“But there are times in every polemicist’s career when he must take a genuine stab at intellectual respectability, put away sloganeering and manic hyperbole and see not through the dark lens of partisanship, but grasp the complex world as it truly is.”
Before getting into the meat of this review, I must admit to never paying much attention to Ben Shapiro until quite recently. He struck me as the latest in a long line of conservative pundits going back to William F. Buckley to launch a career as a polemicist by criticizing academia for its alleged and real left and liberal biases. Was he more articulate than some? Sure. But he was also prone to his share of hyperbole and philosophical vagaries. The subjects of his early books, with cute titles like Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences Americans and How to Debate Leftists and Destroy Them, seemed closer to Anne Coulter or pre-Trump Glenn Beck than Russell Kirk.
But there are times in every polemicist’s career when he must take a genuine stab at intellectual respectability, put away sloganeering and manic hyperbole and see not through the dark lens of partisanship, but grasp the complex world as it truly is. Shapiro’s The Right Side of History is a major effort in that direction, 200-plus pages analyzing the history of Western thought to answer two fundamental questions: Why are things so good? And why are we blowing it?
As Shapiro opines, never before in history has a civilization enjoyed such benefits as ours in the 21st century, and yet there is a widespread sense that society is getting worse—and the ties that bind us are eroding. Shapiro’s central thesis is that the fundamental pillars of Western civilization are faith in Biblical revelation and an emphasis on Greek reason and natural law. Following the German émigré Leo Strauss’s seminal thesis, Shapiro regards the twin influences of Jerusalem and Athens as responsible for the moral and material prosperity of the West. Unfortunately, we are forgetting and even eroding these pillars under the influence of the modernist thinking of various leftist groups. These left-wing efforts have resulted in the “end of progress,” including spurring the emergence of the “so-called” alt-right. As Shapiro puts it:
“So, has the vision of the cultural Left provided fulfillment? It’s provided solipsism for sure. But it’s also provide polarization. It’s not merely that intersectionality has carved off individuals into racial groups, then pitted them against one another. Racial solidarity among members of the intersectional coalition has also driven reverse racial solidarity from the so-called alt-right—a group of racists who have sought to promote white pride.…The cultural Left’s view of reality has driven anger and hatred—polls show that Americans are more divided than ever. That sense that the world is spinning out of control only feeds into intersectionality’s attack on agency. Individuals’ capacity has been abandoned in this worldview—individuals, after all, are mere creations of the systems into which they have been born. Collective purpose, too, has gone by the wayside—after all, it’s the system keeping you down.”
These are flamboyant accusations to lay at the feet of intersectionality and other left-wing concepts, and it would take a pretty rigorous and convincing book to sell them beyond the already converted. Unfortunately, Shapiro, despite a promising start, ultimately can’t help but fall into rhetorical excess, misrepresentation, and over-simplification. This blunts the impact of his overall argument and renders it a middling text at best, even next to more solid conservative critiques of modernity offered by contemporary figures like Patrick Deneen and Yoram Hazony.
The Crooked Timber of History
The Right Side of History begins with an introduction outlining the four elements necessary to “generate the moral purpose that provides the foundation for happiness.” These are individual moral purpose, individual capacity to pursue that moral purpose, communal moral purpose, and communal capacity to pursue that purpose. For Shapiro, these elements are “crucial”; the only foundation for a successful civilization lies in a careful balance of these four elements. He then goes on to seek to demonstrate why Western civilization developed to balance properly these elements through the providential synthesis of Biblical revelation and Greek reason.
The following three chapters of Shapiro’s book concern how this synthesis came to be. They are also the most convincing. He begins with a lengthy analysis of the emergence of the Judeo-Christian tradition, beginning with the revelation at Sinai in approximately 1313 B.C. and carrying forward to the emergence of Christianity out of the Jewish tradition. There are some errors here and there; for instance, Shapiro ignores debate about whether it was likely Zoroastrianism and not Judaism which first developed monotheism. But, generally, Shapiro makes the solid point that the belief in a singular God which imbued human life and history with purpose was seminally important in the emergence of Western civilization.
