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How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great
The West is special.
Want to learn why?
Ben Shapiro explains in:
Who Should Read “The Right Side of History”? And Why?
The Right Side of History is precisely that—in at least one meaning of the word. It is Ben Shapiro’s take on history from the position of a conservative, right-wing political commentator.
You yourself decide whether it is right in the other meaning of the word. But do read it—especially if you don’t agree with Shapiro’s views.
Because, let’s face it, that’s the only way one can burst his/her own filter bubble and, well, grow up.
About Ben Shapiro
Ben Shapiro is an American lawyer, author, and conservative political commentator.
He became a nationally syndicated columnist as a teenager—the youngest in the history of the United States.
Editor-in-chief for The Daily News and editor-at-large of Breitbart News (2012—2016), Shapiro is also known as the host of The Ben Shapiro Show.
He has so far written ten books.
“The Right Side of History PDF Summary”
“This book is about two mysteries,” says Ben Shapiro in the “Introduction” to The Right Side of History, and straight off the bat, lists them: “The first mystery: Why are things so good? The second mystery: Why are we blowing it?”
Regarding the first question, you already know the main facts: fewer people are dying, most babies can survive and live up to 80, fewer people than ever are hungry and uneducated.
In short, “we don’t live in a perfect world, but we do live in the best world that has ever existed” (although, millions and millions of Africans and Asians would beg to differ). Most of Ben Shapiro’s book attempts to understand how did this all happen.
The other part—the more political one, perhaps—is concerned with the question: “Why are we throwing it away?”
There have never been more depressed people in history, we are killing ourselves at the highest rates ever, facts have made way for feelings, everybody is lonely, nobody trusts anybody, and democracy has become unfashionable—to name just a few of the banes of our present-day world.
What in the world happened?
There are four main theories: heightened economic divides, reopening of racial wounds, technologically created filter bubbles and tunnel visions, and/or, for whatever reason, human nature has kicked back in.
Shapiro believes that neither of these theories explains away enough because all of them are offered independent of the first question: how did our world come to be.
“I believe these two questions are intimately related,” he writes. “This book argues that Western civilization, including our modern notions of values and reason and science, was built on deep foundations. And this book argues that we’re tossing away what’s best about our civilization because we’ve forgotten that those foundations even exist.”
Chapter 1: The Pursuit of Happiness
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle noted that happiness is the only thing that humans desire for their own sake. In other words, even when people want honor, money, health, friendship, or romantic love—they want it so that they can be happy.
And, in a way, nobody has ever disagreed: according to most philosophers, happiness is the ultimate objective of every human being.
There’s a problem with that sentence, however!
Namely, just like the word “silly”—which originally meant happy—the word “happiness” itself has lost the meaning it had for Aristotle and the Ancient Civilizations. For us, happiness is basically akin to pleasure: golf, fishing, playing with your children, sex—these are all things that make you happy.
But, for many people, so do drinking, drugs, infidelity—to name just a few of the least amoral activities.
Well, Aristotle didn’t confuse happiness with pleasure. For him, a happy person was a person who has fulfilled its moral purpose, i.e., a good person.
Think of it this way: a watch is good if it shows the right time to the second; if it doesn’t, then it’s broken. According to Aristotle, the same holds true for men, as well.
Solomon agrees: “There is nothing better for a person than to rejoice in his work because that is his lot.” (Ecclesiastes 3:22)
And—as we’ve noted many times—so does Viktor Frankl, who wrote in Man’s Search of Meaning:
“Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost… We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”
Chapter 2: From the Mountaintop
“The revelation at Sinai, in approximately 1313 BCE according to traditional Biblical belief, changed the world by infusing it with meaning for those who knew the story,” writes Ben Shapiro.
In other words, before Moses discovered God, humans were a plaything of the gods and of nature; afterward, suddenly, humans were granted both individual and communal purpose.
Judaism did this through four faith-based claims which Shapiro says were “utterly different from the pagan religions before”:
#1. God is unified, and there is a master plan behind everything;
#2. Human beings are judged by moral, and not utilitarian standards (i.e., even if some things don’t benefit you on earth, they might after you die);
#3. History progresses, and man has a responsibility to pursue God through all times and circumstances;
#4. God has endowed man with a free will, and therefore human choices matter.
