Rodney Stark, Victory of
Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success.
New York: Random House, 2006. Pp. 304. $15.95 (paper).
Stark's The Victory of Reason addresses the "Rise of the West"
debate, among the most important and controversial in World History. The
work makes several significant and positive contributions to disputes over
the role religion plays in historical change. Stark's broader insights about
World History will also be well received.
however, has several problems. Many of Stark's claims are poorly supported
by the evidence and, in some cases, contrary to a World History canon that
(judging from his extensive bibliography) he has read but does not directly
confront. Finally, The Victory of Reason is at least as much a
polemic about the contemporary world as it is an honest attempt to understand
the Rise of the West.
historical interpretation dating back to Lynn White and Alfred Crosby, Stark
depicts the medieval as a period of innovation rather than stasis. Its technological
advancements and adaptations ranged from eyeglasses and musical notation
to Aquinas's innovative application of Aristotelian logic to Catholic theology.
This is not altogether new; Alfred Crosby, for instance, developed the same
theme in The Measure of Reality (1997). However, earlier historians
stressed secular change. Crosby, for one, traces the growing significance
of mathematics to expanding late medieval commerce. Stark instead attributes
technological breakthroughs to innovations within Catholicism.
approach is most striking when he focuses on the relationship between Late
Medieval Western European monasteries and the subsequent development of
capitalism. Stark portrays St. Benedict – not John Calvin as the
father of the "work ethic". He characterizes Monastic communities not as
refuges for cloistered ascetics copying religious manuscripts, but as centers
of religious capitalism whose abbots managed large farms with many hired
hands. This challenge to Weber's analysis is welcome, adding complexity
to the "Rise of the West" narrative.
insistence on democracy's Christian roots is similarly provocative. Stark
identifies St. Paul's writings which considered all Christians equal in
God's sight – as a wellspring for later notions of equality. Stark
claims that Augustine and Aquinas influenced the concept of individual property
rights well before these ideas were codified in the English Bill of Rights.
Victory of Reason
does require caution. Stark asserts that Medieval Western European technology
was way ahead of the rest of the world. The three field system, waterwheel
technology and mechanical clocks did develop in Western Europe. However,
Song Dynasty China led the world in iron, ceramic and weapon technologies.
While Stark attributes the lateen sail and sternpost rudder to west European
innovation, the first originated in the Islamic world and the second in
serious drawback of the work lies in the Stark's claim that Christian thought
spurred Western Europe's technological innovations during the Middle Ages.
While the his stories are suggestive, hard evidence is lacking. Stark duly
enumerates late such Medieval Italian contributions to capitalist practice
as double-entry bookkeeping, bills of exchange, and business insurance.
Did Christianity actually cause the innovations? The argument is
asserted but not developed.
goes still further, attributing the development of 17th century Western
European empiricism almost entirely to the influence of Christian thought.
Islam is irrelevant to Stark's story: he dismisses Medieval Islamic scholars
as little more than astrologists and alchemists. Stark also questions the
significance of Greek texts preserved in Islamic and Byzantine libraries
before their European rediscovery and translation. In Stark's account, Greek
manuscripts, far from inspiring innovation, actually discouraged scientific
investigation. Although the relationship of Scholastic logic to the Scientific
Revolution is worth investigating, to ignore the influence of Ancient Greek
and Medieval Islamic thought strains credulity. Stark entirely ignores learning
derived from Islamic long distance trade in the Eastern Mediterranean –
a serious omission.
worth questioning is Stark's claim that democracy's moral justifications
owe more to Christianity than to Greek political philosophy. Stark asserts,
for instance, that Catholicism rejected divine right theory. This would
have surprised Bishop Bossuet, who gave the Church's blessing to the Sun
King's absolutist claims.
world historians, perhaps the most serious problem of this work is its analysis
of the Rise of the West. Granted, this subject is highly contentious and
susceptible to partisan arguments from many positions on the political spectrum.
However, Rodney Stark completely overlooks a full twenty years of World
History scholarship on the topic, most of which place this global watershed
in a global context. There is no doubt that factors indigenous to Western
Europe do help explain the later rise of Europe's 19th century global hegemony.
Nevertheless, such eminent world historians as Janet Abu-Lughod, Kenneth
Pomeranz and Andre Gunder Frank have demonstrated that 16th-18th century
global transformations owe much to the world beyond Western Europe. These
views at least deserve careful consideration.
is obviously a champion of free market capitalism. This becomes obvious
from his detailed catalogue of counterproductive commercial overregulation
imposed by the Early Modern French state. This theme reappears when he focuses
on the economies of 17th century France and the ante-bellum American South,
where, he says, inattention to private investment had deleterious effects.
It surfaces yet again when he characterizes Latin American liberation theology's
condemnations of profit-seeking as "left-wing fantasies" derived from a
false reading of the Catholic counter-Reformation.
some of Stark's central conclusions directly contradict many of world history's
widely held research findings. Quite a few of his claims are unsubstantiated.
Eurocentrism dominates the work, as does a thinly veiled polemic for free
markets and against contemporary economic regulation. Despite its drawbacks,
The Victory of Reason remains a worthwhile read. It breaths new
life to the notion that religion can change human affairs and will contribute
to an ultimately worthwhile debate on the Rise of the West.
SUNY New Paltz