The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success

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The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success By Rodney Stark New York: Random House, 2005. Pp. xvi, 28. $25.95 cloth, $15.95 paperback.

In recent years, a number of important books have offered a counternarrative to the version of European history that has seared itself into the Western consciousness since the Enlightenment, in which religious obscurantism suppressed learning and progress until unfettered reason at last delivered us from the clutches of superstitious ecclesiastics. Works by David Lindberg, Edward Grant, A. C. Crombie, Stanley Jaki, and Thomas Goldstein have revised to one degree or another the received view that the Christian religion was nothing but a hindrance to the rise of science.

In The Victory of Reason, Rodney Stark attempts to carry this revision forward by extending it to the success of the West in more general terms: not only in science, but also in the growth of capitalism and the development of political freedom. He suggests that Western success in these areas was not inhibited but rather encouraged by Christian ideas, albeit ones that took some time to develop fully. The very possibility of the development of doctrine, whereby ideas first introduced in germ are elaborated upon with the passage of time, is likewise a strength of the Christian faith, according to Stark, and is one of many examples of its commitment to reason.

One development in particular that pleases Stark is the evolution away from condemnation and suspicion of commerce, trade, and merchants, and toward an appreciation of their value. An unfavorable ideological climate can stop the growth of capitalism in its tracks, as history amply reveals. Stark provides the example (among others) of iron production in eleventh-century China. The late tenth century saw the development of an iron industry in parts of northern China; by 1018, approximately thirty-five thousand tons were being produced every year. But by the end of the century, the industry was dead and its facilities abandoned. What happened, Stark explains, is that the imperial court came to the conclusion that the new industrycreated wealth tended to undermine Confucian values as well as social harmony and stability because it implicitly challenged the view that commoners should be content with their state and should not seek after riches. "So, they declared a state monopoly on iron and seized everything" (p. 72).

Stark shows that the Christian West considered profit seeking to be morally licit and that it developed a conceptual apparatus friendly to market exchange. For a long time, scholars assumed that the medieval conception of the "just price" involved calculations of cost of production and other such measurable factors, but this conception was actually a minority view. The mainstream position was that of St. Albertus Magnus (and others), who held that the just price corresponded to what "goods are worth according to the estimation of the market at the time of sale" (p. 65). Stark likewise notes Aquinas's point that a seller of grain, knowing that additional supplies are on their way, has no moral obligation to disclose this information to his customers (although it may be especially virtuous for him to do so).

Stark also discusses the vexed question of usury because the institution of credit is so important to modern economies. He is mistaken when he cites Luke 6:35 ("lend, hoping for nothing thereby") as having been "taken to prohibit interest" (p. 64); that verse hardly appears in the medieval discussion of usury, and in any event it was interpreted as a general call to disinterested benevolence rather than as a specific condemnation of usury. What is important, though, is that medieval Christianity officially condemned the taking of any interest on a loan, and not just unusually high rates of interest, as usury.

Yet by the High Middle Ages, monastic orders, bishops, and even the Roman hierarchy had long been involved in borrowing and lending at interest; in 229, the bishop of Limerick, who had failed to repay a loan to an Italian bank, was excommunicated until he agreed to a new arrangement whereby he paid 50 percent interest over the next eight years. …