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Rodney Stark


Subtitle: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success - Random House, N.Y., 2005, 281 pgs., index, bibliography end notes, paperback


Reviewer comment:
The author compares the beliefs and doctrines of Christianity with those of other ancient and medieval religions. He describes their concepts for the nature of reality, of God(s) and His role in reality and the concepts of man and individual man's role in reality. Only Christianity conceived and promoted beliefs in these that could and did sustain individual (as contrasted to the collective) freedoms. Only Christianity conceived of a future reality that encouraged science based on reason. He traces and describes how through western history Christianity was responsible for social, political, economic, religious, and intellectual development. He demolishes several myths promoted by anti-Christian writers. Unfortunately he does accept several other myths about relatively minor issues. His definition of 'capitalism' is overly elaborate with too many qualifications. Stark's descriptions of the historical development of western European economic history is standard as found in most school books and general histories of Europe. One of the best detailed works is Peter Spufford's Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe. But what is different is his stress on the causation of this being Christian religious unification of faith in revelation and reason. And Stark has published a new and more comprehensive book - how the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity. This book claims the same fundamental cause - Christianity based reason - but develops the results throughout a wider historical record.


The author mentions various theories advanced as explanations for the obvious success of Western culture and technological superiority in its spread throughout the world. But these theories focus on how but do not explain why. One general answer attributes Western domination to the development and expansion of capitalism. But they still do not explain why capitalism developed only in western Europe. He writes: "The Victory of Reason explores a series of developments in which reason won the day, giving unique shape to Western society. Christianity was based on reason not mystery or intuition "Christianity alone embraced reason". Christianity was oriented to the future. Christianity supported science. He discusses Max Weber's famous book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. He notes that it was immediately refuted but still is popular. The problem was that capitalism developed in Europe centuries before the Protestant Reformation. Instead, Stark ascribes the development of capitalism in some places in Europe to the lack of despotism in those key places. But why was freedom developing in Europe. It seldom existed anywhere. It too was a victory of reason. Western society was based on four primary victories of reason - 1 faith in progress - 2 the way that faith in progress developed technical and organizational innovation - 3 reason informed political philosophy and practice toward individual freedom - 4 the application of reason to commerce led to the development of capitalism.
Plan of the Book The author describes his approach. The book is divided into two parts - The first is about the foundation or why Christianity came to be based on the role of reason. The second part is about how the Europeans developed and expanded on these foundations.


Chapter One: Blessings of Rational Theology
This is on the nature and consequences of the basic role of reason in Christian theology. It is about the how and why. Theology is formal reasoning about God - it is about discovering God's nature, intentions, and demands and the relationship of man to God. Theo the ancient religions did not develop theology. But Saints Augustine and Aquinas were thorough adherents to the primacy of reason, as the author focuses on this. He quotes some of the other early Church Fathers to demonstrate their belief in reason and human progress. On page 12 he explains the relationship of theology and science which was lacking in ancient China, Greece and Islam. ..


