“Shapiro’s book is a well-written and, at times, moving defense of Western Civilization.”
Ben Shapiro is most well-known for videos on YouTube, often with titles along the lines of “Ben Shapiro DESTROYS [X, Y, or Z].” While I disagree with Shapiro on different policy areas, the undoubted entertainment value of these videos can obscure someone who has a greater depth to his thinking than this suggests and leads to easy caricatures and straw-men that don’t help anyone. Shapiro’s new book is his love-letter to Western civilization and what makes it great. This is juxtaposed to what he views as the threats to this civilization. Overall, I find myself in broad agreement with his thesis: that our civilization is a good (not perfect) thing and we should wish it to continue. There are, however, some notable differences, which stem from our different positions on the Right. While these matter, they do not detract from the fact that we both have a gratitude for what has been handed down to us, and we both have a wish for this to be handed down to those who come after.
As Shapiro argues, we have never enjoyed such a time to be alive. If there were ever a time to spend on this earth, one would wish it to be ours. On nearly every measure of utilitarian life satisfaction, we are better off than ever before. Yet, there is also a sense that there is something deeply wrong…
Shapiro’s thesis revolves around two questions: “Why are things so good?” and “Why are we blowing it?” These two questions are the driving force behind an urgent call to rediscover what it is that made our civilization great, and what we risk losing if we don’t recover. As Shapiro argues, we have never enjoyed such a time to be alive. If there were ever a time to spend on this earth, one would wish it to be ours. On nearly every measure of utilitarian life satisfaction, we are better off than ever before. Yet, there is also a sense that there is something deeply wrong, a sense that there is a hole in our hearts that cannot be filled or satisfied by the latest temporal analgesic for the spiritual void opened within us. The French philosopher Chantal Delsol writes of this sense of absence and directionless loss in her haunting book Icarus Fallen, recounting how we’ve dreamed the dreams of religion, philosophy, utopian ideology and been sent crashing back to earth following the cataclysm of the 20th century, burnt like Icarus. Except we are still alive, so what now?
Shapiro believes that in order to answer this question that arguably underlies his thesis, we need to go back in time and recover the balance between the two pillars of faith and reason that drove the West to become the civilization it can be again, a civilization with the unique ability in Shapiro’s view to “generate the moral purpose that provides the foundation for happiness.” This comprises individual moral purpose, individual capacity to pursue that moral purpose, communal moral purpose, and communal capacity to pursue that purpose. The proper balance between Athens and Jerusalem enables the proper balance in these four elements that allows maximum moral and material flourishing.
In this, we can see the influence of Leo Strauss’s thought on the inevitable tension between reason and faith, Athens and Jerusalem. These two pillars are being eroded by the attacks of various manifestations of modernist ideology, whether from the far-left or far-right. Although they might have their roots in the 19th century, they reached their most violent denouement in the first half of the 20th century. We are now facing a world of increasing material comfort but one of increasingly barren of meaning. As Shapiro argues, we now think we can dispense with faith entirely and rely purely on reason to carry us along as individuals and society. The problem is the religious impulse doesn’t die. We can see this today with the increasing investment in politics as a new procedural religion and identity politics as a new personal religion—or what Shapiro refers to as the new paganism.
Meanwhile, those neo-Enlightenment thinkers like Stephen Pinker and Sam Harris attempt to construct a morality and ethical system that is unavoidably based in the Judeo-Christian tradition while working to undermine the very tradition which has shaped them. All of this combines to leave people feeling bereft of consolation in a seemingly disenchanted world, cut-off from sources of meaning that satisfy the heart’s longing that cannot be fulfilled through greater accumulation of goods on earth and can only be fulfilled in a belief in meaning that lies beyond this world. The differences between Shapiro and I lie in our conceptions of how we got here and where we should go next, and this is what I aim to explore below.
Strauss and the Misuse of History
Shapiro is plainly influenced by Leo Strauss to a great degree, both in his conception of how we think and act in the world, but also in the way he views history and how that influences our time. Strauss was a fervent anti-historicist, which meant that he wished to base modern liberal democracy in supposedly universal principles which stretched back to ancient Greece, culminated in the American Founding, and are applicable and accessible to everyone, anywhere and at anytime. As Grant N. Havers argues in Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy: A Conservative Critique, Strauss believed that liberal democracy should be based in universal accessible principles—not simply derived from a historically contingent and situated tradition. Strauss saw a need to articulate these universal principles and educate others to defend them.