Christianity took the messages of Judaism and broadened these four tenets. However, even though it focused more heavily on grace, it successfully spread these four fundamental principles of Judaism to billions of human beings across the planet.
And that made all the difference, according to Shapiro.
Which is why, he thinks, doing away with religion is synonymous with doing away with the things we call “Western values.”
Judeo-Christian religion is not antirational or backward—it is the prerogative to progress and the very existence of Western societies; true enlightenment, writes Shapiro in a not-so-thinly-masked attack on Steven Pinker, doesn’t rest on the destruction of the Judeo-Christian heritage; it is the Judeo-Christian heritage.
Chapter 3: From the Dust
The Bible gave humanity a God, an objective to strive for; the Greeks made humans Gods, turning the understanding of the true nature of God—Nature—into an objective.
The classical roots of Western civilization in Athens still have much to teach us,” says Shapiro. “Athens teaches us what we are capable of doing as human beings. Athens teaches us that we have the ability to use our reason to reach beyond ourselves. Athens teaches us not only how liberty can flourish, but why it should.”
In Chapter 2, we saw that without Jerusalem, there could be no West; without Athens, adds Shapiro, the same holds true.
And it’s easy to see why: the Greeks were the first to truly understand the capacity of our brains and the fact that our brains are really what sets us apart from the animals. Consequently, they were the first to attempt to formulate the laws of the universe, believing it to be created by all-knowing Gods.
In a way, the Greeks didn’t believe—like the Hebrews—that God is imperceptible; on the contrary, they attempted to understand how his mind worked when he created the universe.
This thinking gave as many benefits: geography, history, mathematics, and, perhaps, most important of all, democracy.
In Athens, for the first time in history, people started thinking of political systems which would allow everybody a vote.
Chapter 4: Coming Together
“The worlds of Jerusalem and Athens seemed largely irreconcilable,” writes Shapiro at the beginning of the fourth chapter.
“Judaism was a small but important religion—estimates suggest that perhaps 10 percent of the Roman Empire was Jewish by the end of the first century CE—and Greek thought had largely been subsumed within the rubric of Roman thought. But the two building blocks of Western civilization, Judaic revelation and Greek reasoning, were at war.”
There were three serious conflicts between Jewish thought and Greek thought:
#1. The Nature of God
“Where Judaism posited an active God in the universe,” writes Shapiro, “Greek thought posited an Unmoved Mover largely unconcerned with human affairs.”
God stood behind creation in both cases; but unlike Greek reason, Judaism also saw God’s presence in human events, not merely nature.
For Judaists, God was intimately involved with man’s action; for the Greeks, fate explained much more than “divine presence with a moral sense.”
#2. The Nature of the Universal Truth
As we said above, the Greeks sought universality in all things—and they firmly believed that they were capable of finding it.
Judaism, on the other hand, set a limit on human capacity: it believed that there are some truths known only to God, and these can be communicated to humans only through revelations.
#3. The Nature of Commitment
Finally, the Greeks were committed to the polis; the Jewish to the divine.
In other words, the Greeks wanted to shape individuals to best serve society as citizens; Judaism wanted to commit them both individually and collectively to the Divine Law.
Apparently irreconcilable, Judaism and Greek thought were brought together and found some consonance in Christianity, which provided the next layer of foundational ideas in the building of modernity.
Chapter 5: Endowed by Their Creators
Now, contrary to what you believe—and what the four riders of the modern atheistic movement would have you believe—Christianity and science worked pretty well together for long stretches of time:
To mention just a few examples:
• Nicole Oresme (1320–1382), bishop of Lisieux and the discoverer of the Earth’s rotation about its axis;
• Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464), cardinal of Brixen who first theorized that the Earth was not stationary, but moved through space.
• Finally, Nicolaus Copernicus whose De revolutionibus included a letter to Pope Paul III.
The problem actually arose because of Martin Luther and John Calvin, after which the Church became suspicious of where the inclusion of secular knowledge would lead to.
That’s why it persecuted Galileo, who, despite this, didn’t lose his faith; on the contrary, he believed that it was his religious duty to find God through science.
