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A Book Review… A Brilliant Achievement With Fascinating Historical Details

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By DONAL ANTHONY FOLEY

How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity by Rodney Stark (ISI Books: 2014), 432 pages; hardcover $27.95. Available through ISI Books, isibooks.org.

Rodney Stark is a professor of social sciences at Baylor University and the author of a number of books on the sociology of religion. He describes his latest work as a “remarkably unfashionable book” and it is certainly the case that he is not in the business of just going along with the crowd in his analysis of the rise of Western civilization. He puts forward some challenging ideas in claiming that the rise of Western civilization was something unique, but backs up his positions with facts and figures in a very provocative and engaging way.
The central question he seeks to answer is: Why did “modernity” arise only in the West, and not, say, in China, or in Islamic countries? He rejects the position that this was due to particular physical factors, and focuses rather on the ideas that have been prevalent in Western society as the key to its rise. So he argues that science arose in the West because “only Westerners thought that science was possible, that the universe functioned according to rational rules that could be discovered.”
As he goes on to point out, this is due partly to the ancient Greeks, and partly to Judeo-Christian belief in a rational God.
The book is divided into five parts, ranging from the Classical period, through the so-called Dark Ages (he doesn’t think they were so dark), then the Medieval period, followed by what he calls “the Dawn of Modernity,” from about 1500 to 1750, and then our modern era.
He shows that the rise of classical culture, via the Greeks and the Romans, took place against a background of essentially stagnant empires, in which most people “lived lives of misery and exploitation.” The Greeks, although numerically much smaller than these empires, developed far superior weapons and tactics, and this trait, which has carried on throughout most of Western history, explains why they were able to defeat the Persians.
The Greeks also practiced a form of democracy, and they likewise made advances in terms of technology art, and philosophy, which in turn led to economic progress, unlike most contemporary societies.
Stark points out that Greek thought influenced Jewish religious thinking and in turn early Christian writers, and that one of the dominant ideas pertaining to the rise of Western thought has been a belief in the idea of progress, in comparison, say, with the largely static view of society found under Islam.
Interestingly, Stark takes the position that the “Roman empire [w]as at best a pause in the rise of the West, and more plausibly a setback.” As he points out, the Romans did not really develop the technology they learned about from the Greeks, and slavery as an institution was actually a drag on societal and economic development.
For Stark, the fall of the Roman Empire was a beneficial event, because “it unleashed so many substantial and progressive changes.” These included technological improvements in agriculture, transportation, and trade, and likewise in music and architecture. Also because of the endemic state of warfare in the centuries which followed, there were constant innovations in armor and weapons, which eventually gave the West a military superiority which it has never lost.
Stark points to the crucial role played by the Church in building up Western civilization after the fall of the Roman Empire, in the rise of Christendom, and how the Church was able, to some extent, to curb the worst excesses of the leaders of the time, and was also largely responsible for the ending of slavery in medieval Europe.
Stark roundly rejects the view that modern capitalism was due to the Protestant Reformation, and points out that the rise of capitalism in Europe can be dated to centuries before Luther, and that the Church was open to capitalistic ideas well before his time. As he says: “The reality is that medieval Europe saw the rise of banking, elaborate manufacturing networks, rapid innovations in technology and finance, and a busy network of trading cities.”
He is very critical of those historians who have virtually ignored two crucial mid-14th century events, the Black Death, and the onset of the Little Ice Age. The latter followed the Medieval Warm Period, which lasted from about 800 to 1250, and which benefited European society tremendously, particularly agriculture. Conversely the Little Ice Age which followed it caused huge problems. The Black Death killed somewhere between 30 and 60 percent of the European population, and this had the consequence of effectively ending serfdom because of an acute shortage of labor, and a much freer labor market.
Stark also justifiably claims that the Copernican “revolution” and the extraordinary scientific achievements of the 16th and 17th centuries, were a direct result of the work of a “long line of brilliant Scholastic natural philosophers”; and indeed universities as we know them, like cathedrals, were the “product of the medieval Church.” As he says, “Christianity was essential to the rise of science, which is why science is a purely Western phenomenon.”
Similarly, he sees the modern industrial revolution as rather an “evolution” of practices dating back to the Middle Ages, and that it could be said that the industrial evolution as a process dates back to the development of fulling mills for the medieval English woolen industry. And regarding the full blown Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, he points out that this arose in Britain because of a focus on property rights which dated back to Magna Charta.
And, as Stark argues, the fact that the Western nations were in the forefront of the exploration of the world from the time of Columbus onward, with great advances in ship design and navigation, and overwhelming military superiority, led to the supremacy of Western civilization worldwide. He makes this important point too: “Claims that the rise of the West was funded by the profits of trade with the New World — from colonialism and slavery — are refuted by the simple fact that these profits were too small to have made a substantial contribution to the economic growth of Western Europe.”
Stark also disposes of the myth that at one time Islamic culture was superior to that of Europe; rather, it was the case that the Muslims assumed the culture of the peoples they conquered, but that over time they were unable to sustain or develop it.
He concludes as follows: “No doubt Western modernity has its limitations and discontents. Still it is far better than the known alternatives — not only, or even primarily because of its advanced technology but because of its fundamental commitment to freedom, reason, and human dignity.”
It is impossible to do justice to all of Rodney Stark’s arguments in a short review; and while some of his theological points are questionable, and there might be disagreement about some of his positions, overall this book is a brilliant achievement. It is full of fascinating historical details, and anyone with an interest in history, and particularly revisionist history, will find it a very rewarding read.

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(Donal Anthony Foley is the author of a number of books on Marian Apparitions, and maintains a related website at www.theotokos.org.uk.)

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