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Anyone who has taken a history course at a university lately can attest to the rigid, doctrinaire multiculturalism taught. Textbook after textbook downplays the achievements of the west. "How the West Won" is a brisk slap in the face to the current animus against western civilization.
Take the Dark Ages, which are always portrayed as an age of utter barbarism in our textbooks, a time when society declined and all that was worthy in the ancient world vanished. Stark points out that "serious historians have known for decades that these claims are a complete fraud. Even the respectable encyclopedias...now define the Dark Ages as a myth" (p 71).
He pulls out fact after fact to prove his position. Close to Stockholm, "an elaborate industrial community known as Helgo flourished from about 250 through 700." (p 82), and archaeologists have found a "'bronze Buddha figure made in India'" (p 81) in the ruins of Helgo, revealing how wide the trade was at the time.
Not only did trade flourish, but "Within several centuries of the fall of Rome, Europeans have developed military technology that far surpassed not the the Romans' but that of every other society on earth" (p 84).
Military might was important in the era. Islam was on the rise. In 1095 "The Byzantine emperor Alexius...appealed for Western forces to defend Constantinople from the threat of Turkish invaders" (p 102). Already, the entire of North Africa, which had once been solidly Christian, had fallen to Muslim armies.
Stark asks us to "Compare Shakespeare's tragedies with those of the ancient Greeks" (p 119) For example, Oedipus is at the mercy of a blind, unfeeling fate. The ancient gods were without virtue; they were petty, vengeful, and vain.
But Christianity imbued western culture with a belief in conscience. "It created a tendency for people not to be resigned to things as they are but rather to attempt to make the situation better" (119). It also meant an absolute truth existed, and could be rationally sought.
Christianity pushed society to abolish slavery, that economic pillar of the ancient world. Even though the west had inherited a civilization from ancient Rome that was based on slavery, by the end of the eighth century Charlemagne opposed slavery, as did the pope. Within a century it was generally agreed upon Christian principle that slavery was against divine law.
Although Max Weber claimed Protestantism invented capitalism, Stark points out that, rather, "The rise of capitalism in Europe proceeded the Reformation by centuries" (p 129).
The key to western civilization was the belief in the rationality of God. During the Middle Ages, the church created universities, and paid for priests to take classes. "The first university was founded in... 1088" (p 163). "By 1200...the University of Paris...had 2,550 to 5,000 students" (p 166).
One result was science - long before the Enlightenment. "Just as...eighteenth-century philosophers invented...the 'Dark Ages' to discredit Christianity, they labeled their own era the 'Enlightenment' on grounds that religious darkness had finally been dispelled by secular humanism" (p 309).
I loved how Stark acidly noted how not even one of these 'Enlightened' men, such as Voltaire, had anything to do with science. No, the people who were "scientific stars were members of the clergy, nine of them Roman Catholics" (p 309).
You really need this book! Stark is a marvelous writer, brisk and fun to read. But it is his ideas which are important. He argues brilliantly, and persuasively, that western civilization, so maligned in our current culture, is worthy of regard.
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Peter S. Bradley
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Having recently listened to an atheist Sociologist lecture on the superiority of Godless societies - basically by comparing Jamaica to Denmark and ignoring glaring problems in his narrative, issues such as Denmark's aging population and declining birth-rate - while reading this book, I had the epiphany that Rodney Stark must be a very lonely man. It seems that by eschewing the politically correct filters and presuppositions that dominate his profession, he has come to the realization that most of his fellow scholars are not even bothering to look at facts any more. Repeatedly throughout Stark's book, we hear conventional historical "pseudo-knowledge" condemned in the strongest terms. Thus, the attempt to "impose modern notions about proper military conduct on medieval armies" is "absurd." (p. 110.) The modern narrative of the conquest of the America's as "genocide" is described as "This story is sad enough without the immense amount of misrepresentation, exaggeration and plain foolishness that has been added to it during the past century." (p. 220.) And Stark responds to the claim of "even some Catholic writers" that the Catholic church did not repudiate slavery until modern times as "Nonsense!"
And he proves his point, time and time again, with historical information and raw data.
