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Acad. Quest.

(2015) 28:111–117
DOI 10.1007/s12129-015-9474-3

How the West Won: The some versions, global history

Neglected Story of the devalues Western commitments
Triumph of Modernity, by and achievements, suggesting that
Rodney Stark. Wilmington, the culture of Classical Greece,
DE: ISI Books, 2014, 455 pp., the European Renaissance, the
$27.95, hardbound. Reformation, and the rise of
parliamentary democracy as well
as the scientific revolution are not
Winning unique. Beyond that, the globalists
want to believe—despite the lack
Toby Huff
Published online: 10 February 2015
o f s upp ortin g evid enc e—that
# Springer Science+Business Media New York Western achievements must be the
product of external influences.1
How the West Won: The Neglected
For several decades now the Story of the Triumph of Modernity, by
question of how the history of the Rodney Stark, takes an entirely
West should be taught has been much different approach, one that seeks to
debated. In some circles it is believed provoke and challenge what many
that the study of Western civilization refer to as the new “multicultural”
has been supplanted by “global stance, which regards all cultural
history” that emphasizes finding achievements as relative. Stark thinks
“connections” among all the world’s that many of the newer histories are
cultural and geographical regions, seriously biased against the West, not
under the assumption that only to mention Christianity. According to
by considering such connections Stark, Distinguished Professor of the
can the major developments of Social Sciences at Baylor University
any particular civilizational area and co-director of its Institute for
be understood and explained. In Studies of Religion, students reading
these new history texts are “badly misled
by a flood of absurd, politically correct
Toby Huff is research associate in the department of
astronomy at Harvard University and Chancellor For a good analysis of these trends, see Ricardo
Professor Emeritus of Policy Studies at the Duchesne, The Uniqueness of the Western
University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, North Civilization (Boston and Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2011),
Dartmouth, MA 02747; thuff@fas.harvard.edu. His chap. 1, esp. 4–13 and 51–59. For the view rejecting
latest book is Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific strong external influences, see my “The ‘Eastern’
Revolution: A Global Perspective (Cambridge Origins of Western Civilization?” Academic
University Press, 2011). Questions 27, no. 3 (Fall 2014): 286–99.
112 Huff

fabrications, all of them popular on from the Greeks battling the Persians,
college campuses.”2 In the following to the crusaders of the Middle Ages
eighteen chapters, Stark attempts to fighting the Muslims, to crusader
rectify what he sees as false accounts troops defending the island of Rhodes
and perspectives. In many respects How against the Ottomans (1480–1522), to
the West Won is a refashioning of Stark’s the Spaniards clashing with the
earlier books: For the Glory of God: Aztecs—were superior in technology,
How Monotheism Led to Reformations, tactics, and valor. This may be true, but
Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of the “triumph of modernity” is not
Slavery (2003); The Victory of Reason: based solely or even mostly on
How Christianity Led to Freedom, military achievements.
Capitalism, and Western Success Despite this subtext, however,
(2005); and God’s Battalions: The Case Stark does broaden his conception
for the Crusades (2009). of modernity to “identify that
How the West Won is divided into fundamental store of scientific
five parts: “Classical Beginnings (500 knowledge and procedures, powerful
BC–AD 500),” “The Not-So-Dark technologies, artistic achievements,
Ages (1500 to 1200),” “Medieval political freedoms, economic
Transformations (1200 to 1500),” arrangements, moral sensibilities, and
“The Dawn of Modernity (1500 to improved standards of living that
1700),” and “Modernity (1750– ).” characterize Western nations and are
As he moves through these periods now revolutionizing life in the rest of
Stark discusses a broad range of the world” (2). He declares his interest
questions about the rise of capitalism, in ideas as well as material (economic
industry, trade, the scientific revolution, and technological) factors, and
colonialism, the Reformation, the does indeed provide the reader
Muslim world, liberty and prosperity, with unusual perspectives on
and finally, the long reach of technological advances and the
globalization. It is perplexing that the rise of industrial capitalism.
subtext of How the West Won is based When dealing with Greek
on military history and technology, philosophy and its later effects Stark
from the Greeks to the Spaniards maintains two different views. On
c o n q u e r i n g t h e N e w Wo r l d . the one hand, he asserts that “the
Throughout the book Stark discusses primary effect of Greek philosophy
the ways in which Western armies— on Christianity had far less to do
with doctrines per se than the
Rodney Stark, How the West Won: The Neglected commitment of even the earliest
Story of the Triumph of Modernity (Wilmington, DE:
ISI Books, 2014), 1. Further reference to this source
Christian theologians to reason and
will be cited parenthetically within the text. logic” (38). On the other hand, “The
Reviews 113

