Rodney Stark, a professor at Baylor University, clearly declares the thesis of The Victory of Reason (New York: Random House, c. 2005) in his subtitle: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success.” More precisely: “Faith in reason is the most significant feature of Western Civilization” (p. 105). He explores the historical processes within Christianity wherein “reason won the day, giving unique shape to Western culture and institutions” (p. x) beginning with Early Church thinkers such as Irenaeus, Origen, and Augustine who insisted “that reason was the supreme gift from God and the means to progressively increase their understanding of scripture and revelation. Consequently, Christianity was oriented to the future, while the other major religions asserted the superiority of the past” (p. x).
To Stark: “The success of the West, including the rise of science, rested entirely on religious foundations” (p. xi), and, furthermore: “the rise of the West was based on four primary victories of reason. The first was the development of faith in progress within Christian theology. The second victory was the way that faith in progress translated into technical and organizational innovations, many of them fostered by monastic estates. The third was that, thanks to Christian theology, reason informed both political philosophy and practice to the extent that responsive states, sustaining a substantial degree of personal freedom, appeared in medieval Europe. The final victory involved the application of reason to commerce, resulting in the development of capitalism within the safe havens provided by responsive states. These were the victories by which the West won” (p. xiii).
Uniquely among all religions, Christians urged individuals to reason. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was nothing made that was made.” With these words the Apostle John paved the way for a rational religion with mystical implications. Accordingly, Augustine demanded: “‘Heaven forbid that God should hate in us that by which he made us superior to the animals’” (p. 6). Reason enabled believers to delve ever deeper into the storehouse of Scripture, better discerning God’s revelation, and successive Church councils refined doctrines as well as refuted heresies. Creation and Scripture both reveal God, so Christians such as St. Albert the Great (Aquinas’ mentor) encouraged careful, scientific study of the world. Consequently, as Alfred North Whitehead concluded, in his definitive Science and the Modern World, scientific development took place in the West as Medieval thinkers insisted “on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah with the rationality of a Greek philosopher’” (p. 15).
Still more, as theologians pondered the mystery of the Trinity they developed a unique understanding of persons who freely think and will. “Saint Augustine wrote again and again that we ‘possess a will,’ and that ‘from this it follows that whoever desires to live righteously and honorably, can accomplish this’” (p. 25). As persons free to think and make decisions, we find freedom our natural milieu and our common human nature provides the foundation for natural rights and justice. So while slavery was tolerated within Christian circles for several centuries, there was a strong bias against it. As Lactantius noted, in his Divine Institutes, Christians considered others “brothers,” equal in worth before God. “‘Since human worth is measured in spiritual not in physical terms, we ignore our various physical situations: slaves are not slaves to us, but we treat them and address them as brother in the spirit, fellow slaves in devotion to God’” (p. 77). Slavery simply disappeared in the Medieval world.
Contrary to egregious stereotypes still circulating in many schools and universities—“a hoax originated by antireligious, and bitterly anti-Catholic, eighteenth-century intellectuals” such as Voltaire (p. 35)—science flourished (often within monasteries) throughout the Medieval period. The “Dark Ages” were in fact hardly dark at all! As the Roman Empire collapsed, millions of individuals were increasingly free to innovate and prosper. New technologies—water mills, wind mills, horse collars and shoes increasing horse power, wheeled plows, fish ponds, cloth making, chimneys, eyeglasses, clocks, compasses—gradually improved the living standard of ordinary folks. Simultaneous advances in high culture—pipe organs, harpsichords, violins, polyphonies, Romanesque and Gothic architecture, Dante and Chaucer, scores of universities such as Oxford and Salamanca and Prague—demonstrated the sophistication and originality of Christians throughout the Middle Ages.
Capitalism developed in the ninth century as Catholic monks managing profitable farms sought to “reformulate fundamental doctrines to make their faith compatible with their economic progress” (p. 55). As Stark defines it: “Capitalism is an economic system wherein privately owned, relatively well organized, and stable firms pursue complex commercial activities within a relative free (unregulated) market, taking a systematic, long term approach to investing and reinvesting wealth (directly or indirectly) in productive activities involving a hired workforce, and guided by anticipated and actual returns” (p. 56). As monasteries acquired more and more land, devout monks sought to manage them well, appropriating new technologies and envisioning a cash economy with just prices far better than antiquated barter systems, realizing the importance of property rights, profits, mortgages and credit. Private property, Thomas Aquinas argued, must be defended “‘because human affairs are more efficiently organized when each person has his own distinct responsibility to discharge’” (p. 79). Eminent theologians such as Aquinas “declared that profits were morally legitimate, and while giving lip service to the long tradition of opposition to usury, these same theologians justified interest charges” (p. 63). They intuited the “miracle” of capitalism—“as time goes by, everyone has more” (p. 106).
During the late Middle Ages (the thirteenth century) a vigorous capitalistic system flourished. Abacus schools (often called “Italian schools”) proliferated and trained clerks (adept at double-entry bookkeeping) for slots in burgeoning businesses. International banks, bills of exchange, and venture capital loans all fueled a dynamic economy. Additionally, as Christians “medieval capitalists often were concerned about the personal morality of those whom they employed” (p. 111) and stressed frugality and charity. Within capitalist circles was an association of folks known as the Humiliati, devout Catholics who eschewed luxury and committed themselves to “‘austerity, prayer, fellowship and manual labour, while living with their families’” (p. 121). They also “pledged to give all of their ‘excess income’ to the poor” (p. 121). Moving north, capitalism subsidized the woolen mills in Flanders and Holland. A “precursor to the modern stock exchange” was evident in Bruges, a booming city with a population of 90,000 as early as 1453. In Antwerp and Amsterdam—and indeed wherever free enterprise capitalism thrived—prosperity ensued.
When nation states developed in the 15th century, however, these capitalist centers collapsed as the increasingly absolute monarchs of Spain and France determined to control (and expropriate for themselves) their nation’s wealth. They extended their tentacles into Italy and Holland, crushing (through taxation and regulation) the industries that enabled Florence and Bruges to prosper in earlier centuries. What Adam Smith would label mercantilism led to economic stagnation and repressive policies subverting the common weal throughout Europe. England also turned in a despotic direction under the Tudors as Henry VII and his descendents sought to centralize power and control the nation’s wealth. But important historical events in English history (e.g. as the Magna Charta) and traditions (e.g. a genuinely decentralized economy) countered the centralizing tendencies of absolutism and allowed certain kinds of representative government and free enterprise to flourish. Consequently, Englishmen at home and abroad nourished a capitalist commitment. Alexis de Tocqueville describe the United States “early in the nineteenth century as ‘one of the freest and most enlightened nations in the world’” (p. 212).
So “Christianity created Western Civilization” (p. 233). Concluding his work, Stark cites “one of China’s leading scholars” who wondered why the West now dominates the world and “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’” (p. 234). And, says Stark, “Neither do I” (p. 235).
Gerard Reed is a retired professor of history and philosophy, most recently Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. He is the author of three books--The Liberating Law; C.S. Lewis and the Bright Shadow of Holiness; C.S. Lewis Explores Vice & Virtue--as well as a variety of articles and book reviews.