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Rodney Stark


Subtitle: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity - ISI Books, Wilmington Del., 2014, 255 pgs., index, extensive bibliography, end notes.


Reviewer Comment: This is an important, timely, and much needed text to counter the distorted view of Western Civilization being taught in many schools and colleges today. In this book he not only refutes many of the most important and widespread falsities being promulgated today but also adds significant subject matter that was (and is) left out of even the better survey courses. In studying a book I always turn first to look at the bibliography and notes. Mr. Stark provides a massive bibliography and specific source notes for each of his many statements. But he missed several important studies that would strengthen his thesis, some of which I will mention where relevant. In addition to end notes, the author names the name in the text itself of specific authors with whom he disagrees and on whom he relies for the more valid opinions. I will attempt to compile a listing of these individuals.
One of his main themes is that centralized political and economic power as existed in empires and exists in centralized dictatorships now creates economic stagnation. The competition inherent in political power distributed among competing and even clashing smaller polities is more conducive to economic expansion. But his libertarian view about what he believes is the inherent faults of empires leads him to overly harsh criticism of the Carolingian (brief) empire.
The most important sentence in the book appears early, on page 12, "All wealth derives from production." But fashionable economic theory and political practice today is based on consumption and its stimulation via increasing 'demand'.
As with any book, there are a few minor errors and some other broad topics about which I would place different emphasis. I will note these in the chapter summaries below. Without investigating Professor Stark's full biography I probably should not venture too many guesses, but from his thoughts in this book it seems he is a strongly libertarian. There is a review of the book by Henrik Bering in the WSJ, March 31, 2014.


The author does not mince words. The opening sentence is: "This is a remarkably unfashionable book." He continues by noting that the previously essential standard courses on Western Civilization have disappeared from many colleges. He could add that many of the text books that are used in remaining courses, including in high schools, are distorted on purpose. He notes that "Ideas Matter' - (Read Richard Weaver's valuable book "Ideas have Consequences" for a full exposition of this topic.) In this introduction Stark summarizes some of the major contentions described in detail further on.
- That the Roman empire actually inhibited social progress and its 'fall' was a great benefit.
- There was no 'Dark Ages' in Western Europe
- The real story of the Crusades
- The significance of major changes in climate between 800 AD and 1850 AD.
- There was no "Scientific Revolution" in the 17th Century as advancements then were fully based on real advancements since the 12th century
- The Reformation did not result in religious freedom but rather replaced Catholic monopoly churches with Protestant monopoly churches equally as repressive.
- Europe did not become 'rich' by taking wealth from 'colonies' but wealth flowed the other way.

The author continues by noting that even the former courses only described Western developments but did not compare the West with the rest and 'ignored' questions about WHY 'modernity happened only in the West'. He gives a few examples. He wants students to know "WHY science and democracy originated in the West'. He also mentions several theories focused on geography or guns or agriculture or culture, but then asks, well - why did the West eventually come to excel in these. His answer is 'ideas'. For instance: "Similarly, it is ideas that explain why science arose only in the West. Only Westerners thought that science was possible, that the universe functioned according to rational rules that could be discovered." And: "Once we recognize the primacy of ideas, we realize the irrelevance of long-running debates about whether certain inventions were developed independently in Europe or imported from the East." So the author's focus is strongly on the role of ideas, but the book is not pure intellectual history, as he also describes material conditions and results from these ideas.
Another theme is 'turning points'. He writes: "Finally, I will be equally out of fashion by giving weight to specific events. So much of contemporary writing about history claims change is caused by impersonal 'social forces' but Stark wants to stress the results of specific events and individual leaders.


Part I - Chapter I - Stagnant Empires and the Greek "Miracle"
As the title indicates, in this chapter the author contrasts (in 5 pages) the stagnant ancient empires, such as Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, China in which all power was centered on a tiny elite that extracted most wealth, leaving the 99% living in bare poverty, with the revolutionary Greek society (in 20 pages) which not only created democratic political institutions but also enabled the more uniform spread of individual wealth to enable social economic development. See David Graeber's monumental study, Debt; The First 5000 years