Chapter Two: Medieval progress; Technical, Cultural and Religious
This is on the material and religious foundation of capitalism during the 'middle ages'. Stark points out that the whole concept of 'dark ages' is a myth created by self serving 'enlightenment' authors promoting revolution.
He writes: "The idea that Europe fell into the Dark Ages is a hoax originated by anti-religious and bitterly anti-Catholic, eighteenth-century intellectuals who were determined to assert the cultural superiority of their own time and who boosted their claim by denigrating previous centuries as - in the words of Voltaire - a time when 'barbarism, superstition, (and) ignorance covered the face of the world'"
Technical Progress - In reality there was great technical progress throughout the middle ages once slavery and the despotic rule of Rome were eliminated. There were many inventions and expansions of such technical means as water wheels - mills that were known to the Romans but thought unnecessary when one had gangs of slaves.
Innovations in Production - Here Stark overdoes it somewhat by writing, "Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Dark Ages was the creation of economies that depended primarily on nonhuman power." Well, what he means is on mechanical power, because ancient societies had long depended on 'nonhuman' that is animal power - oxen, horses, water buffalo. Besides water power, medieval Europe expanded wind power, and both rapidly expanded in scale to constitute mechanization of manufacturing. The fundamental improvement was in agricultural production to generate surplus that could be potential savings for investment. In this the three field system, the heavy plow and the improved horse collar were significant, plus the ability to clear new land from swamps or forest. This in turn created surplus labor freed from agriculture to expand specialized production in towns and the means to distribute food to the towns. In this process monasteries, especially Cistercians, played a major role. This led to manufacture of textiles.
Stark again over does it by claiming that Roman buildings were unheated or only used fires in the center of a room. Actually they had sophisticated heating systems that created warm floors. And in cities like Rome they had multistory apartment buildings. He does mention an interesting little-known invention - eye glasses.
Innovations in War - Here again he perpetuates a myth by relying on discredited sources. He claims that prior to the Dark Ages, there was no heavy cavalry. "Mounted troops did not charge headlong at a gallop, putting the full weight of horse and rider behind a long lance" He repeats the myth that this was so due to lack of stirrups and proper saddle. His understanding of basic physics in this is faulty. The Byzantines, Persians and Sarmatians all had heavily armored cavalry with long lances (and even armored horses) without stirrups. And the important high backed saddle was a Roman invention. He specifically mentions the Franks fielding heavy cavalry in 732. He is referring to the battle of Tours but has the entire scene backwards. It was the Moors who repeatedly charged on horseback with lance, but without stirrups, and it was the Franks and they many allies who fought as infantry on foot.
He is much better informed about medieval naval - ship - developments.
Innovations in Land Transport Stark rightly describes Roman roads and improvements that made shipment of goods over land more economical.
Progress in High Culture - Stark devotes short sections to medieval music, art, literature, education, and science. My only complaint about this treatment is that he does not cite enough early medieval examples, but focuses on the later middle ages.
Inventing Capitalism - Stark writes, "It was evolved, beginning early in the ninth century, by Catholic monks who, despite having put aside worldly things, were seeking to ensure the economic security of their monastic estates."
On Capitalism - Stark believes capitalism is difficult to define. He cites Braudel, "capital came into use in the fourteenth century to identify funds having the capacity to return income." in other words wealth used to earn more wealth. He continues "capitalism implied using wealth to provide income with the intention that the initial value of the wealth not be reduced, as with money lent at interest. It is investment, the systematic risking of wealth in pursuit of gain, that distinguishes the capitalist from those who merely exact their wealth through rents, taxes, conquest, or banditry." This is an excellent description. Capitalism is a concept not held in the ancient world. It is based on rejection of the 'zero sum game' idea that one increases his wealth by taking wealth from others.
But then Stark expands his concept by adding many tangential thoughts making his definition unnecessarily complex. He writes, "Therefore Capitalism is an economic system wherein privately owned, relatively well organized, and stable firms pursue complex commercial activities 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 work force, and guided by anticipated and actual returns."
Well, I disagree. Stark has loaded his definition with several ideological concepts. The capital need not be privately owned, it need not involve well organized and stable firms, it need not be in a free market, it does not need to take a long-term approach and certainly does not require a hired work force. A simpler conceptual statement is that Capitalism is a political/economic system that recognizes that some part of production can and should be diverted from consumption to create more capital. Capital is wealth dedicated to the creation of more production. it is not wealth hidden way in a royal treasury.
The Rise of Religious Capitalism - In this section he discusses the ancient Biblical and Greek prohibition on 'usury' that is demanding interest for a loan. This accompanied a general social disdain by the eliete classes on commerce or work in general. He discusses St. Augustine's view and the growing Christian view about the honorable value of work. Then he describes the role of the monasteries and Church in expanding economic activity and development of agriculture. This generated agricultural surplus, the key to the creation of wealth and then work specialization as there was then enough food not consumed directly to support non-agricultural workers.
But on page 60 he writes," Attendant to specialization was a second development, a shift from a barter to a cash economy." This is another myth that is related to confusion between cash (currency) as money and credit which is also money. Silver coins circulated even in the early middle ages, and economic exchange was also supported by credit. But much else of his description of the role of monks in expanding economy is valid.
The Virtues of Work and Frugality - Stark writes, "Traditional societies celebrate consumption while holding work in contempt." And, "Conversely, capitalism seems to require and to encourage a remarkably different attitude toward work - to see it as intrinsically virtuous and also to recognize the virtue of restricting one's consumption". St. Benedict, among others, strongly favored work.
Excellent points. Seems like our modern reversion to Keynesian theory that champions consumption and provides government support and acceptance of non-work could learn from the medieval society.
Capitalism and Theological Progress -
Initial Christian Opposition to Interest and Profits. In this section Stark describes in more detail the gradual shift of Catholic thinking about the moral legitimacy of profits and justification for interest.
Theology and the Just Price and of Legitimate Interest - In this section Stark elaborates on the thoughts of Albertus Magnus and Aquinas who came to accept that profits could be legitimate and some types of interest justified. A central issue much discusses was the nature of a 'just price'. Stark quotes Aquinas - "he recognized that worth is not really an objective value - 'the just price of things is not absolutely definite' - but is a function of the buyer's desire for the thing purchases and the sellers' willingness or reluctance to sell...."
We would benefit today if the false concept of 'intrinsic value' were abandoned and everyone recognized that 'value' is not an attribute that can be attached to any good or service.
Islam and Interest - Stark turns to the Qur'an and Islamic concepts of interest. He notes that even today Islamic banks work around the prohibition of interest. by converting the interest that might be accrued for a loan into profit for partial ownership of the endeavor.


