Western dominance: a product of Catholic theology?

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life Apr 2006

How did ‘The West’ – shorthand for the societies fringing the North Atlantic – arrive at global cultural, political and economic dominance in the modern era? Challenged to answer this question in as few words as possible, the average historically literate product of a western university might well produce something like the following:

“Modernity is essentially based upon a preference for reason before religious faith, and the journey towards the dominance of reason began in ancient Greece. Laying the foundations of modern science and of personal and political freedom, this Greek achievement was buried for over a thousand years by the rise of Catholic Christendom in the first Christian millennium. Although these ‘Dark Ages’ were not as dark as was once thought, they were nevertheless a period of relative inertia, characterised by religious faith and political tyranny.

“The recovery of the wisdom of the ancient Greeks in the 1400s led to a cultural Renaissance in western Europe, a period of global exploration by European powers, a Scientific Revolution and a renewed interest in democracy. The Protestant Reformation in the West assisted the victory of science and democracy by weakening the obscurantist power of the Catholic church and enabling the rise of capitalism through the ‘Protestant work ethic’. The Enlightenment of the 1700s prioritised reason above faith and led to the emergence of modern secular democracies, in which capitalism, science, technology and individual freedom finally triumphed.”

The questions raised by such a narrative have so far been eclipsed by its simplicity and rhetorical convenience. Weren’t even the most enlightened of the ancient Greeks defenders of slavery and owners of slaves? How did western modernity recover the ancient Greek legacy if it had been so thoroughly buried by Catholic obscurantism in the ‘Dark Ages’? And weren’t the Catholic republics of Genoa and Venice pioneers of capitalism long before the Reformation? Such questions have been asked but have not yet weakened the essential thread of the narrative: Reason, science and freedom – the foundation of all progress – began in ancient Greece, were obscured by Catholic orthodoxy, and could only re-emerge when the Catholic monopoly was overthrown. (The story of Galileo was, of course, the ‘proof text’ of this narrative.)

Rodney Stark’s robust assault upon that essential narrative is all the more intriguing because it comes not from a Catholic apologist but from an agnostic sociologist. In Victory of Reason* he insists that, on the contrary, freedom, reason, science and capitalism – and even the very idea of progress – owed most to the very phenomenon that secular orthodoxy tends to regard as the darkest historical force: the theology of the early Church fathers and the scholastics.

To begin with, he insists, the greatest of the ancient Greeks didn’t even believe in progress. Although Aristotle thought he was living in a ‘Golden Age’, he, and all ancient Greeks, saw history as essentially cyclical, with periods of decay inevitably following every period of advance. He believed, for example, that the technical achievements of his own era would not be bettered in any future era.

And for this very reason, coupled with their lack of belief in a rational unitary deity who had created a rational cosmos, the ancient Greeks did not originate the linkage essential for true science – between theory and research. Aristotle, the ‘great empiricist’, contradicted Alcmaeon’s theory that goats breathed through their ears but does not record any experimental troubling of any goat to prove his point. He believed also that stones of different weights would fall at speeds proportionate to their weights but never tested this by experiment either – for example by dropping stones of two different weights but the same volume from the same high cliff to see if the heavier would indeed reach the ground below before the lighter. It simply never occurred to him to devise repeatable experiments or systematic observations, so he, the most scientific of the ancient Greeks, was never a true scientist.

Rodney Stark contrasts this Greek intellectual pessimism with the attitudes of some of the early Christian fathers, most notably Augustine. From the beginning Christians, like Jews, believed that history was not cyclical but moving forward inexorably in linear fashion towards a future end point. And the fact that Jesus never left a single definitive text like the Quran meant that theologians were free to attempt to discern answers to all the questions he did not resolve, using reason (i.e. logic) as their method.

Of all the great religions, Stark insists, Christianity was alone in believing that reason ruled all things, since they had been created by a reasonable God. “Heaven forbid,” declared Augustine, “that God should hate in us that by which he made us superior to the animals. Heaven forbid that we should believe in such a way as not to accept or seek reasons, since we could not even believe if we did not possess rational souls.” Furthermore Augustine believed that such a search would be fruitful, declaring that although ‘certain matters pertaining to the doctrine of salvation’ could not yet be understood, ‘one day we shall be able to do so’.

If reason could discover more about God, it followed that the natural world, created by the same God, should also be rational, full of secrets waiting to be discovered by reason. Far from rejecting theology, the great scientists of the early modern era, such as Newton, saw science as the handmaiden of theology. It was this that led Alfred North Whitehead to declare in 1925 that “The greatest contribution of medievalism to the formation of the scientific movement [was] the inexpugnable belief that there is a secret, a secret that can be unveiled. … It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God.”

Even Bertrand Russell was mystified by the failure of the Chinese to develop science, since the intelligentsia of ancient China had rejected popular religion and theism. The reason, Stark insists, was that for that very reason they never developed a rational theology either. Mystical works like the Tao stressed not a caring creator God of reason but an ineffable essence wrapped in mystery, lacking all personality, desire and intention. The Chinese view of history was also therefore non-progressive. How could there be an attempt to discover what could not exist, since the ancients had known all that was to be known?

And if Greek thought would lead of its own accord to science, why didn’t that happen within Islamic culture, which had also inherited the Greek legacy? The reason again was the lack of systematic theological inquiry within Islam, the conviction that all that needed to be known had already been revealed in the Quran.

It was, uniquely, Christian theology also that led to the western understanding of individual freedom. Whereas Greek tragedy held individuals (Oedipus, for example) to be the necessary victims of circumstances outside their control, Shakespeare’s Hamlet chooses his own fate. Stark traces this shift to the Christian emphasis upon individual responsibility by Jesus himself, an emphasis that continued throughout the Middle Ages.