, (2011) for much more on the political economy of ancient empires.
Mr. Stark adopts a common term "command economy" for the typical ancient society, from Gregory Grossman's article 'Notes for a theory of the Command Economy' in Soviet Studies 1963. A more inclusive term in use is 'extractive economy'. See, for instance, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail. (2012) Mr. Stark writes that: "Stagnation occurred because the ruling elites had no need for innovations and usually neither rewarded innovators nor adopted their innovations." But see David Landes et. al. The Invention of Enterprise; Entrepreneurship from Ancient Mesopotamia to Modern Times (2010) for much more detail showing that entrepreneurs were active and there was innovation in ancient societies, but that Stark's general point is valid.
The author turns to the "Greek 'Miracle'" for an extensive discussion of art, literature, political and military affairs, religion, economics, technology, rationalism and morality. As everywhere in the book, he quotes or cites multiple specialist authors. He mentions Whitehead's remark that Western philosophy is a 'footnote' to Plato. For a fascinating and extensive discussion of this concept (and inclusion also of Aristotle) see Arthur Herman's The Cave and The Light (2013). In discussion of economy he states that the Greek's 'invented' banks. See Sitta von Redin's monograph, Money in Classical Antiquity (2010) and Graeber for the role of banks. In keeping with his basic theory, the author writes that after classical Greece was converted from multiple small polities into several empires it stagnated. Mr. Stark's opinion about the 'revolutionary' Greeks is expresses even more forcefully by Felix Martin in Money: The Unauthorized Biography and Jack Weatherford's The History of Money. Both authors stress the Greek role in the 'invention' of money. But, in keeping with his central concept about central governments, he insists that the Greek era of progress was wrecked once Athens created its empire.


Chapter 2 - Jerusalem's Rational God
This brief chapter is about the synergy of Hellenism and Judaism and its results in the development of Christianity. He disagrees with authors who claim Talmudic Judaism was not influenced by the Greeks, by pointing out that Talmudic scholars only came to prominence in the 3rd Century AD, after the origins of Christianity. Again see Herman. But for even more see Eric Voegelin's massive, scholarly 4 volume work, Order and History - volumes titled Israel and Revelation, The World of the Polis, Plato and Aristotle, and In Search of Order - Louisiana State Univ Press 1958 and on. Stark's discussion of early Christian Church fathers is important as a basis for his later thought and assertions. He considers Justin Martyr as a significant author who expounded on the similarity between Christian theology and Greek philosophy (Platonism). But Greek philosophy had its own problems, compounded by uncritical acceptance by many medieval Christians. Its important contribution, which "Justin Martyr was not alone in stressing", was the 'authority of reason'. "That has been the most fundamental assumption of influential Christian theologians from earliest times".
Stark continues with assessment of the contributions of Tertullian and St. Augustine (in City of God, book 8). Stark then turns to the concept - "Faith in Progress", noting that much nonsense has been written on the topic. Stark disputes the recent position (as by J. B. Bury) that the concept of progress is modern. See J. B. Bury The Idea of Progress for alternate views on early Christian concepts of progress. Stark writes, "the idea of progress was inherent in Jewish conceptions of history and was central to Christian thought from the very early days." He cites specific late classical and medieval authors such as St. Thomas Aquinas. Christians believed in both 'progress' and man's rational nature.
From this Stark turns to comparison of western Europe to 'the Rest' - that is Asia including Orthodox Christianity, Islam, and Confucian theories, but especially Islam. He stresses that 'faith in progress was fundamental to western Christianity.' He comments: "Islam holds that the universe is inherently irrational - that there is no cause and effect - because everything happens as the direct result of Allah's will at that particular time.' Here he expounds at length on the intellectual 'backwardness' of Muslim societies. He turns to ancient China and writes that the Chinese abandoned whatever initial 'scientific' ideas they had due to Confucian opposition to change.
In summary he writes: Inventions don't just happen. Someone has to bring them about, and the likelihood that anyone will attempt to do so is influenced by the extent to which they believe that inventions are possible - that is, the extent to which the culture accepts the idea of progress,"


