What is it that made Western civilization great?
It’s symptomatic of the neurosis currently afflicting the Western mind that we even have to ask ourselves this question. It’s become increasingly difficult for some to discern where our civilization came from or know why— or if— it’s deserving of praise.
For this, those who’ve defiled liberal education should receive a good portion of the blame. Since academia has turned into a haven for the radical Left, the history of Western civilization has been reduced to a tale of oppression and racism. Students are often only taught the reasons why they should despise their civilization instead of how they can understand what it means, why it emerged, and why it’s successful. And most importantly, why it should be preserved. There is a gratuitous effort by radicals to delegitimize the Western canon to destroy and replace it with a social justice template. Sadly, they have somewhat achieved their goals as the anti-Western, social justice bacillus spreads like wildfire.
Fortunately, there have been numerous books published within the last few years aiming to rediscover the West during a time of what Douglas Murray calls “tiredness.” Some of the works are sanguine; some are lamentations. Niall Ferguson’s Civilization examined the great divergence between the West and the East, explaining the West’s greatness by exploring its adoption of six unique “killer apps.” Jonah Goldberg’s The Suicide of the West attributes the greatness of the West to the “Miracle” of liberal democratic capitalism. In The Strange Death of Europe, Murray argues that Europe is “committing suicide” as a result of mass immigration happening at the same time Europe is tyrannizing itself with guilt. What these works all have in common is that they seek to show what made the West great, and why we need to revisit our roots.
Ben Shapiro’s The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great is a worthy contribution to this body of literature. Shapiro discusses the reasons why in a time of unprecedented freedom, opportunity, and prosperity, depression has skyrocketed, and vicious acrimony is poisoning our social interactions. We’ve reverted to intense tribalism that is tearing us asunder. Data indicates that modernity is succeeding more than ever, so why are we so angry? And why are people losing faith in liberal democracy, and the values of free speech, shared morality, and economic freedom?
Shapiro diagnoses this distress as a crisis of meaning. He observes that our civilization is collapsing “into an old-age tribalism, individualistic hedonism, and moral subjectivism.” He argues that “Western civilization, including our modern notions of values and reasons and science, was built on deep foundations.” Moreover, “we’re tossing away what’s best about our civilization” because we’ve forgotten about these foundations.
To help us rediscover our inheritance, Shapiro delivers a brilliantly concise intellectual history of the West, packing almost 3000 years into 256 pages. He frames the narrative around four elements he believes are crucial for a healthy civilization: individual moral purpose, individual capacity to pursue that purpose, communal moral purpose, and communal capacity to pursue that purpose.
He reminds us that what allows these elements to prevail alongside each other is the marriage between Jerusalem (Divine meaning or Judeo-Christian values) and Athens (Greek thought and reason), of which Western civilization is the offspring. Such a fusion allowed our forebears to develop our systems of government and maintain order within them by applying established notions of natural law.
To set up his analysis of the crisis before us, Shapiro spends three chapters documenting the emergence of Judeo-Christian values, Greek thought, and how they finally converged to lay the foundation for the Western-style of governance.
Shapiro describes how the Bible promotes the idea of individual capacity and purpose as it states that we are all humans created as “free agents with the capacity” to choose between right and wrong. Thinkers in Athens such as Plato and Aristotle put forth the idea that we could “discover our purpose in life” by using our reason to study the world around us and understand the nature of being. The convergence between these two prompted the creation of a system of government that emphasized checks-and-balances. Solidifying this was John Locke’s conception of individual rights derived from natural law and the understanding that the primary function of the state was to protect these rights.
Of course, this all inspired the Founding Fathers and the resultant American Constitution. According to Shapiro, the founding philosophy is the perfect synthesis of the four elements. It emphasizes individual purpose and capacity that’s provided by Judeo-Christian values and the freedom of the individual to reason. While communal purpose is the duty to “spread liberty to all.” And the idea of communal capacity focuses on social institutions like the family that help citizens in their pursuits of virtue.
