In his famous critique of John Stuart Mill, Mill and Liberalism (1963) the Cambridge historian Maurice Cowling underscored just how much the views advanced by self-identified liberals were underpinned by the conviction that their conception of the historical background to any number of events is more-or-less universally accepted. Sometimes they are right in making that assumption about others. Medieval Europe, for instance, is invariably understood as a period of unmitigated darkness—so much so that words like “feudal” are used today, even by many well-informed Catholics, as synonyms for backwardness.
Occasionally, however, a book comes along that exposes gapping holes in the prevailing narrative. That can certainly be said of Rodney Stark’s latest offering, How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity (ISI Books). Beginning with the blunt warning, “This is a remarkably unfashionable book” (p. 1), Stark sets out to critique, and, in some instances, demolish several widespread mythologies about the West’s development.
In many cases, Stark is not presenting arguments that have not been previously stated. Max Weber’s theory about particular forms of Protestantism and capitalism has, for instance, been thoroughly discredited. Likewise the studies of the English historian Jonathan Riley-Smith have illustrated that the Crusades are severely miscast as an exercise in profit-seeking by poor illiterate barons and that these events need to be understood against a background of a militarily-expansionist Islam.
What makes Stark’s book different from these and other studies are two things. First, he weaves his arguments about pre-Christian Europe, the medieval period, the Crusades, and the development of capitalism (to name just a few) into an account which dissolves many prevailing conceptual divisions between the pre-modern and modern worlds. Many secular-minded people—but also many Christians—will be surprised at the high degree of continuity, for instance, between minds like Saint Albertus Magnus and Sir Isaac Newton. Sometimes this occurs by Stark pointing to evidence that has hitherto escaped most people’s attention. In other instances, it is a question of looking at the same evidence but through a more plausible interpretative lens.
The second distinctive feature of How the West Won is how Stark shows how particular historical myths have less to do with the facts than with efforts to paint Christianity as a backward regressive cultural force. To give just one example, Islamic Spain is regularly portrayed, Stark notes, as an oasis of tolerance compared to a repressive Christendom, despite the undeniable evidence of the widespread and long-term persecution and subjugation of Jews and Christians by the Moors.
In making these points, Stark is happy to engage in the deeply politically-incorrect exercise of comparing developments in the West to that of other civilizations. His analysis suggests that if a culture does not embody a robust conception of reason and free will—not to mention a conception of God to whom these characteristics are also attributed—then it’s road to freedom, economic prosperity, and human flourishing is going to be very difficult indeed. Espousing such views won’t win you tenure in the contemporary academy. That, however, doesn’t weaken the saliency of such perspectives.
At the core of Stark’s investigation is his argument that specific ideas innate to Judaism (especially that found in Diaspora Jewish communities) and Christianity played a pivotal role in enabling the West to make and sustain political, legal and economic breakthroughs that eluded other civilizations. First and foremost, Jews and Christians viewed God as a rational Creator. In that sense, God was not at all like the Greco-Roman deities—capricious, self-indulgent beings for the most part. Moreover, the Christians, from the very beginning, not only understood the need to reason out the implications of Christ’s teachings; they also viewed reason as the great gift which God gave man to know the truth about the Creator but also the world He created in order that humans might help unfold God’s design.
The second religious ingredient of the West’s success, Stark maintains, was Christianity’s unwillingness to attribute life’s ups-and-downs to fate. Unlike the pagan (and many contemporary) religions, the Jewish and Christian “conception of God is incompatible with fate” (p. 120). It is true, Stark writes, that particular pagans such as Cicero had a somewhat similar view of free will. The difference is that belief in free will was more than simply a philosophical tenet for Jews and Christians. It was also a matter of specific religious conviction, which meant, furthermore, that people could—and would—be held accountable for their free choices before the same rational God who had given them free will.
It is in the medieval period, Stark maintains, that perhaps the most significant flowering of this commitment to reason and free will took place—and not just in the universities that were first built by the Christians. The key, as Stark puts it so precisely, was the Christian commitment to “the pursuit of knowledge. Not to illumination. Not to enlightenment. Not to wisdom. But to knowledge. And the basis for this commitment to knowledge was the Christian commitment to theology” (p. 159). From this flowed, among other things, the enterprise of natural philosophy. That in turn underlay the development of the scientific method that first acquired real momentum in medieval Europe, as well as, Stark emphasizes, the emergence of key economic insights and institutions that promoted and relied upon freedom.
With regard to the latter, Stark illustrates that the central foundations for modern capitalism—“the rise of banking, elaborate manufacturing networks, rapid innovations in technology and finance, and a busy network of trading cities” (p. 181)—were very much products of medieval Christianity, especially in Northern Italy, Flanders, and, by the early-thirteenth century, England. In this light, Stark argues, we begin to see that industrial capitalism didn’t appear out of nowhere in the late-eighteenth century. In Stark’s words, the Industrial Revolution “was not a revolution at all but part of an evolution of invention and innovation that had begun … perhaps as early as the eleventh century” (p. 184).
Stark does not turn a blind eye to those phenomena that, he holds, could have impeded considerably the growth of freedom as well as economic development in the medieval West. Stark identifies, for example, many of the medieval guilds as the equivalent of what we would call cartels and closed shops that “controlled prices, forbade bargaining, thereby limiting any benefits of increased efficiency” (p. 183). It was fortunate, Stark adds, that medieval Italian bankers used a combination of carrot-and-stick to break up these monopolies and other forms of economic repression and lay the basis for centuries of economic prosperity in much of Western Europe.
Nor does Stark deny that, at times, the West made errors. While he refuses to romanticize the pre-Columbian societies of the Americas, Stark observes that the Europeans’ arrival in the New World helped facilitate Europeans’ re-involvement in slavery. This was despite the fact that slavery (at least as the ancient world understood it) had essentially died out in Europe itself and in the face of all the protests of numerous popes against the treatment of Native Americans and Africans. Closer to our time, Stark portrays nineteenth-century colonialism as a colossal economic error insofar as it created an enormous drain on the West’s resources. In this way, Stark indirectly underscores the sheer wrongness of dependency theory: the claim by some twentieth-century economists (which influenced many liberation theologians) that colonial and post-colonial arrangements resulted in resources flowing from poor nations to Western countries.
No doubt, many readers who find themselves broadly agreeing with Stark’s general thesis will quibble with specific aspects of his analysis. Stark’s treatment of the usury issue, for instance, could have benefited from attentiveness to the most careful scholarship on the subject: more specifically, John T. Noonan’s The Scholastic Analysis of Usury (1957) and Thomas F. Divine SJ’s Interest: An Historical and Analytical Study In Economics and Modern Ethics (1959). What, however, can’t be denied is the comprehensive manner in which Stark challenges so many of the orthodoxies that have long dominated contemporary discourse about Western civilization.
Stark ends his book by noting that many countries have adopted Western technology and products while declining to embrace the normative and institutional commitments that helped create these techniques and methods in the first place. That raises the question of whether such grafting can succeed over the long-term. But the even bigger unanswered question is what happens to a civilization when it abandons a rational view of God, decides that free will is an illusion, begins to doubt whether there is any knowledge beyond that which is empirically verifiable, and instead opts for John Stuart Mill’s “Religion of Humanity.”
This particular issue is beyond the scope of Stark’s particular inquiry. Yet it is the thought which comes to mind by the time we reach the final page of his book. Judging from the economic and cultural state of much of contemporary Western Europe and parts of North America, it’s no longer a question we can avoid.
Editor’s note: The image above of St. Jerome was painted by Caravaggio in 1605-06.