This book largely goes over the grounds well-trod by many of Stark's prior books, but that is not a flaw. Stark has thought long and hard about these issues, and there is always something new, an insight, observation, study, fact, that simply could not have been fitted into his prior books from his encyclopedic knowledge, if those prior books were ever going to end. For example, in describing the Christian contribution to the rise of science, in this book Stark spent some time in demonstrating how Copernicus did not simply emerge from a miraculous virgin-birth of insight with the Heliocentric theory. To the contrary, Copernicus had been trained by Scholastics, and Scholastics had been debating and creating the concept of inertia and the indistinguishability of a Sun-centered versus Earth-centered system for hundreds of years. Now, I've been reading on this subject for decades, and I had always been suckered into the presumption that Copernicus had come up with something new - because that is how the "Copernican Revolution" had always been taught to me. Like a Copernican Revolution - like a paradigm shift - Stark's insight has made me hit my forehead and cry "Of course....that makes sense" when I hadn't seen it before.
And I have to say, that is the kind of experience that makes me share, I think, what I believe to be Stark's exasperation with modern scholarship. I'm at a point where I feel swindled and hoodwinked for ideological reasons. As If my education, and much of public discourse, is designed to make me come up with politically correct conclusions rather than to know the truth.
To review some of the chapters in Stark's book -
Part I deals with "Classical Beginnings (500 BC to AD 500)." Stark's thesis is that the glories of the past were a largely a facade. The great empires permitted a few people to enjoy great wealth, while most people barely survived. More significantly, for the rise of the modern world, empire meant stagnation. Even the Roman Empire was an era of technological stagnation. Apart from some innovations like cement, Romans did not see progress in technology, health, life expectancy or other markers of sociological improvement.
Two cultures stood out in the ancient world, Judaism, because it conceived of reality as law-like and orderly, which gave the sociological basis for science, and the Greeks, because they were divided and competitive, which competition did promote technological and intellectual development.
Part II is "The Not-So Dark Ages (500 - 1200)." Since empire is a bane to progress, the fall of the Western Roman Empire was a blessing because it introduced disunity and therefore competition and diversity into Western culture. Western culture remained largely fortunate to avoid the re-establishment of a new empire for the balance of its history.
The Dark Ages were a period of radical technological progress, largely because the stultifying hand of the Roman empire was gone. According to Stark, "the wealthy leisure class" was parasitical. Roman trade routes were not designed for commerce so much as to ensure that tribute flowed and armies could march. The fall of Rome meant that new routes and trade towns developed that were devoted to commerce.
The evidence of technological development during the "Dark Ages" is conclusive. The heavy plow was developed in the 5th century, whereas Rome never moved beyond the "scratch plow." The harrow, which broke up clods, was developed in the same period. Europeans learned how to harness horse and the developed the three plot technique. (p. 77.) They also developed watermills and windmills and employed them extensively. (p. 78.) Where Roman transportation was inefficient and primitive, Europeans developed wagons with brakes and front axles that could swivel and to which horses could be harnessed. (p. 79) Europeans developed new kinds of ships and innovated in military techniques - crossbow, gunpowder and armor. (p. 84). (Stark makes the point that most armored knights fought dismounted. (p. 86.) ) This military innovation led to the fact that Europeans were able to maintain a military presence for hundreds of years in the midst of Islamic territory, even though they were vastly outnumbered. (p. 109 ("The few Muslim victories int eh field were due to overwhelming numbers; their other victories involved sieges.").)
Stark also points out that some purported aspects of European "exceptionalism" were not exceptional. Thus, he points out that Baybars, Sultan of Egypt, killed every Christian when Antioch fell to Islam in 1268. (p. 109.) This despite the promise to spare their lives. (p. 111.) It was the greatest massacre of the entire crusading era. (p. 111.) Saladin's magnanimity after the capture of Jerusalem was exceptional; after the Battle of Hattin (1187), Sladin had every knight beheaded. (p. 110.)
Stark separates the Catholic Church of the Dark Ages into the "Church of Power" and the "Church of Piety" (p. 113.) to explain the periods of reform and periods of stagnation. Stark documents that, even under the Church of Power, the Church was able to impose sanctions on miscreant rulers like Fulk II, Count of Anjou (972 - 1040) who seems to have spent half his rule traveling to Jerusalem for penance. (p. 117.)
In Chapter 6 - "Freedom and Capitalism" - Stark points to the connection of the Christian idea of free will to freedom to capitalism (and ultimately to Western progress.) "Belief in free will led directly to valuing the right of the individual to freely choose, with the result that medieval Europe rejected slavery - the only culture ever to have done so without external compulsion." (p. 119.) Stark connects this ideology to both Augustine and Aquinas, and points out that slavery can be exist for consumption - bodyguards, entertainers, sex slave - as well as for productivity, which means that there is no economic reason for slavery to be outlawed. (p. 121) In fact, slavery continues to exist today throughout the world. Slavery pays (p. 123.) (By the way, serfdom is not slavery - serfs had right to marry and control property. (p. 122.)
