“And having food and raiment let us be therewith content. . . . For the love of money is the root of all evil.” St. Paul’s admonition to Timothy rings with the hard ascetic fervor that one has come to think of as distinctively Christian. Of course, certain of Paul’s successors have recognized the extremity, not to say the impossibility, of his ideal and have proven more accommodating than he to the world and the flesh. Pure-hearted, other-worldly intransigence has its place among the Christian virtues, but so does the acknowledgment that the great world takes part in defining the terms for a well-lived life.
The title of a notable new book by Rodney Stark (a professor at Baylor University, specializing in the social science of religion) indicates how far the tide of secular values has advanced upon the shore of religious virtues: The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success.
Stark proclaims reason triumphant in Christianity; Paul asserts the primacy of faith, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Stark celebrates freedom; Paul calls himself “the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles” and instructs, “Let every soul be subject to the higher powers.” Stark extols the creation of wealth; Paul preaches contentment with the bare minimum. Stark honors earthly dominion; Paul asks, “Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” For Stark, Christianity is the means, while liberty, prosperity, and power are the ends. Is his the foolish wisdom of this world, or is Christianity colluding with social science to present an essential teaching for our time?
Some of the greatest social scientists have addressed the intimate exchanges between Christian spirit and modern flesh. In the most famous and influential of such studies, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Max Weber writes that, although men have always and everywhere been driven by “unlimited greed for gain,” capitalism is a development of Western modernity that seeks “forever renewed profit, by means of continuous, rational, capitalistic enterprise” and that religious belief established the foundation for this “tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order.”
Beginning with the observation that Protestants predominate in the ranks of both capitalist masters and skilled industrial laborers, Weber dismisses the commonplace that Catholics direct their attention to eternity while Protestants take pleasure in earthly life; rather, he contends, it is the Protestants’—specifically, the Calvinists’—terrified obsession with salvation and damnation that produces the capitalist virtue of “worldly asceticism.” Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, in its “extreme inhumanity,” compels believers desperately to seek evidence that they are among those marked for heaven, and the most convincing evidence they can find is their devotion to and prosperity in a worldly calling. Stripped of what Weber calls the “magic” of Catholic sacrament, which dispenses “atonement, hope of grace, certainty of forgiveness,” Calvinism demands “a life of good works combined into a unified system.” In that system hope of spiritual election meshes with unflagging effort in the business at hand.
In Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1922), the English economic historian and Labor party official R.H. Tawney expands and modifies Weber’s thesis. In Tawney’s view, capitalist industriousness does not emerge directly from spiritual agony; rather, he sees that secular economic individualism and Puritan regard for business as a godly calling are separate, powerful streams of thought whose confluence in seventeenth-century England marks an epoch. “To such a generation, a creed which transformed the acquisition of wealth from a drudgery or a temptation into a moral duty was the milk of lions. . . . The good Christian was not wholly dissimilar from the economic man.” Economic self-interest, or the law of nature, comes to be identified with the workings of Providence.
Rodney Stark has little use for Weber or Tawney. He presents himself explicitly as the anti-Weber, who shall redefine the field so badly skewed by his unworthy predecessor. Stark concedes that Weber was right in saying religion influenced the rise of capitalism but insists that Weber got the places, dates, and denominations all wrong. Citing such distinguished authorities as Hugh Trevor-Roper, Henri Pirenne, and Fernand Braudel, Stark declares that, long before the Reformation, capitalism was already underway in the medieval Catholic and republican cities of Venice, Genoa, and Florence. Political freedom was indispensable to capitalism’s emergence, and Christian theology prepared the way for freedom.
Indeed, Stark argues, Christian theologians, among whom he favors St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, invented reason and cleared the ground for modern science; the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese, the Muslims, and the Jews were all woefully deficient in that respect. Christian reason stood for progress in understanding the word of God and developing civilization in accordance with His will.
Medieval Europe, commonly and erroneously described as mired in the Dark Ages, was the matrix of that civilization. Then and there technological innovations proliferated: overshot waterwheels, post windmills, the horse collar, and horseshoes harnessed unexampled power; stirrups and the high-backed saddle made heavy cavalry possible; the sternpost rudder and the round ship opened the high seas to navigation; brakes and pivoting front axles smoothed land transport considerably; the latest medieval conveniences, such as chimneys, clocks, and eyeglasses, made one glad to be living in the thirteenth century.
High culture also flourished. The invention of polyphony, adequate musical notation, and complex instruments such as the pipe organ, harpsichord, and violin enlarged and refined the scope of music; the flying buttress made possible the towering glories of Gothic architecture; Dante, Chaucer, nameless troubadours, and monkish hagiographers inaugurated vernacular literature; universities sprouted like mushrooms throughout Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Copernican revolution of the sixteenth century built on the insights of Jean Buriden (1300–1358) and Nicole d’Oresme (1325–1382), who made the case that the earth turns on its axis, and of Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464), who argued that wherever in the universe a man might stand, he will suppose himself at the motionless center, so that despite all appearances the earth just might not be stationary and the sun not revolve around it.
As for capitalism, it originated in ninth-century monasteries, where the life of contemplative withdrawal from the world did not extinguish an interest in economic well-being. St. Benedict had certified the virtue of work in the sixth century, instructing his monks to “live by the labor of their hands, as our fathers and the apostles did.” Such diligent labor built and secured thriving monastic estates.
