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Slaughtering conventional history’s sacred cows

Books | An excerpt from Rodney Stark’s How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity

Historian Rodney Stark writes books that are models of popularly accessible scholarly writing. After reporting for the Oakland Tribune and The Denver Post, Stark gained a Ph.D. and taught at the University of Washington for 32 years before heading to Baylor University 10 years ago.

His The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion (HarperOne) was WORLD’s Book of the Year for 2012. His new book, How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity, slaughters more of conventional history’s sacred cows, including the belief beloved by classicists that the Greco-Roman world was wonderful and its demise a disaster. Here’s an excerpt reprinted with permission of ISI Books. —Marvin Olasky

Chapter 4: The Blessings of Disunity

In response to the long-prevailing absurdities about how the fall of Rome plunged Europe into the “Dark Ages,” some historians now propose that very little happened after the Western Empire collapsed—that the “world of Late Antiquity,” as Peter Brown has identified the era from 150 to 750, was one of slow transformation. Brown is, of course, correct that the history of these centuries can be told “without invoking an intervening catastrophe and without pausing, for a moment, to pay lip service to the widespread notion of decay.” But to deny decay does not require the denial of change.

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The fall of Rome was, in fact, the most beneficial event in the rise of Western civilization, precisely because it unleashed so many substantial and progressive changes.

After Rome’s fall, Europe was blessed with lasting disunity; periodic efforts to reestablish empires failed. Disunity enabled extensive, small-scale social experimentation and unleashed creative competition among hundreds of independent political units, which, in turn, resulted in rapid and profound progress. Thus, just as the Greek “miracle” arose from disunity, so too “European civilization … owes its origins and raison d’être to political anarchy,” as Nobel Prize winner F.A. Hayek explained.

Not surprisingly, most of the early innovations and inventions came in agriculture. Soon most medieval Europeans ate better than had any common people in history, and consequently they grew larger and stronger than people elsewhere. They also harnessed water and wind power to a revolutionary extent. In addition, faced with constant warfare among themselves, medieval Europeans excelled at inventing and adopting new military technology and tactics, all of them consistent with the Western principles of warfare initiated by the ancient Greeks. In 732, when Muslim invaders drove into Gaul, they encountered an army of superbly armed and trained Franks and were destroyed. Subsequently, the Franks conquered most of Europe and installed a new emperor. Fortunately, the whole thing soon fell apart and Europe’s creative disunity was reestablished.

The Myth of the Dark Ages

Belief in the Dark Ages remains so persistent that it seems appropriate to begin by quickly revealing that this is a myth made up by eighteenth-century intellectuals determined to slander Christianity and to celebrate their own sagacity.

It has long been the “informed” opinion that after the fall of Rome came many centuries during which ascendant Christianity imposed an era of ignorance and superstition all across Europe. In her long-admired study of medieval philosophers, The Age of Belief (1954), Anne Fremantle wrote of “a dark, dismal patch, a sort of dull and dirty chunk of some ten centuries.” Fremantle’s assertion merely echoed the anti-Christian fulminations of various eighteenth-century dissenters. Voltaire described the era following Rome as one when “barbarism, superstition, [and] ignorance covered the face of the world.” According to Rousseau, “Europe had relapsed into the barbarism of the earliest ages. The people of this part of the world … lived some centuries ago in a condition worse than ignorance.” Edward Gibbon called the fall of Rome the “triumph of barbarism and religion.”

More recently, Bertrand Russell, writing in the illustrated edition of his famous college textbook (1959), declared: “As the central authority of Rome decayed, the lands of the Western Empire began to sink into an era of barbarism during which Europe suffered a general cultural decline. The Dark Ages, as they are called.” In 1991 Charles Van Doren earned praise for his book A History of Knowledge, in which he noted that the fall of Rome had “plunged Europe into a Dark Age that lasted for five hundred years.” It was an age of “rapine and death,” since “there was little law except that of force.” Worse yet, “life had become hard, with most people dependent on what they could scratch with their hands from the earth around their homes.” Van Doren blamed Christianity for prolonging this dismal era by disdaining consumption and the material world while celebrating poverty and urging contentment. In 1993 the highly respected historian William Manchester summed up his views of the period “AD 400 and AD 1000” in his book title: A World Lit Only by Fire. He dismissed those who no longer believed in the Dark Ages on grounds that “most of what is known about the period is unlovely. … The portrait that emerges is a mélange of incessant warfare, corruption, lawlessness, obsession with strange myths, and an almost impenetrable mindlessness.”

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