Chapter 3 - The Roman Interlude
The author's opinion about the Roman Empire is decidedly negative. His initial comment,: "Like the Athenian Empire, Roman rule suppressed cultural and technological progress." And again, "I regard the Roman Empire as at best a pause in the rise of the West, and more plausibly as a setback." The author presents a brief narrative on the history of Roman Republic as it conquered the Mediterranean area. He mentions Peter Heather and indeed The Fall of the Roman Empire A new History of Rome and the Barbarians is an excellent reference. Stark notes that the Roman Empire was built and based on booty - tribute, slaves. He describes how Roman culture was essentially watered down Greek culture. The empire became a military state controlled by its army. However, I believe he goes too far in claiming that there was nothing to Roman technology. He dismisses Roman roads and bridges and does not mention Roman innovations in architecture. He makes a mistake (that should have been caught by a copy editor) in writing that the Colosseum in Rome was built in 80 BC, when it actually was completed in 80 AD (Stark might have added - built by Jewish slaves). The chapter on Rome by Peter Kidson in Great Architecture of the World describes and illustrates many Roman achievements. Stark turns to a lengthy discussion of "The Rise of Christianity". He claims, "In terms of the journey to modernity, the Christianization of the empire was the most beneficial aspect of the Roman Era;" and then the "Fall of Rome". He discusses various theories on the causation of this 'fall' including those of Zosimus, Gibbon, Toynbee, Rostovtzeff and Kirkpatrick Sale. Stark rather focuses on the ideas of Mommsen, Luttwak, Ferrill and Heather about Roman strategy and the changed nature of the Roman Army. He does not reference a very significant book - Rome and the Sword: How Warriors and Weapons Shaped Roman History by Simon James. This would strengthen his conclusions. Wanting to enhance the stature of the Goths, he remarks that they were Christians, but simply ignores that they were Arian Christians, thus heretics worse than pagans. And he also skips the later and more devastating sack of Rome by the Vandals. But his conclusion is valid to an extent. "But it was Rome that fell, not civilization." Strangely in the discussion of the falsity of the 'dark ages' idea he does not mention the very positive contributions of Ostrogothic and Visigothic kingdoms. He should have included Thomas Burns' book A History of the Ostrogoths as a reference. Then we get his governing preconception in "To the contrary, with the stulifying effects of Roman repression now ended, the glorious journey toward modernity resumed."


