This review appears in the Summer 2014 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity
by Rodney Stark (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2014)
Rodney Stark’s account of the triumph of Western modernity is a remarkable book and ought to prove useful for anyone interested in grasping the unique contribution of the West to the well-being of humanity and defending it against its numerous and vociferous academic critics. In order to appreciate the book fully, however, and to use it effectively, one must recognize what it achieves and what it does not. For the most part, How the West Won is not a work of original scholarship but rather a skillfully deployed compendium of myriad secondary sources, although Stark does from time to time draw upon original research that he has published in earlier volumes. It is no surprise that his argument is sounder and more cogent in some academic areas than in others. Happily, he is best in assessing the economic, social, and political development of the Western world, where the need for reliable information and interpretation is currently most pressing.
And the need is pressing. As Stark’s introduction points out, “Forty years ago the most important and popular freshman course at the best American colleges and universities was ‘Western Civilization.’ . . . But this course has long since disappeared from most college catalogues on grounds that Western civilization is but one of many civilizations and it is ethnocentric and arrogant for us to study ours.” Citing Bruce Thornton, Stark further observes that such courses are now widely regarded as mere rationalizations “for Western oppression and hegemony” (1).
Like so much conservative scholarship nowadays, How the West Won undertakes the crucial but unenviable task of proving in minute detail and with the massive accumulation of evidence what ought to be self-evident to any disinterested observer whose vision is not warped by ideological astigmatism. Any rational, impartial evaluation will judge the material comfort and prosperity characteristic of the modern era, along with the rule of law and administrative prowess that make them possible, to be unique achievements of Western civilization. Moreover, their emergence in the West are not fortuitous, random phenomena: the sheer physical fact of triumphant modernity is directly attributable to the convergence of Greek thought and Judeo-Christian revelation in the formation of European culture. Imperialism, slavery, oppression, and violence—the sins with which the West has been saddled—are common to all civilizations; the industrial revolution, scientific medicine, the symphony orchestra—these benefits and countless others are exclusive creations of the West. To ignore this manifest reality requires a credence in coincidence verging on superstition.
Nevertheless, the presumption that Western civilization is exceptionally violent, exploitative, and repressive has dominated the discourse of our academic and media elites for decades. Dissent from this orthodox “narrative” is subject to scorn, vilification, and general opprobrium and is rarely afforded a hearing. The intention of How the West Won is to discredit the general thesis of Western culpability and to refute as many of the specific charges as the author can fit between the covers of this one substantial book. Although I have some reservations about how Stark frames and develops the argument, there is no denying his extraordinary success in the gargantuan task that he has set for himself.
The book is divided into five parts, comprising three to five chapters each. The first part, “Classical Beginnings (500 BC–AD 500),” takes up successively the contributions of “Athens” and “Jerusalem” and concludes with a surprisingly dour dismissal of “Rome.” In most respects, there is nothing novel about Stark’s exposition of the Greek “miracle,” which has been recognized since the time of the Romans and firmly established as an element of Western civilization’s self-identification since the Renaissance. Stark treats the Greek achievement under seven headings: warfare, democracy, economic progress, literacy, the arts, technology, and, finally, “the most lasting of all the Greek achievements: speculative philosophy and formal logic” (15). He does not maintain that the Greeks were the exclusive inventors of all their practices and institutions; the point is that they developed and established them rationally and systematically as a permanent part of their culture.
Contemporary critics harp on Greek slavery and imperial exploitation, for example, of the weaker city-states by the Athenians; but, as Stark points out, these were the areas in which the Greeks failed to distinguish themselves from the typical contemporary regimes and virtually every civilization that preceded theirs in known history. “As the ratio of slaves to free citizens grew,” he observes, “Greek progress declined proportionately. No Greek philosopher was sufficiently ‘enlightened’ to have condemned slavery” (29). Similarly, Stark observes, “If the Greek ‘miracle’ was based on the existence of many independent city-states, Greek progress stagnated as the city-states were submerged beneath new empires” (30). The fact remains, however, that the Greeks, while failing to live up to their own best insights, offered an indispensable model for many of the most important attributes of subsequent Western civilization.
