Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Book Recommendation: Ben Shapiro’s Right Side of History

Last month, I recommended a modern theology manual as a complement and introduction to the fundamental texts; this week, I am going to recommend what might be considered a manual for the study of Western Civilization. Ben Shapiro’s The Right Side of History - How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great is written as a response to all those, whether on the right or the left, who dislike the West, exemplified by the America we live in today. He argues that the worldview from which the American project emerged is a harmonious fusion of faith in the God of the Bible, and reason. It is a synthesis of philosophy and theology, and, unusually (and I believe correctly), he sees faith and theology as governing philosophy.

I am recommending this book for two reasons. First, I think that Catholic educators will find this a good introductory text for a course on Western Civilization, perhaps for high school students, or as part of the general education of undergraduates. It is written for a broader audience than Catholics; I would therefore suggest that should be supplemented with additional texts that present the Catholic understanding of some of what he describes in a more nuanced way - I suggest one below - even before going more deeply into the study of philosophers whose work Catholics are naturally most interested in, such as Aristotle and St Thomas. Shapiro’s work will help create a context in which their ideas can be placed today.

Second, I am hoping that those Catholic readers who are not enamored with the American project, and are inclined to dismiss it as a flawed product of poor Enlightenment thinking, might investigate and perhaps be swayed by his arguments. As I see him, Shapiro is a cheerful realist, who can recognize its imperfections, but loves present-day America; and, recognizing that there are forces bent on destroying it, he is prepared to roll up his sleeves and work to preserve what he believes is so good about it. The worldview that created a society that can produce wealth in great abundance is also the one, he argues, that promotes the spiritual values which are the basis of personal happiness.

Sadly, if there is one idea that has the power to unite large numbers of people with otherwise diverse political or religious beliefs, it is the idea that America is bad. They might disagree on what is wrong with America, and what ought to be done about it, but they can agree on one certain truth, that we all live in a bad place.

There are, for example, those on the political left who consider the institutions of the United States to be founded upon slavery, racism, and sexism by an oppressive patriarchy consisting of white, male Christians (and the occasional Orthodox Jew). The left thinks America is bad because it is the perfect manifestation of the traditional Judeo-Christian worldview that underlies this oppression. They are working hard to displace the heritage of the past with a new society that is distinct from both the recent and distant past. The left believes that the answer to America’s perceived problems is the forcible redistribution of wealth and control of society by the government. In their view, elite intellectuals, who know better than most people themselves what is good for them are the ones who should direct policy. The left is unhappy with America because they feel that there is not yet enough government control by the people they approve of. For them, America is, in short, still too American for comfort.

Then there are people who like what they think America used to be, but not what it is now. Typically, and unlike the left, they believe that America was founded on principles of personal freedom and dignity for all. They believe that the principles themselves are good and would like to see them better reflected in the America of today. Accordingly, they assert the goodness of the Constitution and the American system of governance as it was set up. However, they are unhappy because they believe that the left has taken over the culture and institutions of the country today and that America is no longer what it ought to be. They look wistfully back to some past America in which people could flourish in a way that they cannot now. For this type of political conservative America is not American enough.

There is another much smaller group of people who like the others dislikes America, but looks even further back in time to their golden period. These are socially conservative, traditionally-minded Christians, typically Catholics. I come across this point of view regularly, because I share their interest in the importance of culture, although we often differ on what to do about it. In their view, it is the negative aspects of the Protestant Reformation and the philosophical errors of modernity that have formed the West we live in today. For them, so much of what they don’t like – the ugliness of the modern culture, the decline in the Faith, the loss of orthodoxy in the Church’s hierarchy and the banality of its liturgy – are due to these aberrations of faith and philosophy. This last group is not happy with any form of America. They criticize the Constitution because they feel it is, at least in part, rooted in a wrong understanding of human nature and of human freedom. They do believe in Western values, but the West they admire is one that existed in a European, pre-Reformation past. They yearn for a society that is culturally Catholic to its core, a society of kings, Gothic cathedrals, wool merchants and guilds. For them, America is bad precisely because it is America and not 14th-century Europe.

