Modernity developed only in the West - in Europe and North America. Nowhere else did science and democracy arise; nowhere else was slavery outlawed. Only Westerners invented chimneys, musical scores, telescopes, eyeglasses, pianos, electric lights, aspirin, and soap. The question is, why? Unfortunately, that question has become so politically incorrect that most scholars avoid it. But acclaimed author Rodney Stark provides the answers in this sweeping new look at Western civilization.
How the West Won demonstrates the primacy of uniquely Western ideas - among them the belief in free will, the commitment to the pursuit of knowledge, the notion that the universe functions according to rational rules that can be discovered, and the emphasis on human freedom and secure property rights. How the West Won displays Stark's gifts for lively narrative history and making the latest scholarship accessible to all. This bold, insightful book will force you to rethink your understanding of the West and the birth of modernity - and to recognize that Western civilization really has set itself apart from other cultures.
©2014 Rodney Stark (P)2014 Tantor
Book blogger at Bookwi.se
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.
How the West Won is the story of Christendom. Stark takes us through the period of Greek thought and its meeting with Christianity in what he calls: The Roman Interlude. He points out that Rome acted more like a protection racket than an actual ruling entity. Moving from uncovering the continuation of scientific thought in the Middle Ages and Renaissance to influence of Christianity in the ages of Discovery and the Enlightenment, Stark shows that Christendom's unique understanding of God and creation compelled its thinkers to keep discovering. Most importantly he shows that it was because of Christendom, rather than inspite of it, that the West was able to accomplish so much more. Key to all of this is a notion of freedom that was not extant elsewhere in the world.
I appreciated Stark looking at the data and asking questions of the accepted thinking. Many this day and age do a good job questioning thinking without looking at all the data.
He does a fine job and conveys the text very well.
I appreciated the inclusion of Robert Woodberry's study about missions. I couldn't believe it myself when I heard it; but Stark isn't exaggerating when he declares it to be one of the most questioned and re-examined studies. It holds up. It says a lot about Christianity that it has led to such amazing advances far from the Western roots.
At times Stark can push his point farther than all the history might suggest. Yet, in an Aristotelian way he is trying to counteract the poor scholarship and biases shown by people who hold to a secular metanarrative. On the whole Mr. Stark's bias is only really perceived because he doesn't tow the academic line. Ultimately one should read this book (or listen in this case) in addition to other viewpoints as well.
One of the top two or three
Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel
Everything! I was particularly impressed by his tempo and his pronunciation of foreign words (at least of those languages I know).
I was touched by Professor Stark's courage and lucidity. In an easily understood yet solidly supported manner, he addresses many truths most modern scholars seem afraid to consider with an open mind. I was most moved by his careful exposition of the role of medieval Christianity in laying the foundations of modern science. This point alone makes the book worth reading.
This is an amazing work. In a relatively short treatise Professor Stark summarizes centuries of Western intellectual and economic development. This should be required reading for all college freshmen in the United States.
We Euro-types (especially males) take a beating in popular media these days. It's a kind of sport, really, for the others, and our own masochists. If all that is getting you down, or you sense it isn't quite true, listen to this.
I see the rants on popular web sites, and they are okay as a quick antidote to our daily poison. Kind of a sugar rush, I suppose. This book, on the other hand, has real meat on it, and is served without flash, fanfare, or chest-beating.
Scholarly presentation... totally devoid of sensationalism.
I know (knew?) nearly nothing of The Crusades. I did not realize 'The West' was so noble then.
I had high hopes for this book, expecting that it would put forward a clear, compelling arguement for why Western Europe was able to pull ahead of other cultures in the 18-19th centuries. It falls short in many ways.
Instead of a thematic approach the historian uses a mainly chronological approach that makes it more difficult to see the big picture. There are many interesting facts and some useful insights into the differences between the world cultures, but it is all muddled together. Was it the religion? The Greek roots? The Roman influence?
Mostly the author resents what he sees as political correctness in historical studies that have diminished the respect for Western Civilization, and he ends up with what seems to be a circular arguement: the West succeeded because it was superior.
In the "Must Read" List
The West And The RestHow The English Speaking Poeples Invented FreedomGuns Germs and Steel
Yes, and pretty much did.
All sorts of things I should have known, and some things I suspected. For instance, I have always been curious how ancient Rome fed all those legions and construction workers. And the population of Rome dropped about 90% in a very short period of time at the end. Now I might know why. Specifically, the state apparatus that confiscated all that needed food was enfebled and the residents had to go out and grow their own food. Or something. Anyway, at least in Gaul, the country people became better fed.
A LOT better fed. Skeletal autopsies and isotopic studies show this. Apparently the country people got bigger and several inches taller. The glory of rome was built on near starvation rations left over for those who provided the food. So now we might more appreciate the various rebellions.What we lost during 'the dark ages' was a vast aristocracy with leasure time to contemplate Plato and write histories of Roman Glory.
Currently a local truck driver who has hours to listen to my audio books. I am hooked, some of my fellow drivers enjoy them also
Yes, I actually do plan on listening to this book again, enjoyed the whole thing in great perspective of the facts not fiction
Revealing the differences of the various religons and their views on progress
I have listened to literally hundreds of books an Mr Foley is near the top of readers
How the West overcame the rest
I am looking forward to reading more of Mr Stark's works
I can not recommend this book enough. It dispels many of the falsehoods we have been taught about history with undisputable facts and clear logic.
Excellent read. Fills in the blanks, corrects the record in many narratives. Essential companion for all history bookshelves.
Report Inappropriate Content
If you find this review inappropriate and think it should be removed from our site, let us know. This report will be reviewed by Audible and we will take appropriate action.