In this page-turning, myth-busting history, acclaimed author Rodney Stark shows exactly why Western civilization triumphed over other cultures-and why we all should be thankful it did. Why did science, democracy, and so many other important aspects of modernity develop only in the West? Unfortunately, that question has become so politically incorrect that most scholars avoid it. But Stark provides the answers as he takes readers on a thrilling journey from ancient Greece to the present.
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Kevin Foley has over thirty years' experience in radio and television broadcasting, commercial voice-overs, and audiobook narration. He has recorded over one hundred and fifty audiobooks.
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Stagnant Empires and the Greek "Miracle"
One easily supposes that large societies are a modern phenomenon. Not so. At the dawn of history most people lived lives of misery and exploitation in tyrannical empires that covered huge areas.
The first empire arose in Mesopotamia more than six thousand years ago. Then came the Egyptian, Chinese, Persian, and Indian empires. All these empires suffered from chronic power struggles among the ruling elites, but aside from those, some border wars, and immense public-works projects, very little happened. Change, whether technological or cultural, was so slow as to go nearly unnoticed. As the centuries passed most people lived as they always had, "just a notch above barest subsistence ... little better off than their oxen," in the words of the anthropologist Marvin Harris. This was not because they lacked the potential to achieve a much higher standard of living but because a predatory ruling elite extracted every ounce of "surplus" production. All signs of resistance were brutally crushed.
In the midst of all this misery and repression, a "miracle" of progress and freedom took place in Greece among people who lived not in an empire but in hundreds of small, independent city-states. It was here that the formation of Western civilization began. Sad to say, this beacon of human potential eventually was extinguished by the rise of new empires. But its legacies survived.
The Poverty of Ancient Empires
We remain fascinated by accounts of the opulent splendor of ancient imperial courts, of gigantic palaces with golden fixtures and silk-lined walls, of bejeweled wives and concubines served by countless slaves and servants. Imagine the wealth of the great Egyptian pharaohs in light of the staggering treasures buried with King Tutankhamun (1341–1323 BC), a minor and short-lived pharaoh. Even though Tut's coffin was made of solid gold, his treasures are mere trinkets compared with what must have been buried with Ramesses II (ca. 1303–1213 BC), who probably was the wealthiest and most powerful of all the pharaohs. But it wasn't only treasure that was buried with the early pharaohs; many of their retainers, wives, concubines, and even pet dogs were slaughtered and placed in their tombs. One First Dynasty royal Egyptian tomb included 318 sacrificed humans; their average age was estimated to have been twenty-five. In Mesopotamia an emperor's entire court, including not only wives and servants but also senior officials and confidants, was buried with the sovereign. And late in the second millennium BC, each Chinese royal funeral saw thousands put to death.
In all the ancient empires, monumentalism was rife. Pharaohs built pyramids, huge statues such as the Sphinx, immense shrines, and even whole personal cities. The rulers of Mesopotamia built enormous ziggurats, shrines consisting of a set of huge square blocks (or floors) of decreasing size set atop one another, often having five levels or more. The setbacks surrounding each block were often landscaped with trees and shrubs (hence the "Hanging Gardens" of Babylon). The largest surviving ziggurat, near Susa in southern Iran, is 336 feet per side at the base and is estimated to have been about seventeen stories high.
But despite such monuments and fabulous royal wealth, the great empires were very poor. As the historian E. L. Jones noted, "Emperors amassed vast wealth but received incomes that were nevertheless small relative to the immensity of the territories and populations governed." Indeed, because of imperial opulence, "century after century the standard of living in China, northern India, Mesopotamia, and Egypt hovered slightly above or below what might be called the threshold of pauperization," as Marvin Harris put it. Too often historians have noted the immense wealth of rulers without grasping the sacrifices this imposed on the populace. The Wikipedia article on the Maurya Empire, which ruled most of India from 321 to 185 BC, praises it for generating prosperity, while innocently noting a report from the time that the Indians "all live frugally ... and their food is principally a rice-pottage," as though this were merely a matter of preference. To quote Jones once again, "The splendours of Asian courts ... merely testify that political organization could squeeze blood out of stones if the stones were numerous enough."
