"Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy."
Is the West Really Best? An Interview with Rodney Stark
Rodney Stark, distinguished professor of the social sciences at Baylor University, is attracting attention with his new book, How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity (ISI Books). The Wall Street Journal praises Stark for being one of the “few unapologetic defenders of Western civilization [who] can still be found,” and World magazine declares that How the West Won “slaughters more of conventional history’s sacred cows.”
Stark speaks with the Intercollegiate Review about the dangerous myths about Western civilization that are gaining currency—and about why the truth matters.
In How the West Won, you note how most colleges have abandoned “Western Civ” courses. What are today’s students losing by not studying Western civilization?
They remain ignorant of their intellectual heritage and of the most fundamental historical facts—where did the modern world come from? In my last year at the University of Washington, I gave a lecture about the situation of women in ancient Greece and Rome. Afterward, two undergraduates came up to me and asked where and when was the Roman Empire. I thought it was some sort of tease, so I told them the Roman Empire ruled Southern California in the 1920s. I was stunned when they wrote it down! These young women were bright students with high GPAs. But they had never had a history course—Washington no longer requires any history courses, or much of anything else. When I quizzed them further, these good students did not know in what century the Civil War had been fought, and they guessed that D-Day was a Roman Catholic holiday. More recently, I had a conversation in an airport waiting lounge with a young man who had a brand-new PhD in literature from an Ivy League university. He thought the United States was the only society that ever had slavery! Later he asked me what I was reading on my Kindle. I told him it was a book about the War of 1812. And he replied, “Oh, who fought that one?” I was tempted to tell him that it was between Angola and Cuba and that it had been mostly an air war.
What are a few of the pernicious myths about the West to have gained currency in recent decades?
One of the most blatant is blaming the West for all the problems involving Muslims, specifically terrorist attacks. Reflecting what is being said in the classrooms, academic conferences devote many sessions to “Islamophobia” (hatred of Muslims) but none to terrorism—except for the explanation that it is provoked by the many wicked things the West has done to Islam, now and in the distant past. To avoid any taint of Islamophobia, the U.S. Justice Department refused to admit that the 2009 Fort Hood massacre was an incident of terrorism despite the fact that Major Hasan shouted “Allahu akbar!” while he gunned down his victims. Instead, this was merely a case of “workplace violence.” As for the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center, even former president Bill Clinton blamed it in part on the Crusades as one of our crimes against Islam. Of course, rather than being an attempt by Westerners to colonize the Holy Land, the Crusades were a response to Islam’s more than four centuries of efforts to colonize Europe. Unfortunately, students don’t learn that in school either. Overlooked, too, is the fact that the overwhelming number of Muslim terrorist attacks are on other Muslims. It is hard to imagine how Western crimes can cause Sunni Muslims to kill and be killed by Shi‘a Muslims.
Another pernicious myth is that Europe slept in ignorance through many centuries following the fall of Rome—an era known as the Dark Ages. But it never happened. Many professors, even if they know it, are reluctant to admit that the major encyclopedias now acknowledge that the notion of the Dark Ages was invented by Voltaire and his friends to vilify the Church and makes themselves seem important. It always should have been obvious that the centuries denounced as the Dark Ages were an era of remarkable invention and progress, at the end of which Europe had advanced far beyond the rest of the world.
Nearly all academics and Western intellectuals also take for granted that Europe grew rich by draining wealth from its worldwide colonies. But in fact, the colonies drained wealth from Europe! Granted, some people in Great Britain and other colonial powers got rich from trade with the colonies (thus creating a powerful lobby in favor of continuing colonialism), but overall the colonial nations lost money once the costs of maintaining the colonies were taken into account. It is true that Spain imported many tons of gold and silver from the New World. In that case, the reliance on gold and silver from the New World prevented Spain’s economic development and turned it into a second-rate power.
Why did science arise only in the West?