Economics did not cause the end of slavery. Rather:
"Slavery ended in medieval Europe only because the church extended its sacraments to all slaves and then banned the enslavement of Christians (and of Jews). Within the context of medieval Europe, that prohibition was effectively a rule of universal abolition." (p. 123.)
Stark also takes aim at the "Weber Thesis" and demonstrates that early capitalism began on "the great Catholic monastic estates back in the ninth century." (p. 130.) Monasteries had the advantage of continuing, far-sighted leadership which led to specialization of labor. (p. 131.) Further, Christianity adopted an attitude that work did not degrade a person. (p. 134.)
Part III deals with "Medieval Transformations (1200 - 1500). Among the subjects covered by Stark is the contribution of Scholasticism to science. The great European universities were the first institutions designed for the "pursuit of knowledge" as if knowledge - and new knowledge - was a good thing.(p. 150.) Chapter 8 includes a list of the Scholastics who were natural philosopher and who laid the foundation for empiricism. (p. 164 ("Of crucial importance, the great medieval universities were dominated by empiricism from the start. If it was possible to put an intellectual claim to observational tests, then that was what should be done.") Dissection was forbidden in classical times and in Islam, but in Christian Europe textbooks on dissection were being published in 1315.
Stark also describes the great technological advances that put Europe far ahead of the rest of the world during this period. Fulling with waterwheels, blast furnaces, carracks and galleons were all developed at this time. (p. 194.)
This was the period that saw the beginning of European discovery, and with it the rise of empires and a new form of slavery. Stark takes on the politically correct scholarship by pointing out that the ancient American empires are not deserving of much sympathy; they engaged in cannibalism, mass sacrifice, slavery and other atrocities that modern liberals would condemn if engaged in by Europeans. As for the slave trade, Europeans plugged into the pre-existing African slave trade that had long been established by Muslims and African chieftains. (p. 228 - 229.) The Catholic Church attempted to oppose the new slavery, but was ignored. (p. 229.) What the Catholic Church was able to do was create a more legalistic, and ultimately more humane system, where families could not be broken up, slaves had Sunday off, slaves had to be given access to the sacraments, slaves could own property and buy their freedom. (p. 230.) Empirical data for the effect of this approach can be seen in the fact that by 1830, in Louisiana 13.2% of blacks were free, as compared to 1.3 percent in Alabama and .8 percent in Mississippi and 41.7% of the African-Americans in New Orleans were free. (p. 232.)
Three last areas I want to cover are the Reformation, Galileo and Islam.
With respect to the Reformation, Stark confirms some things I had long suspected from my other reading. The Protestant Reformation did not follow the printing press. Studies show that there was no correlation between a town having a printing press and it becoming Protestant.(p. 270.) There are a lot of reasons for this, and one might be that no more than 5% of Germans could read. (p. 270.) What was dispositive was whether a local ruler would benefit from appropriating Catholic property and rights, i.e. was it in the "self-interest" of the ruler, be it a prince, king or town council, to turn Protestant, take church lands, and exercise control over the appointment of pastors and bishops. (p. 274.)
With respect to Galileo, Stark points out the sui generis nature of the Galileo Affair and how Galileo's overwhelming ego brought on the trial that the Church wanted to avoid. Stark also points out a fact that I've argued but have never seen in print, namely, that it was a very bad time for someone to claiming that the Bible was not inerrant. After all, at that time Catholics were fighting the Thirty Years War based, in part, on the claim that Catholics were not faithful to the Bible. (p. 318 ("Partly in response to Protestant charges that the Catholic Church was not faithful to the Bible, the limits of acceptable theology were being narrowed, and this led to increasing church interference in scholarly and scientific discussions. Urban and leading officials were not however ready to clamp down on scientists; instead they proposed ways to avoid conflicts between science and theology by separating their domains.")
On Islam, Stark punctures many of the politically correct balloons about Islamic tolerance and progress by citing facts. Thus, Islamic Ottoman forces barely captured Rhodes despite and 80,000 to 3,000 advantage, and couldn't capture Malta with a similar advantage, and decisively lost Lepanto, and lost at the siege of Vienna, because of being outmatched by European technology. Islamic science and technology was never Islamic, but was always something provided to Islam almost exclusively by the non-Islamic dhimmis that Islam had in its borders. When those populations were ruthlessly repressed, Islamic science and progress disappeared.
Obviously, this is another long review for me, but I have only scratched the surface. I recommend this book without reservation. Stark is an engaging writer, and his ideas and insights fly off the page.