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What "Dark Ages"


A review of "The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success" by Rodney Stark.

charlemainjj Charlemagne receiving the submission of Widukind at Paderborn in 785, 
by Ary Scheffer, 1835

If you hold the following three propositions, the massive evidence marshaled in this book asks you to reconsider them: (1) For eleven centuries after the legitimation of Catholicism under Constantine in 323 A.D., the Church kept liberty in chains and progress in check, imposing backwardness on the "Dark" Ages; (2) Only after the overthrow of Catholic unity by the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment did systemic invention, science, and freedom appear, and speedily make the West great; (3) Capitalism originated under the impulse of the Protestant ethic.

Stark, a sociologist of some fame for his past work, and now a professor at Baylor University, has been led by his own studies to revise his earlier judgments regarding all three of these propositions.  He could not help noting (like the sociologist Robert Nisbet before him) that the Christian church introduced into the Greco-Roman world the conception of historical progress, breaking the vision of the cycles of eternal return.  Moreover, the name of the Christian God (in the first line of the Gospel of John, for instance) is Logos: translatable not only as Word but also as Insight, Intelligence, and Reason.  Impelled, further, by the conviction that each woman and man is made in the image of God, the Creator of all things, Christians introduced into the larger world a perfectionist vocation — to be co-creators, as it were, in making the world a better place — and a vocation of inquiry.  Thus, not stopping merely with the words of Scripture, the early Christians pressed on to develop wholly new concepts of person, trinity, the liberty of the children of God, and the like, and to seek out the heretofore hidden implications of the Scripture.  In other words, a principle of inquiry and intellectual progress was built into Christian theology itself, right from the very beginning.  Stark traces the expansion of this principle into every other sphere, especially the economic sphere, during the next millennium and a half.

Near the end of his book, he quotes from a study group of Chinese scholars who have been trying for at least two decades to figure out the success of the West, as compared with China itself and Islamic culture:

Christians introduced into the larger world a perfectionist vocation — to be co-creators, as it were, in making the world a better place — and a vocation of inquiry.

One of the things that we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world.  We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective.  At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had.  Then we thought it was because you had the best political system.  Next we focused on your economic system.  But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity.  That is why the West is so powerful.  The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics.  We don't have any doubt about this.

Many others in China seem to have made a correlative judgment.  Whereas at the rise of Mao in 1949 there were perhaps two million Christians in China, today there seem to be one hundred million, tested and toughened by persecution and martyrdom.  Upwardly mobile Chinese seem especially attracted to Christianity, which they see as the key to modernity.

And here is how Stark begins his concluding three pages:

Christianity created Western Civilization.  Had the followers of Jesus remained an obscure Jewish sect, most of you would not have learned to read and the rest of you would be reading from hand-copied scrolls.  Without a theology committed to reason, progress, and moral equality, today the entire world would be about where non-European societies were in, say, 1800: A world with many astrologers and alchemists but no scientists.  A world of despots, lacking universities, banks, factories, eyeglasses, chimneys, and pianos.  A world where most infants do not live to the age of five and many women die in childbirth.... The modern world arose only in Christian societies.  Not in Islam.  Not in Asia.  Not in a "secular" society — there having been none.

This, then, is Stark's thesis.  He does not make as clear as I think he could its premise, viz., that Christianity based itself upon the wisdom of Judaism, including its (so to speak) metaphysics, or vision of reality and its idea of progress.  One of the social effects of the rapid growth of Christianity, then, is that it made known around the world the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and a Hebrew metaphysics, as tiny Judaism alone could not have done.

starkvorWhat are the arguments that Stark advances for his bold thesis?  His book proceeds in two main steps; well, three.  There is a succinct, highly interesting, and very helpful introduction, and then two parts of three and four chapters each.  The first part is named "Foundations," and consists of discussions on the "Blessings of Rational Theology," the medieval industrial revolution, and the "rebirth" of freedom as opposed to widespread slavery and tyranny.  Part two covers in marvelous detail the birth of capitalism in Italy (including long sections on both the invention and long-lived control of international banking by the Italians); the spread of capitalism slowly into the Protestant North; Spanish and French anti-capitalism; and the contrast between feudalism and capitalism in North and South America.  His very brief conclusion on globalization and modernity requires only three pages.

