A well-written, lively look through history
In the first half of the fifteenth century, decades before Columbus set sail, the great Chinese admiral Zheng He commanded a fleet that seven times sailed across the Indian Ocean and reached the shores of East Africa. This talented admiral returned from each voyage — (some historians believe he died on the last one) — with rare goods and exotic animals. In spite of this impressive feat of navigation, after Zhen He’s death the Chinese emperor decreed an end to the construction of oceangoing vessels. He then had Zehng He’s fleet dragged ashore and left to rot, and even ordered the surviving animals in the imperial zoo killed.
The emperor did these things, as Rodney Stark tells us in How The West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity (ISBN 161017085-7, $27.95) because of “Confucian opposition to change on grounds that the past was greatly superior.”
Many historians have explored the reasons for the rise to power and dominance of the West, and in regard to theories of this momentous circumstance Stark gives readers little new information. He follows the road blazed by other historians, citing such causes and influences as the Greek philosophers, Judaism and Christianity, the idea of progress (certainly lacking in Zheng He’s China), the use of rationality and scientific exploration as ways of explaining the world.
What sets How The West Won apart from similar histories, and what makes it a sheer delight to read, is Stark’s wit, his elegant writing and, most especially, his reinterpretation of various historical events.
In the case of the Roman Empire, for example, Stark explains that the empire’s fall was actually a beneficial rather than a negative event. Through many examples he demonstrates that the Romans were something like the Chinese, uninterested in developing their technology, and that the fall of Rome did not give rise to a barbarian Europe, but rather to Europe itself. As Stark explains, until that point in time all of Europe north of Italy had looked to Rome and the Mediterranean for trade and the standards of “civilization.” With Rome’s fall, the emphasis on such things moved northward.
Nearly every chapter of How The West Won breaks some widely held opinion. Stark attacks the old thesis that Protestantism created capitalism, demonstrating that capitalism and banking were already well developed in such places as the city-states of Northern Italy. He investigates the spread of Protestantism, showing its links to certain German universities and to those towns that had charters and liberties allowing for change. He reveals that many of the less-educated citizens in Germany, particularly the peasants, cared little about religion or faith, a circumstance lamented by Martin Luther himself.
“The most fundamental key to the rise of Western civilization,” Stark writes, “has been the dedication of so many of its most brilliant minds to the pursuit of knowledge.” This sentence appears at the beginning of a chapter on the medieval scholastics, those scholars and logicians who have been denigrated ever since the Enlightenment. Stark defends these academics, reminding us that they practiced a form of highly rational thinking and that this way of thinking, of perceiving the world, carried great weight in exploring that world. Men like William of Ockham, Roger Bacon, and Nicole Oresme turned the tools of their training into what we now call the “scientific method.”
A second key to Western success addressed by Stark is the development of political liberty. We are so accustomed to our various rights and liberties, particularly here in America, that we often take them for granted and wonder why democracy and its attendant institutions can’t be exported abroad as easily as Cokes, motion pictures and jeans. Stark returns to this unique aspect of Western culture throughout the book, perhaps most vividly by contrasting Imperial Spain in its golden age with that tiny newcomer to the world stage, England. As Spain slid into obscurity, hedged about by too many laws and damaged by its system of kings and wealthy landowners, liberty-loving England entered an industrial revolution and created an empire.
Though a university professor — he is Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University — Stark writes clear, crisp prose with a general audience clearly in mind. Here, for example, is a typical passage about our misconceptions regarding the Romans and the barbarians who conquered them:
“As for the average person’s standard of living, it is true that the state no longer subsidized food or made daily free distributions of bread, olive oil, and wine. But studies based on isotopic analysis of skeletons have found that people in the so-called Dark Ages ate very well, getting lots of meat, and as a result they grew larger than people had during the days of the empire.”
One caveat: despite the provocative title, How The West Won is not the work of a pundit. Stark backs up his various claims and historical corrections with his own research and that of many others. The endnotes, bibliography, and index take up nearly a quarter of the book.
If you are looking for lively, erudite history, you’ll find How The West Won a splendid companion.
How The West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity by Rodney Stark. Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2014. 432 pages.