Chapter Three: Tyranny and the "Rebirth" of Freedom
This is on the manner in which despotic 'command economies' block innovation and commerce
Command Economies -Stark writes, "Despotic states produce universal avarice" What a great point. He turns to medieval China to tell the story of the way in which mandarin intellectuals destroyed the early iron industry because it was making some folks rich. He then mentions the Battle of Lepanto in which the Ottoman fleet was destroyed and Christian slaves liberated. But his lesson is that the Turkish senior officers were carrying all their great personal wealth with them because they could not trust to leave it with anyone at home.
He generalizes about the defects of command economies. In another great point he writes, "All wealth derives from production." I wish that were posted repeatedly in Congress and everywhere. He continues, "The amount of wealth produced within any society depends not only on the number of people involved in production but on their motivation and the effectiveness of their productive technology. When wealth is subject to devastating taxes and the constant threat of usurpation the challenge is to keep one's wealth, not to make it productive."
He quotes Frederick Hayek in this section.
Theological Foundations of Moral Equality - In this section Stark deals with the difference between a concept of 'equality of opportunity' and the current theory of 'equality of outcomes'. The latter presumes without evidence that people 'deserve' to be equal. He does not mention the leading theory of John Rawls about the role of government to insure this. But discusses various concepts about equality held by ancient and medieval authors. He contrasts the early Christian view with that of contemporary Roman ideas without mentioning Cicero who was a major writer on the topic.
Property rights - Stark begins by noting that the Bible 'takes private property rights for granted': And that, "St. Augustine regarded private property as a natural condition." He continues with some medieval philosophers who debated the more general concept of private property versus no private ownership of any property. Again he does not mention Cicero's strong support for private property or Rawls' objection to it.
Limiting States and Kings - Stark notes that from the reign of Muhammad on Islam has 'idealized the fusion of religion and political rule" He then claims that Jesus 'stipulated' the separation of church and state in his answer. "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's." He continues with descriptions of the views of Sts' Augustine and Aquinas. He ignores the Byzantine Caesaropapism in which the Emperor controlled both government and church. European Disunity - I nthis section Stark expounds on his belief that small is better and large is bad - his fundamental abhorrence of empires and large polities. He applauds the fact of disunity and small polities in western Europe and cites the influence of geography - that is terrain or topography - in enabling the 'diversity' which resulted in many small polities that in turn enabled political and economic diversity.
Commerce and the Creation of Responsive Italian Regimes - This section is historical background on why some northern Italian cities were early centers of capitalism. He focuses on four major cities - Venice, Florence, Genoa and Milan. There follows excellent summaries of their historical development. He concludes, "To sum up, the modern libertarian slogan concerning free minds and free markets rings true for these Italian city-states. Their commercial revolution required freedom and their political revolution rested on commerce. The negative case for southern Italy gives even greater support to this conclusion." He follows with depictions of the despotic rule over southern Italy by Norman kings (and follows this up in later chapters with the rule of Spanish kings.
Northern Freedom - Here Stark shifts to Flanders. He concludes that their commercial success came as they threw off the rule of various medieval princes, dukes, counts and all. He attribuets the expansion of the leading towns as commerce supported population growth and visa versa.
He concludes. "The 'rebirth' of freedom in some parts of Europe was the result of three necessary elements. Christian ideals, small political units, and within them the appearance of a diversity of well-matched interest groups."