This short book, then, is mainly about capitalism — or, more exactly, the cultural springs of capitalism.  Like Max Weber, Stark focuses both on the invention of the particular institutions that are indispensable to capitalism and also on the ethic necessary to it.  Unlike Weber, Stark finds that Catholic culture from a very early period, especially in Italy, was fertile in developing myriad capitalist institutions and practices, and in nurturing with extraordinary frequency the habits of invention, creativity, association, and practical ingenuity that are, more even than Weber's celebrated "Protestant ethic," essential habits of capitalism.

Stark is not quite as acute on this point as he might be, but he comes very close to defining capitalism as the mind-centered system directed to economic creativity, without quite being so explicit.  He rightly goes beyond the usual dictionary definitions which describe capitalism as a regime of private property, markets, and private accumulation.  All three of these features are found in pre-capitalist and other systems, and all three together miss the essential characteristic of capitalism: invention, creativity, and intellectual discovery.  In other words, Stark's "victory of reason."

One of the discoveries that most shocked the first Westerners in their voyages out among the peoples of other continents, Stark observes, was "the extent of their own technological superiority over the rest of the world."  For centuries, Europeans were the only ones on earth who possessed eyeglasses, chimneys, reliable clocks, heavy cavalry, systems of music notation, and many other advances.  How had the barbarian, hunting-and-gathering peoples of Europe advanced so far?  Why did they leap ahead in metallurgy, shipbuilding, and (when they settled down and turned their minds to it) even agriculture?  For one thing, they had the monastic libraries that kept alive practical lessons learned in the past, and kept adding to them.

When you trace it back far enough, though, Stark asserts, you find the answer in the "extraordinary faith in reason" announced on a multicultural scale by the Christian faith.  "Christian faith in reason was influenced by Greek philosophy.  But the more important fact is that Greek philosophy had little impact on Greek religions," which remained mystery cults, whereas "Christianity alone embraced reason and logic as the primary guide to religious truth," and held that "reason is the supreme gift of God," and a fitting instrument for coming to an ever deeper and clearer understanding of scripture and revelation.  In other words, Christianity looked not only to the past but also to the future; it wished to let the logic of the faith unfold like a mustard seed.  Faith ought to seek understanding.  Inquiry is not a vice, but an obligation.  This is what Stark means by the initial "victory of reason."  Evidence shows him that it took root in Europe and America through Christianity.

There is not a shred of anti-Catholicism in Stark, a fact not worth noticing except for its rarity.

There is not a shred of anti-Catholicism in Stark, a fact not worth noticing except for its rarity.  He sees exactly how the medieval monasteries and chapter schools, followed later by great universities specializing in an ever increasing number of disciplines, gave rise not only to the institutions and habits of scientific inquiry, but also to experiments in democratic methods, such as the election of abbots and priors in the Benedictine, then the Dominican and Franciscan monasteries, as well as of secular governors (for specified terms) in Italian cities such as Venice and Siena.  He rejects the clear bigotry by which the encyclopedists called themselves "enlightened" and wrote off those on whose shoulders they stood as men of "the dark ages."  Not a bad bit of Manicheanism — the other guys are "dark," and we are "full of light."  Fair-mindedness, no?

In a very effective few pages, Stark exposes the severe anti-Catholic prejudices of Max Weber, which allowed the latter to accept bogus statistics from his assistant, to overlook commanding evidence he certainly knew or ought to have known, and to miss plain anomalies in his own arguments.  The old capitalist centers of the Mediterranean invented the institutions, techniques, and creative brilliance of capitalism that the northern countries came to much later — and often enough while they were still Catholic.  Economic historians are fairly clear on all these points today, and yet the facts are not well known.