The text then moves on to discussing the contributions of Greek reason and is similarly convincing. Shapiro observes that the Greek thinkers believed that a “designer” deity has ascribed a telos to human life which could be apprehended through reason. They discovered the proper form of political life by maintaining that the telos of human kind was to become virtuous, which necessitated a form of government free of tyranny and the violation of virtue. As with his analysis of the Biblical tradition, a fair bit is sanded over here. Little attention is paid to the Greeks’ elitist belief in the inhumanity of the “barbarians” or Aristotelian doctrines about “natural slaves.” These gaps will become problematic later in his interpretation of the defects of modernism relative to classical thought.
Chapter Four then nicely brings the two traditions together in an erudite treatment of the scholastic tradition, albeit with some politically correct moments. In one amusingly telling moment, Shapiro tries to make the case that Christian leaders in the eighth century were “crusading” against enslavement—except when they sought to enslave Muslim war captives. However, Shapiro’s analysis is generally a readable, though slight, contribution to an honorable tradition of contemporary political theory in the vein of Strauss and Macintyre.
The more serious problems with the book come in its latter two thirds, which deal with the emergence of modernism. As will become obvious later on, Shapiro regards modernity as a regression from the glories of antiquity through Medieval scholasticism. He has a few kind words to say about early modern and some Enlightenment thinkers, such as Locke and Adam Smith. However, he is notably selective in which of their doctrines he admires—praising their support for capitalism and private property while ignoring their deepening epistemic skepticism and nominalism, without ever examining how the latter might have contributed to the former.
Immanuel Kant is almost comically misinterpreted as founding moral logic in the “human heart.” This would have amused the Prussian philosopher, who continuously stressed that duty must be done whether it makes one happy or not.
This is, of course, a major oversight, since it is precisely Smith’s growing belief that in the implausibility of classical and religious explanations for human behavior that motivated him to stress moderated self-interest as the new root for social organization. Shapiro also praises the founding of America while brushing over its major tensions, suggesting for instance that men like Jefferson and Madison knew that slavery was a great evil. There is little acknowledgement that their failure to act on this realization destabilized the American polity and led to violent civil war and centuries of racial oppression. One is baffled at how all this is given a politically correct whitewash here, but 21st century intersectionality is to blame for racial polarization and even the rise of the alt-right.
Unfortunately, things only get worse as the book goes on. Shapiro has an admirably sophisticated understanding of religious and classical thought, and his passion for those traditions shines through in the book. This care does not extend to his treatment of later thinkers, many of whom are crudely dismissed and even blatantly misrepresented. Shapiro caricatures Spinoza, author of the Ethics, as “disparaging the very notion of ‘good or bad.’” This is not at all true; Spinoza’s crime was to redefine good and bad in a manner Shapiro doesn’t care for and to argue for the salience of this redefinition over the course of hundreds of pages. Immanuel Kant is almost comically misinterpreted as founding moral logic in the “human heart.” This would have amused the Prussian philosopher, who continuously stressed that duty must be done whether it makes one happy or not. Indeed, an act undertaken purely because it brought happiness to the human heart could never be considered truly moral.
There is the blatantly simplistic misreading of Karl Marx—seemingly a must for contemporary conservative polemicists—where Shapiro claimed that for Marx ,“the value of a product could be measured by its ‘socially necessary labor time,’” which, of course, ignores the immense dialectical complexities traced out even in the first chapter of Capital between exchange value and use value. Max Weber, who chimed in in The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that modernity would be an “iron cage” of rule by bureaucratic “specialists without spirit, sensualists without soul,” is accused of “reverence” for bureaucracy. Poor Sigmund Freud’s ideas aren’t even summarized, just subjected to the withering argument that he was a “charlatan” and then ignored after half a page. And the hits go on.
It is not that modernity should be insulated from criticism—many political theorists and philosophers have made astute criticisms of it—but Shapiro’s interpretation of modernity’s major figures is so skewed that it shows a lack of respect for the richness of the Western tradition he claims to revere. Shapiro’s history of modern philosophy is a politically correct fudge which mutates from tragedy to comedy when he discusses how all this contributed to the rise of the “modern American left.” He insists that modern leftists are effectively neo-pagans in their insistence that there are no “objective moral standards, progression in history” or free choice. This is insulting to pagan thinkers—including the Greeks, one might add—whose views were actually quite varied and is head-scratching as a label for the contemporary Left. Shapiro’s reading of this is shocking in its crudeness. The thinkers in the Frankfurt school apparently supported unbridled “Dionysian paganism,” supporting easy sex and cultural rebellion. Little attention is paid to Adorno and Horkheimer’s relentless critiques of hedonistic culture and their insistence that capitalism was establishing a society in which all barriers to the pursuit of instrumental desire were being overthrown.