A review of tax rates imposed by the ancient empires reveals just how hard the nobility squeezed. In Mesopotamia the official tax rate was 10 percent of all crops, but in fact the collectors often demanded as much as half. In Egypt the pharaoh took at least a fifth of all harvests and required peasants to work on "public" projects in the off-season. In India the ruler was entitled to one-fourth of the crop and could take a third in "emergencies." Local elites and landlords usually took even more. With taxes claiming half or more of a harvest, and about a third of a grain crop kept to provide seeds for the next planting, the peasants had very little left for their own subsistence. In addition to taxes were outright confiscations of individuals' entire wealth, which often required no justification. Hence, as Ricardo Caminos put it about the ancient Egyptians, "peasant families always wavered between abject poverty and utter destitution."
If the elite seizes all production above the minimum needed for survival, people have no motivation to produce more. In despotic states where rulers concentrate on exacting the maximum amount from those they control, subjects become notably avaricious too. They consume, hoard, and hide the fruits of their labor, and they fail to produce nearly as much as they might. Even when some people do manage to be productive, chances are that their efforts will merely enrich their rulers. The result is a standard of living far below the society's potential productive capacities. The average free citizen did not live much better than did the huge numbers held in slavery by the ancient empires.
The economic system of ancient empires and of all despotic states has come to be known as the command economy, since the state commands and coerces markets and labor — to exact wealth for itself — rather than allowing them to function freely. The people are usually subject not only to confiscatory taxation but also to forced labor, which accounts for the monumentalism of empires. Pharaohs did not hire tens of thousands of peasants to build pyramids; they forced them to do so — and fed them so poorly and exposed them to such dangerous working conditions that many did not survive. It is estimated that nearly six million Chinese peasants were forced to build the Grand Canal in China, and perhaps as many as two million of them died. Another million probably died to build the Great Wall of China.
Command economies began with the earliest empires and have lasted in many parts of the modern world — they still attract ardent advocates. But command economies neglect the most basic economic fact of life: All wealth derives from production. It must be grown, dug up, cut down, hunted, herded, fabricated, or otherwise created. The amount of wealth produced within any society depends not only on the number involved in production but also on their motivation and the effectiveness of their productive technology. When wealth is subject to devastating taxes and the constant threat of usurpation, the challenge is to keep one's wealth, not to make it productive. This principle applies not merely to the wealthy but with even greater force to those with very little — which accounts for the substantial underproduction of command economies.
An example will clarify these points.
Late in the tenth century an iron industry began to develop in parts of northern China. By 1018 the smelters were producing an estimated 35,000 tons a year, an incredible achievement for the time, and sixty years later they may have been producing more than 100,000 tons. This was not a government operation. Private individuals had seized the opportunity presented by a strong demand for iron and the supplies of easily mined ore and coal. With the smelters and foundries located along a network of canals and navigable rivers, the iron could be easily brought to distant markets. Soon these new Chinese iron industrialists were reaping huge profits and reinvesting heavily in the expansion of their smelters and foundries. The availability of large supplies of iron led to the introduction of iron agricultural tools, which in turn began to increase food production. In short, China began to enter an "industrial revolution."
But then it all stopped as suddenly as it had begun. By the end of the eleventh century, only tiny amounts of iron were produced, and soon after that the smelters and foundries were abandoned ruins. What had happened?
Eventually, Mandarins at the imperial court had noticed that some commoners were getting rich by manufacturing and were hiring peasant laborers at high wages. They deemed such activities to be threats to Confucian values and social tranquility. Commoners must know their place; only the elite should be wealthy. So they declared a state monopoly on iron and seized everything. And that was that. As the nineteenth-century historian Winwood Reade summed up, the reason for China's many centuries of economic and social stagnation is plain: "Property is insecure. In this one phrase the whole history of Asia is contained."
