct, can certainly lead to poor self-esteem. Remove them, however, and you remove one of the pillars of Western society along the way. Without valuing objective truth, humanity would at best come to spinning its wheels, and at worst, come apart entirely. After all, if society does not respond to reason, they are increasingly liable to be taken on a ride by the most charismatic character to come their way, regardless of the plausibility of his or her positions.
Whether I agree with his perspectives on all these philosophers (and I am certainly not studied enough to hold a strong stance either way), Shapiro offers a compelling case that reason and higher meaning are two foundations that have held up Western society for thousands of years. Can they be improved upon? I believe they can. Take them away, however, and you run the risk of finding yourself in a nihilistic and tyrannical society that few want to live in.
Shapiro’s book, of course, only deals in one hemisphere. Similarly, for the past couple months, I have been examining some of the texts deeply embedded in the West. Next week, however, I would like to begin an investigation into the other side of the world—the deep and wonderful world of Eastern philosophy. Specifically, I will be discussing the I Ching, one of the wisest books I have ever come across. Talk to you then!
Shapiro, Ben. The Right Side of History. New York, Harper Collins, 2019.