This last group is of interest to me. It demonstrates the power of the appeal of Marx-inspired leftist criticism of capitalism even amongst conservative Catholics. For, strangely, a significant proportion of traditionally-minded Catholics find themselves agreeing with the left in their dislike of capitalism and free markets. Like the left, they accept the Marxist inspired radical-environmentalist scare stories, and tales of the injustice of capitalism, and they despise what they believe to be the suffering and ugliness caused by industrialization and mass production. The Catholic critics of capitalism don’t have the same options as everyone else when it comes to proposing a solution to the current situation. Socialism has been condemned by the Catholic Church. As a result, they are always looking for ‘third-option’ solutions that sit between the ‘extremes’ of free-market capitalism on the one hand and socialism on the other. The economic theory called Distributism, which has been around for a hundred years or so, is perhaps the best known of these hypothetical third ways, although its place in the field of economics has always been marginal at best.

In summary, the political left believes that man can create a Utopia here on earth. They hate the present and romanticize the future. Unhappy conservatives on the other hand, are uncomfortable with the present and romanticize the past.

Shapiro’s book has a response to all of these groups. He is both a political and social conservative (he is an Orthodox Jew), but he loves present-day America too and wants to preserve what is good about it and help it to flourish more strongly.

My quick survey of the types of people who dislike America today is, I acknowledge, incomplete, generalized and simplistic. But I hope it makes the general point: that there are many people who are unhappy in the America we live in today for a range of different reasons. The response to all of them is to say that they are mistaken. America is a good place to live in. You may prefer other cultures or the geography of other places, but to say you don’t like it is not the same as it is bad.

Shapiro’s message is that life is good, right now. The West, in general, is good, and America is good too. None are perfect, but all are good. He produces a raft of statistics to show the truth of this in material terms. Never before have more people lived in such prosperity and enjoyed such freedom as today. Prosperity and freedom do not guarantee faith and personal happiness, but they are the conditions in which a culture of faith and virtue can flourish, he argues. It is a life of faith in God and of virtue (of ‘moral purpose’) that will give us happiness. And I say that he is right.

However, while noting that the external circumstances are as favorable to personal happiness as they have ever been, there is, as he notes, a problem. While we in the West should be happier than ever before, by all measures - suicide rates for example - the society as a whole is not. There are in fact more unhappy people in America today than ever before. How can this be?

It is a maxim that happiness is ‘an inside job’. This is true for every person, conservative or socialist, past or present. Ultimately, bad personal choices and a rejection of God’s grace - sin - lead to unhappiness. Mankind has been granted the freedom to choose to be miserable or joyful at all times in history since the Fall. However, as Shapiro points out, what is causing so much unhappiness today is the promotion and ever more general adoption of a worldview that fosters and encourages personal misery. Furthermore, the flawed philosophy of the atheist and materialist left not only undermines Western culture and values and the material prosperity it produces, but it also engenders personal unhappiness.

And, if the left succeeds in their aim of destroying traditional Western and American values, they will bring us all down, for whether they like to admit it or not, they are parasites on the West. Socialism is a Western heresy that cannot exist for long without a Judeo-Christian inspired infrastructure to support it.

To quote the book:
We are in the process of abandoning Judeo-Christian values and Greek natural law, favoring instead moral subjectivism and the rule of passion. And we are watching our civilization collapse into age-old tribalism, individualistic hedonism, and moral subjectivism. We believe we can reject Judeo-Christian values and Greek natural law and satisfy ourselves with intersectionality, or scientific materialism, or progressive politics, or authoritarian governance, or nationalistic solidarity.
I agree with Ben Shapiro.

