37 of 62 people found the following review helpful
A profoundly misleading book.
, 14 Feb. 2007
This review is from: The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Paperback)
The thesis of this book appears to be that Catholic Christianity founded capitalism. One's first assumption might be that, if this were true, the medieval church had betrayed the teachings of its founder and that this book was a polemic (not unknown for instance, when even Dante and other medieval figures complained of the greed and corruption of the church) to this end. Not at all, it is praise of the church. The subtitle turns out to be How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism and Western Success.
To maintain this improbable thesis, the author needs to denigrate the Roman empire. No one would want to give the empire unqualified praise -it could be brutal and much of its treatment, of criminals, for instance, was sickening. However, it did successfully keep the Mediterranean world in comparative peace for several centuries. The Roman and Greek parts had different kinds of achievements but it was to take many centuries before anyone could build an acqueduct which led water evenly down into a city over ninety miles, a dome as big as the Pantheon in Rome (or Santa Sophia in Constantinople) or as vast a building as the baths of Caracalla which could house 4000 bathers and provide hot water for them. The organisation of the empire's defence and administration again had no equals for many many centuries. The problem is that the author either is completely ignorant of how the ancient world works or chooses not to find out. His texts is full of basic errors. For instance:
`Ultimately, Greek learning stagnated of its own inner logic [whatever that means] . After Plato and Aristotle very little happened beyond some extensions of geometry'. (P.20)
How one can leave out Euclid, Archimedes, Ptolemy, Plotinus, Galen, Hipparchus, all of whom were writing in the centuries after Aristotle, is extraordinary. The pleasure of reading Plutarch's Lives still awaits Stark. I could not really believe that anyone could write the sentence without checking up in any introductory book on Greek culture to make sure it was correct. Some of the greatest work in Greek science, e.g. Ptolemy in geography and astronomy and Galen in medicine, took place over four hundred years after Plato and Aristotle. The fact that the rational tradition lasted so long, nearly a thousand years ( 570 BC to the suppression of paganism by the emperor Theodosius in the 390s AD),is a testament to its vitality. For this reader, the sentence immediately discredited the book as a serious work of scholarship, but the errors went on.
Stark "Roman buildings were essentially unheated'.
Well-documented and sophisticated heating systems from rural villas ( hypocausts) to the vast public baths of Rome existed throughout the empire. Often cutaway plans of heating systems are provided in children's textbooks on the Romans. In fact, I put in `Roman underfloor heating' in a Google search and came up with such a children's website with a nice picture of a Romano-British villa complete with its heating system. I have recently visited the Roman villa in Piazza Armerina in Sicily and noted how its flues and pipes worked to provide heat. The heating of the baths in Rome (and in all other large cities) where sometimes thousands of bathers were accommodated in a range of rooms of different temperatures is even more impressive. (Stark has the medieval world inventing chimneys but as, to take Britain, brickmaking collapsed with the fall of the empire and did not reappear for eight hundred years,it is not until the mid-fifteenth century that homes are heated through chimneys, for those who could afford bricks or fashioned stone. This was a long time to wait from Roman times and had nothing directly to do with the church in any case.)
`Roman trade mainly dealt in luxuries and was unproductive.' This is an old theory which has been completely undermined by archaeological research , not only of shipwrecks but of humbler sites which show the extent to which even peasants were benefitting from trade. A glance at the recent edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary under `Trade' would have shown the following:
`The number of shipwrecks recorded for the period 100 BC to AD 300 is much larger than for either the preceding period or the `Dark Ages'- this suggests a level of operation which was not to be reached again until the High Renaissance. . . .the greatest spur to the development of this trade was the creation of a fully monetarised economy throughout the empire.'
This is where the `Christianity brought capitalism' argument falls down. The empire was a fully monetarised economy and as a result of long years of stability, the fruits of this extended downwards to peasant level. With the fall of the empire, money disappears in the west for centuries. A horde found at Hoxne in Suffolk from the late Roman empire had 14,000 coins in it, the Sutton Hoo treasure from a few miles away and two centuries later had a mere 40 and these seem to have been prestige objects.
