Socrates was executed by democratic Athens for impiety and corrupting the youth. Western political philosophy can be said to originate from this event perhaps more than from any other. Socrates’ execution made him a martyr for the philosophical way of life, a bulwark against the conformity demanded by political life. Jesus was executed by imperial Rome for crimes against the state and was condemned by the Sanhedrin for impiety: for being the king of the Jews and for claiming to be the Messiah, respectively. These two martyrs are the heart and soul of the two foundations of the Western tradition: Athens and Jerusalem, a framing first coined by the early Church historian Tertullian. Athens, in this framework, does not refer to the rich, diverse and tumultuous political and intellectual tradition, ranging from Thales through Aristotle and Epicurus to Zeno. Rather, Athens represents the philosophical examination of ideas using reason and is, almost universally in this account, associated with the writings of Plato and Aristotle. Jerusalem represents the revealed laws of Moses and the Jewish tradition and, perhaps, its Roman variant, Christianity. This framing is at the center of Ben Shapiro’s new book, The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great.
Shapiro argues that the western tradition is, essentially, a series of variations on the theme of Athens and Jerusalem. His motivation for writing the book, he tells us, is that we’ve abandoned the moral purpose revealed to us from Jerusalem and have chosen to elevate the passionate (or irrational) facets of our nature to the detriment of reason. He lays out four categories of happiness: individual moral purpose, individual capacity, collective moral purpose and collective capacity. He uses these categories to a greater or lesser extent throughout the text, but his primary assertion is that even those categories are inadequate without the revelation provided by the Jewish tradition and the reason provided by the Platonic tradition. So, while this quadrant system might seem like a methodological tool for evaluation, it is really used to illustrate the deficiencies of any system not founded upon the dual pillars of Jerusalem and Athens. His account, which draws heavily on the work of political philosopher Leo Strauss, falls within the conservative critique of modernity. Ultimately, Shapiro’s animated efforts to defend the Western tradition from attacks on these two pillars fall prey to his polemical style. The fire which animates this text provides more heat than light.
In order to provide a defense of the west, by which Shapiro seems to mean the western tradition—not just the various peoples, cultures and states of Europe and its descendants—he provides an introduction to the history of western political philosophy. This is no easy task, particularly for a slender volume, shy of 290 pages, including bibliography and footnotes. Shapiro feels that our current society is rudderless, painfully aware of its aimlessness but desperate to ignore this pain: “Facts have been buried to make way for feelings; a society of essential oils and self-esteem has replaced a society of logic.” This kind of rhetorical flourish reminds the reader that this isn’t a work meant to enlighten us about the Enlightenment. As the echo of Shapiro’s famous catch phrase, facts don’t care about your feelings, suggests, this is a polemical text, designed to defend the tradition and attack those who insult or assault that tradition: “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 those foundations even exist.”
The rest of the book lays out a series of textual interpretations, which define the central tenets of those foundations, which Shapiro identifies as the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Greek tradition of natural law. Many of his interpretations read things into the work of certain thinkers, adding what he needs to find there, instead of examining what they actually say. Take his treatment of John Locke. Shapiro needs Locke to be part of what he considers the positive side of the Enlightenment—instead of the bad side, which, for him, includes Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and most modern social scientists. Of these, Rousseau gets the most negative press. This places this work well within a traditional conservative framework.
This places Shapiro’s work, again, well within a traditional conservative framework. But Shapiro goes further than this: he flattens essential tensions within the tradition. For example, Locke frequently uses Biblical passages in ways that subvert traditional interpretations. He does this because his political aim was to undermine the divine right of kings and provide a foundation for a new kind of republicanism, one that was commercial in nature, rather than based on the martial virtues of the ancient republics. Shapiro glosses over these tensions completely. Some of this can be attributed to the brevity of Shapiro’s book—but not all. His approach is unsurprising since he places revelation above reason. When God has shown you the best way for human beings to live, any tensions surrounding this question must be reconciled to the given answer: they cannot provide an answer which trumps that of God. Therefore, to salvage John Locke for the purposes of his larger project, Shapiro minimizes or disregards these intractable tensions.
