Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Thomas Woods on how the Catholic Church built Western civilization: part 2

Historian Thomas Woods, author of How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, has a great essay on the central role the Catholic church played in building Western civilization. This is a continuation my post from last week on Wood's essay.

The early church also institutionalized the care of widows, orphans, the sick and the poor in ways unseen in classical Greece or Rome. Even her harshest critics, from the fourth-century emperor Julian the Apostate all the way to Martin Luther and Voltaire, conceded the church's enormous contributions to the relief of human misery.

The spirit of Catholic charity — that we help those in need not out of any expectation of reciprocity, but as a pure gift, and that we even help those who might not like us — finds no analogue in classical Greece and Rome, but it is this idea of charity that we continue to embrace today.

The university was an utterly new phenomenon in European history. Nothing like it had existed in ancient Greece or Rome. The institution that we recognize today, with its faculties, courses of study, examinations and degrees, as well as the familiar distinction between undergraduate and graduate study, come to us directly from the medieval world.

By the time of the Reformation, no secular government had chartered more universities than the church. Edward Grant, who has written on medieval science for Cambridge University Press, points out that intellectual life was robust and debate was vigorous at these universities — the very opposite of the popular presumption.

It is no surprise that the church should have done so much to foster and protect the nascent university system, since the church, according to historian Lowrie Daly, "was the only institution in Europe that showed consistent interest in the preservation and cultivation of knowledge."

Until the mid-20th century, the history of economic thought started, more or less, with the 18th century and Adam Smith. But beginning with Joseph Schumpeter, the great economist and historian of his field, scholars have begun to point instead to the 16th-century Catholic theologians at Spain's University of Salamanca as the originators of modern economics.

And the list goes on.

I can already hear the complaint: What about these awful things the church did that I heard about in school? For one thing, isn't it a little odd that we never heard any of the material I've presented here in school? Doesn't that seem a trifle unfair?

But although an episode like the medieval Inquisition has been dramatically scaled back in scope and cruelty by recent scholarship — the University of California at Berkeley, not exactly a bastion of traditional Catholicism, published a book substantially revising popular view — it is not my subject here. My aim is to point out, as I do in my book "How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization," how indebted we are, without realizing it, to an institution popular culture teaches us to despise.

The Church, beginning with the Roman world devastated by the barbarian invasions and the fall of the great Empire, rebuilt the West, drawing on the best of Greek and Roman philosophy and law and culture, and uniting it to a spiritual revolution unprecedented in man's history. The Church melded Athens and Rome with Jerusalem. The result of the Christian revolution was the Western cannon of law, magnificent art and music and architecture, philosophical advances building on and exceeding even that of the classical pagan masters, a system of care for the poor and sick that heralded modern hospitals and social service programs, and a breath-taking explosion of scientific knowledge.

As Woods points out, it is a lie to assert that the Church was the enemy of learning and culture and science. The Church was the source of the astonishing achievements of the West.

Western civilization was, and is, Christian civilization. Those who would destroy Christianity-- and there are innumerable cultured and uncultured despisers-- would destroy the West as well.

What shall replace it?


  1. Mike,
    In one word:Islam.
    We are seeing this actually happen in large swaths of the Western world. Demographic replacement of a materialist post secular mess by a strong and unapologetic TOTAL ideology. Ditto in the former Soviet republics, and ditto in Western China and SWA.
    The only way to prevent this is to counter it with a FAITH in our PURPOSE. That faith and purpose I see as almost exactly as you have described above.
    I would not, myself, credit Rome or Catholicism alone - but the ENTIRE corpus of Christianity. The Schisms and reformations are surely offshoots, but I would argue they have made awesome contributions of their own right.

    1. Here is a short video on Islam, if you have the stomach for it!

    2. I'm not too worried about Islam. The second and third generation Muslims in the Netherlands are dropping their religion at rates similar to Christians.

      Slightly more alarming is the growing number of Muslim schools. In the Netherlands the government financially supports all faith schools to the same extent as non-religious schools. No need to spend money on private schools here if you want your kids to be brainwashed with Catholic dogma. And almost everybody was fine with that, until Muslim schools started to pop up. Now more people are starting to rethink whether it's a good idea that government should support faith-based schools.

      Most Dutch Muslims were educated in non-Muslim schools but that might change. Not surprisingly, Saudi Arabia-affiliated organizations are supplying teaching materials free of charge. Muslim schools are also notorious for the low quality of the education and for the high frequency of school directors embezzling school funds.

    3. I don't think that Michael was actually thinking that if Christianity disappeared, it would be replaced by an equally bizarre belief system, such as Islam (if he does, then he's crazier than I thought).

      I imagined that he actually meant that if Christianity disappeared in the West, it would be replaced by some sort of New Age paganism. If people stop believing in the Holy Ghost and the power of prayer, they'll started believing in ghosts and the Wish.

    4. I was thinking about the difference between atheists and Christians. I came to the following conclusion:

      When an atheist dies, there are two possibilities

      1-If he was right, he will never know it
      2-if he was wrong, he sure as hell going to regret it

      When a believer dies there are two possibilities

      1-If he was wrong, he will never know it
      2-If he was right, he will welcome the atheist

      Pascal got it right!

    5. Pepe,

      But they're not equal possibilities.