Part II - Fulfillment
Chapter Four: Perfecting Italian Capitalism
This is about the development of capitalism in the late medieval Italian cities. He now turns from the historical background to describing in detail specific events and developments. By introduction he repeats his concept of capitalism including his extra features. But he is right and should be widely repeated when he notes "Obviously, since all wealth must be produced, a society will be wealthier if its people are more productive." But this is only part of the story, once produced, not all production can be consumed, there must be savings. Wealth is the savings created by the difference between production and consumption. Moreover, he should constantly remind that all production is accomplished by individuals, not governments.
He continues," The proximate cause of the rise of Italian capitalism was freedom from the rapacious rulers who repressed and consumed economic progress in most of the world, including most of Europe."
Rational Firms - Stark begins with the conclusion, "Faith in Reason is the most significant feature of Western Civilization." It all began with the monks belief in reason supporting their belief in progress toward the future, causing them to work to expand agriculture, creating surplus on which specialized non-agricultural production could be based, creating the capacity of expand towns. But it was then in the towns that commerce and finance developed, expanding population and the economic system to support it. Population expands commerce and commerce expands population and both rely in more elaborate and effective financial structures.
Personnel - Stark devotes this section to the education (unusual at the time) of Italians to manage the complex mathematics and accounting methods they developed to keep track of financial affairs on an international scale.
Management and Financial Practices. In this section he describes those practices and notes the importance of the big Italian banks becoming international in scope with agents spread throughout western Europe and the Mediterranean (and Black Sea). To facilitate commerce and avoid having to transport actual specie from place to place, they developed the system of credit and debt that resulted in 'bills of exchange' becoming international money. There are many books that describe this process in more detail.
The Rise and Fall of the First Italian Supercompany - In this section Stark tells the well known story of the Ricardi Company in Luca . They were doing fabulous business lending to monarchs and gaining commercial monopolies, until the King of France, Philip the Fair, and King of England, Edward I, refused to pay their debts. As Stark notes in a later chapter, the Spanish were notorious at doing this - and there were others into the 18th century.
He does not discuss it, but a central demand of the bankers who set up the U.S. Federal Reserve System as the conduit for the U.S. Government to sell debt and manage money was that the U.S. would also create a national income tax and promote the concept of the 'full faith and credit' of the U. S. Government to back up this increasing credit=debt structure. Italian Puritans - Stark discusses a relatively obscure topic, the Humiliari, proponents of voluntary poverty and limited consumption.
Frugality - Under this concept Stark discuses the introduction of 'sumptuary laws" in some Italian cities. While these were directed at moral opposition to over luxurious life styles, they also encouraged the savings necessary to create wealth for investment in more production.
The Black Death - Stark writes the standard view of the pro and con of this terrible plague and depopulation. The well known pro is that the resulting lack of labor enabled the working classes to demand more freedom and higher compensation for their work.


Chapter Five: Capitalism Moves North
This is about the spread of these Italian commercial and financial methods to northern Europe beginning in the cities now in Belgium and Netherlands and then even more into England. Stark notes that the first major capitalist industry was textiles, specifically woolen cloth. he credits the Italians with taking capitalist methods north.
The Woolen cities of Flanders - Stark notes that intially control over production of woolen cloth was controlled by local rulers and artisan guilds. But gradually these inhibiting factors lost control. Wool of course came from sheep, the best sheep were in the Low Countries and then in England. The cloth was produced in towns, such as Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp, most at those which secured independence. The cloth was carried to northern Italy from where it was trans shipped throughout the Mediterranean.
Capitalism comes to Northern Flanders - The Italian banks that financed the trade in which northern wool cloth was exchanged for products, mostly luxury products, from Italy soon gained control of the financial system with their agents on the spot in every key town. Stark describes the process in Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, and then Amsterdam in detail. There were various factors that determined the success in each town, including war, geography (river silt) and human skill. From Flanders and Netherlands Stark follows the Italians to the center of capitalist industry to England. The Thirteenth-Century Inbdusrial Revolution - Stark continued the development of capitalist industrial and merchant commerce with the English woolen industry which had the advantage of full national political structure whereby such work could be accomplished everywhere. He writes; "Why didn't this happen in Europe? Because in Europe it was only in the cities that there existed enough freedom and sufficiently secure property rights to sustain industry." Feudalism remained in charge.
Coal power - Stark notes that England was doubly favored by relative exhaustion of wood for fuel and the existence of great supplies of coal, a better fuel anyway. Coal was necessary for production of quality iron. Coal mining required underground tunnels and transport of coal required creation of rail tracks on which horses could draw special carts.
The chapter concludes with this comment, among others. "It was invention that constituted the success of the West" ....."Even so, it wasn't only material inventions that sustained Western success, cultural inventions were of even greater importance, especially ideals and methods for organizing and motivating effectrive collective actions."