Stark is particularly good on the innovations in agriculture, industry, the marine arts, and warfare that flowed from the Christian monasteries and medieval love of invention.  Actually, authors such as David Landes, Jean Gimpel, and Randall Collins give even more detail on these matters than Stark does.  But Stark grasps the dependence of these innovations on a community of inventive, creative reason more firmly and directly.

There are two other themes that Stark is particularly good on, one early in the book and one later.  The first is the slow unfolding of the importance of the ethic of personal responsibility — of examining one's conscience, admitting culpability where due, doing penance, and amending one's life.  This turn inwards changed the drama of human history, and pivoted it upon the individual.  Thence came the birth of autobiography (St. Augustine's Confessions) and, later, not only the novel but the "search for identity."  It is clear that economic and political progress depends enormously on a widespread taking up of personal responsibility.  This, in turn, requires many citizens to "be converted" in their moral life, from laxity to moral seriousness.  Connected with this theme is the growing awareness in Christian communities that government without consent, and even more so the deeply rooted practice of slavery, are inconsistent with Christian principles.  Steadily, the salience of the theme of libertas gained social power in Christian nations, as in no other.  Of course, Lord Acton preceded Stark on this theme, but Stark does it well, if briefly.

If the death of God means the death of reason, dread the bitter tears to come.

The other theme Stark handles quite convincingly is the difference it made that Latin America grew under the aegis of feudalism, and North America under the aegis of self-government and private property.  He notes such significant small facts as that the Spanish King often sold the governorships and administrations of his Latin American colonies to incompetent and indifferent wealthy families, whereas the British king was well insulated by Parliament and local self-government from daily affairs in North America.  The parts of the United States that were least developed — even hostile to modernity — were the Southern states closest to the feudalism of South America.  Today, he sagaciously observes, most Latins perceive Roman Catholic "liberation theology" of the kind favored by the mainstream press these last three decades as no more than "a naive clerical fantasy," with virtually zero positive effects for the poor.  Instead, he cites these conclusions of Anthony Gill: highly committed Protestants and Catholics show no significant differences in their liberal economic views, more conservative political attitudes, a higher level of civic participation, and greater trust in government than do less religious people.  Writes Gill: "It is clear that Weber is not at work in Latin America."

In a word, this book offers arresting facts and passion-arousing arguments, but it also, and most dramatically, alters the horizon within which we wrestle with them.  Stark's main transvaluation of current values is to tease out the consequences of Nietzsche's shock to the Enlightenment: If the death of God means the death of reason, dread the bitter tears to come.  Stark's point is that, as a matter of historical fact, it was a particular kind of faith — he says "Christian," and I would insist on "Jewish and Christian" — that brought the West, and through the West the whole world, its confidence in reason and in changing the future for the better.  We can see in contemporary secular Europe, I would hazard, the loss of confidence that accompanies the loss of that faith.  We already dread the bitter tears.



novakMichael Novak. "What 'Dark Ages'" The New Criterion (February, 2006).

Reprinted with permission of The New Criterion.

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The Author

novak1Novak10smMichael Novak (1933-2017) was a distinguished visiting professor in the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America at his death. Novak was the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize and served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission. He wrote numerous influential books on economics, philosophy, and theology. Novak’s masterpiece, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, influenced Pope John Paul II, and was republished underground in Poland in 1984, and in many other countries. Among his other books are: Writing From Left to Right, Living the Call: An Introduction to the Lay Vocation, No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, Washington's God, as well as The Universal Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilizations Is Not Inevitable, The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,  Tell Me Why: A Father Answers His Daughter's Questions About God (with his daughter Jana Novak), and On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding. Read a more complete bio of Michael Novak here. For more information, see

Copyright © 2006 The New Criterion
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