The Right Side of History heralds the arrival of a serious Jewish intellectual. Having cut his teeth as an Internet pugilist in the Andrew Breitbart mold, Ben Shapiro emerges with this, his seventh book, as a thinker of depth, a writer of crisp prose, and a worthy and astute champion of the West at a time when she badly needs them.
Shapiro’s conception of the West is different from that of others who in recent years have taken up her cause. For those writers—think Steven Pinker and the like—the West sprang up, abruptly and miraculously, with the advent of Enlightenment skepticism, scientific rationalism, and modern capitalism. In Shapiro’s view, however, at the heart of that “West” is a “mechanistic, materialist vision of human beings and the universe.”
He decisively rejects that vision. Indeed, he traces many of today’s moral and political disorders to it. As he sees it, we are descending into racial tribalism and wild utopian politics, “moral subjectivism,” and corrosive individualism, because we have willfully severed our societies from their deepest roots. Those are the Mosaic law and its universalization by Jesus of Nazareth, and Greek philosophy, with its confidence in the power of human reason to understand the natural and moral worlds.
Shapiro resolved to write the book after he got a terrifying dose of our modern disorders in early 2016, when a group of conservative students invited him to give a speech at California State University at Los Angeles. It took dozens of armed, uniformed police officers, plus Shapiro’s own private security team, to get the author safely in and out of the college venue, so ravenous and violent was the mob that sought to silence him.
The CSU riot was just the beginning. “At the University of Wisconsin,” he recalls, “my speech was nearly shut down by protesters who flooded the front of the stage. At Penn State, protesters gathered outside my speech and pounded on the doors. At DePaul University, the administration threatened to arrest me if I came to campus.”
At universities, it was left-wing radicals and their enablers among university administrators who gave Shapiro the most grief. Online, meanwhile, he became a target of the racist and anti-Semitic alt-right movement, which flooded his Twitter feed “with images straight from the pages of Der Stürmer.” (Shapiro was the top recipient of online abuse from the alt-right, per the Anti-Defamation League.)
Identity leftism slandered the Judeo-Christian tradition as racist, sexist, colonialist, and so forth, while the alt-right reveled in racism and anti-Semitism and sought to excise the West’s Jewish and Christian patrimony, with its universalistic claims about the dignity of the human person, created in the divine image, born with freedom and moral responsibility.
What depths of confusion, unhappiness, and malice the twin movements—identity leftism and the racist alt-right—represented! Against this bleak backdrop, the main task facing his (and my) generation, Shapiro concluded, is a kind of moral archaeology: recovering what was lost and carefully gluing shattered pieces together. He’s right.
All was not, in fact, darkness until about, oh, 2009 or so. This may not come as news to those who know their way around the Bible and the Western canon and world history, but it’s a salutary message and one worth repeating emphatically, as Shapiro does, in an age when diversity hustlers tell students that Western civ is “Eurocentric, Caucasoid, and thus oppressive” (per one college manifesto quoted by the author).
Indeed, as Shapiro shows, the light that still illumines our way of life, despite restless efforts to snuff it out, shone first from the God of the Bible upon Jewish faces. The universal, transcendent God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob heralded the revolution of dignity that made possible all our notions of rights and egalitarian political order. In a chaotic world populated by many local gods, most of them as cruel and capricious as their followers, the God of Israel appeared “as a prime mover,” who governed the world according to a “predictable set of rules discernible by the human mind.”
When this “God intervenes in the world, it is to better the lot of mankind, or to teach lessons.” Chief among those lessons is the equal dignity of humankind before God, evidenced by the fact that divine law binds both Israel and the strangers who sojourn among Israel, and by the declaration of Genesis 1:27—“in the image of God he created him”—which Shapiro calls “the most important verse in human history.”
Set aside the metaphysical veracity of these teachings, which Shapiro and I accept and many others don’t: Judaism’s account of God and man and the relationship between the two was unquestionably a “force for progress,” as the author insists. The advent of Jesus, Shapiro is quick to add, “successfully spread the fundamental principles of Judaism, as emended by Christianity, to billions of human beings on the planet.”
Shapiro’s treatment of Christianity is especially refreshing. Unlike too many American Jewish intellectuals—who, as Ruth Wisse has noted in these pages, define their sense of Jewishness negatively, against a Gentile worldview and life-world that they find by turns oppressive and ridiculous—Shapiro warmly welcomes Christianity’s universalizing dimension. More than that, he lauds the Nazarene faith’s inherent openness to philosophy, which the early Church absorbed from the Hellenic milieu that surrounded it.
And still more: Shapiro defends the Catholic Church against the Enlightenment worshipers who paint her as an obscurantist institution bent on nothing but wringing submission out of heretics at the wrack: “Popular history maintains that [the medieval] period represented the ‘Dark Ages.’ But that’s simply inaccurate. Progress continued as Christianity spread.” The medieval Church, he notes, was responsible for “virtually all literacy.” Its leaders fought slavery, preserved the liberal arts of Greco-Roman antiquity, practiced “proto-capitalism,” and most notably achieved, with the scholastics and Thomas Aquinas especially, that full fusion of faith and reason that made the West.
Shapiro, to be clear, appreciates the achievements of the post-Enlightenment period, not least religious freedom. His point, rather, is that the relatively decent order that the Enlightenment worshippers fret about wouldn’t have been possible without biblical faith. To the extent that the radical Enlightenment shut out faith from the realm of public reason, it narrowed the scope of reason and thus set the stage for the undoing of its own best aims. To borrow a metaphor from John Paul II: Closing off one lung (faith) adversely affected the functioning of the other (reason). Thus, insisting on reason, reason, reason alone—and reason narrowly defined as the Pinkers of the world do—won’t save us.
To see why the West became the West, we must climb Sinai and Calvary once more. Shapiro argues that postmodern society’s refusal to make that ascent—that is, to credit biblical faith’s seminal role in liberating man from sundry pagan abominations and the essential inequality and randomness of pagan life—owes to the fact that we can no longer imagine how abominable, unequal, and random pagan life was. Or perhaps it’s because postmodern secularism has, in fact, re-paganized the West, a chilling possibility the author explores in the book’s fascinating closing chapters.
Shapiro, then, succeeds marvelously as archaeologist. The intellectual history he recounts is necessarily brisk and in places over-simplified, as he concedes—understandable in a book that spans millennia of philosophy and revelation. And there is more than a hint of Whig historiography in his account. Even so, readers, particularly young readers, will find in The Right Side of History a potent antidote to the poisonous lie that their civilizational inheritance is a source of shame.