Chapter Six: "Catholic" Anticapitalism: Spanish and French Despotism
The author presents two 'negative' case studies showing how despotic government in Spain and France prevented the development of capitalism there. Stark writes, "The theme of this chapter was expressed in Chapter 3: despotic sttes are avaricious and devour much of the wealth that might go into economic development." And "An important factor was that France and Spain were both Christian societies having their full measure of faith in progress and reason, and many people in these nations were quick to recognize the new technology and to import the fruit of economic progress, even if they were unable or unwilling to produce it for themselves."
1492: Backward Spain - Stark's point in his description of Spain is that its political system diverted all the massive wealth acquired from its colonies and supressed its own people while squandering everything on foreign war and despotic rule. He comments that writers even then thought that Spain had 'declined' but in reality it never advanced so did not 'decline' but simply remained medieval. For Stark the Habsburg empire was another example of his despised mega-state.
He writes, "These massive amounts of specie caused inflation throughout western Europe and fiananced the maintenance of large, well-equipped armies to fight the French, Protestant German princes, various Italians, the Dutch and the English. But New World riches brought no significant benefits to Spain, which remained a very under developed, feudal nation." All this is well described in standard history texts. The inflation is examined in books on the history of money. Adam Smith already noted that the massive increase in silver resulted in the collapse of its value to the point that people hardly knew what to do with it. The inflation, then, was the result of the typical use of silver for money, thus causing the 'value' of everything else to increase.
He continues, "It was not Spain but the Spanish empire that destroyed capitalism in Italy and the Netherlands."
Wealth and Empire - In this section Stark continues his account that shows that not only was the massive potential wealth spent on war but also the government generated massive debt besides, all of which was lost.
Spanish Italy - in this section he elaborates on his prior note about how despotic political power wrecked previously created capitalism.
The Spanish Netherlands - Stark shows the same results from the same causes including the destruction of Antwerp. He followes this with a fine summary of the destruction of the Spanish Armada.
France, Taxation, Regulation, and Stagnation - in this section Stark describes the despotic reign of French monarchs and their pampered nobility and bureaucracy defeating all efforts by commoners to employ capitalism to generate real wealth and economic expansion.
He notes, for instance, "Once the absolutist state was established, French taxes soon became exorbitant, as they always do when those who tax are the primary beneficiaries of state largess." In this example the bureaucracy was a servant of the nobility and court, but the same result applies when the bureaucracy is a servant of the poor or of itself. He also notes how the medeival guilds in France (typical labor unions) continued to set self-serving controls that prevented change, innovation, expansion.
He concludes the chapter with this summary. "It as not Catholicism but tyranny that impeded capitalism in France and Spain, and suppressed it in Italy and the southern Netherlands."


Chapter Seven: Feudalism and Capitalism in the New World
The author demonstrates the great differences between the development of the United States and Canada and that of the Latin American countries which suffered and still do from their Spanish heritage. The different results seen today between the political/economic systems of the United States and Latin America are obvious and well publicized in historical accounts. Stark seeks to show that the results came from causes - the religion and legacies of Spanish colonialism. Another view is in Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber book - Fragile by Design: The political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit in which the authors compare the banking systems and economics of Brazil and Mexico with that of the United States.


Conclusion: Globalization and Modernity -
The author addresses the question - can globalization continue to expand political- economic progress when modern societies are no longer Christian, capitalist or free? He writes: "Christianity created Western Civilization... The modern world arose only in Christian societies. It seems doubtful that an effective modern economy can be created without adopting capitalism, as was demonstrated by the failure of the command economies of the Soviet Union and China." He wonders about the future if it includes a decline of Christianity.


Return to Xenophon.