Having got off to a bad start, Stark then continues with his thesis that Christianity preserved reason. One would need to offer a sophisticated argument in support of this counterintuitive view but none is given. Stark gives, as an example of Christian reasoning, Thomas Aquinas' `reasoned' argument that the Virgin Mary had no other children. `So we assert without qualification that the mother of God conceived as a virgin, gave birth as a virgin and remained a virgin after birth'. This is presented as `an example of careful deductive reasoning leading to new doctrines'. I read and reread this extraordinary assertion of `reasoned thought' which went alongside others which claimed that the church founded modern science! (This claim in itself was problematic as Stark admits he knows of no `Greek learning ` after Aristotle'. Most historians of science give the Greeks precedence in science and mathematics but as Stark admits he knows of no Greek learning after Aristotle, when the greatest Greek work in these disciplines took place, he eliminates himself from any serious debate) Surely the continuing belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary is one of the doctrines which suggest to many that the church does not support empirical reasoned thought. It is not only extremely unlikely in any biological sense, how would one find the empirical evidence to support it in any case? The odd thing is that if Stark knew his Aquinas he would be able to find examples of where he backed Christian theology by reason.
Everywhere there are problems with his thesis. Stark introduces the concept of the `Dark Ages', not much used nowadays in scholarship. Then comes the sweeping polemical statement: `The idea that Europe fell into the Dark Ages is a hoax originated by antireligious and bitterly anti-Catholic, eighteenth century intellectuals.' (The language is typical of Stark's sweeping and often unjustified rubbishing of his (often more scholarly `intellectual') opponents.) Not so, the idea was originated by Petrarch in the fourteenth century (put in 'dark ages' and 'Petrarch' in any search engine) as he revived the idea that the achievements of the classical period had been forgotten as the result of the long period of darkness which followed it. Petrarch was a good Catholic but even he could see how culture had deteriorated. In fact, he states very opposite of what Professor Stark is trying to prove.
Again he seems to assume that the fall of the Roman empire somehow liberated new energies and innovations. It took centuries before the economy of Europe began to pick up. Even in 1000 there were only some 100 towns in Europe. Bryan Ward-Perkins's The Fall of Rome provides the archaeological evidence that in many parts of Europe, above all Britain, standards of living went back to pre-Roman levels and it was often hundreds of years before basic commodities such as bricks reappeared. Again and again Stark makes sweeping generalisations about innovation being widespread but the underlying evidence from ice cores and shipping records (see above) is that it took a thousand years before levels of industrial and trading activity reached what they had been in Roman times.
The Middle Ages -500- 1500 is an exciting place to be at the moment as a mass of new scholarship and the integration of archaeological research is being put together in new interpretations. Overall, scholarship seems now (and this must be a generalisation when the church controlled such a large proportion of wealth) be stressing the secular contribution to new technology and innovation. The leading books hardly mention the church as it was simply not involved in most of the growth areas of the economy. There is a new emphasis on how social and economic change was stimulated by forces outside the church, even the universities appear to be rooted in the urban pride and administrative needs of the city states of northern Italy, although the church did acquiesce in their foundation. Literacy fell dramatically in the years after the fall of the empire - there are complaints from some communities that they could not find anyone able to write. The church did not spread literacy beyond itself and monastic libraries were often tiny -only fifty volumes in many English cases. When the Irish scholar Eriguena produced his The Division of Nature in 860, it was said that there was no one in Europe with the learning to understand it. Perhaps this is why it survived until the thirteenth century when someone in the church could and declared it heretical! Far from seeing Christianity behind the revival of the European economy (as Stark argues), Michael McCormick sums up his magisterial Origins of the European economy as follows: 'the rise and economic consolidation of Islam changed the nature of an emerging European economy - it offered the wealth and markets which would fire the first rise of western Europe."
