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

Rodney Stark; 281 pages; Random House; $25.95

Reviewed by Michael Dodaro

Most reviewers of Rodney Stark’s newest book concentrate on its analysis of the development of capitalism.  Jean E. Barker’s review in The San Francisco Chronicle is titled The Christian Roots of Capitalism.  One of three points Michael Novak asks us to reconsider in his review in The New Criterion is the well known thesis of Max Weber that Capitalism originated under the impulse of the Protestant ethic.  Stark does not consider refutation of Max Weber to be his task and cites other scholars who have shown conclusively the existence of capitalism in Italian city-states long before the Reformation.  Nor does he argue that Catholicism has consistently favored capitalism.  He has a chapter titled “Catholic” Anti-capitalism: Spanish and French Despotism and another called Feudalism and Capitalism in the New World, which explain the absence of capitalism in Spain and its colonies.  It is not capitalism but rational theology that is the focus of this book.  Stark demonstrates the profound influence that rational theology has had in the development of freedom, capitalism, and science.

Though Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is demonstrably false, it does acknowledge significant connections between religious ideas and cultural advances.  Stark notes an anti-Catholic bias in Weber’s work, but he evidently thinks his readers are less susceptible to old prejudices than to materialistic conceptions of the world in corollaries of Darwinism such as that found in Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs and Steel; The Fates of Human Societies.  Stark’s Victory of Reason can be considered the antidote to Diamond’s geographical explanations of progress and to numerous other theories that ignore peoples’ deeply held religious beliefs.

An explanation of why modernization occurred in Christian societies begins with the observation that rational philosophy as practiced by Plato and Aristotle became a core element of Christian theology despite the fact that it sustained little influence on Greek religions, which remained mythologies and mystery cults without the ethical imperatives found in Judaism and Christianity.  Greek metaphysics is evident in all of the major formulations of Christology in the church’s creeds.  Church fathers believed that reason was consistent with man’s nature as created by God, and where pagan philosophers were clear and rigorous, they were adaptable to Christian theology.  Augustine, Ambrose, Ignatius, Clement, Iranaeus, and Chrysostom taught and wrote rational discourses explaining their faith and refuting heresies often using Hellenistic formulations.  Hundreds of years later Muslims brought Aristotle’s works to Western Europe, but Thomas Aquinas reinterpreted Greek metaphysics in his Summa Theologica, a work that became the cornerstone of Medieval Scholasticism.

Stark’s contention that peoples’ religious beliefs are central to what happens in their societies not only contradicts contemporary materialists such as Jared Diamond but also earlier sociologists such as Emile Durkheim and many who followed him.  Clearly religion and philosophy have not been only matters of private consolation.  Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire.  Bishops of the Church soon became the most influential people in their communities.  Even ascetics who did everything possible to eschew worldly involvement became important in the development of Western Civilization.  Many of the most important writers and researchers in European history have been monks, and monks frequently became bishops and popes.  In societies in which Christians defined the core values, their ideas and spiritual convictions were not irrelevant in matters of polity and economics.

Monks’ esteem for hard work and simple living in combination with study made monasteries into wealthy and technologically advanced institutions.  Monasteries acquired large land holdings that they leased profitably.  Bishops and even emperors borrowed money from the monasteries and paid interest.  This, of course, led to conflict with historic prohibitions of usury, of which both the authors of Levitical codes and Greek philosophers disapproved.  The New Testament does not condemn usury, but many church fathers maintained their opposition based on spiritual values.  Stark explains the development of an ethics more accommodating to usury.  He argues that the historic resolutions were not casuistry but considered in their time to be good use of the supreme rational faculties God has given to man.

Catholic theologians, including Thomas Aquinas, had declared profits acceptable, but Aquinas calls usury unnatural.  He is hedged as to whether it is always unethical.  Stark delineates progress toward solutions to the moral and theological problems attendant to the accumulation of wealth.  It was axiomatic in this cultural milieu that wealth is not the purpose of human life, but, often against principled opposition, many Christian religious orders continued to maximize profits and lend money at whatever rate the market would bear.  Few, if any, of the monks who began their vocations in vows of poverty were willing see their monasteries give everything to the poor.