No wonder that progress was so slow within the ancient empires. Anything of value — land, crops, livestock, buildings, even children — could be arbitrarily seized, and as the Chinese iron magnates learned, it often was. Worse yet, the tyrannical empires invested little of the wealth they extracted to increase production. They consumed it instead — often in various forms of display. The Egyptian pyramids, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and the Taj Mahal were all built as beautiful monuments to repressive rule; they were without productive value and were paid for by misery and want.
The ancient empires inherited a considerable level of civilization from the societies they combined and ruled, and technological progress may have continued as an empire consolidated its grasp. But then improvements effectively stopped. For example, in 1900 Chinese peasants were using essentially the same tools and techniques they had been using for more than three thousand years. The same was true in Egypt. Despite their dependence on agriculture, in none of the ancient empires (including Rome) was there any selective breeding of plants or animals.
Stagnation occurred because the ruling elites had no need for innovations and usually neither rewarded innovators nor adopted their innovations. Worse, the ruling elites often destroyed, outlawed, or made little use of innovations that did occur, whether of domestic or foreign origin. For example, the Romans knew of the watermill but made nearly no use of it, continuing to rely on muscle power to grind their flour. The Ottoman Empire prohibited the mechanical clock, and so did the Chinese. (Imperial opposition to progress is pursued at greater length in chapter 2.)
The Greek "Miracle"
Amid these long centuries of exploitation and stagnation, suddenly there burst forth the Greek "miracle," an era of prodigious progress: intellectual and artistic as well as technological. In her famous book The Greek Way, the great classicist Edith Hamilton noted that what most set the Greeks apart from all prior societies was joyful living. This way of life was "something quite new," she wrote:
The Greeks were the first people in the world to play, and they played on a great scale. All over Greece there were games, all sorts of games; athletic contests of every description ... contests in music, where one side outsung the other; in dancing ... games so many that one grows weary with the list of them. ... Wretched people, toiling people, do not play. Nothing like the Greek games is conceivable in Egypt or Mesopotamia. ... Play died when Greece died and many a century passed before it was resurrected.
Greek play reflected the exuberance of life in small societies of free citizens. In this era, freedom too was unique to Greece (despite the multitudes of slaves). And out of this freedom grew not only joy and play but also the first flood of innovations leading to modernity.
Historians date the beginning of ancient Greek civilization to around 750 BC, but the brilliant era of Greek achievement began about 600 BC and ended in about 338 BC, when Philip of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great) conquered the Greeks. Even in these golden days, there really wasn't an ancient "Greece." What existed were Greeks — a single people, united, as Herodotus (484–425 BC) noted, by common blood, customs, language, and religion but who lived in about a thousand city-states. Initially these city-states were politically independent. Over time, some conquered others and many entered into alliances and unions, but overall there remained a diverse and independent set of small Greek societies.
The Greek city-states were located throughout what is today Greece and also in Sicily and southern Italy, around the Black Sea, and along the coast of Asia Minor (most of which is now Turkey) —"like frogs around a pond," as Plato put it. Many city-states were tiny, having no more than 1,000 residents, and even the largest were small when compared with the populations of the empires of this era. In 430 BC Athens may have had a population of 155,000, Corinth was estimated to have 70,000 residents, and there were about 40,000 Spartans. In contrast, there were about 40 million Persians.
