Monday, August 10, 2015

How the West Won by Rodney Stark

After hearing the author interviewed by Dennis Prager, I decided to put his book, How the West Won, on my list. Rodney Stark does an excellent job describing the rise of modernity, which is directly tied to the rise of Western Civilization. He unapologetically declares, “To the extent that other cultures have failed to adopt at least major aspects of Western ways, they remain backward and impoverished.” Wow. Can you even say something like that today?

It begins with the miracle in Ancient Greece. This was not an empire, but a collection of autonomous city-states. In the surrounding empires, property was insecure. It made no sense to innovate when your product could be usurped by the state. The Greeks were free to innovate and consequently were able to defeat their enemies with better arms, tactics, and organization. This pattern continues today in Western countries. The Greeks could invest in science and pioneer technology because they believed in a rational universe. They engaged in formal logic, “as opposed to mysticism and meditation, [and it] became the defining hallmark of Christianity.”

While other empires ignored the advances of the Greeks, the Jews recognized a kindred spirit. Their “image of God as not only eternal and immutable but also as conscious, concerned, and rational” was quite compatible with the thinking of the Greeks. But that the Jews’ God was a “loving Creator who is intensely conscious of humankind” who “sees and hears; [who] communicates; [who] intervenes” and was not “remote and inert [like the] God of the Greeks” underlay the further rise of West. Because God was progressively revealing Himself to the Jews, they believed strongly in progress. History was not fixed, random, or chaotic, or doomed to always repeat. We could push our knowledge both of God and of our world. The Christians inherited this idea as well. In fact, Christians believed that “God as the rational creator of a comprehensible universe, ... therefore expect[ed] that humans will become increasingly sophisticated and informed, continually prodd[ing] the West along the road to modernity.”

He believes that Rome, with its immense size and lack of innovation, was a pause in the furtherance of Western values. In what he calls, “the not-so-dark ages,” with the “stultifying effects of Roman repression now ended, the glorious journey toward modernity resumed.” The fall of Rome “unleashed so many substantial and progressive changes.” In fact, Stark shows how repeatedly, the more “barbaric” the culture, that is to say not under a repressive imperial rule, the more innovative the people became. Empires tended to crush all in their striving for unity. Disunity was the necessary condition for forward progress. 

“One of the most important ideas facilitating the rise of West is the belief in free will.” The belief that we are responsible for our own fate led to the rise of capitalism in medieval Italian city-states. The doctrine of free will also led to the eventual banishment of slavery, since everyone was an individual before God. Not only was slavery a human rights disaster, it was an economic disaster. Freedom led to capitalism which led to prosperity. And the church promoted a virtue in work. This meant the priests were to engage in vocational work with promoted science, learning, and economic pursuits. This idea put the powerful church at the forefront of progress. Christian's commitment to theology, meant they had a commitment to knowledge. They sought to know God and His world better. This had wonderful repercussions for the world.

This study of natural philosophy with accompanied their theological pursuits, led to great scientific advances. The story of the great Scientific Revolution ignores the years of scientific groundwork laid by serious scholars within the church. 

In addition, throughout “medieval Europe was the rise of banking, elaborate manufacturing networks, rapid innovation in technology and finance, and a busy network of trading cities.” Eventually this would lead to the Industrial Revolution. The fact was that the Magna Carta gave English merchants secure property rights and free markets allowed the English industries to develop or exploit technology in a far superior way than their surrounding counterparts. You see the benefit of a more relaxed regime when you compare England to Spain. “Nearly everyday [Charles V and Philip II] rose early and worked diligently at administering this sprawling entity... In contrast, the ‘Pirate Queen’ ran a relaxed regime, treating her Sea Dogs more like business partners than subjects, and they responded with brilliant initiative. In the end, it was this English free-enterprise approach that was the final undoing of the Spanish Empire.”

Some will point to the exalted “Golden Age” of the Muslims. Stark does a good job revealing this to be a myth. To the extent that the Muslim (or Arabic) society succeeded was based on the extent to which the conquered people were succeeding. The Arabs usually usurped the ideas and technology of newly conquered areas. Yet once they started cracking down on the heretical ideas of the dhimmis, Muslim backwardness was revealed. In fact, unlike the British “nation of shopkeepers” the Ottoman sultans claimed ownership of everything within their empire. This led to rich sultans and poor people. No one had an incentive to strive or achieve or produce. Without liberty and property rights, there would be no real progress in the Muslim world. 

The United States took the liberty and property rights bequeathed them by their mother nation and added “high wages, cheap energy, and a highly educated population – plus a plenitude of resources and raw materials and a  huge, rapidly growing domestic market.” This enabled the New World to surpass the old one. Religion played a huge role in producing an educated populace. As a Protestant people, they were expected to be literate enough to read the Bible and interpret it. The Americans were able to bring together all the best ideas of Western Civilization in one place and succeed more than anyone had ever imagined. 

In summary, “the rise of Western modernity was function of freedom – freedom to innovate and freedom from confiscation of the fruits of one’s labors. When the Greeks were free they created a civilization advanced beyond anything else in the world. When Rome imposed its imperial rule all across the West, progress ceased for a millennium. The fall of Rome once again unleashed creativity and, for good and for ill, the fragmented and competing Europeans soon outdistanced the rest of the world, possessed not only of invincible military and naval might but also of superior economies and standards of living. All these factors combined to produce the Industrial Revolution, which subsequently changed life everywhere on earth.”

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