Rational theology built a foundation for human rights, including rights to private property and freedom.  Stark demonstrates many ways that this moral framework was a critical factor in Western advancement.  In fact, he shows that it is not capitalism that led to freedom and progress but freedom from tyranny and progress of an intellectual kind that made it possible for capitalism to even function.  Where tyrants reigned, economic progress was suppressed.  The Church put moral obstacles in the way of exploitation of powerless people.  It had the example of Jesus’ compassion for the weak and Paul’s scriptural injunction to treat all people as equals before God.  On this basis the Church offered the sacraments to everyone.  The idea of free will was discovered by Christian writers like Augustine in their examinations of individual moral responsibility.  Individualism, without which capitalism is inconceivable, was well established by the time of Aquinas. 

Italian city-states in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries created the greatest economic empire the world had ever known.  They perfected trade, banking, and to a considerable degree, manufacturing, in networks ranging as far as England, southern Russia, the Sahara Desert, India, and China.  The productivity of the city-states depended on secure property rights and freedom from coercion and excessive taxation by the rapacious rulers who dominated workers and consumed most resources in the rest of the world.  Centuries of technological progress in universities founded by the church in combination with theologically based human rights created an optimistic view of the future that justified long-term investment strategies.  In this environment, what Stark calls the rational firm was invented.  Various economists and the atheist novelist Ayn Rand have extolled the rational nature of capitalism and even the “virtue” of selfishness.  Stark’s research corroborates the rational elements of capitalism.  Scientific development and technology are, of course, integral to economic development.  Basic arithmetic and accounting skills are necessary to sustain carefully defined activities subject to monitoring and adjustments over time.  This combination of scientific research and business management practices now comprises the remaining American export against everything else that can be manufactured cheaper and imported from abroad.

In Florence in 1338 nearly half the school-age children were attending school.  Similar levels of education were sustained in Venice, Genoa, Milan, and other Italian commercial cities.  Management skills dependent on specialized training and experience, rather than privilege, led to hiring and promotion on the basis of merit.  Managers were held accountable for their performance and often for their conduct even in their private lives.  Medieval capitalists, often enough, concerned themselves about the personal morality of those whom they employed.  A contractual agreement between Cosimo de’ Medici and a partner in Bruges explicitly states that the junior partner could not entertain women in his quarters, gamble, or accept any gift worth more than one pound.  Economic development was apparently thought to be dependent on moral factors beyond simply the elimination of tyranny.  To the extent that global capitalism depends on responsible management practices, business that degrades moral culture undermines the foundation of economic development.  John Paul II is often cited for his criticism of capitalism where it subordinates human values to blind market forces.

Many things could be taken for granted while the Catholic Church was the core of moral and civic life.  Sustaining Christian culture against a secular society has been increasingly tenuous since the revolutions that separated church and state, but Stark finds examples in places where church membership is voluntary of market forces that make church polity more responsive to the people it serves.  In any cultural environment the Church must be primarily intent on spiritual formation among Christians.  How many resources should be allocated to education in civic virtues is an open question, but when Jesus said, “A little leaven leavens the whole batch of dough,” he could not have chosen a more apt metaphor for the many beneficial effects in civic life of religiously-grounded morality and rational theology.

Stark’s Victory of Reason provides a needed perspective on the medieval universities.  In the United States universities founded by various denominations of the church are living vestiges of Christian civilization.  One would think that in these institutions basic instruction in the Western literary canon, including some of the religious documents that are the soul of Western culture, should be required as part of a liberal education.  In church it would help if the commitment to spiritual formation included instruction in rational theology.  To the degree that Stark is correct in his contention that rational theology is the core of Western Civilization, we can probably conclude that religious enthusiasm as now evident in many denominations of the church will sustain neither virtue nor progress.

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