Shapiro adopts a similar position. There is not such an explicit emphasis on the universal applicability of the ideas that made the West what it is in Shapiro’s book, but he still believes in unchanging principles which transcend their time and place—and on which we can draw for inspiration and cultural renewal. In his book, the timeless values that Shapiro aims to recover have been cut-off from the specific context in which they arose. As with Strauss, Shapiro sees all the developments in Western philosophy leading up to humanity’s high-point in the American Founding. However, severing the thinkers and writers that he considers from the time and place they inhabited risks reading into them what we in our own time would wish to find. To read history as a means to confirm one’s own biases is not good history: engaging in teleological bias obscures the contingent nature of time and place and risks sapping the many-layered richness of detail that pertains to these thinkers when this wider context is taken into account. I am not saying that Shapiro entirely ignores the historical context, but he does flatten it and shape it to suit his own ends.
Of course, this is something that we all do to a greater or lesser degree, given we take inspiration from the past to conduct our own lives in the present and are therefore all at risk of picking and choosing what fits with our view of the world, biased as it is by our flawed nature. We are all situated beings, as George Scialabba puts it, and we all occupy a time and place of our own. However, these situated lives are linked to what has gone before and those who preceded us by the chords that bind us together and which reverberate up and down the years, weaving together to create what I’ve called the song of human experience, grounded in the sacred and expressed through culture. To pretend that the song today is the same song that was sung 2,500 years ago is mistaken, just as it is also wrong to claim that it is completely different. Strauss’s and Shapiro’s view of history leans too much towards the uniformity of the melody of our civilization and doesn’t allow for the variation over time and place that gives it a greater sense of depth.
This decoupling of ideas from their time and place finds its reflection in a view of humanity that sees people as isolated, individual atoms who are born into a fictitious state of nature only mitigated and ended by contractual relations. There are no pre-rational sources of loyalty to family or locality that ground existence itself and provide the way to the good life based in reciprocal right and duties to others, in communities who share a common tradition. Instead, I would argue the anti-historicist stance adopted by Strauss and adhered to by Shapiro actually encourages the very thing Shapiro wishes to prevent, namely the individual who views existence as an infinite buffet of lifestyle choices, living in an eternal present that takes no account of the importance of the past, the responsibility in the present to conserve what has been handed down to those yet to come.
Instead, if we can all have access to eternal principles uprooted from their time and place, why should we pay any attention to what allowed us to live as we do, or show appreciation and humility for what has brought us to this point? Why should we feel a need to continue our civilization? If there is no connection to a situated past that means something to us now, when and where we are, why should we care about the future? The sense of being in a tradition that is rooted in the sacred—and which provides a sense of continuity grounded in a sense of place and common culture—is arguably undermined by this position on history. This undermining of Shapiro’s defense of what made the West is reflected in the separation of Reason from Revelation.
Strauss and the struggle between Reason and Revelation
Alongside his concurrence with Strauss’s view of history and his repudiation of historical contingency, Shapiro’s thesis also follows Strauss’s opposing of faith and reason. The contrast of revelation and reason, which Shapiro relies on throughout the book, arguably creates a distinction which was never there in the first place. As Paul R. Dehart writes, “Strauss’s claim that revelation and philosophy cannot refute each other depends upon a conception of faith as the rejection of reason and knowledge.” For Strauss, faith relies on revealed truth, while, “Philosophy is essentially not possession of the truth, but the quest for the truth.”
The center of Strauss’s approach to philosophy, as laid out in “What is Political Philosophy?” is that the philosopher knows he knows nothing; this seems to contradict the point Shapiro is trying to argue that we build our lives on the inheritance of those gone before. Strauss makes an incoherent claim, which comprises the same failing as the claim that there is no absolute truth except the truth that undergirds that claim, or that everything is relative except the one absolute that supports that relativity. As Dehart writes, “It is in fact impossible for anyone to know that he knows nothing. If the philosopher knows that he knows nothing, then he knows it. In which case, he knows something. In which case, it is not the case that the philosopher knows nothing … So if the philosopher knows that he knows nothing, then, necessarily, it is not the case that he knows nothing.”