This new scholarship on the period 500 - 1200 is detailed and analytical. There were innovations but a study of each needs to explore the social and economic forces which sustained them. The Arab world was important in stimulating trade and was the medium through which instruments such as the astrolabe came back into Europe (as well as texts such as those of Aristotle which brought back the possibility of reason into intellectual thought). Many innovations appear to have simply been responses to technological bottlenecks and one did not have to be Christian to make them. As Stark is a professor of social sciences one would expect him to analyse these social forces. Yet, everything is attributed to Christianity. The major weakness of this book is that there is no study of how the church related to society, let alone to innovation. It is simply assumed that if a change happened it was the church which brought it. There were certainly forces against reason. It was Bernard of Clairvaux, in his campaign against the brilliant Abelard , who opined ` Let him who has scanned the heavens go down in the depths of hell.' There were forces in the church, and powerful ones at that, which opposed reason, and others, notably Aquinas who supported it. In most cases, the church, so long ,as it maintained its wealth, was not really interested in capitalism and the growth areas of the European economy normally operated independently of the church. The economy of Florence is exceptionally well documented -it had major ups and downs -but while its leading commercial and banking familes paid lip service to the church,and in the case of the Medicis, used their wealth as a stepping stone to the Papacy, it is hard to see how the church did anything to support the Florentine economy. Instead the surplus from the church's enormous estates and the taxation of the faithful was channelled into non -productive areas such as church building. (The high literacy , perhaps seventy per cent, of the Florentines both girls and boys was largely due to private education.) Just look at the layout of any medieval city to see how money became ties up in churches. Architecturally they were great achievements but they had nothing to do with capitalism or provision for the poor.
One can also look at Venice,the most dynamic economy of the thirteenth to early fifteenth century Stark pays some lip service to this achievement. However, there is no mention of how Venice's wealth was consolidated and it is worth reminding readers why. A new crusade to the Holy Land was launched for 1204. Venice agreed,for a price, to provide the ships. The crusaders could not pay and the Venetians diverted the crusader fleet to the Christian (if heretical) city of Constantinople which was then sacked. Venice grabbed a number of Byzantine trading stations along the Mediterranean and its economy boomed. So the capitalist wealth of Venice was indirectly stimulated by the initiation of the notorious Fourth Crusade by the church. Is this the argument Stark wishes to make? Again,Stark wisely leaves Europe before the seventeenth century when the wars of religion devastated large areas of Europe, cutting population in some areas to a third of what it had been. It was partly as a reaction to the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of institutional religion that these wars showed , that reason reasserted itself in the Enlightenment. A study of the forces resisting Enlightenment ideals, however, show just how powerful `unreason' continued to be.
There is some correlating evidence to suggest that it was not until the sixteenth century before the European economy reached the level of prosperity it had enjoyed under the Roman empire. If both a Christian and pagan society achieved relatively high standards of living in this part of the world,this would suggest that it is something in the nature of Europe, its fertility, geographical position in relation to other markets, etc.,etc, which fostered its wealth. This is the argument one would expect a social scientist to explore. One could well argue that to take a thousand years to reach Roman levels of prosperity is an argument against Christianity but that would be to make an unsubstantiated generalisation when there are already rather too many in this book already!
What worries me most about this book is that Stark is so often lauded for his scholarship. Many Christians in the US who ,through no fault of their own, have not explored European history (just as I have not explored the history of the Americas between 500 and 1500 except at a cursory level) will think that this book is trustworthy from a historical point of view. I cannot make up my mind as to whether Stark is really as ignorant of the ancient world and medieval Europe as he comes across in this book, or whether he feels he has an argument to offer and the evidence against it can safely be disregarded. Why did he not just sit down and read through some of the recent scholarship in this area before starting the text? He may have his acolytes in some Christian circles but, in this book at least, he makes nonsense of any claim to be a serious scholar.
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