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Getting the Right Side of History

On reputation alone, I assumed Ben Shapiro’s The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great would offer analytical brilliance by a disagreeable author, but I found the reverse to be true.

First, and most pleasantly, Shapiro comes across as genuinely likable, and his occasional references to his children are heartwarming. Here’s a man who knows the joys of fatherhood: “After I knew my daughter was asleep, I sneaked back into her room and kissed her head again. She was asleep; I know she probably didn’t feel it. But maybe she did. And that maybe is all we can hope for, all we can strive for.” This country needs more men willing to speak openly of their abiding love for their children. What father hasn’t returned to a sleeping child’s room to gaze upon the face of an angel and felt his own breathing slow, or even stop, as he lightly kissed a tender cheek?

That’s the good news. Here’s the other: Shapiro has given us a badly argued and poorly sourced book. That’s hard for me to write. After all, it’s easiest to review a book when one likes the author and the content or when one despises both. But an impressive book by a despicable person or, in this instance, a bad book by a likable one? Readers, it hurts the heart.

Though his personal virtues attempt to undermine my willingness to give the book a fair-minded review, we must press on. A good book has a clear thesis, right from the start; it develops an argument throughout its pages; and, along the way, it works with sources carefully and thoughtfully. Sadly, The Right Side of History lacks these qualities.

What’s the thesis? Good question. In the penultimate chapter, “The Return to Paganism,” Shapiro best articulates what I take to be the book’s main concern, namely, that the return to paganism (the chapter title) produces the end of progress (the chapter’s last heading). How could he try to prove this thesis, if it is his thesis? On the one hand, Shapiro could have offered arguments showing how liberty results from the tension between religion and philosophy, or, alternatively, he could have offered a genealogy of liberty. Ideally, he’d do both.

Sometimes Shapiro speaks for or against specific ideas with clarity and flair, suggesting he’s pursuing the first course of action. In his view, instances of violence on campus represent nothing less than the rejection of reason: “Reason suggests that one person can know better than another, that one person’s perspective can be more correct than someone else’s. Reason is intolerant. Reason demands standards.” Shapiro rightly calls this rejection of rational discourse bizarre, “given the enormous human developments brought about by the exercise of reason.” Student protestors rely on profound technological innovations to decry a thing that makes such developments possible—a culture of reasoned discourse.

But, given the organization and content of the book (and even the book’s title), I think Shapiro chooses the second course, i.e., he wants to make his case historically. And so he offers statements such as this one near the end of the book:

The traditions of individual liberty didn’t spring into being in the West miraculously, from nothing. They sprang from the tension between Jerusalem and Athens. Western civilization is a bridge suspended over the waters of chaos. Removing that tension collapses that bridge into the roiling river below.

Shapiro wants to show, by telling the story of history in a particular way, how we arrived at the traditions of individual liberty, thereby demonstrating (perhaps) that these assembled ideas must work together if they are to work at all. The most comprehensive work along these lines is the truly magnificent Development of Ethics by Terence Irwin. This approach is not for the faint of heart, however, because then the book’s argument depends upon careful reading of the people that develop the fragile consensus you want to defend.

In a nutshell, if history is doing the heavy lifting, it’s important to get the history right. Sadly, Shapiro doesn’t. Let me offer a few of the more egregious examples to illustrate this assessment.

A Trojan Horse

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. According to Shapiro, Aristotle believes “our final cause is the use of reason: ‘the work of a human being is an activity of the soul in accord with reason.’” Now that is Aristotle’s explanation of the function or specific difference of man, but it is most certainly not man’s final cause. In a footnote, Shapiro references Nicomachean Ethics 1098a. I checked the translation he uses to make sure he wasn’t misled by a bad translation. He’s not. Shapiro simply thinks Aristotle has arrived at a definition of our final cause when he’s just warming up. Here Shapiro’s misreading of Aristotle does his own argument a disservice. He wants to coordinate the pursuit of happiness (his first chapter) with the classical world (in his third chapter) but he avoids the most obvious and Aristotelian way of coordinating the two, namely, through the coordination of eudaimonia—that is, happiness or human flourishing—with virtue, which is developed in individuals in the context of community.

