Monday, August 11, 2014

Book Review - How the West Won by Rodney Stark

In the not so distant past, a standard course in almost every American university was Western Civilization.  It was common for university students to trace the ups and downs of civilization from a euro-centric viewpoint.  Today such a course has basically disappeared completely from the secular university.  Such a course is profoundly politically incorrect.  Today it is profoundly insulting to every other culture in the world to suggest that western civilization is what we have to thank for modern science and economic growth.

As a result Americans have and will increasingly become ignorant about how the world came to be.  Their heads will be filled with absurd history that does everything in its power to downplay or outright deny the debt our present world owes to western civilization.  

Into this realm of historical absurdity rides Dr. Rodney Stark, sociologist at Baylor University.  In his latest tour-de-force entitled How the West Won:  The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity, he argues that the world is much poorer when we ignore the fact that the modern world owes a vast debt to the free civilization begun with the ancient Greeks.

In addition to recounting the history of the West, he looks at things in a whole new way, tackling the received wisdom of how and why history happened.  For example, he argues that the fall of Rome was a good thing for civilization because autocratic, imperial Rome stagnated progress rather than accelerated it.  The Dark Ages, famous for being a time of ignorance and stagnation, was actually a time of development.  He addresses the effect of climate change on history, especially the centuries long global warming in the middle ages and the little ice age that followed.  According to Stark, the scientific revolution was no revolution at all, but merely a continued development of scientific progress that began with the founding of western universities.  On top of that, he presents a strong argument that the vast majority of scientists of the day were devout or at least practicing Christian believers.  Rather than the modern argument that Europe took advantage of its colonies, draining them of wealth, the actual truth is that European nations poured much more into their colonies then they took out.  He also expands on some of the recent scholarship that shows that the influence of western, Christian missionaries had a profound and continuing impact on developing nations.

Stark answers questions such as why China, which developed so much technology, was never able to apply that technology to its civilization as a whole.  Why were eyeglasses, mechanical clocks, telescopes and microscopes found only in Europe for centuries?  Why did science, geographical exploration and capitalism develop only in Europe?  What is the right answer to the modern view that the western world is profoundly in debt to Islam?

The fact is, in the west, and only in the west, could a person find freedom, property rights and governments that were not imperially autocratic.  Out of these things and more, western civilization developed.  Compare that to a typical Eastern civilization like the Islamic Ottoman Empire.  For example, at the battle of Lepanto (Oct. 7, 1571) between Mediterranean Christians and the Ottoman Turks, Ali Pasha, the commander of the Ottoman naval forces had his whole personal fortune with him on his galley.  When the ship was captured, all of it was plundered by enemy sailors.  Why did this man have the equivalent of millions of dollars on his boat?  Because there was no other safe place to have the money in the corrupt, autocratic Ottoman Empire.  There was no place that this man could have his money that was protected and free from its loss or confiscation at the hands of a repressive economy run by a megalomaniac sultan.

As our nation becomes increasingly autocratic, as our government erodes constitutional freedoms, as private rights increasingly take a back seat to the “public good”, Rodney Stark’s book is increasingly important.  If we forget how we got here, we have no hope of continuing on that path of progress.  While Stark’s book is not the only history book you should read, it is definitely worth a read , if only to counter the increasingly absurd arguments of those who seem to be increasingly hateful of the freedoms and economy of the West.

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