The wealth of (Western) nations

The Victory of Reason
Cover detail from of Rodney Stark's 'The Victory of Reason.'
“Calvinism is evidently connected with the commercial vocation,” writes Luigi Barzini in The Europeans. “It is not clear to an Italian [like the author], however, whether Calvinists, driven by their stern religious code, become the best merchants, or whether merchants become Calvinists because Calvinism is a superior guide for the successful conduct of business.”

It turns out that Barzini’s is an avoidable conundrum. Like the great Italian scribe, I’ve long been influenced by the concept of the Protestant Work Ethic — that the rigorous sects of the Reformation (namely the heirs of John Calvin) birthed capitalism. Then I read Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Random House, 2005).

If Stark is correct, and he is convincing (which is almost the same thing, right?), the Protestant Ethic and its supposed creation of capitalism is a myth. Barzini should have started by looking in his native country. Stark shows that Italian Catholics were the first true capitalists, the merchants of such cities as Venice, Florence, Genoa, and Milan. In fact, he roots the entire flowering of Western economic, political, technical, and cultural dominance in the pre-Reformation church, showing how key technological and commercial advancements emerged from, of all places, European monasteries.

I was frankly astonished by some of the revelations in Stark’s book. I’ve heard Vishal Mangalwadi make similar points (and I recommend exploring Mangalwadi’s work if you’re interested in the subject), but Stark’s take is riveting and uniquely revelatory.

The Victory of Reason is a theological and historical reevaluation that shows the spirit of capitalism, even Western liberty, is not uniquely Protestant. It is inherent to Christianity more broadly construed, it’s doctrines, practices, and institutions.

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