Book Review – How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity

As a young person, one of my favorite college classes was The History of Western Civilization, taught by Professor Steven Wozniak at the University of New Mexico. Professor Wozniak, despite his disdain for recently elected President Ronald Reagan, was a great professor who brought the subject to life with his lively lectures and superbly organized presentations. I attribute my life-long love of history to his teaching.

During that semester, and in the years since, I have often wondered about why our modern industrial society originated in Western Europe, why despite early advances in civilization the Chinese or Muslim worlds never saw a flowering of science and technology, and why even today the societies that reject Western values are largely repressed, backward, and unpleasant.

Just recently in a Wall Street Journal editorial, the story of how Poland, which embraced the West and the European Community after the fall of communism, has twice the economic growth and more prosperity than their neighbor to the east, Ukraine, which did not. Part of the reason for the current unrest in Ukraine is because they tried to “turn westward” earlier this year.

Any objective look at the world today will clarify that the highest level of prosperity, the best quality of life, the most equality for women, and the longest life expectancy are found in the “Western World”, exemplified and typified by the United States and Western Europe. Western civilization is the pinnacle of human existence on planet Earth to this point, and it is roundly vilified and condemned by the progressive movement, for reasons which are inexplicable to me.

Book Cover Rodney Stark How the West WonIn his book How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity, Professor Rodney Stark outlines how the rise of the West was fueled and enabled by the rise of Christianity, and how the philosophical underpinnings of rationality and reason embraced by early theologians actually enabled the idea that progress was possible and gave birth to capitalism, democracy and the western way of war, which enabled the West to defend against and survive threats from militant Islam.

In the Introduction to the book, Stark describes how the course “Western Civilization” which was once so popular in America’s colleges and universities (and a personal favorite of mine while in college) is now being dropped from many schools because of political correctness and leftist disdain for modern civilization.

One of the key points alluded to in the Introduction is how “…dramatic changes in climate played a major role in the rise of the West-a period of unusually warm weather (from about 800 to about 1250) was followed by centuries of extreme cold, now known as the Little Ice Age (from about 1300 to about 1850).” As I have noted elsewhere, this cyclical climate change was before our modern industrial society with its carbon emissions was present in the world.

This book is divided into five parts. In the three chapters of Part One, Stark reviews the rise of Greek civilization, the flowering of Judaism in the Middle East, and the rise, apex and decline of the Roman Empire over the years from 500 BC to 500 AD. Peering back into the mists of time to about 6,000 BC, Stark notes how people lived lives unchanged over the centuries, barely surviving at subsistence levels, under the thumb of ruling elites who “…extracted every ounce of “surplus” production. All signs of resistance were brutally crushed.” One point regarding the ancient empires remains relevant in today’s world, given the continuing fascination of the left with all-encompassing government:

The economic system of ancient empires and of all despotic states has come to be known as the ‘command economy’, since the state commands and coerces markets and labor-to exact wealth for itself [or in modern terms, to redistribute wealth]-rather than allow them to function freely. Command economies began with the earliest empires and have lasted in many parts of the modern world-they still attract ardent advocates. But command economies neglect the most basic economic fact of life: All wealth derives from production.” [Emphasis mine]

The ruins of the Parthenon
The ruins of the Parthenon

The three chapters of Part Two cover the years 500-1200 and reviews how the disunity of Europe actually enabled “…extensive, small-scale social experimentation and unleashed creative competition among hundreds of independent political units, which, in turn, resulted in rapid and profound progess.” Stark also dispels the belief that the “Dark Ages” was a time in which the Christian Church stifled intellectual, social, and technological development across Europe. Indeed, Stark makes the argument that the Church facilitated and drove growth and innovation, not stifled it. According to him, the “myth” of the “Dark Ages” was invented by 18th century intellectuals to slander Christianity and “celebrate their own sagacity”.