We need a genuine understanding of the West so that we can engage with others in a process of education and persuasion. I think that his book is a valuable contribution to this noble aim. It is a balanced view that bears the optimism appropriate to someone of faith, and the realism of one who knows that no civilization is guaranteed permanence unless its citizens work to preserve it.

The Right Side of History gives us the story of the development of Western thought. Through this narrative, Shapiro tells us who we are, where we have come from, and our telos, that is, our purpose - where we are going. He explains how the fusion of Greek philosophy with Christian and Jewish thought created the unique conditions that allowed the West to flourish. He does not shy away from pointing out how important it is that the Jewish and Christian faiths are different from all other faiths in stressing the dignity of the human person, who is made (going back to the account of the Creation in the book of Genesis) in the image and likeness of God, and endowed with personal freedom.

Rather than seeing the Enlightenment as a radical break with the past, he shows how many Enlightenment thinkers were believers who contributed to a steady development of Western thought which is very much in accordance with the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is from this, largely British, Enlightenment that the American constitution and nation was established. Far from undermining what was so good about medieval society, it developed and enriched what preceded it.

Highlighting the source of the problems today, Shapiro describes how a flawed philosophical worldview did also develop out of Enlightenment thinking. Broadly speaking, it is from the Continental Enlightenment that we see the development of the atheistic-materialism of the left, with all its hatred of capitalism, freedom and destructive ideas of intersectionality. This is the worldview that has been the cause of so much misery in the past, and continues to create it today.

In order to back up his hypothesis, we are introduced to the philosophies of Aristotle and the ancient Greeks, to Aquinas, Descartes and Kant, Hume, Hegel, and Marx, Burke and Adam Smith and many other key figures. All of this is told in clear accessible language that assumes reasonable intelligence but a low base of knowledge. As such it is a wonderful introduction to Western thought, good and bad. Throughout, he never loses sight of the grand picture of the story of the West, which means that we can clearly see in each case which ideas are in harmony with what is good and true and beautiful in the world, or conversely, which work against it. As such, this book should be part of the general education of every young person in America, and, I would say, especially Catholics.

If on reading this, those traditionalist Catholic friends of mine who I mentioned earlier are still not convinced that the ideas that Shapiro articulates are consistent with Catholic social teaching, they should read also Samuel Greggs’ excellent Reason, Faith and the Struggle for Western Civilization. Gregg addresses the same subject in a similar way, but focuses more on addressing the nuanced objections of conservative Catholics who are inclined to mistrust all the philosophical developments of the last 400 years. I reviewed Gregg’s book here.

In my judgment, the two books work together beautifully to equip any well-intentioned person of faith who wants to build a better society with some basic tools to do so. There is no Utopia on offer, as both Shapiro and Gregg are quick to point out; that is the false promise of the left, and no society can guarantee personal happiness. However, culture and politics can work either to encourage it or to undermine it. We can and should always work for those conditions that will help people to choose well.

If we care at all about alleviating poverty, preserving life, and nurturing a culture that helps people to choose well by supporting and reflecting the values of faith and virtue, then Shapiro’s book will help us. It gives us a picture of a society that promotes all three.

If we follow this path, we are bound also to respect the freedom and dignity of those who disagree with us, even if at times they do not grant us the same privilege. If this seems an insuperable handicap against a foe who won’t play fairly, then I would say that it probably is. Or rather, it would be if we didn’t have God on our side. I believe we are on the right side, not only of history but of the present too! I wouldn’t be arguing from the position that I am if I didn’t believe so, and this is why I am not daunted or pessimistic.

We may lose battles, we may go down to the depths first, but I hold to the principle that good will prevail. The trinity of the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity, has been brought into the consciousness of the West through St Paul’s epistles. Although Shapiro is an Orthodox Jew, and as such, does not acknowledge the divine authorship of the New Testament, his writing of has crystalized the same truth, that faith, hope, and charity are the beating heart of the good society.

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