How the West Won—but “Western Civ” Lost


This article appears in the Spring 2014 issue of the Intercollegiate Review. Check out the rest of the issue right here. This essay is adapted from How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity (ISI Books).

It’s remarkably unfashionable to study—or even talk about—the West these days.

Forty years ago the most important and popular freshman course at the best American colleges and universities was “Western Civilization.” It not only covered the general history of the West but also included historical surveys of art, music, literature, philosophy, science, and other matters. But this course has long since disappeared from most college catalogues on grounds that Western civilization is but one of many civilizations and it is ethnocentric and arrogant to study ours.

It is widely claimed that to offer a course in “Western Civilization” is to become an apologist “forWestern hegemony and oppression” (as the classicist Bruce Thornton aptly put it). Thus, Stanford dropped its widely admired “West­ern Civilization” course just months after the Reverend Jesse Jackson came on campus and led members of the Black Student Union in chants of “Hey-hey, ho-ho, Western Civ has got to go.” More recently, faculty at the University of Texas condemned “Western Civilization” courses as inherently right wing, and Yale even returned a $20 million contribution rather than reinstate the course.

To the extent that this policy pre­vails, Americans will become increas­ingly ignorant of how the modern world came to be. Worse yet, they are in danger of being badly misled by a flood of absurd, politically correct fabrications, all of them popular on college campuses: That the Greeks copied their whole culture from black Egyptians. That European science originated in Islam. That Western affluence was stolen from non-West­ern societies. That Western modernity was really produced in China, and not so very long ago. The truth is that, although the West wisely adopted bits and pieces of technology from Asia, modernity is entirely the product of West­ern civilization.

I use the term modernity to identify that fundamental store of scientific knowledge and procedures, powerful technologies, artistic achievements, political freedoms, economic arrangements, moral sensibilities, and improved standards of living that characterize Western nations and are now revolutionizing life in the rest of the world. For there is another truth: to the extent that other cultures have failed to adopt at least major aspects of Western ways, they remain backward and impoverished.

Ideas Matter

This is not to say that the old “West­ern Civilization” classes got every­thing right. Despite their value, these courses usually were far too enamored of philosophy and art, far too reluctant to acknowledge the positive effects of Christian­ity, and amazingly oblivious to advances in technology, especially those transforming mundane activi­ties such as farming and banking.

Also, both the textbooks and the instructors involved in the old “Western Civ” courses were content merely to describe the rise of West­ern civilization. They usually avoided any comparisons with Islam or Asia and ignored the issue of why moder­nity happened only in the West.

To explore that question is not eth­nocentric; it is the only way to develop an informed understanding of how and why our world emerged as it did.

In early times China was far ahead of Europe in terms of many vital technologies. But when Portuguese voyag­ers reached China in 1517, they found a backward society in which the privi­leged classes were far more concerned with crippling young girls by binding their feet than with develop­ing more productive agriculture—despite frequent famines. Why?

Or why did the powerful Ottoman Empire depend on Western foreigners to provide it with fleets and arms?

Or, to change the focus, why did science and democracy originate in the West, along with represen­tational art, chimneys, soap, pipe organs, and a system of musical notation? Why was it that for sev­eral hundred years beginning in the thirteenth century only Euro­peans had eyeglasses or mechanical clocks? And what about telescopes, microscopes, and periscopes?

There have been many attempts to answer these questions. Several recent authors attribute it all to favorable geog­raphy—that Europe benefited from a benign climate, more fertile fields, and abundant natural resources, especially iron and coal. But, as Victor Davis Han­son pointed out in his book Carnage and Culture, “China, India, and Africa are especially blessed in natural ores, and enjoy growing seasons superior to those of northern Europe.” Moreover, much of Europe was covered with dense hardwood forests that could not read­ily be cleared to permit farming or grazing until iron tools became avail­able. Little wonder that Europe was long occupied by cultures far behind those of the Middle East and Asia.

Other scholars have attributed the success of the West to guns and steel, to sailing ships, or to superior agriculture. The problem here is that these “causes” are part of what needs to be explained: why did Europeans excel at metallurgy, ship­building, and farming? The same objection arises to the claim that science holds the secret of “Western domina­tion,” as well as to the Marx­ist thesis that it was all due to capitalism. Why did science and capitalism develop only in Europe?

In attempting to explain this remarkable cultural singularity, we must, of course, pay attention to material factors—obviously history would have been quite different had Europe lacked iron and coal or been landlocked. Even so, explanations should not—cannot—rest primarily on material conditions and forces. It is ideas that matter (though this basic premise, too, is quite unfashionable in contempo­rary scholarly circles). As the distinguished economist and historian Deirdre McCloskey observed, “Material, economic forces . . . were not the original and sustaining causes of the modern rise.” Or, as she put it in the subtitle of her fine book: “Why economics can’t explain the modern world.” Quietly mocking Karl Marx, McCloskey asserted that Europe achieved moder­nity because of “ideology.”

