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How the West Won — but "Western Civ" Lost


It's remarkably unfashionable to study — or even talk about — the West these days.

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columns Forty years ago the most important and popular freshman course at the best American colleges and universities was "Western Civilization." It not only covered the general history of the West but also included historical surveys of art, music, literature, philosophy, science, and other matters. But this course has long since disappeared from most college catalogues on grounds that Western civilization is but one of many civilizations and it is ethnocentric and arrogant to study ours.

It is widely claimed that to offer a course in "Western Civilization" is to become an apologist "forWestern hegemony and oppression" (as the classicist Bruce Thornton aptly put it). Thus, Stanford dropped its widely admired "West­ern Civilization" course just months after the Reverend Jesse Jackson came on campus and led members of the Black Student Union in chants of "Hey-hey, ho-ho, Western Civ has got to go." More recently, faculty at the University of Texas condemned "Western Civilization" courses as inherently right wing, and Yale even returned a $20 million contribution rather than reinstate the course.

To the extent that this policy pre­vails, Americans will become increas­ingly ignorant of how the modern world came to be. Worse yet, they are in danger of being badly misled by a flood of absurd, politically correct fabrications, all of them popular on college campuses: That the Greeks copied their whole culture from black Egyptians. That European science originated in Islam. That Western affluence was stolen from non-West­ern societies. That Western modernity was really produced in China, and not so very long ago. The truth is that, although the West wisely adopted bits and pieces of technology from Asia, modernity is entirely the product of West­ern civilization.

I use the term modernity to identify that fundamental store of scientific knowledge and procedures, powerful technologies, artistic achievements, political freedoms, economic arrangements, moral sensibilities, and improved standards of living that characterize Western nations and are now revolutionizing life in the rest of the world. For there is another truth: to the extent that other cultures have failed to adopt at least major aspects of Western ways, they remain backward and impoverished.

Ideas Matter

This is not to say that the old "West­ern Civilization" classes got every­thing right. Despite their value, these courses usually were far too enamored of philosophy and art, far too reluctant to acknowledge the positive effects of Christian­ity, and amazingly oblivious to advances in technology, especially those transforming mundane activi­ties such as farming and banking.

Also, both the textbooks and the instructors involved in the old "Western Civ" courses were content merely to describe the rise of West­ern civilization. They usually avoided any comparisons with Islam or Asia and ignored the issue of why moder­nity happened only in the West.

To explore that question is not eth­nocentric; it is the only way to develop an informed understanding of how and why our world emerged as it did.

In early times China was far ahead of Europe in terms of many vital technologies. But when Portuguese voyag­ers reached China in 1517, they found a backward society in which the privi­leged classes were far more concerned with crippling young girls by binding their feet than with develop­ing more productive agriculture — despite frequent famines. Why?

Or why did the powerful Ottoman Empire depend on Western foreigners to provide it with fleets and arms?

Or, to change the focus, why did science and democracy originate in the West, along with representational art, chimneys, soap, pipe organs, and a system of musical notation? Why was it that for sev­eral hundred years beginning in the thirteenth century only Euro­peans had eyeglasses or mechanical clocks? And what about telescopes, microscopes, and periscopes?

We owe this belief partly to the ancient Greeks and partly to the unique Judeo-Christian conception of God as a rational creator.

There have been many attempts to answer these questions. Several recent authors attribute it all to favorable geog­raphy — that Europe benefited from a benign climate, more fertile fields, and abundant natural resources, especially iron and coal. But, as Victor Davis Han­son pointed out in his book Carnage and Culture, "China, India, and Africa are especially blessed in natural ores, and enjoy growing seasons superior to those of northern Europe." Moreover, much of Europe was covered with dense hardwood forests that could not read­ily be cleared to permit farming or grazing until iron tools became avail­able. Little wonder that Europe was long occupied by cultures far behind those of the Middle East and Asia.

Other scholars have attributed the success of the West to guns and steel, to sailing ships, or to superior agriculture. The problem here is that these "causes" are part of what needs to be explained: why did Europeans excel at metallurgy, ship­building, and farming? The same objection arises to the claim that science holds the secret of "Western domina­tion," as well as to the Marx­ist thesis that it was all due to capitalism. Why did science and capitalism develop only in Europe?

In attempting to explain this remarkable cultural singularity, we must, of course, pay attention to material factors — obviously history would have been quite different had Europe lacked iron and coal or been landlocked. Even so, explanations should not — cannot — rest primarily on material conditions and forces. It is ideas that matter (though this basic premise, too, is quite unfashionable in contempo­rary scholarly circles). As the distinguished economist and historian Deirdre McCloskey observed, "Material, economic forces . . . were not the original and sustaining causes of the modern rise." Or, as she put it in the subtitle of her fine book: "Why economics can't explain the modern world." Quietly mocking Karl Marx, McCloskey asserted that Europe achieved moder­nity because of "ideology."

