Flat White

Can relearning our history save the West from decline?

31 May 2019

4:00 AM

31 May 2019

4:00 AM

It was the noted English historian Paul Johnson who once wrote: “The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.”

Or as American economist Thomas Sowell more pointedly put it, “One of the most important reasons for studying history is that virtually every stupid idea that is in vogue today has been tried before and proved disastrous before, time and again.”

But even the famous case made about this by the Spanish philosopher Santayana continues to fall on deaf ears. While failing to learn from history means we are doomed to repeat its mistakes, most folks seem to be far more concerned about Keeping Up With the Kardashians, or seeing how Collingwood will fare on the weekend.

The big ideas that forged our civilisation are largely forgotten. Thankfully some still call us to return to the past in order the rightly steer the present. American social commentator Ben Shapiro is one such thinker who urges us to either learn from the past or witness the end of the West.

In his brand-new book, The Right Side of History (Broadside Books, 2019) he reminds us that 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 he 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. 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?

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 crucial to know where we came from, and to learn about those forces and ideas that contributed to our greatness. 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.”

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’. American in fact is crumbling because we have ignored the founders’ intentions and wisdom.

As this emphasis on virtue, on religion, and on duty is 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. As such, 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.

Bill Muehlenberg is a Melbourne cultural commentator.

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