Because of the Judeo-Christian conception of God as a rational creator. The scientific enterprise is absurd unless one believes that the universe functions on the basis of rational rules and that these rules can be discovered and understood by the human mind. The other great world religions dismiss the idea of a rational universe as absurd. Rather, they conceive of the universe as a supreme mystery, far too complex for human comprehension, an appropriate object for meditation but not for reason. In contrast, the Judeo-Christian God is regarded as a rational creator who therefore created a lawful universe, and it is possible to discover these laws. Lacking this conception of God, the non-Western world had no basis for science. It should be noted, too, that the great stars of early science, such as Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler, and Blaise Pascal, were deeply religious men—Newton wrote far more theology than he did physics.
You suggest that the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, though an incredible tragedy, had beneficial effects. What were they?
The primary one was the end of serfdom. This was because when the Black Death killed about half or more of the population of Europe, hitting young adults especially hard, it resulted in a huge labor shortage. Consequently, land owners were forced to compete for laborers, which greatly improved the financial and social status of the common people. For example, in England in a two-year period from 1347 to 1349, the average wage for a plowman rose from two shillings a day to ten shillings, six pence a day. Similarly, people were no longer tied to the land as serfs but began to move freely in pursuit of the best terms—landlords were agreeing to furnish tenets with seed, oxen of horse teams, better housing, and much lower rents.
Does the history of Western civilization challenge relativistic notions about culture and morals embraced by today’s academics and intellectuals?
Yes, but so does common sense. The constant chant in today’s social science classrooms, often reiterated in English and philosophy departments, is that all cultures are equally valid and, therefore, all morality is equally arbitrary. Nothing is right or wrong. Any sensible person would suppose that this is just a slogan and that even the most committed relativist would have to admit that some things are wrong, no matter how some group judges them. But many cultural relativists are not sensible.
Consider this example. Recently, in collaboration with a graduate student, I began a study of female circumcision, an extraordinarily brutal and vicious practice that involves cutting away all of a young woman’s external genitals, done at about age twelve without any pain medications or antibiotics. The practice is prevalent in Africa, among other places. Reading the social science literature, we discovered that French anthropologists have denounced efforts to end this practice as “cultural colonialism” and “racist.” This, of course, is totally in conflict with the great moral achievements of Western civilization, which sustain the recognition that some things, such as slavery, are immoral no matter what. All students should be taught that Western societies were the only ones ever to outlaw slavery without being forced to do so by outside interference. And surely no one dismisses the Holocaust as merely reflecting that Hitler and the Nazis had a different, but valid, moral code.
You make some pretty bold claims in this book, one of which is that the accomplishments of Rome can be boiled down to the invention of concrete and the rise of Christianity. What do you make of Roman contributions to politics, namely republican government?
Not much. The Roman republic was ruled by a senate to which only the superrich could belong. No doubt it was a better form of government than the imperial system that replaced it, but it was less representative and responsive than Greek democracy, which often elected men of very modest means. Of course, both the Greeks and the Romans possessed huge numbers of slaves (Aristotle owned thirteen and Plato owned six), but Greek society was less repressive and brutal. Even during the days of the republic, Romans regarded mass torture and murder as a popular form of mass entertainment. Probably more than 2.5 million persons died hideous deaths in the many Roman amphitheaters, all before cheering crowds.
You talk about the strengths of Western civilization. What are its weaknesses?
I don’t think there are important weaknesses that are specific to Western civilization. As with all human groups, the primary basis for social problems lies in the universal human flaws summed up as the Seven Deadly Sins: wrath, avarice, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. Unfortunately, because of its advanced technology, Western civilization greatly magnifies the consequences of some of these sins. When wrath erupts into war, the results are often far more dire than when people armed only with swords and spears go to war—although even among Stone Age groups, an entire small society was sometimes wiped out. The combination of avarice and envy has produced the modern development of the welfare state, which too often encourages sloth. Lust, combined with freedom, has fostered a huge pornography industry. And although not very long ago millions were chronically undernourished, today gluttony has resulted in widespread obesity.
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