"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Holy capitalism, Batman!

In my previous life as an academic, I was given to lamenting pendulum swings in scholarship as well as politics. A mythic narrative or theory will linger for years, decades, even centuries, only to be overthrown by another, equally distorted view. It gets old, but it seems ever new. And so I'm a bit embarassed to welcome the latest instance.

Those who followed a good core curriculum in college will be familiar with the thesis propounded by Max Weber in his 19th-century The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, according to which the virtues of Protestantism made economic progress possible in those countries which embraced that version of Christianity. Needless to say, Catholic countries were depicted as weak sisters shackled by prejudice, profligacy, agrarianism, and authoritarianism; the benighted Catholic Church allied with the venal aristocracy to keep down the peasants and marginalize the burghers. Never mind that crediting Protestantism for scientific and economic progress now seems just as overblown to secular-minded historians as to Catholic intellectuals. Inevitably, it seems, we now hear that it was actually the Catholic Church which made all that good stuff possible.

Thus David Brooks points out, in an article on today's New York Times Op-Ed page (accessible by subscription only, alas):
In his new book, “The Victory of Reason,” the Baylor sociologist Rodney Stark argues that the West grew rich because it invented capitalism. That’s not new. What’s unusual is his description of how capitalism developed.

The conventional view, embraced by most of his fellow cultural determinists, is that during the Renaissance and Reformation, Europeans shook off the authority of the Catholic Church. When a secular world was created alongside the sacred one, when intellectual freedom replaced obedience to authority, capitalism and scientific advances were the result. That theory, Stark says, doesn’t fit the facts. In reality, capitalism developed in the Middle Ages, and the important innovations were made by people in the belly of the faith. Religion didn’t stifle economic and scientific ideas - it nurtured them.

Stark is building upon the recent research that has reversed earlier prejudices about the so-called Dark Ages. As late as 1983, the esteemed historian Daniel Boorstin could write a chapter on the Middle Ages entitled “The Prison of Christian Dogma.” But the more we learn, the more we realize that most of the progress we link to the Renaissance or later years actually happened during the Middle Ages.
Since I haven't read the book yet, I can't analyze the argument or the scholarship. Nor, for reasons that will be obvious to my vast readership, am I eager to criticize of Stark's thesis. But let's be careful here. What the Catholic Church, especially in monasticism, did for Europe during the "Dark" and Middle Ages was certainly indispensable to the progress that flowered afterwards. But can it truly be said that most of the progress that is commonly thought to have occurred later actually occurred during that period? That's the sort of exaggeration that invites as well as deserves rebuttal. And such rebuttals often have the effect—at least outside the circle of academic pros—of burying the welcome truths in the new viewpoint.

In a better world, distorted old ideas would not have to be corrected by distorted new ones. But of course, in a better world there would be no such distortions to begin with. As I get older, I grow more and more to accept that we do not, and until the Parousia will not, live in a better world.
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