The independence of the city-states was aided by geography. Greece is crisscrossed with mountain ranges that occupy about 80 percent of the land area, and each of the valleys scattered among the mountains (most of them coastal) sustained a city-state, and sometimes two. In addition, many islands in the nearby waters became city-states. Of course, the geography of Greece is quite contrary to claims that Europe's eventual supremacy rested on natural advantages. Even the best agricultural land in Greece is rocky and "its productivity is mediocre," as Leopold Migeotte notes in The Economy of the Greek Cities. Moreover, observes Victor Davis Hanson in Carnage and Culture, Greece is "without a single large navigable river, cursed with almost no abundance of natural resources." In contrast, the great empires of the time — including Egypt, Persia, and China — occupied huge, fertile plains well served by major rivers. This facilitated control from a central capital. Thus, having an "unfavorable" geography contributed to the greatness of Greece, for disunity and competition were fundamental to everything else.
Michael Grant spoke for all classical historians when he wrote, "The achievement of the ... Greeks, in a wide variety of fields, was stupendous." Here the focus will be on six areas. First comes warfare, because only the Greeks' remarkable military superiority allowed them to survive as independent city-states rather than to have been submerged by the Persian Empire. Next is the great Greek achievement of democracy, followed by economic progress, literacy, the arts, and technology. Then the chapter turns to a seventh field, the most lasting of all the Greek achievements: speculative philosophy and formal logic.
Given constant wars among the many Greek city-states, the Greeks developed weapons and tactics far superior to those of contemporary empires, especially the nearby Persians. Perhaps the most important factor distinguishing Greek armies from those of the surrounding empires is that the men in the ranks were neither mercenaries nor slaves but citizen-soldiers (known as hoplites). The self-interest of Greek fighters was, therefore, not merely to survive a battle but to win it, thus defending their homes, possessions, and families. Despite being civilians, Greek soldiers were far better trained and disciplined than their opponents, which was essential for fulfilling the tactics that made Greek formations devastatingly superior to their enemies.
It is obvious that, all else being equal, victory will go to the side that outnumbers the other. What is less obvious is that where outnumbering really counts is not across the whole field of battle but at the points of contact. And by use of the phalanx — a dense, highly coordinated formation — the Greeks greatly outnumbered their enemies where the two sides actually met.
The phalanx consisted of closely packed infantry, four to eight rows deep, wearing bronze helmets with cheek plates, breast plates, and greaves, or leg armor. (Because of the weight of their armor, they were called heavy infantry.) Each Greek soldier also carried a large shield that protected his left side and the right side of the man next to him. From this wall of shields were projected sharp pikes (seven to nine feet long) that could stab opponents, often before they could reach the Greeks with their weapons. Intensive practice allowed the phalanx to maneuver as a single unit, in response to commands. Of particular significance when fighting non-Greek foes, the phalanx was nearly impervious to cavalry charges, the horses being impaled on the pikes. As military historian Jim Lacey explained, "When it comes to cavalry charging a phalanx, human bravery counts for nothing. It was the courage of the horse that mattered, and in this case [the Battle of Marathon] Persia's fabled Nesaian mounts proved to be no braver than any other horse."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "How The West Won"
Copyright © 2014 Rodney Stark.
Excerpted by permission of ISI Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: What You Don't Know about the Rise of the West 1
Part I Classical Beginnings (500 BC-AD 500)
1 Stagnant Empires and the Greek "Miracle" 9
2 Jerusalem's Rational God 33
3 The Roman Interlude 47
Part II The Not-So-Dark Ages (500-1200)
4 The Blessings of Disunity 69
5 Northern Lights over Christendom 93
6 Freedom and Capitalism 119
Part III Medieval Transformations (1200-1500)
7 Climate, Plague, and Social Change 143
8 The Pursuit of Knowledge 159
9 Industry, Trade, and Technology 181
10 Discovering the World 199
Part IV The Dawn of Modernity (1500-1750)
11 New World Conquests and Colonies 219
12 The Golden Empire 241
13 The Lutheran Reformation: Myths and Realities 263
14 Exposing Muslim Illusions 283
15 Science Comes of Age 303
Part V Modernity (1750-)
16 The Industrial Revolution 325
17 Liberty and Prosperity 339
18 Globalization and Colonialism 357
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