Another example of this is to be found in Shapiro’s explanation of how the two foundations of Jerusalem and Athens came to be transformed into Judeo-Christian morality and Platonic philosophy even though Christianity, from its conception, was a fraught combination of Jerusalem and Athens. Shapiro treats Christianity as if it were merely Judaism 2.0, a re-calibrated variant of Judaism designed to win over the pagans. In this, Shapiro agrees with Nietzsche, the philosopher who provides the most profound critique of Shapiro’s perspective. And yet Nietzsche is given so little space in this text that one might be forgiven for mistaking college students yelling about pronouns or Democrats demanding bakers make gay wedding cakes for the true enemy. This is a consequence of Shapiro’s polemical style, but also of his failure to see the value of those irreconcilable tensions between Jerusalem and Athens. Shapiro pays rhetorical lip service to such tensions early in the text, but dissolves them away within a few pages, making it very difficult to distinguish between the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas and that of the American founders, since both reconcile Jerusalem with Athens. He also presents the founding of the United States as almost a kind of Christianity 2.0 instead of—more plausibly—Rome 3.0 (in the tradition, the Roman Senatorial regime, with its mixing of regime types, is used as justification for the British mixed regime system of King, Lords and Commons; both weighed heavily on the creation of the American constitutional order). He also asserts that even modern science has its foundations in the Judeo-Christian/Athenian system which, of course, raises the question of why he doesn’t believe Enlightenment values to be worthwhile? Aren’t those values a continuation of the values of Maimonides and Aquinas? Shapiro’s rhetoric seems to indicate as much.
This lack of distinctions undermines his project because the book omits the most important element that distinguishes modernity from the medieval world and from antiquity: tolerance. Tolerance is, functionally speaking, the ethical mirror of skepticism. Because we are unsure as to the nature of the good human life, or the danger which arises in prioritizing one claim on the good life over another, liberal societies have chosen pluralism as their guiding political philosophy. At the heart of pluralism is the principle of tolerance. Tolerance requires a kind of perpetual doubt which is why it should be no surprise that it emerged from the skepticism of the Enlightenment. Shapiro barely mentions tolerance, failing to recognize its centrality to the modern, Enlightenment project. He grants very little credit to the revolutionary ideas of the Enlightenment, including the moral justification for revolution and a new understanding of liberty. Therefore, when Shapiro does mention tolerance it is either merely in a passing nod to its existence or in a disapproving tone, since he sees in toleration only the slippery slope to moral relativism. This can, once again, be largely explained by Shapiro’s disregard of the tensions at the heart of the western intellectual tradition. Jerusalem and Athens make far more competing claims than complementary ones about the nature of the good life, the role of philosophy, the nature of the human soul and the nature of God. But therein lies the great strength of the tradition: it is a dialogue. It is Moses arguing with God. It is Socrates gadflying his way to immortality. It is, as Aristotle writes in his Metaphysics, our longing, our yearning, to know. Tolerance saves us from the excesses of our prejudices and ignorance. It is not without cost, as Shapiro demonstrates—but that’s true of any moral choice. There’s no such thing as a free moral lunch.
It is to Shapiro’s credit that he is forcing us to engage with these thinkers and their ideas. Most people who buy the book will do so because of his polemics and conservative policy goals, and because of the concerns he raises about the nature of social justice, the purpose of the university and the good of the western tradition. These are beneficial topics to discuss. But such discussion is hindered by Shapiro’s style, which is more fiery polemic than dispassionate illumination. We cannot effectively respond to the challenge to the Western tradition from postmodernism and the rise of a semi-illiberal post-liberalism by merely dissolving the tensions which preceded postmodernism and its critique of the modern project.
Shapiro often acts as if political conservatism were, in itself, a defense of the western tradition. If we strip away polemics, however, we might achieve the more noble goal of introducing (or re-introducing) into public discussion the tensions which exist within the western tradition and illuminating the ways in which those tensions mirror the human condition. For it is here, at these points of tension, where the tradition has its greatest value. Unfortunately, Ben Shapiro’s polemical text overshadows that nobler goal. Shapiro’s criticism of the ancient Greeks provides a fitting summary of his own book: “Some of their ideas … were good; others were bad.”