Toby Huff

For several decades now the question of how the history of the West should be taught has been much debated. In some circles it is believed that the study of Western civilization has been supplanted by “global history” that emphasizes finding “connections” among all the world’s cultural and geographical regions, under the assumption that only by considering such connections can the major developments of any particular civilizational area be understood and explained. In some versions, global history devalues Western commitments and achievements, suggesting that the culture of Classical Greece, the European Renaissance, the Reformation, and the rise of parliamentary democracy as well as the scientific revolution are not unique. Beyond that, the globalists want to believe—despite the lack of supporting evidence—that Western achievements must be the product of external influences.1

How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity, by Rodney Stark, takes an entirely different approach, one that seeks to provoke and challenge what many refer to as the new “multicultural” stance, which regards all cultural achievements as relative. Stark thinks that many of the newer histories are seriously biased against the West, not to mention Christianity. According to Stark, Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University and co-director of its Institute for Studies of Religion, students reading these new history texts are “badly misled by a flood of absurd, politically correct fabrications, all of them popular on college campuses.”2 In the following eighteen chapters, Stark attempts to rectify what he sees as false accounts and perspectives. In many respects How the West Won is a refashioning of Stark’s earlier books: For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (2003); The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (2005); and God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades (2009).

How the West Won is divided into five parts: “Classical Beginnings (500 BC–AD 500),” “The Not-So-Dark Ages (1500 to 1200),” “Medieval Transformations (1200 to 1500),” “The Dawn of Modernity (1500 to 1700),” and “Modernity (1750– ).” As he moves through these periods Stark discusses a broad range of questions about the rise of capitalism, industry, trade, the scientific revolution, colonialism, the Reformation, the Muslim world, liberty and prosperity, and finally, the long reach of globalization. It is perplexing that the subtext of How the West Won is based on military history and technology, from the Greeks to the Spaniards conquering the New World. Throughout the book Stark discusses the ways in which Western armies—from the Greeks battling the Persians, to the crusaders of the Middle Ages fighting the Muslims, to crusader troops defending the island of Rhodes against the Ottomans (1480–1522), to the Spaniards clashing with the Aztecs—were superior in technology, tactics, and valor. This may be true, but the “triumph of modernity” is not based solely or even mostly on military achievements.

Despite this subtext, however, Stark does broaden his conception of modernity to “identify that fundamental store of scientific knowledge and procedures, powerful technologies, artistic achievements, political freedoms, economic arrangements, moral sensibilities, and improved standards of living that characterize Western nations and are now revolutionizing life in the rest of the world” (2). He declares his interest in ideas as well as material (economic and technological) factors, and does indeed provide the reader with unusual perspectives on technological advances and the rise of industrial capitalism.

When dealing with Greek philosophy and its later effects Stark maintains two different views. On the one hand, he asserts that “the primary effect of Greek philosophy on Christianity had far less to do with doctrines per se than the commitment of even the earliest Christian theologians to reason and logic” (38). On the other hand, “The truth is that science arose only because the doctrine of the rational creator of a rational universe made scientific inquiry plausible” (40). This appears to be Stark’s way of reintroducing monotheism as the motivating factor in the rise of modern science. And yet, the idea of a fully rational, coherent, and created universe decipherable by human intelligence must be credited to Plato’s Timaeus.

Long before monotheism arose in force it was Plato who fashioned the thesis that the universe is a coherent whole based on “cause and chance,” and that man is a rational animal with the capacity to decipher the nature of that universe. It is fair to say that Christian theologians adopted this position (unlike Muslim theologians), yet it was the inherent commitment to the tools of philosophy, “the greatest boon that mankind has ever or will ever receive,” that allowed Christian philosophers and proto-scientists to carry on their work.3 Indeed, several of these medieval Christian rationalists—influenced by the Timaeus—turned their attention to biblical criticism, showing that certain passages of the Bible are implausible from a natural science point of view. It was not the belief in monotheism, shared by Muslims and Jews, who did not pave the way to modern science, but the belief in a rationally-ordered universe inhabited by individuals possessed of reason and blessed by the fruits of natural philosophy that carried the day. Coupled with that were Aristotle’s natural books—on physics, the science of motion, meteorology, the study of planets and animals and the heavens—that gave to the important scholars mentioned by Stark their scientific agenda, which was lacking in both the madrasas of Islam and the Jewish religious schools dedicated to monotheism.4

Stark’s view of the Roman Empire is surprisingly negative. He finds no merit in the Roman experience, so the fall of the Western empire (ca. 476) is a good thing: “the glorious journey toward modernity resumed” (66). His sound trouncing of the idea of “the Dark Ages”—“a complete fraud” (71)—is welcome and insightful, but because of his negative view of the Roman experience, Stark is silent on the most fully developed legal system of the world, the Roman corpus juris civilis. Consequently, when he discusses the Medieval transformation (part 3), and says, rightly, that “only the Church gave coherence to Europe” (105), Stark misses the central importance of canon law that established the basic institutional foundations of modernity: the rule of law, a formalized system of due process, parliamentary democracy, commerce-enhancing devices, and a host of other legal instruments still in use today. Stark stresses that “if there is a single factor responsible for the rise of the West, it is freedom” (138), but does not discuss constitutionalism, parliamentary democracy, the basis of freedom of thought in the universities that allowed open and public discussion even among the laity, nor how freedom of expression established itself only in the West by the invention of daily and weekly newspapers from the 1640s to the present.