If Marx was sincere when he dismissed the possibility of ideas being causative agents as “ideo­logical humbug,” one must wonder why he labored so long to communicate his socialist ideas rather than just relaxing and letting “economic determinism” run its “inevitable” course. In fact, Marx’s beloved material causes exist mainly as humans perceive them—as people pursue goals guided by their ideas about what is desirable and possible. Indeed, to explain why working-class people so often did not embrace the socialist revolution, Marx and Friedrich Engels had to invent the concept of “false conscious­ness”—an entirely ideological cause.

Similarly, it is ideas that explain why science arose only in the West. Only Westerners thought that sci­ence was possible, that the universe functioned according to rational rules that could be discovered. We owe this belief partly to the ancient Greeks and partly to the unique Judeo-Christian conception of God as a rational cre­ator. Clearly, then, the French histo­rian Daniel Mornet had it right when he said that the French Revolution would not have occurred had there not been widespread poverty, but nei­ther would it have occurred without revolutionary philosophies, for it was “ideas that set men in motion.”
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Once we recognize the primacy of ideas, we realize the irrelevance of long-running scholarly debates about whether certain inventions were developed independently in Europe or imported from the East. Inven­tions not only must be made; they also must be sufficiently valued to be used. It is well known, for example, that the Chinese had gunpowder by the thirteenth century and even cast a few cannons. But centuries later they still lacked artillery and firearms. The Chinese also invented a mechanical clock, but Mandarins at the impe­rial court soon ordered all of them destroyed—so that when Westerners arrived, nobody in China really knew what time it was. An iron industry flourished in northern China in the eleventh century—but then the court Mandarins declared a state monop­oly on iron and seized everything, destroying China’s iron production.

Why were so many innovations and inventions abandoned or even outlawed in China? Because Con­fucian culture opposed change on grounds that the past was superior. The twelfth-century Mandarin Li Yen-chang captured this viewpoint when he said, “If scholars are made to concentrate their attention solely on the classics and are prevented from slip­ping into study of the vulgar practices of later genera­tions, then the empire will be fortunate indeed!”

In the early fifteenth century— decades before Christopher Columbus was even born—the great Chinese admiral Zheng He commanded a massive fleet that sailed across the Indian Ocean as far as East Africa, bringing back cargoes of exotic goods and animals. But despite seven suc­cessful voyages, Chinese exploration suddenly ceased upon Zheng He’s death in 1433. In fact, the emperor made it a capital offense to build oceangoing ships and attempted to erase records of Zheng He’s voyages. Why? The court Mandarins believed that there was nothing in the outer world of value to China and that any contacts were potentially unset­tling to the Confucian social order.

Contrast this with the medieval West’s eager adoption of technologies that had been invented elsewhere. As Samuel Lilley wrote in his his­tory of technological progress, “The European Middle Ages collected innovations from all over the world, especially from China, and built them into a new unity which formed the basis of our modern civilization.”

Now consider what our own world might look like had the West resisted rather than embraced such innova­tions. What if the phonograph had been outlawed, as the printing press was in the Ottoman Empire? What if the state had declared a monopoly on the incandescent lightbulb and destroyed all privately produced bulbs, as the Chinese did with iron production in the eleventh century?

Turning Points

Finally, it is equally out of fashion to give weight to specific events in history. It has become the received wisdom that events such as battles are mere decorations on the great flow of history, that the triumph of the Greeks over the immense Persian host at Marathon (490 BC) or their sinking of the Persian fleet at Sala­mis (480 BC) merely reflected (as one popular historian put it) “some­thing deeper . . . a shift in economic power from the Fertile Crescent to the Mediterranean.” Nonsense! Had the badly outnumbered Greeks lost either battle, that “shift” would not have occurred and we probably never would have heard of Plato or Aristotle.

But we have. And thank goodness for that.


Rodney Stark is Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University and the author of How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity (ISI Books), from which this essay is adapted.


  • Paul Schumann

    Good piece.

    Gotta add Stark’s book to my reading list now.

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  • TeaParty1776

    “If we consider the fact that to this day everything that makes us civilized beings, every rational value that we possess—including the birth of science, the industrial revolution, the creation of the United States, even the structure of our language—is the result of Aristotle’s influence, of the degree to which, explicitly or implicitly, men accepted his epistemological principles, we would have to say: never have so many owed so much to one man.”

