"I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth." (Karl Popper)

Sunday, February 19, 2006

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

Thus did Rodney Stark, professor of social sciences at Baylor University entitle his book, published last December. In an adaptative summary published in that month's Chronicle Review Stark attempts to explain why capitalism thrived in Europe (and its descendants) and not elsewhere. Why, Stark asks, if the "material conditions needed for capitalism existed in many civilizations in various eras, including China, the Islamic world, India, Byzantium, and probably ancient Rome and Greece as well" was it that "none of those societies broke through and developed capitalism"? The answer, he contends, is that none evolved ethical visions compatible with that dynamic economic system.

By contrast, Europe's Christian dedication to reason, which was influenced by Greek philosophy, offered such an ethical vision. He writes: "While the other world religions emphasized mystery and intuition, Christianity alone embraced reason and logic as the primary guides to religious truth." He goes on to argue that "from early days, the church fathers taught that reason was the supreme gift from God and the means to progressively increase understanding of Scripture and revelation. Consequently Christianity was oriented to the future, while the other major religions asserted the superiority of the past." Incidentally, Stark treats Max Weber's thesis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism with disdain, treating it as conclusively refuted by the evidence that "rise of capitalism in Europe preceded the Reformation by centuries." (For a study that reaches conclusions more in line with Weber's thesis, one might consult Inglehart and Baker (2000) American Sociological Review Vol.65 p.19 - available here)

Christianity was a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the development of capitalism in Europe. Freedom from "greedy despots" was also required. On the question of "what is a just price for one's goods" Stark traces the answer to the "the immensely influential St. Albertus Magnus (1193-1280)". For Albertus Magnus, the just price is simply what "goods are worth according to the estimate of the market at the time of sale." Augustine, Aquinas, and other major theologians counselled that the state must allow private property and individual freedom to pursue virtue. (Indeed one can go back to the statement of Jesus that Christians should give unto God that which is God's, and give unto Caesar that which is Caesar's.) Christian doctrine also taught that material inequality was as nothing compared to the equality all enjoyed in the eys of God. From the seventh century, the Church in Europe articulated theological opposition to slavery and by the 11th century had ensured the demise in Europe of that dreadful institution. Free labour, thus encouraged, was central to Europe's capitalist success.

Stark's is a fascinating thesis. The immediate question that comes to mind is what (if any) implications it has for Europe in the early 21st century, so commonly referred as having reached a "post-Christian" stage of evolution.


Blogger Auds said...

Good article.
A very interesting book on the subject from a specifically Catholic perspective is George Weigel's "Soul of the World". He later went on to become JP2's official biographer.
This particular book of his tackles Christian orthodoxy and how that fits in with the modern democracy and capitalism.
It ends up being a fantastic brief for any Catholic interested in developing and expressing a theological base for capitalism and free market thinking. He also argues that the Church itself is not political.

Mon Feb 20, 12:31:00 AM GMT  
Blogger Simon said...

have a read of guns germs and steel. It is more interesting. You said of that it is based on christianinties logic and reason.

Yet the islamic world and china were far more advanced in science and technology (the supmere creation of logic and reason) then christianity until the 15th/16th century. SO i think the Christianity theory is very weak.

Read guns germs and steel for a better arguement.

Tue Feb 21, 12:16:00 AM GMT  
Anonymous morgan said...

Other arguments put forward seem to touch on the points raised by this quote:
"material conditions needed for capitalism existed in many civilizations in various eras, including China, the Islamic world, India, Byzantium, and probably ancient Rome and Greece as well"

and this:
"Freedom from "greedy despots" was also required."

Paraphrasing (and putting my own slant on it) Europe, unlike most of the other civilizations mentioned (i.e. excluding India and an innovative classical Greece) was not a unitary state, but fragmented in terms of religious adherence, control, wealth and power. This was aided by a fragmented qeography: islands and peninsulas.

Innovation came from the same sources that it does today: from the edge, from smaller groups and firms rather than monopolies.

Alternatively, it might have been a historical accident.

Whatever the cause, there hve been many contributory factors, and also learning from "other" civilizations.

Nor does the historical value of those conditions hold true - now and for the future.

Wed Feb 22, 03:23:00 AM GMT  
Blogger Simon said...

morgan that is pretty much the theory of Guns Germs and stee. THe islamic world and china were large empires without competition. European countries were constently compeating and fighting each other.

Thu Feb 23, 03:03:00 PM GMT  
Anonymous morgan said...

Hi Saint

Very late, but I posted about this here, taking further the points I made...

Tue Feb 28, 08:26:00 AM GMT  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home