In adopting this approach, Strauss appears to be falling back on a strategy of radical Cartesian doubt allied to a certainty about the veracity of that doubt, applied to thought and reality itself. As Rene Descartes (1596-1650) said, he prepared himself to create his new way of doing philosophy by, “rooting out of my mind all the false opinions that had been instilled into me earlier.” Shapiro offers qualified praise of Descartes for his work in driving forward the philosophy which would further the development of the science that made our world. However, while Shapiro notes that the Cartesian way of thinking eventually fed into the decline of religion, by employing the Straussian opposition of religion and reason, he arguably falls into the trap where Cartesian philosophy led, namely the isolated individual, capable of thinking new things divorced by the time and tradition that inevitably shaped his thinking.
Descartes thought it necessary to, “rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted up to then, and to begin afresh from the foundations, if I wished to establish something firm and constant in the sciences.” Strauss’s approach, in which Shapiro engages in as well, echoes this. It creates a cave of his own making which he has to work his way out of through the use of his virgin mind, unencumbered by memory of the past of the instructive remnants of tradition, or of experience as a means of gaining knowledge or wisdom. This virginal state of mind that Strauss thought was the key to being a philosopher does not exist—and never did. It is equally as false as Descartes saying, “I think, therefore I am” as a way of sloughing all prior knowledge and ways of thinking in order to start from scratch, to create a blank state based in a blank slate of the mind. This is impossible and undermines the coherence of Shapiro’s argument concerning the traditions we build on in tension with some separate and oppositional reason.
As Mark T. Mitchell demonstrates in his book, The Limits of Liberalism: Tradition, Individualism and the Crisis of Freedom, reason is nested inside tradition, which acts as an icon that points to an ultimate metaphysical reality accessible through tradition-imprinted reason. This is precisely the opposite of what Shapiro argues when he posits reason as the opposite of tradition. Through analysis of the thought of Michael Oakeshott, Alasdair Macintyre and Karl Polanyi, Mitchell makes the point that one cannot separate reason from tradition. This, therefore, further suggests that the dichotomy between faith and reason as espoused by Strauss and Shapiro is false. Mitchell employs the work of these three thinkers to demonstrate the ways of being and knowing inherent to us as people.
Oakeshott offered a defense of tradition revolving around its “epistemic function.”For Oakeshott, tradition cannot simply be reduced to a set of principles, to “timeless truths”; tradition instead revolves around “practice.” In sum, tradition is, “those assumptions, habits, customs, and procedures that provide us with the conceptual framework by which we engage the world.” Given the lack of an ability to distinguish between moral and immoral traditions inherent to Oakeshott’s idealist emphasis on coherence, he was criticized for simply being a proponent of the status quo—and also proposing a form of relativism. However, as Mitchell argues, Oakeshott was attempting to demonstrate how we think and the ways we do this. Strauss and Shapiro conceive of the mind in its use of reason as something neutral applied to various problems. According to Oakeshott, this isn’t possible for, “We see the world through the tradition into which we have been inculcated. We can do nothing else. Therefore, the resources afforded us by our tradition are the only tools available to us.”
Oakeshott, therefore, provides a strong critique of the rationalist conceit that imagines the human mind as an impartial agent, which can stand “on its own” before reality. As Oakeshott argues, the emphasis on “universal reason” and a set of rules, free of bias, to guide our thinking forgets that moral ideals cannot be anything other than embedded in religious and social traditions. As Mitchell puts it, Rationalists from Descartes to Strauss wish to “delink” themselves from the particularities through which they encounter the world. Again, this is not something that can be done and to suggest that you can separate reason from the tradition which it inhabits, as Shapiro attempts to do, is flawed.
Mitchell then considers the work of Alasdair MacIntyre to develop further the argument that rationality depends on tradition. For MacIntyre, our ability to know is bound to a pre-existing order that is prior to our thinking and acting. In his work, MacIntyre considers the way in which we judge different traditions. According to MacIntyre, though we are bound by our own traditions, those particularities still allow us to comprehend and gain access to truths beyond any one tradition: the universal is accessed through the particular. As Gerald Russello writes, “It is that commonality in objective truth that makes development within, and communication between, cultures possible.” For MacIntyre, tradition is not something self-contained but has moral foundations. Shapiro echoes MacIntyre here, as they both argue that what is good for the human person is ultimately an internal moral good. Moral goods are bound up with virtue, itself the various forms of excellence that it is our purpose to achieve—what the Greeks called our telos. For MacIntyre, as for Shapiro, this is how we judge whether someone has been a good person and lived a good life. All traditions, no matter their differences, grow from an articulation of what it means to be good. However, this again points to a contradiction in Shapiro’s work: if MacIntyre is right, then the separation of reason from tradition is a mistaken one, which lends itself to an undermining of the very moral order Shapiro supports.