If Marx was sincere when he dismissed the possibility of ideas being causative agents as "ideo­logical humbug," one must wonder why he labored so long to communicate his socialist ideas rather than just relaxing and letting "economic determinism" run its "inevitable" course. In fact, Marx's beloved material causes exist mainly as humans perceive them — as people pursue goals guided by their ideas about what is desirable and possible. Indeed, to explain why working-class people so often did not embrace the socialist revolution, Marx and Friedrich Engels had to invent the concept of "false conscious­ness" — an entirely ideological cause.

Similarly, it is ideas that explain why science arose only in the West. Only Westerners thought that sci­ence was possible, that the universe functioned according to rational rules that could be discovered. We owe this belief partly to the ancient Greeks and partly to the unique Judeo-Christian conception of God as a rational cre­ator. Clearly, then, the French histo­rian Daniel Mornet had it right when he said that the French Revolution would not have occurred had there not been widespread poverty, but nei­ther would it have occurred without revolutionary philosophies, for it was "ideas that set men in motion."

Once we recognize the primacy of ideas, we realize the irrelevance of long-running scholarly debates about whether certain inventions were developed independently in Europe or imported from the East. Inven­tions not only must be made; they also must be sufficiently valued to be used. It is well known, for example, that the Chinese had gunpowder by the thirteenth century and even cast a few cannons. But centuries later they still lacked artillery and firearms. The Chinese also invented a mechanical clock, but Mandarins at the impe­rial court soon ordered all of them destroyed — so that when Westerners arrived, nobody in China really knew what time it was. An iron industry flourished in northern China in the eleventh century — but then the court Mandarins declared a state monop­oly on iron and seized everything, destroying China's iron production.

Why were so many innovations and inventions abandoned or even outlawed in China? Because Con­fucian culture opposed change on grounds that the past was superior. The twelfth-century Mandarin Li Yen-chang captured this viewpoint when he said, "If scholars are made to concentrate their attention solely on the classics and are prevented from slip­ping into study of the vulgar practices of later genera­tions, then the empire will be fortunate indeed!"

In the early fifteenth century — decades before Christopher Columbus was even born — the great Chinese admiral Zheng He commanded a massive fleet that sailed across the Indian Ocean as far as East Africa, bringing back cargoes of exotic goods and animals. But despite seven suc­cessful voyages, Chinese exploration suddenly ceased upon Zheng He's death in 1433. In fact, the emperor made it a capital offense to build oceangoing ships and attempted to erase records of Zheng He's voyages. Why? The court Mandarins believed that there was nothing in the outer world of value to China and that any contacts were potentially unset­tling to the Confucian social order.

Contrast this with the medieval West's eager adoption of technologies that had been invented elsewhere. As Samuel Lilley wrote in his history of technological progress, "The European Middle Ages collected innovations from all over the world, especially from China, and built them into a new unity which formed the basis of our modern civilization."

Now consider what our own world might look like had the West resisted rather than embraced such innovations. What if the phonograph had been outlawed, as the printing press was in the Ottoman Empire? What if the state had declared a monopoly on the incandescent lightbulb and destroyed all privately produced bulbs, as the Chinese did with iron production in the eleventh century?

Turning Points

Finally, it is equally out of fashion to give weight to specific events in history. It has become the received wisdom that events such as battles are mere decorations on the great flow of history, that the triumph of the Greeks over the immense Persian host at Marathon (490 BC) or their sinking of the Persian fleet at Sala­mis (480 BC) merely reflected (as one popular historian put it) "some­thing deeper . . . a shift in economic power from the Fertile Crescent to the Mediterranean." Nonsense! Had the badly outnumbered Greeks lost either battle, that "shift" would not have occurred and we probably never would have heard of Plato or Aristotle.

But we have. And thank goodness for that.



starkRodney Stark. "How the West Won — but "Western Civ" Lost." The Intercollegiate Review (Spring 2014).

Reprinted with permission of ISI and The Intercollegiate Review. This essay is adapted from How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity(ISI Books).

The Author

starkstark61Rodney Stark is a leading authority on the sociology of religion. For many years, the Pulitzer Prize nominee was professor of sociology and professor of comparative religion at the University of Washington. In 2004 he became Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences and co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. He is the founding editor of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion. Stark has authored more than 150 scholarly articles and 32 books in 17 different languages, including several widely used sociology textbooks and a number of best-selling titles. Among his books are: Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, How the West WonThe Victory of ReasonThe Triumph of Faith: Why the World is More Religious Than Ever, God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusadesand The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success.

Copyright © 2014 The Intercollegiate Review
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