Also due to the disunity of the time, armed clashes led to the development of advanced military techniques, tactics and weapons that stood Europe in good stead during the invasions of Europe from the Muslims after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

Innovations in agriculture led to increased food supplies, which in turn led to rapid population growth. Europeans learned how to harness the power of wind and water to allow for mills to grind flour, full wool, and other industries.

The next chapter reviews the outburst of colonization and spread of European culture resulting from the Viking raids of the 8th century onward. The history of the crusades, the spread of Christendom and the crusader kingdoms are all reviewed in some detail.

The chapter titled “Freedom and Capitalism” describes how the belief in free will was unique to the West and how it shaped – and continues to shape – western life then and now. As Stark writes:

One of the most important ideas facilitating the rise of the West is the belief in free willbelief in free will led directly to valuing that right of the individual to freely choose, with the result that medieval Europe rejected slavery – the only culture to have done so without external compulsion.” This concept is so important that Stark spends some time discussing how slavery disappeared from Europe by the end of the tenth century, and how this in turn gave Europe an economic advantage over the rest of the world.

Grand Canal in Venice
Grand Canal in Venice

Of particular interest is the description of the development of the democratic cities on Italy and of capitalism. Stark defines capitalism as:

“Capitalism is an economic system wherein privately owned, relatively well-organized, and stable firms pursue complex commercial activies within a relatively free (unregulated) market, taking a systematic, long-term approach to investing and reinvesting wealth (directly or indirectly) in productive activities involving a hired workforce and guided by anticipated and actual returns.” Further: Capitalism rests on free markets, secure property rights, and free (uncoerced) labor.”

The four chapters of Part Three cover the years 1200-1500 and how the impact of climate change, plague and the pursuit of knowledge transformed Europe in profound ways. He also covers the rise of industry and trade and how Europeans, thanks to advances in maritime technology, branched out and began exploring the world.

Today’s angry debates over global warming and climate change ignore that fact that shifts in climate have been noted throughout history. The years from 1200-1500 saw a significant period of global cooling followed by the “Little Ice Age” when global mean temperatures slid by a significant margin. This change followed the Medieval Warm Period of 800 to 1250 (completely in the absence of carbon dioxide emissions, notably) when the Vikings settled Greenland and Iceland. That all changed in the winter of 1310-11 when Londoners danced around fires on the frozen river Thames, which had never happened before (or since). The global cooling period also led to failed harvests and widespread famine.

The colder weather also was responsible for more severe storms. The growing cold stranded the Viking settlers on Greenland, and with no forests they were unable to build or repair boats, with the result that they were wiped out.

The second disaster struck when a ship carrying flea-infested rats docked in Sicily, bringing the Black Death to Europe. Scholars estimate that 30% to 60% of Europe’s populations succumbed to the plague, which afflicted Europe from 1348 to 1351 and subsequent outbreaks.Plague in Leiden

In the five chapters of Part Four, Stark reviews what he calls “The Dawn of Modernity”, covering the years from 1500-1750. The obvious starting point for these chapters is the discovery of the New World and the European “…discovery of the extraordinary military superiority they held over the rest of the world.”

The part I like best about these chapters is that Stark is honest in his recounting of the adverse consequences of Western colonialism, but he also strips away the modern lens through which much of it is viewed and misrepresented. He discusses the unfortunate circumstances through which slavery – long abolished in Europe – was introduced to the New World. He debunks some of the popular myths surrounding the evil practice and points out that it was black Africans who rounded up and sold other black Africans into slavery, and how the Catholic Church came out strongly against this practice and the slave trade in total.

Stark also looks at the myth of the “noble savage” that colors so much leftist thought today. He analyzes how the native peoples actually lived brutish and brutal lives, with practices such as cannibalism and scalping commonplace; and how instead of “living in harmony with nature” there is “…ample evidence of Indian activities inconsistent with reverence for the earth – including deforestation and worn-out fields.”

In the next three chapters, the reader is led through a survey of the Spanish Empire and why it failed; the Lutheran Reformation and how this event replaced a repressive Catholic church with equally repressive reformed churches.

