THE VICTORY OF REASON:
How Christianity led to freedom, capitalism, and Western success
by Rodney Stark
Hardcover: 281 pages
Price: $49.95 (Available from Freedom Publishing)
Two great sociologists of the early 20th century, R.H. Tawney and Max Weber, have had a remarkable impact on Western thinking concerning the rise of capitalism. Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (first published in German in 1904), suggested that Calvinism was an essential ingredient in the emergence of capitalism, and therefore of modern Western society.
In one sense, Weber’s work was a repudiation of Karl Marx, who had argued that capitalism was the penultimate stage in social development, following its triumph over mercantilism, which itself had succeeded feudalism.
In Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), R.H. Tawney argued that the Protestant Reformation, which destroyed the monolithic influence of the Catholic Church, was decisive in the emergence of capitalism in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
There seemed to be a good deal of empirical evidence to support this proposition, which had been articulated, in somewhat similar terms, by Lord Macaulay in the mid-19th century.
The Protestant nations of northern Europe were, at the time, immeasurably more advanced – industrially, socially and politically – than the Catholic countries of southern Europe.
The rise of the United States, whose institutions were heavily influenced by America’s Puritan founders, then by the individualism which underpinned the American War of Independence, seemed to confirm this view.
Professor Stark looks at the rise of Western society in a much wider historical perspective, contrasting the way in which Christianity looked at the world with the approach taken by the earlier Greek and Chinese civilisations, and the Islamic faith which emerged in the 7th century.
Despite the brilliance of Greek philosophy, and the origins of democracy in ancient Athens, Greece had no long-term impact on the governments which conquered it.
China too was a great civilisation; but it was not one which had any regard for the ideas of political freedom and economic development.
Islamic societies made distinctive contributions to the development of knowledge, particularly in the areas of medicine and astronomy, but Islam rejected the concept of personal freedom, and rejected the idea of progress.
Professor Stark concludes that there were four principal reasons for the rise of the Christian West. The first was the idea, unique to Christianity, of faith in progress itself. Christianity also viewed the world as the deliberate creation of a rational God, whose laws governed the operation of the universe, and were open to being discovered and utilised in the interest of mankind.
Even after civilisation, as we know it, was largely destroyed by the barbarian invasions of Europe in the 5th and 6th centuries AD, written knowledge was never completely lost, and, surprisingly rapidly, innovation and technological improvement took place – often under the auspices of the monasteries which were then havens of learning and civilisation.
Professor Stark also shows how Christian principles underpinned the movement towards political liberty, not just in England through the Magna Carta, but also in continental Europe, with the emergence of the city states, some of which, such as Venice, Genoa, Milan and Florence, in medieval Europe, were incomparably better governed and more prosperous that any part of England until the 19th century.
The emergence of political liberty was then followed by the application of reason to commerce, creating the foundations for capitalism, and the modern economy.
Political and economic liberty then spread to northern Europe, through the Low Countries to England, then expanding as a great maritime power, in fierce competition with Holland, Portugal and Spain.
In this conflict, the English were victorious, establishing an empire based on the complementary economies of Britain and its colonies. The colonies provided the raw materials which fuelled the industrial revolution, making the British Empire the greatest the world had ever seen.
In contrast, the Spanish Empire had been paralysed by both its reliance on gold from South America, and the utter incompetence of its rulers, a hereditary monarchy answerable to no one. Its final dénouement came with the total destruction of Spain during the Napoleonic Wars, and the loss of its American colonies at almost exactly the same time.
Professor Stark shows that, throughout history, the enemies of both political and economic progress, in the Western world and elsewhere, have been despotism and anarchy.
This is a profound and illuminating book, which answers some of the most profound questions of our day. At a time when the barbarians are already inside the gates, it gives hope that once more, Christianity will rescue the civilisation to which it gave birth, but which has largely abandoned it.