    -Ayn Rand, “For The New Intellectual”

    How many intellectual pretzels guide the bizarre claim of
    “the unique Judeo-Christian conception of God as a rational cre­ator?” Judiasm is a religion of and for primitive nomads and Christianity is a fantasy escape from Roman decadence. Both are mere rationalizations of deliberately and consciously taking leave of one’s senses and going out of one’s mind, ie, faith in an impossible supernatural realm. Any alleged rationality is mere historical coincidence, Aristotle’s influence or rationalism, a mystical peversion of reason deliberately split from the perception of concrete reality. Despite Stark’s wildly out-of-context view of the Dark Ages, including ignorance or evasion of the slow, random, layered end of culturally influential ideas, the Christian Dark Ages was almost the end of the West. The reintroduction of Aristotle lit up the West.

    • 3rdjerseyman

      Christophobia is at the very least a neurosis. Stark expands, at length, on the influence of the Scholastics. Do you imagine Roman Catholic scholars were ignorant of the Hellenic tradition? Aquinas and Aristotle were broadly in agreement. One might look at their consideration of first causes for illumination. It’s not so irrational as you assert. In fact, to Aristotle, it might seem quite irrational to claim the absence of Cause.

      • TeaParty1776

        Reducing (volitional) ideas to automatic psychology is a logical fallacy. Ideas are either true or false. Its also a dual-edged sword because the psychology of experiencing worship at a symbol of torture might be considered. Not that I would do it, of course, being logical and all that…

        You continue to drop context, define by non-essentials and babble about coincidences instead of causes. I referred to the basic fact of Christianity, of all religion, of its base, mysticism, of faith in an impossible supernatural realm. You reply with a myriad of historical coincidences, some factual, and evade the essence, faith in the supernatural. You seek your contradiction, reason and faith, in evasive scholarship as if it could conjure a new reality in which Whim is absolute and reality is not. In that context, worshipping a man being tortured seems almost rational, almost…Don’t you think Christianity is more at home in a graveyard than in a laboratory or factory? The first Christians gave away their possessions and waited for the magic carpet ride to unearned bliss. Why don’t you try that and report on your experience? You might not gain any wisdom but youre sure to feel humble and empathy with a monk in a dimly lighted cell lashing his back until it bleeds. Isnt that more Christian than science, prosperity and the US Constitution? Or have you folk been misleading everyone?

        • 3rdjerseyman

          You, are “a” nut.

          • TeaParty1776

            Man’s sacred mind, once again, triumphs over the moral depravity of faith in the supernatural.

          • 3rdjerseyman

            You are a confused nut.

          • TeaParty1776

            We are agreed that there is no rational justification for faith. Welcome to the Dark Ages.

          • 3rdjerseyman

            Didn’t you start by running your mouth about Aristotle? Have you read him? It’s irrational to presume a result without a cause.

          • TeaParty1776

            Youre confusing revelation w/reason. Mentally passive mystics

            ,who dont ask God for a context to revelation, invalidly apply their mental passivity to reason. Your claim above is out of context, a mere revelation in your mind, connected logically, hierarchically, contextually, to nothing. Aristotle is basically a realist, not a mystic. Remnants of Platonic mysticism, which he essentially refuted, in Aristotle’s philosophy can be validly ignored with no harm to his distinctive philosophy. Eg, Prime Mover, which you take out of Aristotle’s realist context. Platonic mystics have often complained about Aristotle’s lack of mysticism. Aristotle’s concern is rationally and systematically knowing and living in, not mystically despising and transcending, nature. You have found a piece of dirt on a bar of gold and regard the dirt as more valuable than the gold and throw the gold away. Evading reason, thats all you can do. Youre a mystic, waiting for glorious death.

          • 3rdjerseyman

            You remain, a nut, and a nut who neither reads deeply nor comprehends the argument put forth by the philosopher you claim to revere.

          • TeaParty1776

            Your floating abstractions are mere
            faith in an impossible supernatural.
            There is no evidence of God, merely an emotional response to the choice to evade perception-based reason. Metaphorically, faith reveals the Devil, not God. The Devil is in your head. If you put your head into a toilet, you could drown the Devil. I await the result
            of this test. Good luck!

          • 3rdjerseyman

            You’re right, you’re not a nut. You’re a twink.

          • TeaParty1776

            Your lack of intellectual defense of religion is like the Enlightenment.

          • 3rdjerseyman

            This from the guy with the toilet talk. You remain a twink, but also, I changed my mind, a nut.

            Your point is that everything came from nothing. Now that’s logic.

  • 3rdjerseyman

    Other than color, what “structures” do you find? And to what purpose?

  • TeaParty1776

    May I speak to the Racial Entity in control of the racial fragment kown as Speak the Truth? We have an important message.