Rodney Stark’s book, The Victory of Reason, is a wonderful assembler of pieces. He pointed out a number of things I already knew, but had not considered the implications of before, and then added greatly to the number of such facts — and all with the same implications. For those who understand that economic liberty is the bedrock of every form of civic liberty, and who understand that this liberty is currently under seige, this book is a must.
Stark’s thesis is that there is something unique about the Christian faith, something that led necessarily to faith in linear progress and the possibility of economic improvements. This element led to the development of what we call capitalism (not in Weber’s sense) and the establishment of the West.
First, a couple of complaints. In a couple places Stark says something that makes it sound like Christians were superior to Muslims (for example) because we figured out ways to get around the limitations of our sacred book, and they didn’t. We developed creative theologians who could overcome that liability. But he only says something silly like that in a couple places. The rest of the book is magnificent. He is, of course, correct that we had these creative theologians who worked through these issues, but they were actually dismantling misreadings of Scripture.
There are also a few places where Stark is leaning so hard against Weber’s anachronistic thesis on the contribution of Protestantism to the development of capitalism that he in a few places downplays Protestantism’s important role in the salvation and reformation of capitalism. But given the thesis he is arguing against there, a few things like that can be forgiven, and he is still remarkably fair.
That said, this book is a survey of the remarkable period of technological innovation, invention, expansion, and glory that blinkered historians once dubbed the “Dark Ages.” Stark shows that the collapse of the Roman Empire was one of the best things that ever happened to the residents of Europe — tax relief all at once — opening the doors to the most creative period of all human history up to that point. The Dark Ages really were a true Enlightenment.
If an ancient tyrant builds a Taj Mahal on the backs of slaves, he will have no shortage of of modern historical sychophants lamenting the lost glory days. But if there are five centuries of peace, with every Israelite under his own fig tree, minding his own business, there is no ruined grandeur for the modern statist writer to grovel in front of. And then, when such true cultures do something that does last architecturally (like a cathedral, say), they name it Gothic, as though it were done by rude and unlettered Goths, grunting and pointing as they went. The flying buttress must have been invented accidentally one day when some of their towers fell over.
Stark acknowledges the difficulty with the word capitalism, because it began as a pejorative term applied by leftist scribblers against wealth and privilege. But the thing capitalism had been around for a long time, as Stark shows. The first robust forms of it were recognizable as early as the ninth century — distinctively Christian through and through.
The reason this tickles me so much is that this is almost one thousand years before Adam Smith. One of the things that modern Christian defenders of capitalism have to contend with as we debate these issues with fellow Christians is the idea that our “capitalism” is a syncretistic compromise with the Scottish Enlightenment, or with economists of the Austrian school who don’t believe in God. Our zeal for freedom in economics must be a modernist adaptation, a departure from earlier Trinitarian categories. But, as Stark shows, this is “wouldn’t it be nice?” history.
The three pillars of “capitalism” are free markets, free labor, and secure property. All of that was there centuries before Adam Smith, developed, nurtured, and defended by a Christian civilization. And they were developed, nurtured, and defended in no other civilization. And then, when modernity did arrive, the modernists waltzed in and seized houses they did not build and wells they did not dig, and said, “Look what we did!” The tragedy is that many Christians believed them.