January 15, 2006


How the West Was One: How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Thomas E. Woods, Jr. (Paul Cella III, Touchstone)

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.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 15, 2006 11:15 PM

I'm not so sure about his last paragraph. In reading literature from even 100 years, say, I can't help but think that people living in 1900 were closer in many fundamental cultural aspects to those living nearly 2000 years ago than to the average person today.

Posted by: b at January 16, 2006 10:40 AM

"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."

According to Michale Grant's Fall Of The Roman Empire, Ambrose of Milan denied the usefulness of science since it would not provide mankind with salvation.

Was that a typical and inflential opinion among the early Church or is there more to it?

[i] A Canticle for Liebowitz[/i] BTW is recommended for anyone interested in the topic.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at January 16, 2006 11:53 AM

Certainly a book to read in the near future.

We should like to see how the author treats with the Roman Catholic concept of the separtation of Church and state. The balance allowed by the Church's teachings on the subject is one of the keys to the rise of the West. Theocracy, caesaropapism and "cujus regio, ejus religio" are all antitheses of this balance. Selling the Faith to princes making the highest bid is not "reform."

b: Perhaps people living in 1900 were closer in many fundamental aspect to those living 1600 years ago, while the average person today, "red-state" Americans excepted, is closer to those living 2000 years ago. Returning to paganism is not progress.

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 16, 2006 12:02 PM

Lou: Perhaps I was sloppy with numbers (I like order-of-magnitude accuracy...) and therefore unclear. What I meant to say was that a person living in 1900 seems to have been quite able to understand the worldview of a Christian from 1500, 1000, 500, and before. I think that most people living today cannot. The most obvious demonstration would be the notions of confession & penance, and the modern abandonment of that sacrament.

Posted by: b at January 16, 2006 12:28 PM

As someone who watched the Church of England just utterly dissolve between the 1950's and the 1980's, I can attest that 'the church' is emphatically not the same over time.

Posted by: ZF at January 16, 2006 12:34 PM

ZF: As the reviewer notes, he's speaking solely of the Church of Rome.

Posted by: b at January 16, 2006 1:38 PM


And science has indeed proved pretty useless. Technology is helpful.

Posted by: oj at January 16, 2006 5:16 PM

And new technology comes FROM new science - (defined as new understanding of theory, and ability to work with materials).

There's a reason that we didn't have CD players back when Marconi was popularizing the "wireless", and that's because THE UNDERLYING SCIENCE DIDN'T EXIST.

It's not as if CD players had always been possible, but nobody thought of doing it until the 80s.

"New science" doesn't spring from those in the Church of Science redoubling their efforts to believe in a new paradigm.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 17, 2006 4:03 AM

Almost never. Technology seldom if ever reqires knowing why stuff works.

There is no new science, just new paradigms.

Posted by: oj at January 17, 2006 7:08 AM

I've already read this book. I definitely recommend it.


I'm sure you can find a lot of quotes from various prelates over 2000 years denigrating science. However, these have to be placed against the sustained and continuous support the Church gave to science over centuries. The Church created the university. During the Middle Ages in Paris, candidates for a doctorate in theology had first to get a master's degree in natural philosophy (science) in order to qualify. Many medieval scientists were priests, for a very good reason.

The book also elaborates on the Church's contribution to the establishment of legal codes in Europe, laying the groundwork for international law, the establishment and proliferation of hospitals and numerous institutions of charity, the establishment of libraries and schools, the creation of formal education for girls, and on and on.

Read the book.

Posted by: L. Rogers at January 17, 2006 10:15 AM