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Book Review

 

Rodney Stark, Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. New York: Random House, 2006. Pp. 304. $15.95 (paper).

 
      Rodney 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. 1
    The book, 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. 2
    Echoing 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. 3
     Stark's 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. 4
     Stark's 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.   5
     The 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 China. 6
     A 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. 7
     Stark 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. 8
     Also 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. 9
     For 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. 10
     Stark 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. 11
     Thus 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.   12
Thomas Mounkhall
SUNY New Paltz

 
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