From The VG Bookshelf: The Right Side Of History
From The VG Bookshelf: The Right Side Of History
First, we evolved. Over the course of western civilization, human beings developed both great faith and the capacity for reason. And now we are devolving. Ben Shapiro examines the hows and whys in his new book, “The Right Side Of History.”
Shortly after the book was published, Shapiro made a video for Prager University that sums up the intro to his book’s premise far better than I can.
And that is just the introduction of the book. Starting from the premise that Americans have become less and less happy over the course of years, Shapiro first identifies what brings about the foundation for happiness:
We need, in my estimate, four elements: individual moral purpose, individual capacity to pursue that purpose, communal moral purpose, and communal capacity to pursue that purpose. These four elements are crucial; the only foundation for a successful civilization lies in a careful balance of these four elements.” (chapter 1, “The Pursuit of Happiness,” page 9)
Shapiro then elaborates on the roots of Judaism (the beginnings of moral law) and the development of Greek philosophy, which he shorthands as “Jerusalem and Athens.” Both are necessary, he writes, but they existed with tension – often clashing – until the advent of Christianity.
The birth of Christianity represented the first serious attempt to merge Jewish thought with Greek thought. The Christian admixture was far more Jewish than Greek in its vision of God and of man’s quest in the world, but it was also far more Greek than Jewish in its universality.
Christianity universalized the message of Judaism. The Gospels were written in Greek, not the Aramaic used by the Jews of the period. Jesus’s story was meant to extend to the entire world.” (Chapter 4, “Coming Together,” pages 57-58)
And then buckle up, because if you thought there was a lot to digest in the history of the schools of thought between the chapters on Jerusalem and Athens, get ready for the 10,000 foot view of centuries of philosophy and sociology. Leaving the Bible aside, “The Right Side Of History” goes all the way from Plato and Aristotle and Socrates to the 21st century thinkers (both bad and good). One has to feel for Ben Shapiro’s editor (whom he does thank in the acknowledgements), because even though he tries to spell out all of these schools of philosophical thought in what he calls a “user-friendly” format, this is a lot for the average reader to chew on. Especially if you’re anything like me, and must resist the temptation to sing “The Philosopher’s Song” from Monty Python under your breath while reading about Hobbes, Hume, Descartes, Locke, and Nietzsche. Clearly, I have been spending time in the wrong kinds of Classics.
As moral virtue and logical reason began to coexist and build upon each other, Shapiro points to its high watermark as the American Revolution.
The founding philosophy acknowledges the possibility of individual purpose. That purpose isn’t to be supplied by a government, or by molding individual citizens to the service of the polis. That purpose is supplied by a Judeo-Christian tradition of meaning and value, and a Greek tradition of reason. The founders thought that reason was paramount, and virtue worth pursuing. That virtue took the form of courage – willingness to sacrifice life, fortune, and sacred honor in pursuit of defending the rights necessary to pursue virtue itself. That virtue took the form of temperance – no better founding document has ever been penned than the Constitution of the United States, the product of compromise. That virtue took the form of prudence – the practical wisdom of The Federalist Papers has not yet been surpassed in political thought. And that virtue took the form of justice – the rule of law, not men, and the creation of a system where each receives his due.” (Chapter 5, “Endowed by Their Creators,” page 91)
By contrast, Shapiro points to the French Revolution, which began as the newly-born United States was organizing itself, as “Reason without boundaries” (Chapter 7, “The Remaking of the World, page 123). By stripping faith out of the equation, the French Revolution dedicated itself to reason alone, and the guillotine was the bloody end of many. The French ceded power to the state instead of the individual, and in the end it led to the rise of Napoleon. After beheading kings, they got an emperor, who created a state dedicated to nationalism, and eventually, war in Europe. This lesson would play out again and again in Europe through World War II and beyond. Without both religious values and logical reason, the consequences were Marxism, socialism, facism, and death.
In America, even though things were not perfect after the birth of the Constitution, our decay did not begin for a long time, but it has its roots in the “progressive” movement championed in the early 20th century by President Woodrow Wilson. Post-World War II, the progressives gained steam through the sexual revolution. The intense focus on the “self-esteem” movement in the latter decades of the 20th century – essentially replacing Godly virtues with the elevation of self – led directly into today’s “intersectionality” focus and the scorecard-keeping of victimhood status.
This book is not so much a political science treatise than a history of philosophy and political thought. Through the overview of that history, Shapiro shows how Western Civilization rose to prominence – and how we’ve undone ourselves. He does have an answer, though.
If we wish for our civilization to survive, however, we must be willing to teach our children. The only way to protect their children is to make warriors of our own children. We must make of our children messengers for truths that matter. That comes with risk. And that is a risk we must be willing to take. As Ronald Reagan put it, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.” (“Conclusion: How To Build,” page 214)
“The Right Side Of History” is not an easy or casual read, but it is an important one. It may lead into more thought and more reading. And that’s never a bad thing.
Featured image: original Victory Girls art by Darleen Click