The Right Side of History—A Review
Ben Shapiro (wikicommons)

The Right Side of History—A Review

Jared Marcel Pollen
Jared Marcel Pollen
10 min read

In the prologue to his epic poem Paradise Lost, John Milton wrote that the purpose of the book was to “justify the ways of God to men.” The story, in other words, would be a dramatization of theodicy, a key question of the Enlightenment that would clearly demarcate the intellectual and moral boundaries between the traditional religious morality of some thinkers and the emergent secular ethics of others. Paradise Lost, which was first published in 1667, in many ways anticipated one of the biggest philosophical problems of the eighteenth century, and its protagonist, Lucifer, is arguably its finest exemplar.

Lucifer is the archetype of man at the edge of modernity, stranded in a Godless void, facing the abyss, with only his reason to understand himself and his new position in the natural order. Milton contrived to portray Lucifer as a proud and spiteful figure—his reason was merely an instrument to rationalize his hatred. But something happened that Milton either didn’t expect or could not foresee; his villain would become the most compelling character in the story. Despite his best efforts, Milton’s depiction of God appeared tyrannous and Lucifer proved the wiser of the two, inadvertently undermining the author’s own agenda.

Ben Shapiro’s book, The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great, relies heavily on the Miltonian conceit that the use of Reason alone, absent God’s moral law and universal will, dooms us to live in the abyss. And, like Milton, Shapiro’s attempt to demonstrate that secular civilization needs to rekindle the Judeo-Christian teachings upon which it is based, inadvertently shows us why we were right to leave them behind in the first place.

Drawing on an antagonism first sketched by Leo Strauss, Shapiro argues the twin pillars of Western society are Judeo-Christian moral law and Greek scientific reasoning: Jerusalem and Athens. Both are essential to the structure of our civilization, and removing either pillar will collapse it:

The USSR rejected Judeo-Christian values and Greek natural law… and they starved and slaughtered tens of millions of human beings. The Nazis rejected Judeo-Christian values and Greek natural law, and they shoved children into gas chambers.

This is the central thesis of the book, which is in many ways a brief history of Western philosophy. Narratively, the book is a bit neat. It draws clear A-to-Bs between every idea and its adoption. If you want to understand any historical event or societal shift, all you need to do is look for the philosopher whose ideas will lead you there. The history of ideas is rarely that simple. In that sense it underestimates the ways in which history is—to use a term I suspect Shapiro will hate—dialectical. Still, Shapiro shows that his reading is equal in width and depth. The book is impressively researched and thorough in the places it wishes to be. But it glosses in others.

For example, in order to fully make a case for the necessity of Jerusalem, Shapiro first has to rig up an argument for why Greek ethics alone are insufficient, despite the overwhelming superiority of Athenian civilization over anything produced in ancient Judea. This requires some retroactive fiddling with the concept of the telos. “The ancients,” Shapiro writes, “realized that any theory of telos had to rely on the presence of a designer. As such, they were philosophical monotheists, even if there were religious polytheists.” This conflation allows us to read an Unmoved Mover or a Divine Will into Greek philosophy, making it easier to fuse Reason and scientific investigation with the worship of God, whose will is manifested in all things: If you want to know God, study nature. This was Thomas Aquinas’s argument, and Shapiro cannot be blamed for finding it agreeable—most thinkers did until the Enlightenment.

This also allows Shapiro to skirt the obvious hostility the church showed toward intellectual inquiry for centuries. Shapiro writes as if the church had never banned a book or burned a heretic:

Contrary to popular opinion, new discoveries weren’t invariably seen as heretical or dangerous to the dominion of the Church; in fact, the Church often supported scientific investigation.

The Church was indeed the only place where any kind of inquiry could be conducted at the time. It was the only place where people were literate and enjoyed steady funding and access to instruments. But the Church only encouraged inquiry to the extent that it could reinforce and expand its own doctrine, which is a bit like the state telling you that you are free to make whatever art you like, just as long as you don’t criticize the regime. The first major scientific challenge to the Church was heliocentrism. But Shapiro claims this was hardly an issue: “Nicolas Copernicus studied in parochial school and served the Church of Warmia as medical advisor; his publication of De revolutionibus… in March 1542, included a letter to Pope Paul III.”

In fact, Copernicus had finished his treatise years earlier (there are records indicating that the manuscript had been completed as early as the 1530s), but he withheld it, aware that its publication could be life-threatening, and circulated only a few anonymous copies to his close friends. The book was only published in its entirety on the eve of Copernicus’s death, and the letter to the pope, which was also anonymous, was not written by Copernicus, but by Andreas Osiander, a Lutheran preacher who had been given the job of overseeing the book’s publication. It was an attempt to soften the blow, and states, inter alia, that the author’s findings are only meant to aid the computation of the heavens, and do not even need to be considered true in order for the calculations to be useful.

The Church would continue to uphold the geocentric model for at least another 150 years, and wouldn’t get around to officially pardoning Galileo until 1992. However, Shapiro claims the persecution of Galileo was merely a PR move by the Church; an attempt to crack down on dissent in response to Protestant accusations of leniency and hypocrisy. The trial of Galileo also saw dozens of astronomical works, including De Revolutionibus, placed on the Church’s “List of Prohibited Books”—a list that over time would accumulate the works of Hobbes, Pascal, Descartes, Bacon, Montaigne, Spinoza, Maimonides, Locke, Montesquieu, Diderot, Voltaire, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Bentham, Balzac, Mill, Dumas, Flaubert, and even Milton for Paradise Lost. This list (which wasn’t discontinued until 1966) is comprehensive enough to discredit Shapiro’s argument almost by itself. It was, in fact, the continuous refinement of scientific investigation and its shift in emphasis from celebrating God’s creation to the betterment of humanity’s material condition that led our species to the Enlightenment.

The Right Side of History makes useful and perceptive distinctions between French, German, and Anglo Enlightenment ideas, and the good and bad strains therein. If the Renaissance was the intellectual rebirth of our species, then the Enlightenment showed us that we have an evil twin. In his tour of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Shapiro groups thinkers into the light and dark sides of the Enlightenment. The light side consists of those who maintained a belief in teleology and Judeo-Christian moral law, like John Locke, Adam Smith, and the Founding Fathers. The Declaration of Independence, Shapiro says, is the most accomplished testament to the Judeo-Christian concept of natural rights—that men are made free in the image of God. In order to make this fully convincing, Shapiro has to significantly downplay Thomas Jefferson’s deism, his disdain for organized religion, his continual support for the atheistic French Revolution, and his intellectual kinship with Thomas Paine, whom Shapiro throws in with the darker strain. The dark side also includes Voltaire, David Hume, Diderot, and Rousseau. It was the radical anti-teleological materialism of these thinkers, he contends, as well as their atheistic contention that there are no God-given rights, that culminated in the blood and terror of the French Revolution.

Indeed, the desecration of churches and the execution of clerics are among the more shameful episodes of anti-theism at the time of the French Revolution, and they cannot be dodged. However, Shapiro should not be allowed to get away with his claim that the French Revolution failed because it exalted Reason above all else. Writing about the creation of the Cult of Reason, he says:

Frenchmen were to celebrate the Festival of Reason. That festival saw churches across France transformed into Temples of Reason, with the chief temple being the cathedral at Notre Dame. There, the musicians of the National Guard performed hymns to Liberty… and the flame of the goddess of Reason was lit on the Greek altar.

The Cult of Reason was indeed grotesque, but not because of Reason—the Cult of Reason was grotesque because it was a cult. Temples, hymns, pulpits, goddesses—these are the trappings of organized religion, not the scientific method. The same can be said of totalitarianism. Shapiro faithfully repeats the tired argument that fascism was an atheistic phenomenon, the product of the Godless belief in Reason alone: “The Nazis rejected Judeo-Christian values and Greek natural law, and they shoved children in to gas chambers,”—an argument that makes no acknowledgement of the Church’s millennia-long promotion of anti-Semitism.

We are also told that, “Hitler claimed ideological forebears in Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche.” It is worth noting, however, that most people who wore the uniform of the Wehrmacht were documented members of one church or another, and had “Gott Mit Uns” (“God With Us”) embossed on their buckles. Nor should we forget that the Vatican signed treaties with both Nazi Germany and the Italian National Fascist Party; and while Hitler may have been influenced by Nietzsche, his name does not appear once in Mein Kampf. Hitler did, however, include the following: “And so I believe to-day that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator. In standing guard against the Jew I am defending the handiwork of the Lord.” Underscoring all of this is the religious conceit of totalitarianism: that the will of one man, the source of all power and authority, must be worshiped and adhered to as it pervades the whole structure of society.

All of the above informs a broader mischaracterization of Reason throughout The Right Side of History, which holds that a) Reason alone cannot shape values; and b) believing that it can is tantamount to an act of faith—which merely confirms our unrecognized belief in Judeo-Christian moral law. Shapiro is intellectually honest enough to realize he must pass through Kant’s Categorical Imperative in order to make this argument. He acknowledges that, while Kant’s system of ethics is impressive, it falls short in certain areas, the most obvious example being that Kant leaves no room for situational morality. It also cannot entirely escape subjectivity. Shapiro is therefore not able to get behind the idea that Reason can produce good judgement in all cases. If we are capable of determining our goals through Reason and then defending them as if they were universal law, Shapiro says, what prevents me from doing whatever I want and justifying it as objectively right? Who can say otherwise?

What this misses is Kant’s basic assumption: that the ability to reason is within us all; we can place anyone in an identical moral dilemma, and not only would that person be able to reason what the right thing to do is, they are also capable of reasoning that if anyone else were placed in the same situation that they would do the same. It is precisely this ability that allows us to argue for universal value in a way that is objective at best and inter-subjective at worst. It is this self-conscious process that generates the ethical dimension of our existence, and in this process, we are able to assign values, insofar as anything is valuable for something. It’s not perfect, but it has served mankind well in spite of its limitations.

And none of this requires faith. As Thomas Nagel and Sam Harris have pointed out, to say that one “believes in Reason” is to use two words too many. Reason, properly practiced, is unarguable. If someone presents you with an argument based on sound evidence, you are powerless to deny it, unless you choose to dig in stubbornly. It doesn’t require faith. If it works, the proof is in the results. The only thing it demands is confidence in our fellow humans, and confidence that we can know right from wrong without an eternal supervising authority. This is where Shapiro is unable to go. The statement: “Genocide is wrong because it obviously is,” is not good enough for him. For him, what is obvious is based on a foundation, first laid at the Sinai 3000 years ago, and no matter how far we wish to get away from the mountain, it will always remain in view.

For Shapiro, whatever is “obvious” to us is only obvious because we were once told so. In a conversation with Sam Harris in 2018, Shapiro said (and I’m paraphrasing): “You’re using my bricks to build your argument.” In other words, if there is an explanation for the morality of the secular world, it is that people don’t realize how unconsciously religious they actually are. This persistently annoying claim is unfalsifiable. But, as Karl Popper said, the falsifiability of an  argument is its greatest strength not a weakness.

Throughout The Right Side of History, Shapiro does a good job at refuting the claim that the Enlightenment sprang from nothingness—that we were all benighted superstitious apes until the day that we weren’t, in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, at which point we secularized and everything became great for humanity. This is a sophomoric description of intellectual history, certainly. But the claim that the Enlightenment could not have occurred without Jerusalem still leaves Shapiro with a great deal of work to do. He is unwilling to admit that what took place in the Sinai Peninsula was a codification of a moral sense that already existed within us. It doesn’t require faith, but only Reason to surmise that the Hebrews never would have reached the mountain in the first place if they’d believed that murder, theft, and perjury were acceptable. You can’t have it both ways. If you believe that the Enlightenment didn’t erupt from a void, then the same must be true of the wisdom said to have been handed down in the Sinai.

The time may soon come when a more sophisticated neuroscience will render arguments of morality and free will effectively null. Indeed, what we are already learning about the brain suggests that our use of reason is much more instrumental than we think it is. We as a species need to be prepared for the possibility that many of the operating assumptions upon which we have relied for centuries are fictions. Since its ascent, humanity has lived according to the fictions it has created for itself. We all believe in fictions. Not one of us is exempt. The bricks belong to no one. And the house we’re building is for all of us. A good strategy would be for us to reduce the amount of refuse we’re required to heft in raising it.

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Jared Marcel Pollen

Jared Marcel Pollen is the author of The Unified Field of Loneliness. His work has appeared in LARB, Tablet, Liberties, and 3:AM. His debut novel, Venus&Document, will be published in spring 2022.