“Galileo was no exception,” notes Shapiro. “He was a representative of the rule: religious men saw a duty to examine the universe, and to do so with the best possible methodology. This philosophy permeated the wisdom of the Enlightenment’s greatest scientists.”
(Yup, that’s another jab at Pinker; the blows become ever more visible throughout the book until he is called out by name.)
Another deeply religious Christian mentioned in this chapter is John Locke, the man who basically invented modern freedom.
Locke believed that our rights are a corollary of our duties: we have a right to property since we have a corresponding duty not to steal; a right to life, since we have a duty not to kill; and a right to liberty since we have a duty not to oppress.
Governments’ only job was to protect these rights; if it doesn’t, he argued, the citizens have the right to overthrow it.
Chapter 6: Killing Purpose, Killing Capacity
As you probably know, John Locke is one of the heroes of the Enlightenment, a period of history which modern proponents of progress (read: Steven Pinker et al.) think of as the pinnacle of civilization and Western values.
This was the period, they say when humanity finally got rid of the Baconian idols of the cave and started seeing the world as it is. Locke, Spinoza, Hume, Voltaire, Kant—they all thought the way a human being should think, i.e., bereaved of the burden of a God, and aware that everything’s been done via humankind’s very own mental capacities and abilities.
Furthermore, these advocates of Enlightenment values argue, it is religion which prevents us from making another step forward.
According to Shapiro, “these claims are manifestly false.” Even more, he says: we can learn from history that whenever we’ve tried to build a society on reason only, we’ve failed—and miserably, to say the least.
This, finally, resulted in the (at least) nominally atheistic (and, oftentimes, hedonistic) philosophies of Voltaire, Kant, and Bentham who assumed that reason could construct morality from scratch.
But the very fact that their moralities did not coincide should be evidence in favor of the opposite. Shapiro goes even further: “practically speaking, their morality lifted elements, even if unconsciously, from the Judeo-Christian tradition and Greek telos they suggested they had exploded.”
Speaking of explosions—then came Nietzsche and announced the death of god, advocating for a world where humans live in accordance with the will of self-perfection.
Of course, there was Dostoyevsky warning that in a world without God, everything is allowed—but nobody listened.
And then this happened.
Chapter 7: The Remaking of the World
The idea that we can all be reasonable and supplant traditional Judeo-Christian ideas with things like tolerance and compassion is a vestige of the Enlightenment mentality.
Unfortunately, this idea ignores the dark side of the Enlightenment hope: the French and the Communist Revolutions. (We’re not even going to talk about the Nazis—you know that part too well.)
The French Revolution
The Enlightenment, in Shapiro’s assessment, had two strains: one based on Athens and Jerusalem, the other bereft of them.
The first one is the American Enlightenment, “based on the consummation of a long history of thought stretching back to Athens and Jerusalem, down through Great Britain and the Glorious Revolution, and to the New World.”
The second one was the European Enlightenment, “which rejected Athens and Jerusalem in order to build new worlds beyond discoverable purpose and divine revelation.”
The juxtaposition between the American Revolution and the French Revolution demonstrates the contrast between the strains of Enlightenment thinking. The American Revolution, based on Lockean principles regarding the God-given rights of individuals, the value of social virtue, and a state system created to preserve inalienable individual rights, broke sharply with the French Revolution, based on Rousseau’s ‘general will,’ Voltaire’s generalized scorn for traditional virtue, and an optimistic sense of the perfectibility of mankind through the application of virtue-free reason.
In the Declaration of Independence (founded upon the philosophy of Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.), the rights of man are given to him by God.
The French Declaration, on the other hand, made no mention of a transcendental presence: “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.”
The Home of the Brave and the Land of the Free in the first case; the guillotine and 250,000 dead in the latter one.
That’s godless reasoning for you, right there!
The Communist Revolutions
Well, you know this story quite well.
It starts with Karl Marx embracing the values of the French Revolution: “The gigantic broom of the French Revolution… swept away all these relics… thus, clearly simultaneously the social soil of its last hindrances to the superstructure of the modern state edifice.”
According to Marx, even though the French Revolution didn’t end in a communist utopia, it was the first step toward the gradual evolution of markets toward communism.
