“That ‘conservatives’ today celebrate the book speaks volumes of the leftward drift of conservatism and the confused state of existence conservatism is in.”
Ben Shapiro is a fighter. He was a fighter growing up and a fighter still today. He lives, indeed, thrives, on argument and debate—at least when he thinks he’s winning. Matt McManus is right that fighting polemicists must, someday, turn toward a more vigorous intellectualism. Ben Shapiro’s The Right Side of History is that attempt.
We hear much about the “right side of history” in debate, both political and intellectual. Conservatives, the general wisdom suggests, are on the wrong side of history, while progressives are on the right side of history. Shapiro’s title playfully puns on this received wisdom.
Ben Shapiro’s book tries to do two fundamental things as far as I can tell. First, it offers a defense of Western exceptionalism through the synthesis of Athens and Jerusalem: Greek rationalism and Biblical revelation. Second, it attempts to offer an apologia for modernity—though a very specific conceptualization of modernity.
Misreading Strauss and Misrepresenting “Greek Reason”
The book begins with a rhetorical, if not otherwise brilliantly crafted, tour de force in his introduction on Athens and Jerusalem. Shapiro appeals to the thesis outlined by Leo Strauss, one of the most important classical exegetes and political philosophers of the twentieth century who is, admittedly, a very important influence on me. However, Shapiro fundamentally misunderstands Strauss’ thesis of the relationship of Athens of Jerusalem. He shares, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Christianized (and specifically Catholic) reception of these two traditions mediated through Medieval Scholasticism as exemplified by St. Thomas Aquinas rather than Machiavelli or the Straussians.
There was no benign union of Athens and Jerusalem which made the West great; rather, it was the hostile tension between the two that produced the synthetic outcome of Western greatness.
Tertullian fell out from being a man of the Church, but his rhetorical question, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” meant to separate the two into their respective camps—something that Shapiro does recognize in his reflections on Tertullian, St. Augustine, and Christianity’s, “demot[ing] the role of Greek reason in the life of human beings.” In much the same manner, Strauss’ understanding of the uncompromising tension between Athens and Jerusalem, between the theological and the political (the theologico-political question), was not one of harmonious synthesis but antagonistic dialectic. Strauss was a master of irony, and to fail to see irony in Strauss’ writings and his explanations is to fail to see part of Strauss’ hermeneutical method.
There was no benign union of Athens and Jerusalem which made the West great; rather, it was the hostile tension between the two that produced the synthetic outcome of Western greatness. The two sides are incompatible and conflict with each other regularly, but out of this comes the engine of Western progress. The Catholic Church served as the mediating force keeping the peace between the two cities. It was not, as Shapiro wants to portray an always benign union of the two camps.
For example, Strauss believed it was ironic that the modern left claimed rationality but was moved by the moral spirit of Jerusalem. Kant was not the philosopher of the human heart but the Biblical tradition—which was that pulsating heart that thirsteth after righteousness and the Lord. Pure Greek rationalism was empty materialism; it led to the dog-eat-dog world of Thrasymachus and Machiavelli rather than the compassionate and welfare-oriented world of Christendom (whatever historical faults it had) or even the high-minded Logos philosophy of a sparse handful of Greek philosophers like Anaxagoras, Heraclitus, or Parmenides whom Shapiro hails despite them having been on the losing side of the Greek philosophical struggle.
Greek rationalism, in its materialism, denied Transcendent morality altogether. The few Greek rationalists Shapiro enlists for his thesis paint a terribly misleading picture of the reality of “Greek reason” in the Greek philosophic tradition. To be rational was to be a relativist like Gorgias or Protagoras. The Stoics, whom Shapiro also appeals to, were generally divine materialists but materialists nonetheless. The hyper-rationalism of the stoics, too, all but destroys affectivity and the possibility of joy in favor of dogged and dry seriousness.
Shapiro’s presentation of Greek philosophy is the mythology of Greek philosophy received, ironically, through Christianity. Only a few notables believed in a creator god who infused telos for nature to realize. Most Greek philosophers were decidedly against such a view which is why Plato felt it necessary to confront such empty relativism in the first place. After Plato and Aristotle, most Greek philosophers returned to being skeptical materialists.