The condemnation of slavery, Stark maintains, “awaited the rise of Christianity: the first known instance of the general abolition of slavery anywhere in the world lay a millennium in the future in medieval Europe” (29). The attitude that ended slavery emerges along with many other beneficial features from Christianity’s Jewish foundation, which is expounded in the next chapter, “Jerusalem’s Rational God.”
Stark’s principal thesis in this chapter is that the scientific method of investigating nature by means of careful observation and rational inference, which leads to a belief in the possibility of progress, results from the Judeo-Christian conception of the world as the work of a rational Creator. This is hardly a new idea, and Stark might well be accused of oversimplifying and exaggerating it. In my view, the theme is handled with more finesse by other works, such as Stanley Jaki’s The Road of Science and the Ways to God (1980), which Stark does not cite. St. Thomas Aquinas is credited with “optimism about progress” on the basis of three secondary sources (only one of them dealing specifically with St. Thomas): “Because humans could not see into the very essence of things, Thomas argued, they must reason their way to knowledge, step by step—using the tools of philosophy, especially the principles of logic, to construct theology” (41). Although one can see a connection between Thomistic theological procedures and the scientific method, the observation furnishes an exiguous basis for deeming the Angelic Doctor an apostle of progress.
Stark quotes City of God to assert that St. Augustine was likewise confident of human progress: “Progress in general was inevitable as well [as progress in theology], he supposed. Augustine wrote: ‘Has not the genius of man invented and applied countless astonishing arts, partly the result of necessity, partly the result of exuberant invention, so that this vigour of mind . . . betokens an inexhaustible wealth in the nature which can invent, learn, or employ such arts’” (41). This unusual recourse to a primary text is not altogether satisfactory, since Stark does not mention that the quoted passage comes in a chapter entitled “Of the good things with which the Creator has filled even this accursed life.” It immediately follows a chapter entitled “Of the troubles besides those evils common to the good and the bad which especially pertain to the travail of the just.” This preceding chapter concludes by proving that “the testimony of so many and such evils” shows “this life to be accursed.” It is only by taking some of St. Augustine’s statements out of context that he may be characterized as an unequivocal believer in earthly human progress.
* * *
Stark’s disdain for Rome and its contribution to Western civilization likewise seems exaggerated and based on a rather selective assessment of the evidence. “The Roman Interlude” closes by asserting that the fall of Rome was not the fall of civilization: “To the contrary, with the stultifying effects of Roman repression now ended, the glorious journey toward modernity resumed” (66). Stark makes much of the fact that Roman culture and technology both derived from the Greeks. Roman temples, aqueducts, baths, mines, and even the famous system of roads are dismissed as negligible achievements (53). Roman literature is dismissed on the basis of one secondary source published in 1867, which asserts that the plays of Plautus and Terence are all “translations” of Greek originals (52). The relation between these Roman playwrights and their Greek models has come to be seen as a bit more complicated by a century and a half of subsequent classical scholarship. In any case, it is odd to disparage Roman literature without so much as a mention of Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and a host of other brilliant Latin writers.
In any case, the Romans cheerfully admitted how much they derived from Greek philosophy, literature, and science. Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artis / intulit agresti Latio, Horace writes, and to the Emperor Augustus, no less: “Captive Greece conquered the savage victor and brought the arts into rustic Italy” (Epistolae 2.1.156–57). In the “blissful groves” of Elysium, the shade of Anchises tells his heroic son Aeneas that while others will surpass them in the arts, oratory, and philosophy, it will fall to the Romans “to impose their rule on the peoples (these will be your arts) and add settled custom to peace, to spare the conquered and cast down the proud” (Aeneid 6.851–53). Cicero (whom Stark mentions only twice and not in the chapter on Rome) makes a similar claim for Roman distinction at the beginning of the Tusculan Disputations.
Rarely did the Romans live up to this exalted image of themselves; mortal men and their institutions rarely do. Nevertheless, the ideal is a critical part of the Western heritage. Cicero and Virgil and, in his own way, Horace are arguably more important in shaping the minds of—for instance—the American Founders than direct contact with the Greeks. The crucial role of Rome in mediating the Greek and Judeo-Christian tradition is a point well made by Remi Brague in Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization (1992, trans. 2002), a book that Stark does not mention, which might have added a rich layer of subtlety to his discussion.