Sometimes Shapiro doesn’t even bother to work with primary sources. For example, Shapiro says that “Aristotle believed that everything in being relied on a rationale for its existence (in philosophy-speak, a ‘final cause’).” Question: Where in Aristotle does Shapiro get this idea? Answer: Nowhere. Shapiro cites “W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), 415.” There are several problems here. The work he cites is a series of multiple volumes, not just one. Shapiro can’t mean volume 6—the volume that actually considers Aristotle—because page 415 in that work is well into the bibliography. So he must mean volume 2, first published in 1965. Page 415 does in fact mention Aristotle. But Guthrie’s point there is not that Aristotle believes that there’s something called a rationale, which is a thing’s final cause. On the contrary, Guthrie notes that Aristotle criticizes atomists for characterizing everything by necessity in order to avoid teleology. Shapiro has simply inserted his own ideas into Guthrie’s standard interpretation of Aristotle.

Luther and Calvin as Inquisitors General

It gets worse. “Eventually,” Shapiro writes, “the backlash to the inclusion of secular knowledge in the Christian worldview—a backlash led by thinkers like Martin Luther (1483–1546) and John Calvin (1509–1564)—led to the Church’s famous persecution of Galileo.”

Where to begin? First, Galileo was born in the year of Calvin’s death, so unless Shapiro can show how this backlash traversed time—and crossed the Alps—to afflict Galileo, we should have little confidence in this proposed causal connection.

Second, saying that Luther and Calvin led a backlash against secular knowledge is an anachronistic category mistake. Luther and Calvin—and, come to think of it, the Catholic Church—think differently about the word secular than we do today. When Christians sing the Gloria Patri in Latin they finish with “et in saecula saeculorum. Amen,” regularly translated as “world without end. Amen.” They are not saying “and in atheism and agnosticism. Amen,” which is how I think Shapiro understands the word secular. Shapiro should be sensitive to this difference. He later quotes Luther on tradesmen having their manual occupations and work but also being eligible to serve as priests and bishops. That does not sound like the voice of a man afraid of the world’s knowledge. And Calvin was a humanist whose first published work was a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia. Anyway, the rapid increase of scientific knowledge in Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, England, and Scotland suggests the Lutheran and Reformed waters were pleasant places for scientists to drink.

Third, and most obviously, only one church needed to reverse its decision over “the Church’s famous persecution of Galileo,” and that church is the Roman Catholic Church, which did so under the pontificate of John Paul II in 1992. Rather than seeing Luther, Calvin, and Galileo as antagonists, as Shapiro does, we should consider them fellow travellers. We don’t need to ignore Geneva’s warmhearted treatment of Michael Servetus in order to recognize that Galileo would have fared far worse under the Roman Inquisition if he had rejected his heliocentric science—the source of his conflict with the papacy—and embraced Lutheran or Reformed theology instead.

Those Enlightenment Nazis!

I’ve saved the best for last:

Of course, as we have seen, the Enlightenment’s reliance on reason unmoored from revelation—the assumption by its greatest thinkers that human beings could in fact derive ought from is and then impose the ought—led from the bloody streets of French Revolutionary Paris to the thumping jackboots of Hitler.

This sentence should appear in future logic textbooks as an exercise for students. First, Shapiro pushes straw men and a post hoc ergo propter hoc down an exhilarating slippery slope. Second, his claim is—how does one put it?—unsubstantiated.

Third, the statement conflicts with Shapiro’s own remarks elsewhere in the book. When writing on Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, Shapiro says, “Facts and values aren’t separate things—values are embedded within facts.” Aristotle thought you could derive an ought from an is and impose the ought, but he wasn’t an Enlightenment thinker, a French revolutionary, or a Nazi in thumping jackboots. Conversely, David Hume is one of the greatest thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, yet he doesn’t believe what Shapiro says such philosophers assume—a fact Shapiro recognizes elsewhere. Shapiro himself references “David Hume’s argument that we cannot learn what we ought to do from what is in nature.” Furthermore, Hume pursued “reason unmoored from revelation.” Yet Hume, too, was neither a French revolutionary nor a Nazi.

Concluding Unscientific Postscript

In the book’s conclusion, Shapiro considers Abraham’s binding of Isaac. In Genesis 22, God tells Abraham to offer his son Isaac as an offering; Abraham does everything in obedience to God’s command but—just as he’s taking a knife to kill his son—the angel of the LORD calls to him and stops him. Jews and Christians have reflected for millennia over how to explain the goodness of God, given this command to sacrifice Isaac. Explanations abound. People don’t even agree about the question. Is the question about God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac when God himself had promised to bless the nations through him, or is the question about how to reconcile the command to kill Isaac with thou shalt not murder?

