Rodney Stark’s “How the West Won”

The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity

I like Stark’s introduction to “Greek Rationalism”. Quote: I do not buy Stark’s portrayal of Plato’s theology, although it may accurately reflect Plato’s writings.


I pretty much agree with Stark’s dour view of slavery in ancient Greece. Roman slavery was bad also but there are stories in this book and elsewhere of people coming to Rome as slaves and rising well beyond that station. Roman slavery was not just like ours.

L 1310: Quote: “Europe in this era was blessed with lasting disunity;” Stark is perhaps a minarchist. More clearly he prefers small political units to large.

L 1400: I do not yet buy Stark’s view of the Dark Ages but it is fun to read someone defending them. For stark it was a time of progress but not contemplation and writing. Perhaps the slaves were gone and even the smart people had little idle time.

I think that there was a book burning phase just after the fall of Rome—some sort of anti-intellectual sentiment. Fortunately they didn’t find all the books and soon the monasteries choose to preserve and copy the Greek and Roman works.

Typo: “cruel and”/“crueland”

L 2356: Stark implicitly assumes that all moral sentiments of a culture stem from religious beliefs. I grant only that it would be wrong to ignore the predominant religion. I also grant that after perhaps in 700 the church’s attitude toward slavery improved the situation. I feel that Stark has mainly failed to show the contributions of the christian religion to society.

L 2874: Aftermath of the plague
This is a good section to test theories on structural unemployment. First: why was farm labor scarce if food consumers and farm labor equally diminished.

L 3328: I am pleased at Stark’s descriptions of various kinematic phenomena eventually captured in Newton’s synopsis of mechanics. I was aware of Galileo’s contributions and am especially pleased with the quotation’s from Oresmé who I have come across in other contexts.

Typo: “Podestà”/“Podestá”

L 3991: Stark suggests that Columbus was able to finance his expedition because of Europe’s political disunity. I tend to grant him that point.

L 4300: Stark belittles recent historians that belittle technology. I agree. I would like to hear Stark’s take on the movie “Goya’s Ghosts”.

L 4800: For all the gold and silver Spain brought from America, they spent it even faster on the military to protect and extend their empire.

L 5150: Stark samples contemporary German reports of about 1500 indicating that most people were ignorant of religion.

L 5633: Stark tries to show that Arab (Muslim) culture was that of the conquered societies. Nonetheless it was in Muslim lands that this material was being published, not Europe.

L 6607: I appreciate Stark’s enthusiasm for colonialism. I think his positive characterization of missionary efforts is fair. I agree that prestige was the motivation of European powers. The vision was that the colonies would become true parts of the empire. I think that colonialism ceased when the prestige ceased.

I think that modern China deserves more than two short sentences. Modern China has adopted, from the West, some features and pretends to reject others—sort of a synthetic mixture. So far—so good; but we shall see.

Not as I read: Stark addresses mainly the philosophical nature of the religion of a culture to explain the winningness of the culture. He gives high marks to christianity and thus to the christian cultures. Christianity has usually attempted a rational world view, even if it was metaphysical. The Greeks were the first rationalists and Stark claims that spark was picked up by the Christians even as the Greek culture faded. A somewhat independent strand was a notion, common in some cultures such as ancient China, that only the past was worth study.

Stark reminds us of some abhorrent features of Rome; enough perhaps to celebrate its fall. Historians who bewail the fall tend to love empires, productive or not.

I gather the following evolving pattern from the book. In Greek and Roman times it was OK to have slaves but not OK for one free man to ‘work for’ another. Since Stark does not mention it I will assume that the institution of slavery declined and perhaps disappeared in Europe during the Dark Ages. After about 800 manual labor changed from being an involuntary activity (slave labor) to a voluntary one (employee) with negotiated wages. I recall learning elsewhere that the workers who built the French cathedrals of the 12 century were paid wages. Of course slavery persisted in some places and times beyond the Dark Ages.