The prevalence of skeptical materialists was so great that the Church Fathers took the time to rebut the Greek “academicians.” In The City of God, Augustine, while praising Plato, launches an extensive critique of the insufficiency of Greco-Roman philosophy and the 288 “rational” answers given to the meaning and purpose of life. It is only after the rise of Christianity that a portrait of the golden age of Greek philosophy emerges from men like St. Justin Martyr, Origen, and Augustine crafting positive narratives about Socrates, Plato, and other Platonists to show commonality between a certain strand of Greek thought with Christianity.
As it relates to the natural law, it is also a stretch to suggest that the Greeks, or Cicero, had a formalized a natural law as Shapiro does. Cicero and a few others may have provided the groundwork for it, but that groundwork is minimal and decidedly anti-revelatory. Moreover, the entire dialogue of Timaeus—where one sees a telos and natural law in the received presuppositional lens of Christian natural law—is not so much about cosmos and telos as it is a veiled commentary on the necessity of intertwined togetherness to preserve the political as most of Plato’s dialogues are. Timaeus reveals his hand by stating that the unhealthy man is like the unhealthy polis, “In addition, when men who are constitutionally unsound, as I’ve been describing, live in cities with pernicious political systems.” Plato is actually very vague on the specificities of natural law and his inclusion of something reminiscent of natural law is meant to buttress the political against nihilism and hedonism more than anything else.
Thus, where does this moral law, which Shapiro constantly appeals and refers to, come from? Where is found? Where is it written? According to St. Paul it is written in the hearts of men. According to a few notable outliers in ancient philosophy such as Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero—those luminaries of the Christianized civilization of Athens—it is written on the soul (the intellect) of humans. On the contrary, Kant was not the moral philosopher of the heart; the Christian tradition was the moral theology of the heart. St. Paul, St. John, and St. Peter, the entire New Testament corpus, emphasize the primacy of the heart over the intellect.
After all, Augustine said that the heart was restless for God and could not find joy and rest apart from God. Aquinas appeals to reason and virtue throughout his many writings; this is true, but its end is always moral joy and love of the fully flourishing heart. To know love is the goal of the Christian worldview; that was something otherwise foreign to “Greek reason.” Moreover, that most famous modern conservative—Edmund Burke—stands in the camp of the moral heart that Shapiro criticizes, “Men are not tied to one another by papers and seals. They are led to associate by resemblances, by conformities, by sympathies…They are obligations written in the heart.”
Burke vs. Shapiro
Shapiro devotes little time to Burke in his work. This is understandable given the short length of the book. But every conservative seems obliged to have to say something about Burke to show their conservative bona fides. So Burke emerges with a few passing references in the middle of the book.
Edmund Burke’s conservatism is not the pseudo-conservatism of Shapiro. Burke’s criticism of the French Revolution, revolutionary society, and the Jacobin belief that a perfect constitution could be rationally constructed because reason could allow us to know that absolute good puts Burke on the side of Shapiro. I’ve written on Burke’s constitutional historicity here, so there is little reason to go over that again.
It suffices to say Burke understands the formation of the English constitution as the product of history, the vicissitudes and turbulence of events, and circumstantial realizations of deficiencies rather than a narrow-minded dogmatic defense of absolutist constitutional originalism. As Burke writes, the fragile but beautiful constitutional liberty of the English was the product of, “a great length of time, and by a great variety of accidents.” Speaking of the other constitutional societies throughout Europe threatened by the “rational liberty” of the Jacobins, “Not one of them has been formed upon a regular design or with a unity of plan.”
Furthermore, the ancient liberties and rights that Burke is so keen to defend are appropriate only to the English and not the rest of the world. Burke’s constitutional society is not the product of natural law or Judeo-Christian morality. Burke never once recourses to either notions in Reflections or his Letters on a Regicide Peace. In fact, Burke goes to great lengths in the opening pages of Reflections, in critiquing the abstract universal rationality of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, to show how the English model is the product of history and Protestant exclusivism.
Burke also notes in the “First Letter on a Regicide Peace” that the customs and organic society of Europe was the product of the Christian religion, Roman law, and Gothic traditions. As he also emphatically declares in the same letter, “Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other.” Natural law, Athens, and “Greek reason” need not apply as to what made England and Europe great according to Burke.
Additionally, the liberty of the English Burke so passionately defended was, “the offspring of convention, that convention must be its law.” Burke appeals to history for moral instruction too, “But history in the nineteenth century, better understood and better employed, will, I trust, teach a civilised posterity to abhor the misdeeds of both these barbarous ages.” Reason, for Burke, was insufficient for us to recognize gross barbarism. Reason always ends in the nihilism of force, as was the case with the sophists in ancient Athens as with the Jacobins of revolutionary France.
