Book Review: How the West Won by Rodney Stark

How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity by Rodney Stark is a refreshing look at history. What I found most refreshing is that the book looks at the rise of Christianity as a good thing, even a necessary thing, instead of the calamity it is presented as in much historical writing. What I also found both new and intriguing is the idea that the disunity of the West has been one of the vital factors that contributed to the West achieving modernity where other cultural groups did not and that empires are in and of themselves bad things. Stark takes special care to demonstrate how the rise of Rome and the durability of the Roman Empire were actually a brake on Western progress. He makes this point quite well too.

The book itself is 370 pages of text plus notes, a bibliography, and an index. It is separated into eighteen chapters in five topical, chronological parts.

The book also discredits the idea that scientific progress only began with the 18th century Enlightenment by demonstrating that scientific improvement significantly predated the mainly philosophical achievements of the enlightenment. I now have logical grounds for my gut level rejection of the writings of the likes of philosophes such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and co. Another interesting discussion is the difference between protestant and Catholic scientific achievement. The book explodes the myth that Protestants propelled the West into modernity using facts and statistical analysis that show that an individual’s confession had little to do with scientific advancement and that instead economics and property rights had more to do with spurring innovation. I was already familiar with the notion that property rights, to include intellectual property, do more to spur innovation than does a pure quest for knowledge but Dr. Stark does an excellent job of explaining and demonstrating why that is so.

Part five, examining modernity and the West from 1750 to the present is perhaps the best section of the book because the author’s blunt rejection of postmodern assessments of the West is both gratifying and refreshing. He never comes right out and says that the current trend of Western self-loathing is stupid and unbecoming but that is the implied impression I got while reading this section. He is especially biting when discussing the supposed sins of Western colonialism.

I will be the first to admit that as a historian I am what I like to call a new revisionist. That is, I like to look at historical facts and draw conclusions based on what the facts we know tell us and try my very best to avoid letting ideology cloud my conclusions. This is especially so because too often historical events are described, interpreted, and judged according to prevailing contemporary morals instead of the morals of the time in which they occurred. I firmly believe there is too much ideology in historical circles today. That is plainly evidenced by even a cursory examination of the titles and abstracts of the articles that make it to publication in current academic journals. Much, most even, of the most recent historical articles and books published come from an ideological angle, very often from the left of the political spectrum.

All in all, I found this to be an excellent book. Not only is it written in an engaging, yet blunt style, it uses a multitude of facts and statistical analysis to back up the claims made. Dr. Stark writes a resounding rejection of current Western self-loathing within the academy and the wider PC crowd without ever stooping to name calling. The biggest and truest claim of the book is that the West is not remarkable for its technology, rather it is remarkable for its commitment to freedom, reason, and human dignity, commitments that are largely absent in societies outside the Western world. This is an outstanding book that will either confirm your belief in the superiority of Western culture or challenge your belief that Western culture is the penultimate cause of so much evil in the world. Either way it is a thought provoking read that I highly recommend to everybody, especially to twenty-something liberal arts majors who think the Occupy movement was a great idea that was destroyed by the so-called 1%. An outstanding read.

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