How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity by Rodney Stark

Takeaway: Sometimes in the attempt to tell a fuller story, part of the story gets lost. But the correction usually has the same problem.

I really appreciate Rodney Stark’s desire to fight back against biased history. This is my third book by Stark. God’s Battalions told the story of Crusades and the Triumph of Christianity used sociology and history to explore how Christianity grew.

In How The West Won, Stark is fighting against a pendulum that has swung too far and now can be anti-western. Earlier, pride in Western achievements was easy to see, but also easy to see was how that Western bias lead to racism and blind spots about the negatives of some of the West’s bad points.

Stark, fairly briefly attempts to re-balance the academy’s view of Western triumph. The components of how the West Won are fairly simple. Christianity had a rational worldview and a God that created and ordered the world. That orderly world gave rise to science and innovation. Christianity valued education in order to better understand the world. In addition, Capitalism and European political disunity (which kept countries vying for power and innovating in technology), while maintaining Latin for communication across Europe further developed Western strengths. (This is, of course, over simplifying Stark, his argument is rich in detail and very readable.)

Contrary to some pro-western historians, Stark repeatedly argues that Empire, especially Roman, was bad for innovation (and therefore a drain on the rise of the west) because it relied on military power for strength instead of empowering the general populace through economic and political means.

Stark also compared different parts of Europe. The political liberty of England, the geographic exploration of Vikings, the creative capitalism in Italy and later in England, are all helpful areas of comparison. Stark has no problem highlighting negatives, Spain’s colonialism was more about wealth for the monarchy and building the strength of their Spanish army than building the country’s economy or helping empower the citizens of Spain. So Spain did not fall so much as it lost the income that propped up the monarchy and overspent its resources.

More than just a positive argument for the west, Stark also makes a negative arguments against China, Islam and the Native Americans of the Western Hemisphere. China is often cited as having first discovered a number of innovations. But China often discouraged the use of those innovations, while in general the West developed the innovations. (It is impossible to know in many cases, but Stark suggests that in many cases innovators independently came up with similar solutions in different places without influence.)

Most of my complaint comes from the comparisons of Western and Eastern cultures.  Necessarily because of the briefness of the book, Stark has to make generalizations and he is countering other broad generalizations. But Stark goes too far in much the same way that he charges that others go too far. For instance, he mentions Muslims that believe that natural disasters are caused by God’s judgement as reason that real science failed to develop under Islam, but fails to mentions that many Christians believed the same thing (then and now).

He gives context to slavery, genocide and human rights and shows that in context it is likely that human rights were more valued in the West and slavery ended earlier than in the Middle East or Eastern Asia, but tends to dismiss legitimate criticism of the West at the same time.

I really do recommend this both as well written and researched history and corrective to some of the over-correction in social science and the academy. But just because I think this is a helpful corrective, does not mean that I do not see that at times Stark is going too far himself.

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