Book Review: How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity by Rodney Stark

This book is “MythBusters” for history. In his tour of the history of Western Civilization from its inception in ancient Greek and Jewish thought, through their combination in the cauldron of medieval Christianity, and finally emerging as full-blown modernity, Stark smashes nearly every myth about the history of the West that has developed since the Enlightenment. The hatred of Christianity which began in the Enlightenment and became Western self-hatred in the 19th and 20th centuries is finally put to rest.

Stark begins with the Greeks and the Jews, who, as he exhibits, developed a way of viewing the cosmos as rational and therefore intelligible and predictable. He then proceeds to Rome, which he credits with not much else but the invention of concrete. He moves through the Middle Ages, dispelling the false notions that the Church stifled science (on the contrary, Christianity made modern science possible), that the Crusades were a horrible imperialistic war against Islam (on the contrary, they were a series of defensive wars which were waged with the express purpose of protecting Christians against Muslim tyranny, and accomplished this goal), and many others. Finally, he moves on to the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the modern world, exposing all of the various falsehoods which have become commonplaces about each of these eras along the way.

Stark’s master thesis is that the West’s greatest strength is freedom. The Greeks, specifically the Athenians, were able to develop the great cultural and philosophical productions with which they are rightly credited because they had the intellectual freedom to do so. The Romans, on the other hand, developed little and more or less slavishly imitated the Greeks because of the stifling tyranny of the emperors and their associates. The fall of Rome and the beginning of the Middle Ages once again brought freedom, which resulted in a remarkable burst of creative energy, culminating in the rise of modern science and technology. Britain gained an early lead over the rest of Europe because of its economic and social freedom, but was eventually outdone by the United States, which granted even greater degrees of both. Freedom is the key to Western success, says Stark, and the steady erosion of this freedom today is a threat to the continuation of this success.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in a clear and concise history of Western Civilization and how the West came to dominate the modern world in all areas of human endeavor. This is, put simply, the finest, because most honest and complete, introduction to the history of the West that I have yet read.

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