This also marked a shift in the dignity to be accorded to every individual, without exception. There is simply no equivalent in classical thought to Paul’s insistence that for God there are no distinctions between ‘male and female, slave and free’. On the contrary Plato believed, with Hitler, that there was indeed such a thing as a ‘slavish people’, and both he and Aristotle kept slaves.

This theological emphasis upon the moral equality of individuals, without distinction of gender, class or race, meant that there was always an ambiguity and tension in the continuation of slavery in the late Roman imperial and then the medieval period under baptised Christian rulers. Contrary to some authorities, serfs were not slaves as they were free to marry and their children could not be taken from them, and it was in Christian Europe alone that the institution of slavery gradually became odious. Stark declares emphatically: “Slavery ended in medieval Europe [only] because the church extended its sacraments to all slaves and then managed to impose a ban on the enslavement of Christians (and of Jews).”

The later enslavement of non-Europeans by Christian Europe was, of course, especially odious, but here again the main early impetus for an end to the practice globally came from Christianity alone. Islam could not be in the vanguard of liberty for the simple reason that Muhammad, totally unlike Jesus of Nazareth, was also a slave owner. (And Voltaire, high priest of the Enlightenment, invested the unprecedented profits from his writings in the French slave trade based at Nantes.)

Turning to economic and technological advance, Stark summarises a lot of recent research to explode the myth of the Middle Ages as a period of even relative stagnation. First, it was during this period after the fall of Rome that Europe advanced ahead of the rest of the world in the use of water power. By the thirteenth century paper was being manufactured using overshot water wheels – something that had happened nowhere else until then. Similar innovation occurred in wind power, the shoeing and harnessing of horses, fish-farming, crop rotation, shipbuilding, and, more lamentably, the use of gunpowder in warfare.

In Education the medieval church universities were an advance on anything existing in the ancient world because, far from simply recycling ancient lore, they gained fame by innovation. Moreover they educated far more students, who were taught not simply to study ancient sources but to critique and improve on them. Without them there could not have been a Copernicus, who drew on medieval authorities also for his heliocentric theory. Kepler’s discernment of the elliptical orbits of the planets rested upon centuries of planetary observation. Newton’s reference to the ‘giants’ upon whose shoulders he had stood should no longer be thought to exclude the products of medieval Catholic universities. It was in the late Christian Middle Ages that the systematic linkage of theory and research, the foundation for true science, first occurred.

Turning then to capitalism Stark explodes the notion that Europe had to wait for the ‘Protestant ethic’ to produce the essential characteristic of capitalism – the systematic reinvestment of profits to produce further income. It was Augustine who first taught that the price of an article could legitimately relate to the desire of a potential buyer, and that therefore wickedness was not inherent in commerce. Later theologians further undermined, and eventually overthrew, the ban on usury – the lending of money at interest. It was large medieval monastic institutions that became the first stable capitalist institutions in history – reinvesting in, for example, overshot water power for a variety of enterprises. Subsequently, the Mediterranean Catholic republics of Venice and Genoa developed a more advanced capitalism than had existed anywhere in the world until then.

Essential to this historical process was the Christian concept of moral equality – the true source of the notion of inalienable human rights. It was this, not classical philosophy, that first drew limits to the legitimate power of governments. Whereas China had developed a thriving iron industry at one point in its history, this was undermined by a government and ruling class that had the power to strangle it. Medieval capitalist institutions in Europe usually escaped such a fate because Christian theology protected them – and for no other reason.

‘The Rights of Man’, that cornerstone of modern secular ideology, did not therefore spring new born from John Locke and the Enlightenment, or from ancient Greece, but from a long tradition of Christian theological emphasis upon the moral equality of all humans, beginning with the the Sermon on the Mount.

On a negative note, although Stark takes pains to insist that he uses the word ‘capitalism’ to describe an economic rather than a political and social system, his entirely positive ‘take’ on capitalism, without reference to current issues of global injustice and the environmental crisis, is a little disconcerting. His facile dismissal of liberation theology underestimates its continuing positive impact in societies where a corrupt capitalism is still wreaking havoc.

However, there are so many other good things in this reasonably priced book that it can heartily be recommended to all who have either a basic historical education, or an interest in acquiring one. Every teacher of history in a Catholic institution should acquire a copy. It is an important milestone in the overthrow of that mistaken ‘grand narrative’ of western history that underpins the rhetoric of a rampant and often daftly anti-Catholic secularism.

Indeed ‘The Victory of Reason’ suggests an entirely new historical apologetics founded not upon defending Christendom, or a Christendom model of church, but upon discerning the thread of progressive and optimistic faith in reason that links the best of modernity with the early and medieval church. Voltaire’s 18th century historical schema was a self-regarding story of ancient classical enlightenment obscured by blind Biblical and Catholic faith, but then recovered by his own heroic movement – the modern Enlightenment. It was based upon an entirely ignorant perception of the Middle Ages, but has cast a fog of intellectual odium over the Judeo-Christian tradition for more than two-and-a-half centuries. That fog is, thankfully, beginning to lift – allowing us to see clearly, and to counter, the absurd hubris of an anti-Catholic secularism that is still too often wrapped in the darkest Voltairean self-delusion.

So in due time will, doubtless, the pall that now hovers over the history of the Catholic church in modern Ireland. Catholicism has been, for over fifteen centuries, the essential source of the cultural vitality and distinct identity of most Irish people. Now that we know that Catholic theology is the most important source of all that is best in modernity, we can surely be joyfully modern and Catholic as well. The great tradition of Catholic theologians and philosophers who had more faith in reason than most contemporary philosophers is a far more secure and hopeful foundation than that self-declared and morbid cul-de-sac, postmodernism.

*The Victory of Reason, by Rodney Stark, Random House, New York, 2005.

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