One of the obstacles toward the realization of this evolution was religion: “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is a demand for their true happiness,” he wrote in the Critique of Hegel’s “Philosophy of Right.”
Vladimir Lenin embraced Marx’s beliefs and in 1917, created the first socialist country in the world, which, in his words, was supposed to be the first truly democratic state.
“Sounding a lot like Bernie Sanders,” Shapiro informs us, “Lenin wrote in 1917, ‘Democracy for an insignificant minority, democracy for the rich—that is the democracy of capitalist society.”
Lenin’s democracy, however—the democracy for the majority of the people—had to come at a cost.
Grigory Zinoviev, for example, one of the original members of the Politburo (later to be executed by Stalin), bragged about the launch of the so-called Red Terror: “We must carry along with us 90 million out of the 100 million of Soviet Russia’s inhabitants. As for the rest, we have nothing to say to them. They must be annihilated.”
A death sentence on 10 million human beings; just like that.
Chapter 8: After the Fire
In Chapter 7, Shapiro writes this important paragraph:
Romantic nationalism, collectivist redistributionism, and scientific progressivism did away with the individual need for meaning. The four elements of meaning collapsed downward into two: communal purpose and communal capacity. The individual virtually disappeared in each of these domains. Individuals were only valuable as members of the collective: as sources of the general will, to be embodied in the unified culture of the state; as members of economic classes, who could unite to overthrow the nature of humankind itself; as citizens to be cultivated by the state, their expertise to be placed in service of the greater good.
If you’ve read the quoted paragraph more carefully, you’ve already realized that, in the eyes of Shapiro, there’s basically no difference between what happened in Germany (romantic nationalism), the Soviet Union (collective redistributionism) and Revolutionary France (scientific progressivism).
Their philosophies all made the same mistake: they put the collective before the individual.
And after the fire, after everything was said and done, Jean-Paul Sartre (inspired by Soren Kierkegaard) tried to fill the gaping “meaning-shaped hole” in an entirely new way: with the individual.
Writing n Being and Nothingness, Sartre notes that humans are alone in a chaotic, meaningless world and, thus, are both condemned to be free and responsible for everything they do.
Greek philosophy and Judaist religious thought believed that man, like a clock, has a clear predefined purpose. For Sartre, however, man is the very opposite of a clock: no definition of man precedes his/her existence.
In other words, we define ourselves through our actions.
Of course, without a guidepost and communal responsibility, this didn’t work either.
And soon, the Neo-Enlightenment was born, which, once again, reverted to the European Enlightenment’s views.
We’ve tried scientific progressivism, Pinker, says Shapiro; it didn’t work.
Chapter 9: The Return to Paganism
Correct us if we’re wrong, but just like Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro thinks that many of the PC-related things that are happening today are the result of the reemergence of Marxism under the guise of postmodern beliefs and thoughts.
He doesn’t really mention the phrase “Cultural Marxism,” but he does think that the “Judeo-Christian-supported Enlightenment system” was questioned, on false grounds, by the Frankfurt School of Thought, the members of which (Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Fromm, etc.) deliberately misread the nature of American individualism in an attempt to institute some social change.
He even goes further: after quoting Horkheimer’s definition of “critical theory,” Shapiro writes “it is no coincidence that various forms of university study dedicated to various alleged victim groups—black studies, Jewish studies, LGBT studies—all find a home under the ‘critical studies’ rubric.”
(An important disclaimer for our readers: this is a conspiracy theory, which anyone who has actually read the books of these people would probably already know: for a start, the Frankfurt School of Thought critiqued both capitalism and Marxism.)
Anyway, you know where this is going: Shapiro firmly believes that these thinkers have questioned the foundations of Western society, just like all those people analyzed in chapters 6 and 7.
After intersectionality, victimhood has triumphed, and that spells the end of progress.
The vision of the Left for a better world, instead, provided polarization and solipsism and “carved off individuals into racial groups, then pitted them against one another.” It is this that gave birth to the “execrable” alt-right movements and the tribal mentality of the world today.
“Our only alternative,” concludes Shapiro, “would be to return to the Judeo-Christian values and Greek reason that undergirded America’s founding.”
Conclusion: How to Build
In the conclusion of The Right Side of History, Ben Shapiro suggests that it is through our children that we need to start returning to these values.
