Ram Madhav
September 15, 2020

The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose made the West Great

Ben Shapiro

“What do I think of western civilisation? I think it would be a good idea” – This famous quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi may sound a bit condescending. But many share this scepticism and condescension about the west; that its lifestyle and value system is not worth calling a civilisation. It is not fully true. The west too has had many great philosophers and thinkers who contributed substantially to the sum total of the world civilisation. Yet, the western value system has been identified by many with ‘laissez fairism’, individualism and materialism.

Ben Shapiro struggles hard in his book titled ‘The Right Side of History’ to dispel this misconception. A Harvard graduate and a renowned Conservative scholar and author, this editor in chief of the Daily Wire is combative in arguing with not only the non-western skeptics but also those westerners who try to interpret the western civilisation in terms of liberal internationalism and laissez fair materialism. Shapiro traces the evolution of the western worldview over millennia through various philosophers and their theories and strongly suggests that its foundations are in the ‘Right’ thought process. 

Jerusalem and Athens are the symbolic starting points for Shapiro to develop his thesis, sprinting through the history of the western civilisation over a long period of about 3500 years. Jerusalem represented the ancient Judeo-Christian values and Athens represented the Greek natural law. Shapiro convincingly argues that most of the thinking and value system of the present day western civilisation has its roots in these two historical landmarks. Judeo-Christian worldview avers that ‘God created man in his own image’, while the Greek natural law reasons that man is capable of exploring God’s creation.

Shapiro calls these twin notions as “diamonds of spiritual genius” and insists that they built the western man and his civilisation of today. He takes us through the churning happened in the western world from the time of Plato and Aristotle to the current post-modern thinkers and highlights how the contemporary notions of the western worldview – like the belief that life is more than mere materialistic pleasures and pain, or the belief that the state has no unbridled right over man, as man is free to pursue his moral virtue, or the belief that people are capable of ‘bettering the world through use of reason’ – are all a product of Jerusalem and Athens only. He even insists that the twin notions were responsible for science, human rights, prosperity, peace and artistic beauty in the west. 

Shapiro enthusiastically stretches this argument to argue that Jerusalem and Athens ‘built America, ended slavery, defeated the Nazis and the Communists, lifted billions from poverty, and gave billions spiritual purpose’. 

This book is a fascinating journey through the western philosophical thought. How God and reason dominated the entire philosophical debate in the west, exploited sometimes by the merchants of God and contested as many times by atheistic philosophers; how this domination and rejection of the twin notions of Jerusalem and Athens shaped evolution of every philosophy from the Magna Carta to the Enlightenment to the anti-Enlightenment movements like Communism; and how the post-modern thinkers still grapple with the twin notions in search of answers to the present challenges faced by the west – Shapiro seamlessly and eloquently sails us through all that evolutionary history.

Books dealing with philosophy are not an easy read. This book also is no exception. You need to concentrate on each and every para and statement; sometimes re-read them. That puts this book in the category of hard-reads. But very few books give you a special feeling – a feeling that you are missing a good friend – when you close them. For me, this was one such book.

Several of the conclusions that the western civilisation has arrived at after exploring and experimenting with the facets of the twin notions of Jerusalem and Athens have been arrived at millennia ago by the philosophers and scholars in the east. Yet this book is a must-read to understand how the western philosophers and thinkers have reached those conclusions and how much churning happened over centuries for them to do so. 

The churning and struggle may continue. The west may not yet have reached perfection in their philosophical thinking and the worldview. Ben Shapiro is not easy to accept and digest for many, especially the liberal and post-modernist pundits, who are not in any small number in America. But he is a crusader of sorts. One of the most popular campus-speakers in America, Shapiro, of late, needs police escort to conduct his lectures; he was once physically assaulted by a co-panellist on a live TV show. But this book is not just about Shapiro’s conclusions alone, but about the process which shaped western thinking over centuries and produced some of the fabulously original ideas, including the last original ones to come to mankind through that intense churning.

(The book review was originally carried by Chintan – India Foundation Blogs.)

Published by Ram Madhav

Member, Board of Governors, India Foundation

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