The fourth chapter of this section takes a look at several “Muslim Illusions” and goes through the true history of several events including the fall of Constantinople, the defense of Rhodes by the Knights of St. John, Sulieman’s campaign against Vienna, the Siege of Malta and the disaster at Lepanto. The common thread running through all of these incidents is the overwhelming military superiority of the Western nations, and how this alone prevented the Muslims from achieving the goal of a worldwide caliphate – in that era, anyway.

Stark, an expert on religion, reviews some common misconceptions about Islam and discusses why their culture never has experienced any scientific or technological advancement, and why the Muslim countries are still backward today. This part of the chapter alone is worth reading in the context of current day troubles in the Middle East, Islamic terror, al-Qaeda and the “War on Terror”.

The final chapter of the section reviews further advances in science and how science “came of age”. The lives and careers of leading scientists of the age – many still revered today, many forgotten – are reviewed. Stark points out how the advances in science during this era occurred with the encouragement of the Catholic Church, not in spite of the church as popular belief would have it.

In Part Five, there are three chapters that cover the industrial revolution which most scholars say started around 1750, liberty and prosperity, and globalization and colonialism and takes us to the current time.

The chapter on the Industrial Revolution covers the main advances in technology and motive power, and the advent of labor saving and productivity enhancing technologies that fueled a rise in prosperity never seen before in history. The chapter on “Liberty and Prosperity” is especially important because Stark discusses the reasons why the West became so successful economically – advanced liberty (freedom) and property rights. Stark notes “When property rights are not secure, it may be pointless to be more productive”. He devotes several pages to discussing how America took what had started in Great Britain and advanced it to the next level, calling it a “miracle”.

The final chapter of the book discusses how, with the rise of Western modernity in place it was spread around the world. Again, Stark looks frankly at European (and American) colonialism and dispels some of the more politically correct myths surrounding this period in history today. While greed was sometimes a motivating factor, the desire to help people was also a part, particularly among Christian missionaries.

Stark’s final words in the book are about “Partial Modernity””

“Although modernity has spread around the globe, in many places what has arisen is not Western modernity. Instead, technological aspects of modernity have been grafted onto non-Western cultural systems that still lack many of the basic political and moral aspects of Western civilization…In Arab societies many people own cell phones and drive automobiles, and the armies have an abundance of modern weapons…There are no Arab democracies. Women have few rights, and religious intolerance is the rule…A substantial degree of individual freedom is inseparable from Western modernity, and this is still lacking in much of the non-Western world.”

Observations and Conclusions

This book is very well written and referenced. There are extensive notes and an impressive bibliography. It is also 430 pages long, so it takes a little time to read. I read the Kindle version and have marked it up extensively.

Professor Stark is not an apologist for Western culture, in fact, he is an unabashed cheerleader. And why not? Western civilization has wrought the highest living standards yet seen on this planet, with impressive prosperity, long life spans, unprecedented degrees of equality for women and people who are outside the norm, and amazing technology and achievements. Where Western civilization has had shortcomings or unpleasantness, Stark does bring those up, but he treats them fairly. Nobody, no culture is perfect, and he acknowledges this.

I learned a lot from reading this book, particularly about the reasons WHY Western civilization has been so dominant over the last several hundred years. It also offered some insights into how to combat some of the progressive myths and propaganda surrounding our modern industrial society that I hope to put to good use in debating and presenting the libertarian point of view.

It’s a shame that our universities are getting away from offering courses on the successful pageant that is Western Civilization. It is to the detriment of generations to come.

This is one of several good books I’ve read this year, I highly recommend it!

By Richard D. Turnquist

July 27, 2014

 The Freedom Factor

“If there is a single factor responsible for the rise of the West, it is freedom.  Freedom to hope.  Freedom to act.  Freedom to invest.  Freedom to enjoy the fruits of one’s dreams as well as one’s labor.”

—Rodney Stark, How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity, Kindle location 2653


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