How the West Was One
How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization
reviewed by Paul Cella III
The strength of this book is in its character as a competent and readable survey of neglected history; its weakness is its assumptions. Much of the history surveyed here is indeed neglected, sometimes innocently, sometimes studiously, and Woods, a professor of history at Suffolk County Community College in New York, deserves credit for bringing it to the attention of his readers. (He is also the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History and The Church Confronts Modernity.)
The object of the book is implied (somewhat heavy-handedly, in that peculiar modern style) by its title, and in a certain broad sense the rightness of the thesis is almost self-evident. Ask yourself this question: What is the relationship of the Roman Catholic Church of 1500 to Western Civilization?
As Lawrence Brown put it in his monumental The Might of the West, the relationship is one of absolute identity. The Roman Church of 1500 was Western Civilization. That the West subsequently diverged from the church is both indisputable and irrelevant, for the great bulk of the groundwork had been accomplished, and even what had not yet been was quite inconceivable without what had.
Woods’s wide-ranging surveys, from science to art, from law to economics, should be enough to give even a hostile reader pause. For example, the injustice done in popular history (and thus popular imagination) to the work of the great medieval scientific polymaths like Buridan and Oresme is severe, and results in a substantial distortion of our history as a civilization.
The usual story is that the theoretical foundations of modern mechanics and physical science developed as men began a decisive break with the narrow theology of Rome and returned with new eyes to the wisdom of classical civilization during the Renaissance and Enlightenment. The truth is that these foundations were laid before any break with Rome was even contemplated; were laid, oftentimes, by churchmen themselves; and were laid, in fact, as men began a decisive break with the intellectual authority of classical antiquity.
The West had to cast off the causality (borrowing the term from Lawrence Brown) of classical science (mainly Aristotle) before our science could freely develop, and Christian theology did little to hinder this and in many ways aided in its achievement. The truth is, in short, that no other civilization save our own has ever come to believe in the kind of universal metaphysics of cause-and-effect that we take almost wholly for granted.
The civilizations of the Near East, whatever their religion, have usually settled on the idea of an infinite, instantaneous divine will: that all events hinge on the immediate providence (or caprice) of God and no predictive causality is possible short of knowing the divine will. It is only the men of the West who have conceived of causality separate from will, a causality that issues in universal laws discernible by man.
Woods does not even really enter into this tremendous topic, probably for good reason, but he does an able job of demonstrating that Western science as a distinctive idea emerged under the medieval church. Western science, with its own causal assumptions, was already a unique discipline long before the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, and the church never set herself emphatically against its development. Science has now become the patrimony of mankind, but it emerged only in the West, and only among men reared up by the Catholic Church.
The author makes comparable cases for the singular and indispensable role of the church in other central Western disciplines. Scholars in each field will surely find much to quibble with, but the cumulative effect is impressive.
But the difficulty with this book for a non-Catholic reader is the assumption behind it. Behind most everything in the book stands the belief that the Church of Christian antiquity, of the Dark Ages, of the Medieval Age, and of the Modern Age are all the same institution. In terms of theology, there is firm ground for this belief, and Protestants like myself should not begrudge our Catholic brothers their belief in the continuity of the Church, but as a matter of history it is problematic.
Each age of the church had its own character and savor, but more than that, each lived almost in a different world. The distance between the Christianity of antiquity and medieval Christianity, much less modern and postmodern Christianity, is substantial, and even those of us whose hearts ache for Christian unity (how long, O Lord?) cannot deny it and remain true to history.
And where does Byzantium fit into this picture? The whole story of the “fall” of Rome and the coming of the Dark Ages becomes quite a bit more muddled if we but turn our gaze eastward, where we will see with little difficulty that the Roman Empire endured and light never vanished. Classical civilization did not really die when the Eternal City fell to the barbarians: It moved east with the Eastern Empire.
The Byzantines called themselves Roman—and for good reason—for a further thousand years. But when classical civilization retreated to the east, darkness did fall on Western Europe, and from the ruins of those former Roman provinces, a new thing emerged: a thing possessed of its own unity and integrity—unity and integrity that were, in turn, threatened with dissolution with the successive waves of revolution of the Modern Age.
That Christianity was integral to each of the eras of the West is evident to all but the most benighted; that it was the creative engine of all but the latter stages of our era (when true creativity was abandoned) is more controversial but still true. But that the same institutional manifestation of Christianity lies behind each is, it seems to me, an argument the author of a book like this—published by a secular publisher with no indication that it is written solely for Catholics who accept its central assumption—must lay out at some length.
Not Yet Persuaded
Woods argues, for example, that the Catholic Church—coming into her own in the decaying world of pagan antiquity—invented charity as we know it, and he recruits for this argument some very impressive quotations even from some of the church’s greatest enemies and antagonists. For my part, I am persuaded: as the unbeliever Lecky (a nineteenth-century English historian whom Woods astutely cites) put it, the early Church became “the most powerful moral lever that has ever been applied to the affairs of man.”
But as a non-Catholic reader, I am not yet persuaded, because Woods makes no effort to persuade, that this church is the same historical institution that later discovered the true principles of economics, and a little later conceived and promulgated international law. In brief, Woods lets a historical problem of some difficulty, or at least some difficulty for members of other churches, much less skeptics and secularists, go by as an assumption. In the process he weakens a sturdy introduction to a spectacular field of inquiry.
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“How the West Was One” first appeared in the January/February 2006 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Click here for a printer-friendly version.
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