Stark stands on much firmer ground in chapter 8, “The Pursuit of Knowledge,” when he declares the drive to know and understand the world to be “the fundamental key” to the rise of Western civilization (159). This chapter contains many good insights, but again, Stark’s approach afflicts his analysis. In some circles it is fashionable to claim that there was no “scientific revolution,” and by taking this position Stark appears to champion the general ambience of the medieval Christian church and its cultivation of important thinkers who did, indeed, pave the way for modern science. Unfortunately, by taking this tack, Stark ends up championing Ptolemy’s Almagest (the great second-century AD treatise on astronomy) while declaring that Copernicus’s On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres (1543) got “everything” wrong (170). Although the Almagest was the most important work in astronomy, Arabic-speaking astronomers knew that the system had many problems; that though the orbits of the planets were supposed to be perfectly circular they were not; that Ptolemy’s construction did not have the planets revolving around the geometric center of the universe, but around a displaced center (the equant), raising in Averröes’s mind the question of how the universe could have two centers, and thus two earths. Furthermore, the heavens periodically moved backwards (retrogression). Averröes threw up his hands and declared, “Nothing of the true science of astronomy exists in our time, the astronomy of our time being only in agreement with calculations…and not with what exists.”5

Contrary to Stark’s claim, Copernicus got most of it right. He created the first coherent astronomical system in which, for the first time, all the parts fitted together with the orbits governed by numeric ratios, revolving around a heliocentric point close to the center of the universe, along with a greatly expanded estimate of the size of our cosmos. Furthermore, though Copernicus did not have a new database of observations, but solely those of Ptolemy (and minor observations of his own), his new system was used by sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century European astronomers as a superior calculating device, while omitting the heliocentric orientation. Beyond that, Kepler could not have devised his proof of the elliptical shape of planetary orbits unless he assumed Copernicus’s sun-centered configuration.

Many chapters are riddled with errors of commission and omission. One example of the absence of proper attribution of scholarly debt is Stark’s use (138, 181) of the invention of eyeglasses, “massed-produced by plants in both Florence and Venice” and shipped around the world in the fifteenth century. Even now this is hardly common knowledge. We know about this because the late Vincent Ilardi plumbed the obscure files of Italian lens manufacturers, finding fourteenth- and fifteenth-century bills of sale for these and other shipments.6 But Stark does not provide a reference for his claims—which could have been encountered in the pages of my Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution: A Global Perspective, which he does cite elsewhere.7

Likewise, Stark’s account of the “Lutheran Reformation,” in which he cites interesting very early attempts to quantify the behavioral results of the new doctrine to no avail, is confusing. Historically and sociologically, it is doubtful that one can segregate the Lutheran and Calvinist effects in discussing Europe as a civilization. Many other scholars have shown important effects of the Reformation on income and education (using census data for the district of Wittenberg),8 social organization,9 and, of course, science. But this is hardly the Archimedean point for understanding all of European history. Stark’s approach to the science question lacks objectivity and misrepresents Robert Merton’s classic Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth-Century England (1938), written by a twenty-eight-year-old Harvard graduate student from a Philadelphia Jewish family. Merton’s book is not the narrow examination of the “scientific revolution” that Stark makes it, but a multifaceted study of the “the interplay between society, culture and science” as well as technology. How “do these vary in kind and extent in differing historical contexts?”10 The key here is that Merton was talking about the scientific movement (the very practical pursuit of science with shifting emphases) that occurred in seventeenth-century England, whereas it is perfectly fine to suggest that the scientific revolution of Copernicus in the sixteenth-seventeenth century (that Stark has thrown out) was rooted in “Catholic cultural areas,” as Benjamin Nelson put it long ago.11

In addition to a selective choice of research results, Stark makes claims opposite to what his sources wrote. He cites, for example, the authors of The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century, who worked out a metric for measuring religious tolerance for several dozen countries, many of them neither Christian nor Western. Stark wants to highlight continuing Protestant-Catholic tensions, when Brian J. Brim and Roger Finke state that religious freedom in Christian countries between 1945 and 2005 increased.12 This stands in contrast to Islamic countries, where there is less freedom now than a century ago, but which Stark does not mention, though he is highly critical of Arabic-Islamic civilization in his chapter on “Islamic Illusions.”

In his last chapter, “Globalization and Colonialism,” Stark makes a good case that the era of colonial imperialism did not primarily enrich European actors while impoverishing others (and no doubt many will contest this), but spread trade, education, and new technologies across the globe. But despite the impressive historical sweep of How the West Won, it stops short of explaining for students the uniqueness of Western institutions, the freedom ensconced in the Western legal system establishing constitutionalism, self-governance, due process of law, the idea of election by consent, and so much more. With the collapse of the so-called “Arab Spring” and the extraordinary fracturing of the Muslim world, along with the economic slowdown of China and its turn away from democracy and Western conceptions of due process, it seems likely that a younger generation will eventually rediscover the unique riches of Western cultural forms and their indispensability in a world that at least is trying through globalization to create unity. We greatly need to bring Western history and Western civilization back into the curriculum of American universities.

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