Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Victory of Reason

This is one of those books that busts some myth about history that are out there. It is commonly assumed that Christianity lead the 'dark ages' and it wasn't until the Enlightenment that we had the rise of the West and its successes. In this myth Christianity held culture and society back for roughly 1,000 years. One problem: it's just not a historical argument--or at least one with much weight.

The thesis of the book is simple: Christianity encouraged the use of reason which lead the rise of freedom and capitalism. In this book Stark takes on the sort of post-enlightenment lore that Christianity led to the dark ages and reason did not spring forth until post-Renaissance and even later until the dawning of "enlightenment".

In fact, Stark shows the the "dark ages" were hardly dark. This is not a new thesis to historians of the middle ages, as a number of recent studies have shown--yet this thesis has hardly caught on in pop culture.

The book is divided into two sections: (1) Foundations and (2) Fulfillment. In the foundations section, he seeks to demonstrate that the fundamental dignity of a human person, security of personal freedoms and personal property did not and indeed could not arise under ancient Greece and Roman. Rather it was the tradition of Christian theology and their firm belief in the gift of human reason that lead to these developments. Rather than holding the world back--it actually moved civilization forward in some key ways.

The second section reads more like a historical primer to the rise of capitalism more specifically. Stark debunks Max Weber's thesis that the Protestant work ethic lead to capitalism by showing that capitalism was budding early in the 11th-12th centuries and beyond. He also discusses the reasons in flourished and did not flourish. Particularly: where freedom was not secure, despotism reigned or rights were not protect--capitalism did not flourish.

The second section is helpful. He clearly shows the fruit of the worldview Christianity imparted. Yet at times, he does not tie his argument closely enough to his overall thesis. One could almost read the second section as a stand alone.

The book is well documented and aside from a few minor weaknesses, his argument is solid. He relies on a number of important studies.

There is a tendency in history to make sweeping claims. One such sweeping claim that has stood for far too long in popular lore is the idea that Christianity held the world back from true progress. Built of the shoulders of historians, Stark challenges the common assumption by taking us back to basics and redrawing this picture with the primary sources of history and sociology. This book is worth the time and investment of a careful read.

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"The Voyages..." Forays into Biblical studies, Biblical exegesis, theology, exposition, life, and occasionally some Star Trek...