So, what do we teach our children?
“When I look at my four-year-old daughter and two-year-old son,” Shapiro asks, “what do I want them to know—what must they know to become defenders of the only civilization worth fighting for?”
No more than four simple lessons:
#1. Your Life Has Purpose.
“Life is not a bewildering, chaotic mess. It’s a struggle, but it’s a struggle guided by a higher meaning.”
#2. You Can Do It.
“You were given the ability to choose your path in life—and you were born into the freest civilization in the history of mankind. Make the most of it. You are not a victim. In a free society, you are responsible for your actions.”
#3. Your Civilization Is Unique.
“The freedom you enjoy, and morals in which you believe, are products of a unique civilization—the civilization of Dante and Shakespeare, the civilization of Bach and Beethoven, the civilization of the Bible and Aristotle.”
#4. We Are All Brothers and Sisters
“We are not enemies if we share a common cause. And our common cause is a civilization replete with purpose, both communal and individual, a civilization that celebrates both individual and communal capacity.”
Key Lessons from “The Right Side of History”
1. Judaic Revelation and Greek Reasoning Are the Building Blocks of Western Civilization
2. Jerusalem and Athens Go Hand in Hand: If One is Missing, Disaster Happens
3. The New Left and the Neo-Enlightenment Threaten to Destroy the Western World
Judaic Revelation and Greek Reasoning Are the Building Blocks of Western Civilization
Before the advent of Judaism, people were nothing more but playthings of the gods, i.e., slaves of fate. The Bible offered them a new world, one enriched with meaning: there is a master plan, it says, and the One who has devised it, will reward the ones who follow it—even if this doesn’t happen on Earth.
Meanwhile, the Greeks devised an interesting idea of their own. They realized that this omniscient and omnipotent Being must have used some laws to create the world and that these laws can be deduced from careful observation of the world.
When these two seemingly irreconcilable views of existence came together and meshed through the rise of Christianity—the Western civilization was born.
Jerusalem and Athens Go Hand in Hand: If One is Missing, Disaster Happens
It is important to note that in every society which thrived, Greek Reason and Judaic Revelation went hand in hand; those which opted for one of the two failed miserably.
For example, the European Enlightenment abhorred religion and glorified reason—but the French Revolution it gave birth to was a disaster. Nazis and Communists did pretty much the same, but their supposedly utopian societies collapsed in just a few decades.
On the other hand, the Americans embraced both Jerusalem and Athens—and built the United States, the greatest and most powerful nation still.
The New Left and the Neo-Enlightenment Threaten to Destroy the Western World
Unfortunately, quite a few New Left and Neo-Enlightenment thinkers believe that it is time that the Western World makes way for something new.
Ben Shapiro says that their new is, in fact, pretty old and already seen in the cases of the French Revolution and the USSR.
Religious narratives give meaning, and, without it, it’s every man to himself; except, of course, those who are in power and who can wreak havoc upon everybody.
Have we learned nothing from history?
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“The Right Side of History Quotes”If history has a direction, it does so only if we have faith in a God who stands at the end of it, urging us forward. Click To Tweet The best countries—and the best societies—are those where citizens are virtuous enough to sacrifice for the common good but unwilling to be forced to sacrifice for the greater good. Click To Tweet Happiness, then, comprises four elements: individual moral purpose, individual capacity, collective moral purpose, and collective capacity. Click To Tweet The Founding Fathers were devotees of Cicero and Locke, of the Bible and Aristotle. Click To Tweet The creation story itself is designed to demonstrate how the first man, Adam, used his innate power of choice wrongly—and we are all Adam’s descendants. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
We’ll use Jordan Peterson’s endorsement to guide the future readers of The Right Side of History. He says:
“This is a book for people dying to grow up, a book for a culture that risks devouring itself if the people who comprise it refuse to grow up. It’s a book most suitable for our immature, confused, complex, but exceptionally promising time.”
And then he goes on:
“I hope the wisdom it contains aids many a troubled soul in finding and treading the straight and narrow path forward and uphill. Everything we have built—everything we currently have in our great good fortune—depends more than we can possibly imagine on each of us managing to do precisely that.”
We hope the same thing.