It is unsurprising Shapiro doesn’t acknowledge these arguments since his own anti-consumeristic moralism might, therefore, clash with his consistent support for capitalist markets; he might actually have to consider that the most powerful economic system the world has yet seen might play a role in the vulgarization of culture he detests. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, which has become a useful analytical tool in analyzing barriers to agency among different groups, becomes a philosophical trope to suggest one can only ever be a victim determined by social circumstance. Martin Luther King Jr.’s critiques of capitalism are ignored to paint him as a proponent of American religiosity and optimism. Moreover, the result of all these misrepresented ideas has apparently been the erosion of Western greatness and the apparent dissolution of the social fabric. The long American history of racial intolerance, greater economic precarity resulting from neoliberal policies, the destabilization of identity resulting from globalization, and anger at the political marginalization of the average citizen in favor of the affluent are all apparently minor social processes next to university professors preaching contempt for Western civilization.
Conclusion: The Unbearable Lightness of Argument
These historical errors are fairly slight next to the most pressing problem with the book: its surprising lack of argumentation. For all of Shapiro’s distaste for modernism, his work is very much a product of that situation. Its primary argument for belief in Judeo-Christian revelation and Greek reason would be unrecognizable to Plato or Maimonides. There is no argument concerning why the Judeo-Christian God exists and no elaborate discussion on how the Greek mode of reasoning presents a more accurate vision of the world as it is than the modern one. Instead, there is an insistence that not believing in the Judeo-Christian God and ceasing to adhere to the Greek mode of reasoning has produced bad results, which looks a great deal like an argument for “pragmatism,” which Shapiro claims to disdain. Even if this were true, it would settle little. As Strauss himself pointed out in his book Natural Right and History:
“A wish is not a fact. Even by proving that a certain view is indispensable for living well, one proves merely that the view in question is a salutary myth: one does not prove it to be true. Utility and truth are two entirely different things.”
Even if Shapiro had proven that modernism and its leftist variations made it more difficult to live well, it would not prove the underlying philosophical assumptions were true. If the moral claim that the non-existence of God made it impossible to believe human life and history had a purpose turned out to be true, that would not mean we could move from such a moral claim to an ontological one about whether God actually exists. If it turned out that the reasoning of the Greeks made it easier to be happy and virtuous, that would not independently show that the Greek view of reason reflected the real world more accurately. This is the fundamental problem in Shapiro’s outlook. His moral condemnation of modern philosophy condemns it for producing conclusions and affiliated consequences he does not like, without actually engaging with the arguments of those figures that their conclusions simply reflected how the world is.
Some of them were even deeply unhappy about this, including figures like Kant and Nietzsche, who were deeply concerned that the proofs they leveled against the existence of God might lead to moral and social tensions. In his Vocation lectures, Max Weber acknowledged that modernity destroyed the sacred belief systems which brought a kind of stability to earlier “traditional” societies. He, nonetheless, accepted that modern thinking had devastated the epistemological and ontological arguments supporting those sacred belief systems and the processes which developed out of that thinking were having dramatic consequences across the globe. This included the leveling and desacralizing impact of modern capitalization.
Weber was, therefore, faced with a choice between facing up to the occasionally bleak but exhilarating modern world or retreating to the Churches. This gives Weber’s work a tragic realism that is entirely lacking in Shapiro, who wants to blame everything he dislikes on expedient targets and caricatured villains. This ultimately makes The Right Side of History an unconvincing read, unlikely to reach anyone but the already converted. There is certainly room for solid conservative critiques of modernity, and some of the better ones reflect on problems—like secularization—which are frequently ignored by progressives. But they would need to be carried out in much better faith and with less partisan intention than Shapiro’s book.
Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf