A Review of The Right Side of History. By Ben Shapiro.

Broadside Books, 2019.

America and the West did not come out of nowhere. They have a past – a past steeped in various important ideas. These ideas span some 3000 years. Primarily, the ideas of Greek thought and the Judeo-Christian worldview underlie the West and its greatness.

It was the combination of Athens and Jerusalem that led to Western civilisation and all its benefits. But all that is under threat today. The West is collapsing at a rapid rate, and those who would seek to stop the rot need to relearn the lessons of history, and discover what made us great in the first place.

That is what Ben Shapiro seeks to do here. As such, this is a book of ideas, or the history of ideas. It is a popular-level retelling of the story of Western philosophy, especially political philosophy. Those familiar with such things may not find too much new here, but it is a nice way to package a lot of important information.

How did the ancient Greek emphasis on reason, on purpose, and on natural law, combined with the Judeo-Christian worldview, help produce some of the most free, most prosperous and most democratic cultures ever? And why is all this now under threat?

Failing to learn from history means we are doomed to repeat past mistakes, and while most folks may be more concerned about how their favourite sports team is doing, or which new big-screen TV they might get, we need to know our history and the big ideas that made our history.

Says Shapiro: “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 that those foundations even exist.”

Thus this is a book of old ideas, old values, and old beliefs which have largely been lost. But they need to be reclaimed and revisited if we want to see the West survive. And we must recall that although it took three thousand years to get to where we are at today, we can lose this in a matter of years.

It is so important to know where we came from, and to learn about those forces and ideas that contributed to our greatness. Although an Orthodox Jew, Shapiro keeps coming back to these two main streams that have led to all that we enjoy today:

Jerusalem and Athens built science. The twin ideals of Judeo-Christian values and Greek natural law reasoning built human rights. They built prosperity, peace, and artistic beauty. Jerusalem and Athens built America, ended slavery, defeated the Nazis and the Communists, lifted billions from poverty, and gave billions spiritual purpose. Jerusalem and Athens were the foundations of the Magna Carta and the Treaty of Westphalia; they were the foundations of the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Because this book covers so many big ideas from so many centuries, one can only highlight certain specifics here. Consider how the Enlightenment in its different forms led to quite different outcomes. Says Shapiro, “the Enlightenment had two strains – one based on Athens and Jerusalem, the other bereft of them.”

Image of The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great
The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great by Shapiro, Ben (Author) Amazon logo

The much more secular French Enlightenment led to the bloody French Revolution and the Great Terror. The English and American Enlightenment led to the American Revolution and the birth of a new nation awash in religious liberty. Given that Shapiro is American, that nation gets a fair amount of attention here. He notes that America was “the first country in history to be crafted based on philosophy.”

He continues:

The Founding Fathers were devotees of Cicero and Locke, on the Bible and Aristotle. They’d done their reading. And they based their new national philosophy on the lessons garnered from that reading: natural law, rooted in reason and enshrined by religion…

The founders weren’t heedless narcissists, unconcerned with the dangers of radical individualism – they feared a society of religion-less individuals. Nor were they tyrannical collectivists – they feared mob rule and the heavy hand of government cramming subjective definitions of “virtue” down the throats of individuals. All this is clearly visible in the Declaration of independence.

The American experiment was unique indeed, and was one of the greatest attempts known to deliberately create a new nation based on the wisdom and values found in Judaism and Christianity, as well as ancient Greece. And incredibly, it worked. This was no fluke, but the result of very careful and prayerful thought and action:

“The founders, despite common misperception of their religious practice, were well aware of the necessity for a community of virtue-seeking religious believers in their new republic. The vitality of religion was a precondition for a healthy society. No wonder the founders placed such heavy emphasis on freedom of worship.”

And equally important, “Rights and duties, according to the founders, were simply two sides of the same coin.” Where do we hear about duties and responsibilities today? It is all about ‘my rights’. America in fact is crumbling because we have ignored the founders’ intentions and wisdom.

As all this emphasis on virtue, on religion, and duty are now being lost, the republic is deteriorating. We are simply living on the borrowed spiritual capital of those who preceded us. But no society can long last on the fumes of former glory and greatness.

Thus the urgency of a book like this: to remind us of how we became so great, and why we are now so rapidly losing that greatness. Shapiro has performed a great service here in tying together in one helpful narrative the story of three millennia of thought that led to the creation of the West.

And as we now see the decline of the West, we need to quickly relearn our history. So I highly recommend this volume. Sure, it is not without its shortcomings. Let me refer to just one. As mentioned, Shapiro is not a Christian, and sometimes he gets things wrong about the faith.

For example, he writes: “Christianity provided a sense of communal purpose in fighting for the good. But Christianity, like all religions, focuses on the spiritual to the exclusion of the physical.” He says it failed to “take into account the drive for betterment in the physical world.”

But this is clearly not the case. Christianity has often been described as the most this-worldly of religions. Wherever it went, it focused not just on our spiritual needs, but on our physical and material needs as well. The spread of Christianity meant the spread of schools, hospitals and a million other practical helps to mankind and his needs.

But all up this is an extremely useful volume to remind us about our past, to teach us why we are losing it all, and to help us reclaim it – if it is not too late.

[1151 words]

12 Replies to “A Review of The Right Side of History. By Ben Shapiro.”

  1. I would also suggest Bill, that some books by Vishal Mangalwadi and Rodney Stark not only support this book but point out why other philosophies and religions have given non western nations very different outcomes.

  2. I have seen some of Ben Shapiro’s output on YouTube – He strikes me as an extremely intelligent advocate for the views he espouses in the book reviewed above. It is interesting to note that Mr Shapiro has recently interviewed John MacArthur [ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F-ofKxfYqGw ] and William Lane Craig [ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hL-zJzE5clA ] – both prominent American Evangelicals. Evidently Shapiro has a significant appreciation of the Christian part of the Judaeo-Christian contribution to Western civilisation.

  3. Dear Bill, re Ben Shapiro’s [above] ” …The Founding Fathers were devotees of Cicero and Locke, on the Bible and Aristotle… “, it’s notable that Dr Allan Carlson points out the very harmful effect of Locke’s anti-family writings, partly via J S Mill, as described in his “FAMILY AND SOCIETY The end of ‘Liberalism’ in News Weekly, March 9, 2019.

    God and all the saints, preserve you and your great works, Bill!

  4. Your’e absolutely right Bill, this is a book all of us that are concerned with the decline of our Western culture should be reading. I must get hold of a copy for my humble little library. I note that NCC “news weekly” and other bloggers refer to this book as being a must read.
    Bill Heggers

  5. Good observation Bill. Shapiro did not do his homework on the past history of Christianity and its cultural impact in the world. Tragically, he is looking at the culturally irrelevant modern-day Christianity that Francis Schaeffer and Nancy Pearcey described in their writings. He fails to understand that the Christian duaiism he observes (spirit versus material world) is actually a byproduct of the Gnostic Greek Platonic dualism that has infected the Christian world today (The Other Worldview, Dr. Peter Jones). Like Jordan Peterson, he is on the right track. If he continues searching he will eventually find the real messiah and genuine Christianity.

  6. Dear Bill another gem, not only for a recently released book, but your archive is brilliant. I’m a relatively new reader of your site so Warrick’s comments allow you to drawer from your wellspring of works. I just love that, Thank you, Mark Bryant
    PS Thank you also for your network of people and communication, like David Skinner.

  7. “Although an Orthodox Jew, Shapiro ……..”. So he only believes and promotes the Torah and rejects the Talmud? Is this the correct interpretation?

  8. I’m a fan of Shapiro. I’d love to see him run for president after Trump’s second term is up.

    He’s got a very good head on his shoulders. I just pray he’ll come to recognise the Messiah.

  9. Gerald Flood,
    Your comment complains about “the very harmful effect of Locke’s anti-family writings”, without citing any. You refer to a recent piece by Dr Allan Carlson, based on his 2017 article, Too Steep a Price, which, though it quotes Locke, does not give any references, so readers cannot see for themselves the context of Locke’s remarks.

    As Locke himself put it:–

    The assuming an authority of dictating to others, and a forwardness to prescribe to their opinions, is a constant concomitant of this bias and corruption of our judgments. (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 4.19.2)

    In short, read it for yourself. Have a squiz at Locke’s Second Treatise, especially chapters 6 Of Paternal Power, and 7 Of Political or Civil Society, and report any “anti-family” passages you might find.

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