      You need to rephrase your conclusion. You seem to be implying that theists and atheists alike will end in hell if god exists.

    6. @Troy,
      The Netherlands, at least, seems to be aware of the issue and addresses it openly.
      However, the demographics are the issue, not apostasy. Apostasy just makes for a target.
      Besides, there is just no comparison in those rates. Europeans must start to breed more prodigiously, or greatly limit the amount of Muslim migrants to counter the drop. The former, I fear, is wishful thinking in this 'me' society, the latter seems far more realistic - but is only a short term fix.
      A shift in cultural direction is required.

      He sure did! The wager illustrates a truth that is inescapable.

      Crazy? Why thank you! Coming from you that is a ringing endorsement of my sanity.
      I am sure Dr Egnor is more 'crazy' than you could possibly imagine with your imaginary imagination. But hey! Your the expert on Dr Egnor's opinions.
      I am only stating my own 'crazy' observations and conclusions. They just happen to coincide with those of Quilliam and Stratfor, but they are all 'crazy' too.
      Don't worry, Bach. The neo pagan hippies will love you just as much as the Christians.
      Shall I sing you a lullaby now?

    7. Jesuit monks deserve much credit for creating the medieval university. However, the modern university differs in one very substantial way from its predecessor. The main difference is an emphasis on research, rather than pure teaching.

      The new model of the university emerged in Germany somewhere at the end of the 18th century. By the 19th century, Germany was leading the world in the natural sciences. The first research university in the US was founded in 1876, specifically following the German model, and named after its benefactor Johns Hopkins. All of the leading US universities of the day were the old teaching type (as were Oxford and Cambridge). By the end of the 19th century, they all adopted the German model.

      Nowadays it's the US universities that set the standard and it's Germany that tries to replicate it. Ironic, isn't it?

    8. CrusadeRex,

      OK, you're crazy.

      Quilliam and Stratfor? Who are they?

    9. www.quilliamfoundation.org/


      Two big western intel think tanks. One civilian, one designed for the intel community.
      We are briefed on their (and more) studies quite frequently.
      Neither seems concerned about a Pagan hippy flower power puscht. They do, however, note the VAST demographic movement in relation to Islam and reactionary extremism.

    10. @bach

      For you I should have been much more explicit and have written "he will welcome the atheist in heaven!

      So I stand corrected and you now understand (I hope).

  2. Jesuit monks deserve much credit for creating the medieval university.

    Being that the Jesuits are a post-medieval institution, I think not.

  3. Western Civilization, as such a thing existed with fixed dates- from the baptism of Pepin to the fall of the Bastille- was an amalgam of Christian and Roman culture. European culture is essentially Roman culture.

    I have read this elsewhere (I no longer have a direct link, it was in a com-box for another discussion) but it is apt and summarizes it well:

    "From the time of Charlemagne, at least, to the middle of the twentieth century, educated Europeans were saturated in the language, the literature and the culture of ancient Rome. Now, the Romans were a people who hated work, despised commerce and lived by plundering and enslaving their neighbors. To be successful at this (and they were very successful) it was necessary to cultivate certain very real virtues: courage, perseverance, self-control, prudence, discipline, constancy in misfortune, devotion to the community. Patriotism meant hatred of foreigners – indeed, the very word “Foreigner” (Peregrinus) is a late one, in Latin, as Cato observes; before the end of the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BCE), they simply made do with Hostis or Servus – Enemy or Slave.

    Liberty meant sharing in the government, which is to say, in overseeing the sharing of the spoils and the most honorable as well as the most lucrative professions were those of the soldier, the politician and the jurist.

    That such an ethos should be congenial to the so-called “barbarian invaders” is obvious enough; in fact, most of them, like Clovis and Theodoric, were second- and third-generation commanders of barbarian Auxiliaries in the Imperial army. Likewise, it is hardly surprising that it should commend itself to their successors and descendants, the military aristocracies that ruled Europe up until the 20th century. Since all education contains admiration, I find it very odd that, we should teach people to admire Hannibal, Alexander and Caesar as the finest products of the human spirit and Cicero and Seneca as elevated moralists while Sunday after Sunday we are taught the Christian ethic. Something about this uneasy truce had to give."

  4. As for Islam: since the glossators began to reincorporate the Justinian Code in the West, there has been an unconscious pull to create a Western-Islam, whereby Islam is an ideal submission to a perfect law for a perfected peoples. This obviously, does not square with the traditions and practices we find where Islam is practiced; for actual Muslims seem to be practicing a syncretic din of old tribal customs mixed in with a heretical Christian movement: in other words, it is an archaic religion with not the hint of revelation that one finds in Judaism or Christianity.

    But the Western desire for its ideal 'Islam' is pervasive from the Latin Averroses through Orientalism up too today's relativism (which seems to be growing closer and closer to mimicking Al-Ghazali's occasionalism with a total separation of pistis from episteme and an embrace of the unknowable in declaring the gates of ijtihad closed.

    Which is why the old gods and magical thinking are beginning to creep in and replace understanding and knowledge. It isn't Islam per se; it is what "Islam" represents as an ideal that we should worry us going into the future.

  5. The Christian's Bible is a drug store. Its contents remain the same; but the medical practice changes...The world has corrected the Bible. The church never corrects it; and also never fails to drop in at the tail of the procession- and take the credit of the correction. - Mark Twain

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