Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Victory of Reason

Anyone who wants to understand the development of Western Civilization should read The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success by Rodney Stark. Anyone who doesn't needs to read it.

Someone who examines the state of the world can hardly help but be struck by the huge differences between the West and the Third World. Prosperity abounds in the West, while poverty dominates the Third World.

What accounts for these differences? Some claim that they result from exploitation and theft. But poverty was once universal, so this cannot be right. Stark's book provides the correct answer.

Many have noted that capitalism produces prosperity. But why did it only take off in the West? Capitalism requires freedom from government restriction. It also requires scientific and technological advancements and a culture that values work. How is it that the necessary freedom, science, and culture only came to being in the West?

Stark shows that the answer is Christianity. Far from the modern canard that Christianity is an enemy of science, Christianity created science. While the Greeks made advancements in logic and mathematics, science did not exist in their society.

Science is based on the assumption that the world is ordered. That is, there are fixed rules that explain the natural world. Further, it is possible to discover them through experimentation. Though such a belief may seem obvious today, it is not inherently so. Stark shows that it follows directly from the Christian belief in a rational creator who established fixed, discoverable rules. This contrasts sharply with pagan mysticism, Eastern logical contradictions, and the Islamic belief that fixed rules bind God.

Another important Christian belief is the possibility and desirability of progress. Stark shatters the myth of the "Dark Ages" as a time of ignorance and backwardness brought on by Christianity. While the Roman Empire had some impressive achievements, it was built on slave labor and oppressive government. Its "decline and fall" likely improved the living conditions of average people. The Middle Ages were a time of great progress in technology, science, and the arts.

Stark also chronicles how Christianity led to the creation of freedom. Far from notions of a "universal desire for freedom", most non-western societies didn't even have a word for freedom. Christian theology provided a basis for the concept of freedom.

Slavery was mostly abolished in Europe in the Middle Ages because of Christianity. It reappeared much later in European colonies in the new world. Once again, Christians were the driving force to eliminate it.

Christianity also provided a basis for limiting government power. Non-western societies have certainly had plenty of innovative, productive people. But capitalism never took off in them because government would always intervene to put an end to economic success that threatened its political power. Only in the West was freedom maintained for long enough to allow the rise of capitalism.

It was nonetheless a great battle. Stark chronicles the rise of capitalism in Italian city-states in the Middle Ages. From there it spread to Flanders, the Netherlands, and England. It died out in Italy and Flanders, while surviving to the present day in England. Even in Europe, repressive governments in Spain and France prevented the rise of capitalism until modern times.

Stark shows that while the Spanish Empire was politically powerful, it was never economically successful. Spain remained poor throughout. It imperiled freedom in England and the Netherlands. The defeat of the Spanish Armada derived in part from superior English technology created by capitalism. The relative lack of success of former Spanish colonies in Latin America may stem from Spain's example.

The Victory of Reason resembles Thomas Woods' How the Catholic Church built Western Civilization in both its subject and thesis. Its specific content is mostly distinct, so readers can profit from both books. The Victory of Reason should inspire a renewed defence of Western Civilization.


Anonymous said...

Does your author explain, Allan, that the major repositories for proto-Western Civilization during the years Europe was trapped in the Dark Ages were Islamic? Does he say that without the work of Islamic scholars Western Civilization as we know it would not have migrated to Spain and then unleashed the Renaissance in Europe? If he mentions that, why didn’t you? If he doesn’t, why praise a history with such a huge missing link? Your religious based argument is starkly called into question in the face of the role of Islamic civilization in the transmission of the ideas central to Western through. Care to comment?

Anonymous said...

What about countries in which capitalism and prosperity have flourished which are not predominantly Christian?

Anonymous said...

Exactly. Japan for example.