The Victory of Reason

by Rodney Stark

(I read this book some years ago but for some reason forgot to write a book review. Here then is a review.)

This is a truly execreble book. The author had no intention of writing a work of history; this is nothing more than a panegyric for Christianity. His claim is made clear in the subtitle: “How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success.”

I confess that I read only the first 50 pages of this monstrosity. By page 50, I had encountered so many gross errors of fact that I concluded that the remainder of the book had nothing truthful to offer me. Herewith some of the bloopers I found:

Page 18: Mr. Stark claims that the Greeks never acheived real science. That’s true if we use, as I prefer, the modern notion of science. They didn’t have laboratories and they didn’t carry out controlled experiments, and they didn’t have algebraic expressions describing natural phenomena. However, the “proto-science” that they carried out was pretty damn good, and certainly the proto-science that Mr. Stark attributes to the Middle Ages was not fundamentally superior until, perhaps, about 1400 CE. For example, Eratosthenes obtained a pretty good measure of the size of the earth; Hipparchus assembled a good star catalog and in fact came up with the system of magnitudes that we still use for measuring the brightness of a star. Ptolemy wrote the Almagest, a compendium of classical astronomy that had lots of good science. It also had some pretty dumb ideas, such as the Ptolomaic model of the solar system, but these mistakes do not deny the truths that Ptolomy promulgated. 

Page 20: Mr. Stark claims that “Greek learning was a barrier to the rise of science.” This is preposterous. Every history of science gives prominence to crucial role that the Greeks played in developing rigorous logical thinking, the notion of proof, geometry, and many other topics of science. They made lots of mistakes, to be sure, but they gave subsequent philosophers a huge head start. The fact that the Islamic civilization celebrated Greek learning provides us with an independent assessment of its value. 

Page 24: “The Western sense of individualism was largely a Christian creation.” This is absurd. In the first place, it’s difficult to concoct a rigorous definition of “individualism”; we can only rely on indicators. Certainly Chinese civilization subordinated the individual to the group; I think it safe to conclude that China never developed a high regard for the individual. However, one need only consider the intense fractiousness of Greek civilization to realize just how large a role the individual played as an individual. The Greeks argued ferociously about just about everything. How can a society that encourages argumentation have strong collectivist leanings?

Page 26: “…while ordinary Greek or Roman pagans embraced fatalism, whatever reservations about it some ancient philosophers might have expressed, Jesus taught that each individual must atone for moral lapses precisely because these are wrong choices. There could be no more compelling intellectual emphasis on self and individuality than this.” 

This is another absurdity. Every society in history has had notions of right and wrong, of sin and crime, and has established punishments for choices that violate important social norms. I don’t know of a single society that denied the responsibility of an individual for his actions. Moreover, Mr. Stark’s opening premise about the philosophical beliefs of ordinary Greek or Roman pagans is pure fabrication on his part; we have no polling data about these people. What we do have is a vast collection of classical literature, none of which embraces fatalism. I suspect that Mr. Stark confuses fatalism with Stoicism. The difference is that the fatalist accepts reality as beyond his control, while the Stoic emphasizes the fact that the individual’s ethical focal point must be his own actions; the actions of others, however injurious to the individual, are not within his moral responsibility and are therefore of lesser concern. 

Page 43: Mr. Stark claims that the Romans didn’t know how to build warm houses; their homes were drafty and had no means of ventilating the smoke from fires. What Mr. Stark overlooks is the fact that Rome was a Mediterranean civilization, which suffers from heat, not cold. It was much more important to have an architecture that permitted air movement, and in fact that was precisely how the standard Roman house was built, around an open atrium that provided every room with fresh air. The kitchen was at the rear of the house, with large openings to ventilate the smoke from cooking.

Page 45: here’s a real blooper: Mr. Stark attributes the invention of the stirrup to Franks in 732 CE. Had he taken the time to consult a history book, or even Wikipedia, he would have learned that the stirrup was invented in China and was based on a simpler device invented in India.

Page 47: Mr. Stark asserts “The claim that the magnetic compass reached Europe from China through the Muslim world is false.” That’s quite a claim. Mr. Stark offers not a shred of evidence to support his contradiction of history as known by actual historians. 

Page 48: Mr. Stark claims that Romans carried out little long distance trade save for luxuries. This is patently untrue: the thousands of amphorae that once contained wine and olive oil and have been found in the Mediterranean Sea are ample evidence of the volume of long-distance Roman trade. 

Page 49: Mr. Stark asserts that Roman “carts and wagons were so primitive that seldom was anything of substantial weight moved very far inland.”. Right. So how did those Romans move the millions of tons of stone blocks that they used to build their structures, amphiteaters, aqueducts, and fortifications? By levitation? Any schoolchild should be able to tell you about the Roman Colosseum or the Roman aqueducts, yet Mr. Stark seems to have missed that in his research. 

I think you can see why I gave up on page 50: the absurd errors were coming fast and thick. But now let me turn to the subtitle, which claims that Christianity led to freedom, capitalism, and Western success.

There isn’t a single verse in the Bible that extols individual freedom. The Israelite societies were all kingdoms with no concept of individual rights or freedom. The concept of democracy was most definitely promulgated by the Greeks. The concept of freedom owes much to Germanic notions as well as Greek ones – but not Christian notions.

Are you kidding!?!?! Early Christian communities were most definitely communistic in nature. Giving up one’s wealth, not accumulating it, was central to the teachings of Jesus Christ and his successors. Right up to the present day, Christians have held that poverty was morally superior to wealth. Over the course of history, millions of Christians deliberately embraced poverty as a means of achieving holiness.

Western success
Christianity certainly played a role in that success, but there were many other factors at work. This topic is the subject of many volumes of historical writing, presenting a plethora of explanations. None of them give much importance to Christianity per se. 

Finally, I hastily add my acknowledgement of the many contributions that the Christian church made to Western civilization. It was crucial to the survival of many Greco-Roman writings, and it was the only educator at work during much of the Middle Ages. In criticizing Mr. Stark’s book, I do not seek to minimize the role of the Church in Western history; I am instead rebutting the hyperbolic claims that Mr. Stark makes.