Economic theory followed practice. Prudent loopholes pierced the Church’s traditional prohibition of usury, as many monasteries took up banking and grew their wealth by lending money to the nobility. Eventually the more prosperous monks would leave the manual labor to a hired work force and limit their own work to executive oversight and saying Masses, for a fee, to ease the pain of souls in purgatory.
This “religious capitalism,” though of limited scope, did furnish the template for the private enterprise that developed in the northern Italian city-states and that would dominate trade, banking, and manufacturing in Western Europe. In due course Italian banks would establish a foothold in the north, streamlining the chaotic Flemish and English woolen industries, then turning first Antwerp and later Amsterdam into Europe’s shipping and financial centers.
Stark’s argument that the medieval founders of capitalism embodied the Protestant ethic without being Protestant is quite cogent, although his high-handed dismissal of Weber sounds churlish and self-regarding: Weber did, after all, discover the territory that Stark is bent on remapping, and he deserves all due respect.
While Stark’s technological and economic history seems sound, at least to a nonspecialist, the intellectual history that undergirds the argument is shot through with preposterous assertions and glaring omissions. To declare reason the invention of Catholic theologians is absurd. To speak slightingly of classical Greek “learning” and “lore” without making clear that the signal Greek achievement is philosophy, the effort to understand the world by reason alone, is a travesty. Stark makes Aristotle and Plato sound like bumpkins whom no truly reasonable man would think of taking seriously.
Accordingly, Stark maintains cunning silence about the immeasurable debt that his beloved Thomas Aquinas owes to Aristotle, whom St. Thomas and numerous other Scholastics named simply “the Philosopher,” in need of no further identification. And Stark inanely traces direct lines of descent from the seventeenth-century innovators of the New Science to Thomas Aquinas and the scholastics, evidently unaware that Francis Bacon, the foremost such innovator, contemptuously controverts the teaching of these theologians—and their intellectual father, Aristotle—in The New Organon.
About the greatest Muslim philosophers Stark is similarly misleading. He finds them fruitless, and blames their blind devotion to Aristotle. In fact, however, such thinkers as Alfarabi (ca. 870–950) and Averroes (1126–1198) attempt to understand Islam, as Aquinas attempts to understand Christian teaching, in the light of philosophy and thereby to show the pious that their faith is supported by universal reason.
Of course, reason can be subtly subversive of revelation. In The Attainment of Happiness, Alfarabi teaches that religion is an imitation of philosophy and is thus a lower activity; religion moves the imagination, while philosophy demonstrates the truth by force of reason. In The Decisive Treatise, Determining What the Connection Is Between Religion and Philosophy, Averroes indicates that there is a way of knowing God that is superior to the approach through Islamic law: “If the jurist infers from the saying of the Exalted, Reflect, you have vision, the obligation to acquire a knowledge of juridical reasoning, how much more fitting and proper that he who would know God should infer from it the obligation to acquire a knowledge of intellectual reasoning!” These Muslim philosophers are exponents of reason no less than Thomas Aquinas is, and they acknowledge the same philosophic pedigree as he.
To make out such intellectual freedom and boldness, beholden principally to reason, as the dominant tendency in Christianity requires some selective editing. For theology must cleave to revelation more closely than to reason: Christian intellect is free only within limits. In 1277, at the direction of Roman authority, the Bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier, issued his Condemnation of 219 Propositions. These errant propositions were the progeny of Aristotelianism, Greek and Arabic alike, which was on the upsurge at the University of Paris and which threatened orthodoxy; some twenty of the propositions clearly represented the doctrine of St. Thomas, who had died two years before.
Reason had to be taught its proper place. Thus, for instance, the bishop declares that philosophy cannot question “the resurrection to come,” though reason has no way of proving or disproving its coming: “Even a philosopher must bring his mind into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” St. Thomas would, of course, make a long and distinguished return, but even he had had to concede that certain unphilosophical truths are given, such as the miracles in the New Testament. Reason must accept them on faith, and explain them as fully as it can, the way Aquinas does the Virgin Birth—the example Stark adduces as evidence of Christian reason at its acme. But here it is plainly faith that has precedence over reason.
Probably without thinking about it much, Stark ultimately sides with the world and the flesh, which value reason over faith and esteem the Christian teaching only so long as it comes through with the goods. The ascetic otherworldliness of Christianity has almost no place in this book, which like most products of the democratic intellect judges by the standard of physical well-being.
It is Weber and Tawney who express misgivings about the victory of economic rationality that Stark celebrates. Weber sees modern men trapped in “an iron cage” where material desire consumes them. Tawney scorns an age for which “the attainment of material riches is the supreme object of human endeavor and the final criterion of human success”—a far cry from the appreciation of business as a sacred vocation. “What is certain is that [this modern dispensation] is the negation of any system of thought or morals which can, except by a metaphor, be described as Christian.” Reason of a philistine sort is indeed victorious in our world, and the spirit can only conduct a rear-guard action that is brave and noble but may nevertheless be doomed.
Algis Valiunas is a literary journalist and author of Churchill’s Military Histories.