Interesting Ideas – Review of How the West Won

westwon Book InformationHow the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity

Author – Rodney Stark

Publisher  – Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI Books) (2014, $9.99 digital, $14.00 paperback)

Reading Challenge Book? Yes! Clocking in at 432 pages, this is my “Book With More than 400 Pages”.  For more on the reading challenge, there’s a Goodreads group going here.

I’ve not read Rodney Stark before, though I have heard his name mentioned. Stark is a prolific author and serves as Co-Director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. His background is in sociology rather than history, a piece of information I found helpful as I read this work. Stark appears to write more as an observer of human progress and societal developments rather than as a conventional political historian. When trying to understand patterns in history, this perspective is useful.

I did learn a fair amount from this book and I’m glad I read it, though I did find myself disappointed sometimes.  Why is this?  Well, Stark’s subject had much potential to it, but some of his arguments just did not get the full development they deserved.  The book is a little over 400 pages, but the vast sweep of history covered within could easily (and perhaps should have) filled multiple volumes.

Stark begins by alerting readers that his ideas are “unfashionable” and he describes how the study of Western civilization itself has fallen out of favor in more politically correct universities. He then states his intention to show readers why what we now consider modernity arose in the West as opposed to in other parts of the world. Since I am more interested in seeing what the factual record shows rather than toeing the line on political correctness, I was very interested to see what Stark had researched and where it would take him.

Stark takes readers on a summary journey through Western history from ancient times to “Modernity”, which Stark classifies as “1750-.”  Given that this is a survey, I did not expect painstaking detail. It simply would not be possible in a work of this scope and size.

And in some ways, Stark’s approach does work. He does a good job of summarizing historical and social science findings with regard to things such as missionaries being the dominant method by which democratic forms of government spread from the West to the rest of the world, or the idea that the so-called Dark Ages were actually a time of great innovation and learning.

I also appreciate how Stark shows readers how Western society and Christianity’s influence on that society allowed peoples in the West to develop ideas in science or economics that brought their countries forward and allowed for what we today would see as greater freedom. In addition, he does a solid job of debunking the popular notion that the Muslim world was somehow more sophisticated than any Western society.

With all this helpful information, why did I sometimes find myself disappointed as a reader? Well, sometimes the author states ideas but doesn’t clearly show the reader how he came to his conclusion. For example, he describes the Roman period as “at best a pause in the rise of the West, and more plausibly as a setback.” (p.47)

Now, this is certainly a provocative and interesting idea. Given that both conservative and revisionist historians have lauded the accomplishments of the Romans, I found myself interested in hearing more about why this author saw them as a detrimental contribution to Western civilization. However, instead of a detailed discussed backed up with adequate facts to allow readers to fully understand (and perhaps agree with) the author’s conclusion, we got only 19 pages.  And while the author cites a number of sources throughout the book, there are comparatively few used to back up his conclusory statements in this section. As stated above, one must recognize that this is a survey history rather than an in-depth discussion of one particular place or time. However, even in a survey treatment, opinions should still be adequately backed up with factual information and references to source material.

As a reader, I’ll say very frankly that I tend to be skeptical toward much of what is currently fashionable in many history departments. However, when I read a book that challenges politically correct history, I don’t just want to read a book whose viewpoint I tend to agree with.  I want to be challenged and provided with useful and persuasive information.  How the West Won gives readers that on some topics (I found the discussion of scientific innovation and learning throughout the Middle Ages especially helpful), but falls curiously short of the mark on others.  It’s not a dreadful book, but it is a tad uneven. Rating: 3 stars

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