The trashing of Western civilization in the academy has been moving apace for decades. It’s an easy target for the chronically disaffected. Back in the 1980s, in a gust of consciousness-raising, Jesse Jackson flew out to Stanford to help student marchers shoulder the heavy lifting of chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go” while paying little heed to what might replace the civilization that made their protest possible.
The contemporary descendants of those protesters likely won’t queue up for Professor Ben Shapiro’s course in Western Civ 101, the lecture notes for which are available in Shapiro’s The Right Side of History, a book delineating a view of the past that few educated people would have disputed in its essence 75 years ago but that is now so heterodox as to deserve the moniker of “trendy.” Western civilization, which has provided such a munificent spiritual and material bounty for millennia, owes its very existence to a sturdy though delicately landscaped grounding in tenacious moral purpose matched with a relentless hunger for rational understanding that drove our ancestors to make the universe explicable in the face of its manifold mysteries. This is cutting-edge musing in a.d. 2019 (or c.e., if they insist), which might say more about us than it does about the grand old view itself.
In other words, those enriching traits of our civilization so disparaged and deconstructed by postmodernists with such dismissive facility are the very graces — from Aristotle to aeronautics, from Dante to dentistry — that have made us thrive and have ennobled all those men and women down the ages who have endeavored, often through colossal hardships, to build a humane world and to pass on its accumulated wisdom and knowledge from one generation to the next. Shapiro’s case is, among other things, an exercise in how not to take gifts for granted.
Those twin peaks of morality and rationality Shapiro sums up, predictably enough, as Jerusalem and Athens, taking his cue from Tertullian, a crotchety third-century Church father, who asked, somewhat puritanically, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” For those who wish to live intelligently with moral rectitude, quite a bit. Without reason, imparted by “Athens,” we cannot make heads or tails of the world we’re living in; we have no map. Without revelation, though, imparted by “Jerusalem,” we have no rules that can guide us with that map toward a better, more fruitful life — to a life lived, that is, in consonance with God. Both are required, along with their auxiliaries: the discipline needed to learn from reason and the humility needed to learn from revelation. Reason, Shapiro argues, can teach us how not to be bad, but only revelation can teach us truly how to be good according to transcendent norms. We’re free to disagree with all this, but the notion has had, to say the least, a fairly long run with people of former times who might best us in the greatness sweepstakes, which is more than a faint subtheme to this book. Better people have preceded us, and we ignore them at our peril.
Ignore them we have but, as Shapiro also explains, the neglect has been going on for some time. This book provides an excursion into the intellectual history of the West, from Mt. Sinai to the latest barbarity in Slate, usefully retold for those who know the story and accessibly digested for those who don’t. Nothing frightfully original comes out of these pages — and that’s one of the book’s virtues. Despite Shapiro’s jubilant reputation among young fans for controversy, he writes here more as an ardent student of history and a defender of the old wisdom than as a debater blithely chalking up points. His point of view shines out of every sentence, but it’s a methodical, not a grenade-throwing, one; those who come here to see idiocy “destroyed” — in agitated YouTube-descriptor fashion — may be disappointed, though they’ll be rewarded if they keep reading (and one may say that to expose most idiocies is also to destroy them).
Shapiro does a masterly job outlining the last 3,000 years of the intellectual struggles our betters endured to figure out our place in the cosmos, a feat harder to pull off than it looks, and he shows how our progenitors have progressed as well as regressed from time to time. He begins with the story of the ancient Hebrews and their wrestle to understand God and His not always comprehensible ways and then moves on to the ancient Greeks to show how they bestowed the gift of philosophy at a time when thinkers still assigned a high premium to the love of wisdom and believed that there was nothing the human mind could not grasp. When these two worlds courted during the early Hellenistic period and finally wed with the coming of Christianity during the high tide of the Greco-Roman world, we had the birth of Judeo-Christian civilization. This fusion created and sustained the values we lived by until the day before yesterday.
But the Judeo-Christian worldview brought more than rules to live by. It made the practice of science as we know it possible and even inevitable — which will come as news to those who sophisticatedly assume that faith and reason have always been enemies. Indeed, Shapiro credits the intellectual ferment of the Middle Ages with eventually ushering in the scientific revolution from the 16th to the 18th centuries. And he is particularly adept at countering the expedient misconceptions propagated by secularists who have held that never the twain shall meet — such as the notion that all men of science were anti-religious martyrs to truth, when most, with few exceptions, from Copernicus to Francis Bacon to Newton, were men of faith who understood that their beliefs did not preclude their ability to practice science. Even the woes of Galileo, the chief martyr, are shown to have been not nearly as woeful as we have been led to believe.
But this book isn’t an intellectual survey alone, nor is such a survey its central purpose. Shapiro is out to reclaim a legacy. He never tires of taking us back again and again to the nexus between ideas and life, tracing the seeds of rebellion from good sense to somewhere in the 17th century with Hobbes and Spinoza, on through the brilliantly cloying influences of Voltaire and Rousseau and the murderous French Revolution they partially wrought, past Hume and Kant and on to the growls of smoldering dissent in the 19th century, from Hegel to Marx, after which the bottom drops out, and the Judeo-Christian tradition that built Western civilization is put permanently on a defensive footing. Enter then the more modern miscreants, the folks who have laid the foundations for sundry varieties of utopianism and heterodoxy and whose ruinous ideas we are saddled with today: Freud, John Dewey, Sartre, and even Dr. Benjamin Spock.
Shapiro reserves his heavier artillery, though, for those lapses from tradition and civilization that have been pushed to direst effect by the political machinations of men with more obscure names, such as Antonio Gramsci, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, and Herbert Marcuse. The influence of the last can be felt every day somewhere on almost every college and university campus in the West, from redrawn curricula fitted to political stances to shout-downs of speakers who challenge the reigning dogmas. Anybody who doesn’t know these figures should make their acquaintance. They have changed the cultural air we breathe.
Why does the rise of political anger in our time coincide neatly with a spike in the gross national ignorance of the past? This question hovers over the book. The beginning of an answer might be found in recognizing a distinction Shapiro observes between knowledge and propaganda and conceding that when the second passes for the first, culture thins, public life degenerates, and the uneducated no longer know what they don’t know. We should also remind ourselves that the highest goal of learning isn’t simply knowledge of the kind that can be quizzed and tested, but deep and sympathetic understanding, which is, intellectually and spiritually speaking, the pearl of great price.
The Right Side of History ought to embolden groups of idealistic young people to meet over coffee or beer to discuss it and challenge one another to see how they can connect every trend they spot around them — on and off campuses, on and off the Internet — to the ideas of the dramatis personae strutting across these pages. This book is food for a generation that has been starved of their birthright as inheritors of a great tradition still capable of helping them navigate the irreducibly hard roads of life.
This article appears as “Rekindling the Flame” in the May 6, 2019, print edition of National Review.