truth is that science arose only because rationally-ordered universe inhabited

the doctrine of the rational creator of a by individuals possessed of reason
rational universe made scientific and blessed by the fruits of natural
inquiry plausible” (40). This appears philosophy that carried the day.
to be Stark’s way of reintroducing Coupled with that were Aristotle’s
monotheism as the motivating factor natural books—on physics, the
in the rise of modern science. science of motion, meteorology, the
And yet, the idea of a fully rational, study of planets and animals and the
coherent, and created universe heavens—that gave to the important
decipherable by human intelligence scholars mentioned by Stark their
must be credited to Plato’s Timaeus. scientific agenda, which was lacking
Long before monotheism arose in in both the madrasas of Islam and the
force it was Plato who fashioned the Jewish religious schools dedicated to
thesis that the universe is a coherent monotheism.4
whole based on “cause and chance,” Stark’s view of the Roman Empire
and that man is a rational animal with is surprisingly negative. He finds no
the capacity to decipher the nature merit in the Roman experience, so the
of that universe. It is fair to say fall of the Western empire (ca. 476) is
that Christian theologians adopted a good thing: “the glorious journey
this position (unlike Muslim toward modernity resumed” (66).
theologians), yet it was the inherent His sound trouncing of the idea of
commitment to the tools of “the Dark Ages”—“a complete fraud”
philosophy, “the greatest boon that (71)—is welcome and insightful, but
mankind has ever or will ever because of his negative view of the
receive,” that allowed Christian Roman experience, Stark is silent on
philosophers and proto-scientists to the most fully developed legal system
carry on their work. 3 Indeed, of the world, the Roman corpus juris
several of these medieval Christian civilis. Consequently, when he
rationalists—influenced by the discusses the Medieval transformation
Timaeus—turned their attention to (part 3), and says, rightly, that “only
biblical criticism, showing that the Church gave coherence to
certain passages of the Bible are Europe” (105), Stark misses the
implausible from a natural science central importance of canon law that
point of view. It was not the belief in
monotheism, shared by Muslims and 4
For an analysis of these religious differences, see
my “Science and Metaphysics in the Three
Jews, who did not pave the way to Religions of the Book,” Intellectual Discourse
modern science, but the belief in a (International Islamic University of Malaysia) 8,
no. 2 (2000): 173–98, available at http://www-old.
Plato, Timaeus 47b. reference_chapter05/huffid2000.pdf.
114 Huff

established the basic institutional Almagest (the great second-century

foundations of modernity: the rule of AD treatise on astronomy) while
law, a formalized system of due declaring that Copernicus’s On the
process, parliamentary democracy, Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres
commerce-enhancing devices, and a (1543) got “everything” wrong (170).
host of other legal instruments still Although the Almagest was the most
in use today. Stark stresses that “if important work in astronomy, Arabic-
there is a single factor responsible speaking astronomers knew that the
for the rise of the West, it is system had many problems; that
freedom” (138), but does not discuss though the orbits of the planets were
constitutionalism, parliamentary supposed to be perfectly circular they
democracy, the basis of freedom of were not; that Ptolemy’s construction
thought in the universities that did not have the planets revolving
allowed open and public discussion around the geometric center of the
even among the laity, nor how universe, but around a displaced
freedom of expression established center (the equant), raising in
itself only in the West by the Averröes’s mind the question of how
invention of daily and weekly the universe could have two centers,
newspapers from the 1640s to the and thus two earths. Furthermore,
present. the heavens periodically moved
Stark stands on much firmer backwards (retrogression). Averröes
ground in chapter 8, “The Pursuit of threw up his hands and declared,
Knowledge,” when he declares the “Nothing of the true science of
drive to know and understand the astronomy exists in our time, the
world to be “the fundamental key” astronomy of our time being only in
to the rise of Western civilization agreement with calculations…and not
(159). This chapter contains many with what exists.”5
good insights, but again, Stark’s C o n t r a r y t o S t a r k ’s c l a i m ,
approach afflicts his analysis. In Copernicus got most of it right.
some circles it is fashionable to He created the first coherent
claim that there was no “scientific astronomical system in which, for the
revolution,” and by taking this first time, all the parts fitted together
position Stark appears to champion with the orbits governed by numeric
the general ambience of the medieval ratios, revolving around a heliocentric
Christian church and its cultivation of
As cited by A.I. Sabra, “The Andalusian Revolt
important thinkers who did, indeed, against Ptolemaic Astronomy,” in Transformation
pave the way for modern science. and Tradition in the Sciences: Essays in Honour of
I. Bernard Cohen, ed. Everett Mendelsohn
Unfortunately, by taking this tack, (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University
Stark ends up championing Ptolemy’s Press, 1984), 142.
Reviews 115