For civilization to thrive, we must strike a balance between Jerusalem and Athens. One of the essential lessons in Shapiro’s book is that if revelation overpowers reason, the outcome is a theocracy. While if society is totally defined by its allegiance to science and reason, it may be “freed from moral responsibility.” One must be tempered with the other, to keep it in check.
Evidence for this necessity is found when you compare streams of Enlightenment thought and their outcomes. I’m as fervid a defender of the Enlightenment as the next person, but it wasn’t infallible. There’s a reason why the American Enlightenment triumphed, and the French Enlightenment descended into a tyrannical catastrophe and bloodshed. The Americans still appreciated the wisdom of the ancients and believed in human nature, while the French Enlightenment thinkers rebuked them and attempted to create a new morality guided by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s idea of the “general will.” Such a morality was to be defined by the state. Rights were also to be defined by the state. In essence, the goal was the perfected Man and society. Reinforcing this endeavour was a new secular religion —the Cult of Reason— that fostered a new type of virtue that favoured the collective over the individual. The efforts to make these visions a reality resulted in the deaths of 40,000 people.
The continued repudiation of Jerusalem, Athens, and the Lockean conception of individual rights gave rise to new philosophies like romantic nationalism and collective redistributionism that dictated that individuals were “only valuable as members of the collective.” In turn, this resulted in six million Jews dead at the hands of Hitler’s Nazis and about 100 million dead at the hands of Marxists who attempted a nefarious experiment to bring “heaven on earth.” Naturally, this is a consequence of what political philosopher Frank Meyer called “ the Utopian temptation,” which flourishes when Man “degrades transcendence by trying to set up as perfect what is by nature of reality imperfect.”
As a nonbeliever, some of what Shapiro writes would have irritated me a few years ago, but since politics has become a pseudo-religion, I’ve come to agree with him. “Politics is about working to build the framework for the pursuit of happiness, not the achievement of it,” Shapiro writes. In the absence of moral purpose or individual self-worth, many of our fellow citizens think otherwise. The pursuit of happiness has been replaced by a pursuit of superficial causes. It’s no wonder that perilous ideologies like Marxism are fashionable again.
The popularity of intersectionality and postmodernism encapsulates what Shapiro calls the “Return to Paganism.” He defines this as “ a belief in subjectivity over objectivity” and “ a belief that reason itself is merely a reflection of power dynamics.” Thus, explaining the reversion to tribalism and racial solidarity amongst those who preach the victimhood gospel on the radical Left, and those in the Alt-Right who see the world similarly but in reverse. The former believe that Western civilization has only offered the world white supremacy; the latter affirms this and celebrates it since it believes that the West’s greatness lies in the white race instead of ideas. Both are distorted interpretations, and both share the same goal: Destruction of the existing social order.
All of this should cause disquiet, and we must confront it. However, this relies on the reunification of what Shapiro calls “the new scientific Athenians”—a group that includes people like Sam Harris — and “devotees of Jerusalem” who are preoccupied with quarrels over the tension between religion and reason.
As the book demonstrates, we are the legatees of a great tradition, and we must preserve it for future generations. Echoing Edmund Burke’s aphorism that civilization is a pact between the dead, the living, and the unborn, Shapiro closes on a hopeful note: “ I think the history of Western civilization shows that our parents live on in us— that when we accept our past, when we learn the lessons they teach us, when we recognize their wisdom even as we develop our own, we become a link in the chain of history.”
Overall, Shapiro has an optimistic outlook on a future that often looks bleak as duelling radicalisms threaten to dismantle what makes the United States— the truest amalgamation of Jerusalem and Athens— exceptional.
For if the vestiges of the Founding continue to wither as America succumbs to its amnesia, our contiguous cousin will cease to be that “shining city on a hill” for the rest of us and any hope for the West’s survival may be lost.