Part II - The Not-So-Dark Ages (500-1200) - Chapter 4 - The Blessings of Disunity
The chapter title says it all. He repeats his contention, "The fall of Rome was, in fact, the most beneficial event in the rise of Western civilization, precisely because it unleased so many substantial and progressive changes." His libertarian theme is that 'Disunity enabled extensive, small-scale social experimentation and unleashed creative competition among hundreds of independent political units, which, in turn, resulted in rapid and profound progress." This is quite an assertion. And, for a change, I believe he does not include some historical examples that would strengthen his case. For instance, Michael Grant in his Dawn of the Middle Ages describes many examples of the high culture and economy of Western Europe before 800 AD. Another key reference is Marcia Colish's excellent book, Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition 400 - 1400, which describes much important activity in the period before Stark's main discussion. At the same time, I believe his bias against any sort of centralization leads him to denigrate the very positive contributions of the Carolingians. And for unknown reasons he extols the raids of the Vikings. I cannot imagine why he thinks so positively of the Viking raids. Actually they are a fine example of the fact that Western Europe by 800 had created massive wealth that was the target and cause of the Viking raids. It is good to see that he quotes Frederick Hayek. But then another exageration. Having rightly noted that the Franks defeated the Moslem invasion of Gaul in 732 (a decisive battle in world history) he then writes. Subsequently, the Franks conquered most of Europe and installed a new emperor. At its greatest extent the later Carolingian empire hardly constituted 'most of Europe'. He continues his bias, "Fortunately the whole thing soon fell apart and Europe's creative disunity was reestablished." The Carolingian collapse generally is considered to have set Western Europe back.
My bias is that I really dislike it when an author disrupts his own argument that I strongly believe in by needless exageration.
The Myth of the Dark Ages
Stark correctly blames the self-advancing "Enlightenment" authors of the 18th century for slandering Christianity and coining this false notion of Dark Ages'. This notion has been refuted by many recent historians, and Stark mentions several of them. However, there are also many such as Van Dorfen and Bertrand Russell who continue to follow Gibbon and Rousseau. Stark claims the correctly noted decline in literacy and size of towns was due to the subsidy they had enjoyed during the Roman tribute system. And trade did not collapse as much as the 'Dark Ages' proponents believe. Stark describes the geographic and political changes. Then he turns to technological progress. The claim by 'Dark Ages' proponents of a lack of technology is false and the worst. The era was full of dynamic progress, initially in the most important field, agriculture. During Roman times slavery cheap labor had precluded interest in developing technical improvements. Medieval farmers developed iron plows, better harrows, superior harness for horses, iron horseshoes, the three plot rotation system. In short there was an agricultural revolution which supplied a better diet to everyone, and increase in population. Then came water and wind mills. Expanded trade followed expanded agriculture as surplus enabled more people to live in towns and pursue activities other than farming. The many rivers and greatly improved boats further enabled commerce.
Manufacturing and Trade
Stark does not mention that even in pre-Roman times the Celts were famous for making the best steel swords and for mail shirts. He does not mention either that the Celts coined money prior to the Roman conquest and that coinage returned to Britain after a very brief absence between 450 and 650 AD. Tens of thousands of locally minted coins have been found in hoards in England. In fact silver coinage did not disappear from Western Europe. Even in Merovingian Gaul there were over 1000 mints. He does discuss the Scandinavian industrial enterprises between 250 and 700. He notes also that lack of literary sources has been overcome by archeological evidence showing the extent of economic activity.
High Culture
Stark describes many of the medieval examples of great art, music and architecture. I believe he unduly dismisses the influence of Roman architecture on the 'Romanesque" but in any case "Romanesque' was an advancement and it was followed by extraordinary Gothic style construction. But both those terms are examples of 'Enlightenment' myth making. However, Stark does somewhat hinder his argument by citing post-1200 examples and not enough pre-1000 examples. As an author of other books on the history of Christianity, he knows well the huge impact of monasticism.
Chronic Warfare, Constant Innovation
Stark manages to find a 'silver lining' in medieval storm clouds. "But this chronic medieval warfare had a significant by-product; inovation. Within several centuries of the fall of Rome, Europeans had developed military technology that far surpassed not only the Romans' but that of every other society on earth." This is going to far on both counts. The Roman empire was built on great expertise in siege warfare and it field armies had armor and weapons not surpassed in Western Europe until at least 1000. Medieval siege warfare abilities were pitiful until around 1100. Remarkably Stark then discusses the Celtic - pre-Roman invention of mail (don't all it chain-mail please) which was actually used by the Romans.
The Cavalry Controversy
Unfortunately in this section Stark basically follows (but with some questions) Lynne White who believed that the advent of the stirrup in the West was the essential development that led to cavalry 'shock combat.' Stark writes here, "As pointed out in chapter 3, without stirrups a cavalryman could not charge behind a lowered lance without being vaulted from his horse. Thus it was not until the stirrup appeared sometime during the seventh century that there could exist the celebrated armored knight astride his great charger and armed with a long lance." He is right that this issue was controversial, but the issue was settled years ago. The Parthians, Sassanids, Alans all had heavily armored cavalry using lances without stirrups and they were copied also by the Byzantines. A simple look at the force vectors acting when a lance is used shows that the impact is horizontal and would push the horseman to the rear. Stirrups play no part in horizontal forces, they do enable a horseman to deliver blows downward. It was the development of the high backed saddle with its support behind the rider that enabled forward thrusts of lances. Stark cites Charles Boutell, R. Ewart Oakeshott and Archibald Lewis who claimed the stirrup made heavy cavalry decisive battle troops. Stark is skeptical but cites as examples knights who dismounted and went into battle on foot in the 15th century. Not a very relevant example. However, his final conclusion is partially valid. "In fact, throughout the entire medieval era, battles were fought and won by infantry." But then continues to damage his position by writing, "Good commanders never committed their cavalry until the enemy infantry had broken ranks. The 'glorious knights on their chargers were reserved for riding down those poor souls who were already fleeing for their lives." This is incorrect. He just cannot resist hyperbole. For one thing the 'entire medieval era' lasted 1000 years and a huge geographical expanse. During much of this period combat was not even in the field, whether dominated by infantry or cavalry, but consisted of sieges.
The Muslim Threat and Battle of Tours/Poitiers
After attempting to extenuate Byzantine defeats, Stark returns to Charles Martel's victory at Tours.
The Carolingian Interlude
Instead of describing the remarkable conditions so ignored by the 'Dark Age' Enlightenment authors Stark reverts to his central bias and denegrates and denounces Charlemagne and his grand sons. With the division of this 'empire' Stark writes, "Europe's precious disunity was restored!" And, "The Franks almost reimposed an empire that no doubt would have derailed that progress. Fortunately, the Carolingian Empire was short-lived." Yet, despite its break up into multiple polities, the cultural and intellectual advancements it had achieved by 814 were the basis for continued Western progress.