Shapiro mentions a 19th century approach to this question, Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Unfortunately, he attributes to Kierkegaard the view that the act of offering Isaac represents “the height of religious, personal faith over the ethical.” This position is not Kierkegaard’s own but that of the pseudonymous author Johannes de silentio, as C. Stephen Evans explains in, e.g., his introduction to the Cambridge edition of Fear and Trembling. Anyway, what does this so-called “teleological suspension of the ethical” mean? For Johannes, who is an unbeliever (unlike Kierkegaard!), Abraham has to go beyond the limits of what morality allows in pursuit of a higher goal (or telos).

Shapiro says he wants to avoid these moral questions: “But instead of questioning whether God was right or wrong in this scenario, or whether Abraham was right or wrong, let’s focus instead on the request: to sacrifice one’s child.” Does Shapiro want to suggest, contrary to his statements elsewhere in the book, that we can separate values from facts? Can we understand the language of “sacrifice” apart from some kind of moral framework? He doesn’t say.

But he does ask a relevant question: “Isn’t it the job of every parent to keep their children safe from harm?” If Shapiro is saying we have a duty to keep our children safe but can go beyond that duty if God calls us to do something for a higher purpose, then he doesn’t avoid the question of right and wrong; he’s just accepting Johannes’s own explanation, endorsing his own teleological suspension of the ethical. If not, then parents either don’t have a duty to keep children safe or they don’t have to sacrifice them for a higher purpose.

Maybe that’s Shapiro’s unstated, preferred position. Perhaps he wants to move from the theological question to the ethical one in order to moralize away the difficult parts of the Bible: “Now God is asking Abraham to commit his own children to his ideals—to consider putting his son in danger of death for a higher purpose.” Of course, that’s not what God asked Abraham to do. But I think it’s what Shapiro wants to take from Genesis 22: “What God asks of us,” he writes, “what our ancestors ask of us, and our civilization asks of us, is not only that we become defenders of valuable and eternal truths, but that we train our children to become defenders of those truths as well.” Amen. But as an answer to the question of how a good God can ask a man to sacrifice his son, it’s a non sequitur. It’s like saying the conquest of Canaan is about fighting for truth or the story of David and Goliath is simply a parable about overcoming one’s fears.

Western Civilization as Life Lessons?

At the book’s close, Shapiro offers four life lessons: first, your life has purpose; second, you can do it; third, your civilization is unique; and fourth, we are all brothers and sisters. He adds, “That’s where our task starts. But that’s not where it ends.” I’m not even sure it’s where our task starts. Atheists and agnostics, after all, will embrace these statements, even if, in their rejection of Jerusalem, they offer other reasons to do so. Shapiro himself discusses Steven Pinker’s discussion of the reason for living; he finds it wanting, but that’s far from saying he doesn’t believe it. If Pinker stands on the wrong side of history, and Shapiro’s work places him on the right side of history, then why can they agree (I assume) about Shapiro’s four life lessons? Could it be because they’re on the same side of history? But if that’s so, then the disagreement isn’t about God, but something else. Or perhaps it is, but in a way unspecified by the book.

For all its imperfections, The Right Side of History tries to make the historical case for the theological and philosophical foundations of our traditions of liberty, and I don’t know of a single book that even tries to pursue all the many questions Shapiro considers. For those interested in pursuing some of these questions on a shorter timeframe, Brian Tierney’s Liberty & Law develops an account of the permissive natural law from 1100 to 1800, and F. A. Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty considers the modern philosophical pedigree of our traditions of liberty. Those specifically interested in the American Founding may find the readings on religious liberty in Liberty Fund’s The Sacred Rights of Conscience helpful as well as Mark David Hall’s forthcoming Did America Have a Christian Founding?

The Right Side of History could have been the right of kind of book. Shapiro could have explored, through careful argument and interesting historical analysis, the development of the best of the West’s ideas, the fragility of the intellectual consensus undergirding them, and the barbarians at the gate threatening to overthrow it all. Let’s be more concrete: Given his concerns, as best I understand them, Shapiro could have tried to show the pedigree of Jerusalem and Athens for the American Founding. (Here I think of Russell Kirk’s Roots of American Order.) He could have made the case that, without religion, you can’t have the kind of liberal democratic order we have in the United States. Or he could have shown conversely that, without the philosophical achievements of the Greeks and Romans, religion by itself would subvert government for its own purposes. Whatever he hoped to accomplish, I think he tried to do too much. And that’s too bad.

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.