The motivation of Stark’s dismissal of the Roman contribution to Western civilization is revealed in the second and third parts of How the West Won, “The Not-So-Dark Ages (500–1200)” and “Medieval Transformations (1200–1500).” These sections are the heart of the book and constitute an invaluable contribution to any discussion of the unique place of the West in the history of the world. It was during the so-called Dark Ages, Stark maintains, that numerous advances in technology and trade were developed, and even the rudiments of capitalist free enterprise—counterintuitively in Christian monasteries. Later in the Middle Ages the university and the foundations of modern science emerged. Contrary to the typical historical versions, inventions, trade, and the general level of culture advanced much more rapidly in Europe than in the Islamic world. The manifest superiority of Western weapons and tactics during the Crusades are a notable demonstration, since the Crusaders were able to defeat Muslim forces and dominate the Holy Land for several centuries, although they were fighting far from home and were vastly outnumbered.
Stark points out that rapid European development during this period owes much to the beneficent influence of the Church, which was important both as an effective administrative institution and as a prophetic voice of liberating doctrine. He posits a sharp contrast between the Judeo-Christian emphasis on the individual, endowed with free will, and other religions and civilizations, which stressed fate and the subjection of the individual to hierarchical powers and his submersion in the mass of indistinguishable humanity. Much of his animus against the Roman Empire arises from its tendency to resemble the oppressive, progress-smothering empires of Asia Minor and the Far East. Hence chapter 4, “The Blessings of Disunity,” maintains that the breakup of the Roman hegemony engendered a productive decentralization to the advantage of economic and political development. While Stark’s argument is undoubtedly overstated, the case he makes is both important and basically undeniable. The long-standing myth that the modern world emerged fully formed out of a millennium of anarchy, primitivism, and superstition in the teeth of opposition from the principal medieval institution, the Catholic Church, is absurd on its face.
The remaining parts of the book, “The Dawn of Modernity (1500–1750)” and “Modernity (1750– ),” are devoted to an exposition of the continuity of the modern Western world with its roots in Athens and Jerusalem. Stark has enlightening observations regarding numerous controversial aspects of the ascent of the European civilization to political, economic, and cultural domination of the world over the past few centuries. While acknowledging the evils of colonialism and slavery, he also notes that they are hardly exclusive to the West, and that it was Western Christendom that first condemned and eventually eliminated the latter. As for colonialism, the peoples that suffered it were also introduced to the benefits of Western liberty and prosperity. Stark is unapologetically enthusiastic for bourgeois society, which he credits with bringing about the Industrial Revolution. Although numerous evils are ascribed to the latter, for Stark it was the engine of prosperity and social reform. He credits it with ending child labor, for example, which had always been there, by making it visible and thus subject to public indignation. And of course the material wealth generated by large-scale, mechanized manufacturing cannot be doubted. Stark concludes his final chapter, “Globalization and Colonialism,” by observing, “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” (370).
This assessment is hard to dispute in the most general sense. At a recent conference, I rather diffidently began to point out some of the problems with the modern Western world, only to be bluntly interrupted and asked, “Do you want to go back to nineteenth-century dentistry?” The short answer to this point-clenching rejoinder is “No.” But, like Stark’s title and his final sentence, it rests on the premise that “Western civilization” and “modernity” are virtually identical, when in fact there are many critical differences, despite a large overlap. Moreover, modern is hardly a univocal term. If I have dwelt a good deal on the shortcomings of How the West Won, it is because the book is too important and too good not to have been better. I wish Rodney Stark had resisted overstatement and selective quotation. I also wish that he had been less polemical in tone and considerably more careful about details (for example, the confusion of the Latin “Vulgate” Bible with vernacular Bibles, 352). Above all, I wish that he had acknowledged the ambivalence that any conservative is bound to feel about our “modern age,” which is the point of this journal’s title. ♦
R. V. Young is editor of Modern Age.