point close to the center of the universe, Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution:
along with a greatly expanded estimate A Global Perspective, which he does
of the size of our cosmos. Furthermore, cite elsewhere.7
though Copernicus did not have a new Likewise, Stark’s account of the
database of observations, but solely “Lutheran Reformation,” in which
those of Ptolemy (and minor he cites interesting very early
observations of his own), his new attempts to quantify the behavioral
system was used by sixteenth- and results of the new doctrine to no
early seventeenth-century European avail, is confusing. Historically and
astronomers as a superior calculating sociologically, it is doubtful that one
device, while omitting the heliocentric can segregate the Lutheran and
orientation. Beyond that, Kepler could Calvinist effects in discussing Europe
not have devised his proof of the as a civilization. Many other scholars
elliptical shape of planetary orbits have shown important effects of the
unless he assumed Copernicus’s Reformation on income and education
sun-centered configuration. (using census data for the district of
Many chapters are riddled with Wittenberg),8 social organization,9
errors of commission and omission. and, of course, science. But this is
One example of the absence of proper hardly the Archimedean point for
attribution of scholarly debt is Stark’s understanding all of European history.
use (138, 181) of the invention of Stark’s approach to the science
eyeglasses, “massed-produced by question lacks objectivity and
plants in both Florence and Venice” misrepresents Robert Merton’s classic
and shipped around the world in the Science, Technology and Society in
fifteenth century. Even now this is Seventeenth-Century England (1938),
hardly common knowledge. We written by a twenty-eight-year-old
know about this because the late Harvard graduate student from a
Vincent Ilardi plumbed the obscure Philadelphia Jewish family. Merton’s
files of Italian lens manufacturers, book is not the narrow examination of
finding fourteenth- and fifteenth-
century bills of sale for these and other 7
Toby E. Huff, Intellectual Curiosity and the
shipments. 6 But Stark does not Scientific Revolution: A Global Perspective
(Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University
provide a reference for his claims— Press, 2011).
which could have been encountered 8
Sascha O. Becker and Ludger Woessman, “Was
in the pages of my Intellectual Weber Wrong? A Human Capital Theory of
Protestant Economic History,” Quarterly Journal
of Economics 124, no. 2 (2009): 531–96.
6 9
Vincent Ilardi, Renaissance Vision from Spectacles Philip Gorski, The Disciplinary Revolution:
to Telescopes (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Calvinism and the Rise of the State in Early
Society, 2007), chap. 4, “International Trade in Modern Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago
Spectacles.” Press, 2003).
116 Huff

the “scientific revolution” that Stark tolerance for several dozen countries,
makes it, but a multifaceted study many of them neither Christian nor
of the “the interplay between society, Western. Stark wants to highlight
culture and science” as well as continuing Protestant-Catholic
technology. How “do these vary in tensions, when Brian J. Brim and
kind and extent in differing historical Roger Finke state that religious
contexts?”10 The key here is that freedom in Christian countries
Merton was talking about the between 1945 and 2005 increased.12
scientific movement (the very practical This stands in contrast to Islamic
pursuit of science with shifting countries, where there is less freedom
emphases) that occurred in now than a century ago, but which
seventeenth-century England, whereas Stark does not mention, though he is
it is perfectly fine to suggest that the highly critical of Arabic-Islamic
scientific revolution of Copernicus in civilization in his chapter on “Islamic
the sixteenth-seventeenth century (that Illusions.”
Stark has thrown out) was rooted in In his last chapter, “Globalization
“Catholic cultural areas,” as Benjamin and Colonialism,” Stark makes a
Nelson put it long ago.11 good case that the era of colonial
In addition to a selective choice of imperialism did not primarily enrich
research results, Stark makes claims European actors while impoverishing
opposite to what his sources wrote. others (and no doubt many will contest
He cites, for example, the authors of this), but spread trade, education, and
The Price of Freedom Denied: new technologies across the globe. But
Religious Persecution and Conflict in despite the impressive historical sweep
the Twenty-First Century, who worked of How the West Won, it stops short of
out a metric for measuring religious explaining for students the uniqueness
of Western institutions, the freedom
Robert K. Merton, Science, Technology and
ensconced in the Western legal system
Society in Seventeenth-Century England (1938; establishing constitutionalism, self-
New York: Harper and Row, 1970), ix. The most
important repeat analysis of the seventeenth-century governance, due process of law, the
data was by Charles Webster, The Great Instaura- idea of election by consent, and so
tion: Science, Medicine, and Reform 1626–1670
(New York: Holmes & Meier, 1976), while all sides much more. With the collapse of
of the debate are well-represented in I. B. Cohen, ed., the so-called “Arab Spring” and
Puritanism and the Rise of Modern Science: The
Merton Thesis (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Uni- the extraordinary fracturing of the
versity Press, 1990). Neither work is mentioned by
11 12
Toby E. Huff, ed., On the Roads to Modernity: Brian J. Brim and Roger Finke, The Price of
Conscience, Science and Civilizations: Selected Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and
Writings by Benjamin Nelson (Totowa, NJ: Conflict in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge
Rowman & Littlefield, 1981; Lanham, MD: and New York: Cambridge University Press,
Lexington Books, 2012), chaps. 4 and 7. 2011), 172.
Reviews 117

Muslim world, along with the Western cultural forms and their
economic slowdown of China indispensability in a world that at
and its turn away from democracy least is trying through globalization
and Western conceptions of due to create unity. We greatly need to
process, it seems likely that a bring Western history and Western
younger generation will eventually civilization back into the curriculum
rediscover the unique riches of of American universities.