In the same chapter briefly discussing Burke, Shapiro launches into an assault against Georg Hegel. Hegel gets a bad rap among some conservatives because of his association with Marxism. However, those who are more thoroughly learned in philosophy, especially political philosophy, know that Hegel is among the most preeminent conservative political philosophers. Sir Roger Scruton’s The Meaning of Conservatism demonstrates with far greater intellectual clarity and rigor the conservative impetus and substance to Hegel’s political thought. Any reader of Philosophy of Right will see the quintessential conservative pillars of society: family and civil society leading to the state.
If Shapiro’s criticism of Hegel is that he deifies and mystifies the state, then the same criticism ought to be leveled at Burke and the entire conservative tradition of political philosophy. Burke argues that the love of “forefathers” and “native dignity” leads to a, “reverence to our civil institutions on the principle upon which nature taches us to revere individual men; on account of their age, and on account of those whom they descended.” Burke describes the state and its laws as the product of the, “offspring of convention” and “a great length of time, and by a great variety of accidents” grown forward from having been firmly and deeply implanted in an ancient mystic fog we can never see. Burke’s language is as equally deifying and mystical as Hegel, “Each contracted of each particular state is but a clause in the great primaeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and moral natures, each in their appointed place.”
Appealing to Ciceronian eloquence further, Burke says nothing is more agreeable to God than to be bound to the particular assemblage of states to which one belongs. This is the real Burke which Shapiro ignores, favoring, instead, the cliff notes version of Burke that all “conservatives” know but have never read. The Burke who defended liberty did so on account of history, mysticism, and aesthetics, not rationalism or natural law. Burke also makes clear, “Government is not made in virtue of natural rights.”
Burke tells us that, “[t]he nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity.” Adam Müller, one of the German disciples of Burke, argued that the state and society ,“is the intimate binding together of the entire physical and spiritual needs of a nation…into a great energetic, infinitely active, and living whole.” The simple and reductive story that Shapiro tells may be seductive to the less learned and those who already see him as a sort of prophet. Burke, however, warns us, “When I hear the simplicity of contrivance aimed at and boasted of in any new political constitutions, I am at no loss to decide the artificers are grossly ignorant of their trade.”
Shapiro’s attack on affectivity is, to the Burkean, an assault against the heart of Burke and his entire project—indeed, the very pulsating essence of what drives conservatism onward. “We have real hearts of flesh and blood beating in our bosoms. We fear God: we look up with awe to kings; with affection to parliaments; with duty to magistrates; with reverence to priests, and with respect to nobility. Why? Because when such ideas are brought before our minds, it is natural to be so affected.”
Significantly removed from Burke and the conservative tradition which prizes affectivity over sterile mathematical reasoning, Shapiro’s defense of modernity—and his book is a defense of a certain understanding and vision of modernity—is something that conservatives of yesteryear would have reacted passionately against if not been otherwise skeptical to. That “conservatives” today celebrate the book speaks volumes of the left-ward drift of conservatism and the confused state of existence conservatism is in.
Shapiro pays his homage in a few pages to Burke and Russell Kirk, devotes twice as much time assaulting a misrepresented portrait of Hegel, but those conservatives he pays his homage to, and those whom he irrelevantly assails, are far to the right of him. Near the end of the book Shapiro appeals to us to “learn [our] history” and to love our roots. He falls back in line with traditional conservative thinking here, but not after having done so much (un)intentional harm in the previous 200 pages. It is quite ironic, all things considered, that he ends by appealing to the heart and the mystic chords of memory instead of Greek reason, natural law, or teleology.
The Right Side of History is a seductive tale. Shapiro’s writing is filled with vigor and is believable, especially to the already converted who want their presuppositions confirmed. Those to whom he is responding have also crafted a narrative. It is unsurprising that Shapiro has returned, in kind, with a counter-narrative that also puns on left-wing sensibilities. But his counter-narrative is intellectually misleading and, therefore, paints a misleading portrait of conservatism as found in the annals of philosophy in much the same manner as polemical left-wing critiques do.
Paul Krause is a graduate student in philosophy writing a thesis on the political aesthetics of Edmund Burke and holds an M.A. in theology from Yale and a B.A. in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University. He is an Associate Editor at VoegelinView and contributed to the forthcoming book The College Lecture Today: An Interdisciplinary Defense for the Contemporary University (Lexington Books, 2019).