Chapter 5 - Northern Lights over Christendom
This chapter really is remarkable. The author believes, "Even when the Carolingian Empire fragmented, the Vikings brought new energy and enthusiasm to continue the West's glorious journey." And, " Despite the fact that historians have given many times more attention to the Carolingian Empire than to the Vikings, the latter played a far more significant and lasting role in the rise of the West than did the Carolingians." This is simply unbelievable. Stark mentions some of the Viking raids that 'had begun to terrorize Europeans living along the Atlantic...." with a long list of various settlements. Then "Not content with these Atlantic possessions, in 860 Swedish Vikings sailed down the Dnieper River and captured Kiev." Well, it is true that Swedish Vikings did sail from Novgorod to capture Kiev. But none of the aforementioned settlements were their 'possessions'. And many of them were only temporary raiding stations. Yes, the Vikings were granted what became Normandy in France. Yes, in 1066 Duke William did cross the channel and conquer England, but it was not 'easy'. Yes, the Normans did conquer former rulers of Sicily and southern Italy.
The Viking Age
In this section Stark elaborates on his contention. He believes that Viking boats "were far superior to anything found elsewhere on earth at that time." Well, earth is a big place. He continues, "Viking raids began late in the eight century; the first well-documented attack was in 793 on the monastery located on the island of Lindsfarme." Then he mentions the equally famous one against Iona and others. And he continues to list numerous Viking raids. He comments in passing that church establishments were 'wealthy". Surprise, surprise. But by no means all the targets were church establishments. What I find amazing is that Stark labors so much to extol these Viking raiders who were after wealth, when he could have been using these extensive attacks to document the significant wealth already created and accumulated in the so called 'Dark Age' by 800. He might also have mentioned the example of literacy shown by the vivid documentation by the victims.
Norman Triumphs
Most of this section is valid description of Norman military exploits. However, Stark adds: "Finally, in part because Viking traditions limited the power of kings over the nobility, in 1215 the Norman barons imposed the Magna Carta on King John, thereby taking the first step toward democratic rule." It seems to me that the 'in part' is a cop out and the 'part' was very tiny indeed. By 1215 any vestiges of Viking ideas were long gone. Stark continues with a section on the Kingdom of Sicily another arena for Norman ruthlessness.
The Crusades
In this section Stark has a great deal of modern nonsense to counter. And he does it well. Among the important issues, Stark notes the huge financial expenditures the Crusaders undertook including mortgaging or selling their property to raise cash. He fails to mention the Battle of Manzikert among the causes. He describes the First Crusade briefly but well and then something of the later conditions in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
Christendom. Stark has some original concepts in writing about A Church of Piety and Church of Power. In this section he mentions the existence of major monasteries and numerous monks in the period 500 - 1000 and the significant role of the Papacy. Too bad he didn't describe this in detail in earlier chapters on that era. Here he devotes considerable detail to conversions in Denmark, Norway and Sweden but does not mention the important role of Irish monks. He must have some connection to Scandinavia. But the chapter ends with another of his polemical pitches on empires. He again denounces the Roman and Carolingian Empires and claims that William the Conqueror was better than Charlemagne.


Chapter 6 - Freedom and Capitalism
The author jumps to a discussion of concepts. "One of the most important ideas facilitating the rise of the West is the belief in free will." On this basis he comments that the West was the only society to abolish slavery on its own accord. "The value placed on individual freedom, combined with the legacy of Greek efforts at democracy, led to new democratic experiments in the medieval Italian city-states." Seems to me that in so far as they actually had democratic politics these were in the Italian cities long before than recovered knowledge of Greek political philosophy. Moreover, the Greek concept of 'freedom' was much different from the modern idea of individual freedom.


Part III - Chapter 7 - Climate, Plague, and Social Change
Professor Stark considers that the impact of changes in climate and the recurrences of plague have been under appreciated by authors of standard histories of the period. He clarifies the impact. For an agricultural economy climate is even more important than today. For Climate Change he describes the significance of both the "Medieval War Period" (circa 800 -1250) and the subsequent "Little Ice Age". He notes that some history texts devote little attention to the "Black Death". And some historians then misinterpret the effects. He agrees with the general view that the huge loss of life resulted in increased power (hence freedom) for peasants, but disagrees with the idea that it also was the genesis for the development of wind and water power. Both those mechanical sources of power predated the Black Plague by centuries. However, he describes other social innovations that resulted. He strongly disagrees with neo_Malthusians such as Paul Ehrich.


Chapter 8 - The Pursuit of Knowledge In this chapter Stark focuses on his fundamental thesis - stated as follows: "The most fundamental key to the rise of western civilization has been the dedication of so many of its most brilliant minds to the pursuit of knowledge. Not to illumination. Not to enlightenment. Nor to wisdom."


Chapter 9 - Industry, Trade, and Technology


Chapter 10 - Discovering the World


Part IV - Chapter 11 - New World Conquests and Colonies


Chapter 12 - The Golden Empire


Chapter 13 - The Lutheran Reformation: Myuths and Realities


\Chapter 14 - Exposing Muslim Illusions


Chapter 15 - Science Comes of Age


Part V - Chapter 16 - The Industrial Revolution


Chapter 17 - Liberty and Prosperity


Chapter 18 - Globalization and Colonialism


Return to Xenophon.