Mitchell finally turns to Karl Polanyi. Like MacIntyre and Oakeshott, Polanyi does not think standing outside a given tradition is possible. What is possible is knowledge of an objective reality, something that Shapiro also agrees with. However, that this is mediated by the particular is not something Shapiro believes. Polanyi places greater emphasis on tacit knowledge and argues that knowing occurs in a from–to structure. As Mitchell puts it, “We know by referring from a collection of subsidiaries to the object of our explicit attention.” Tradition constitutes the complex array of unspoken or tacit concepts, beliefs, and perceptions that weave together and which allow us to know and understand a greater whole. Knowledge of our metaphysical reality is the sum of its unspoken and unformulated parts. According to Polanyi, we can’t fully remove ourselves from our traditions and simultaneously remain rational beings. This is diametrically opposed to Shapiro’s conception of reason and revelation. The modern attempt to throw out tradition, and Shapiro’s Straussian attempt to divorce faith from reason is destined to fail. If it were ever fully accomplished, we would have no way to make sense of the world, each other or ourselves. We would, as Mitchell writes, “find ourselves little more than prerational, prelinguistic brutes. Emancipation from tradition is, in reality, emancipation from humanity.”
The fusion of traditional morality to a libertarian conception of autonomy is inherently contradictory. It ultimately risks leaving us severed from our past, severed from each other, and uncaring of the future.
The idea that Strauss has, then, of “unassisted” Reason being the basis of political philosophy, the principles of which stretch from Plato and Aristotle up to their fruition in the American Founding is a faulty way of seeing things; there is no such thing as a neutral, reasoning mind that exists outside a tradition. This is a referentially incoherent concept and stems from a faulty Cartesian view of the world. This is where I believe Shapiro runs into a problem as well: he contrasts faith and reason, arguing that the tension between them characterizes Western history and the balance of which guarantees civilizational success. However, if reason (and knowing itself), inhabits the world made by tradition, which is itself grounded in a conception of the sacred that Shapiro agrees holds the idea of an objective reality together, is he not engaging in the very modernist trend towards cutting man off from the well of faith that he is decrying? It was fine for Strauss to attempt this: he was a secular thinker who wasn’t convinced of the necessity of faith as an agent for philosophy. However, Shapiro seems to want it both ways, and I’m not sure how it can work.
Shapiro’s book is a well-written and, at times, moving defense of Western Civilization. There are many challenges that we face which need discussion, argument and debate in order to solve or at least mitigate. While we both agree on the value of what we have, and the need for this to continue, there are significant disagreements between us on how it came about.
Our view of history and its relation to our own time is based in different world views, Straussian versus Burkean, the timeless and universal versus the historical and the situated. Shapiro’s attempt to delink the thoughts and ideas from their time and place drains them of their richness but also risks emphasizing the idea that one exists in the eternal now, with nothing tying one’s life to what went before or will come after.
This view of our place in history, or lack of one, is reflected in the opposition of Reason and Revelation. This distinction is arguably false, as we inhabit a tradition which inevitably and indelibly shapes how we think and view the world and our place in it. Reason itself is, therefore, nested inside a perception-shaping tradition. The opposing of Reason and Revelation, the idea that we can strip away all residue of our traditions and view the world anew, arguably undermines bonds that hold us together and which shape us as situated individuals. This risks damaging what Shapiro sees as the ties that bind us together that are woven by God.
Having read his book, I worry that in trying to mend our societies in this way, Shapiro might contribute to the very forces that are dividing and cutting us off from one another. The fusion of traditional morality to a libertarian conception of autonomy is inherently contradictory. It ultimately risks leaving us severed from our past, severed from each other, and uncaring of the future. We will be left homeless, trapped in our wintry solitudes, left bereft of consolation as the contradictions in our ideas continue to come apart along with our culture. This is something we should wish to avert. Shapiro should be commended for the attempt, but it is one in which he hasn’t quite succeeded.
Henry George is a freelance writer living in the UK. He holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London.