Modernity developed only in the West — in Europe and North America. Nowhere else did science and democracy arise; nowhere else was slavery outlawed. The question is, Why? The answer — at least the most important answer to that question — is Christianity.
The intellectual revolution that took place in Greece had no impact on most of its neighboring societies — the Persians were no more interested than were the Egyptians. But Greek philosophy had profound impact among the Jews. Unlike priests of the religions that dominated most of the world, from early days Jewish theologians were struck by the fact that what their scripture said about God was quite compatible with some aspects of Greek conceptions of a supreme god. In addition, since they were committed to reasoning about God, the Jews were quick to embrace the Greek concern for valid reasoning. What emerged was an image of God as not only eternal and immutable but also as conscious, concerned, and rational. The early Christians fully accepted this image of God. They also added and emphasized the proposition that our knowledge of God and of his creation is progressive. Faith in both reason and progress were essential to the rise of the West.
Hellenism and Judaism
At present there is bitter and misguided debate over whether or not Greek thought influenced Jewish theology. On one side are obvious examples of an extensive intermingling of the two traditions. On the other side are a host of Jewish scholars who claim that the rabbis who produced the Talmud had very little knowledge of Greek philosophy and despised it: "Cursed be the man who would breed swine and cursed be the man who would teach his son Greek wisdom."
Whatever the Talmudic rabbis did or didn't know about Greek philosophy seems irrelevant. Their writings did not begin until the third century AD, and it is certain that in earlier times there was extensive Hellenic influence on Jewish life and theology. As the twentieth-century historian Morton Smith put it, "The Hellenization extended even to the basic structure of Rabbinic thought." It was this Hellenized Judaism that influenced early Christian theologians; they had virtually no contact with the Talmudic rabbis, nor any interest in their teachings.
It is important to realize that as early as 200 BC, most Jews lived not in Palestine but in Roman cities — especially the cities dominated by Greek culture. These communities are known as the Jewish Diaspora (literally: dispersion), and they were home to at least six million Jews, compared with only a million Jews still living in Palestine. (Several million more Jews lived to the east of Palestine, including a substantial community in Babylon, but little record of them survives and they played little or no role in the rise of the West.) The majority of Jews living in the Hellenized western cities were quite assimilated. Intermarriage with Gentiles was widespread. Moreover, the Diasporan Jews read, wrote, spoke, thought, and worshiped in Greek. Of inscriptions found in the Jewish catacombs in Rome, fewer than 2 percent are in Hebrew or Aramaic, while 74 percent are in Greek and the remainder in Latin. Most of the Diasporan Jews had Greek names; many of them, Israeli scholar Victor Tcherikover noted, "did not even hesitate to [adopt] names derived from those of Greek deities, such as Apollonius." As early as the third century BC the religious services held in Diasporan synagogues were conducted in Greek, and so few Diasporan Jews could read Hebrew that it was necessary to translate the Torah into Greek — the Septuagint.
The Hellenization of the Jews was not limited to the Diaspora. Beginning with Alexander the Great's conquest of the Middle East, Palestine came under the control of Ptolemaic (Greek) Egypt. This soon led to the founding of twenty-nine Greek cities in Palestine — some of them in Galilee, the two largest of these being Tiberius (on the Sea of Galilee) and Sepphoris, which was only about four miles from Nazareth. By early in the second century BC, Jerusalem was so transformed into a Greek city that it was known as Antioch-at-Jerusalem. According to the eminent scholar-theologian Sir Henry Chadwick, "Greek influence reached its height under King Herod (73-04 BC) . . . who built a Greek theatre, amphitheatre, and hippodrome in or near Jerusalem."
In these highly Hellenized social settings it was inevitable that Greek philosophy would influence religious perspectives. As Chadwick put it: "As early as Philo, we see that the current intellectual coin of the more literate classes of society is this blend of Stoic ethics with Platonic metaphysics and some Aristotelian logic. Like the form of Greek spoken in the hellenistic world . . . Philo simply takes it for granted." Thus, the most revered and influential Jewish leader and writer of the era, Philo of Alexandria (20 BC-AD 50), attempted to interpret the law "through the mirror of Greek philosophy," and he described God in ways that Plato would have found familiar: "the perfectly pure unsullied Mind of the universe, transcending virtue, transcending knowledge, transcending good itself and the beautiful itself." According to scholar Erwin R. Goodenough, Philo "read Plato in terms of Moses, and Moses in terms of Plato, to the point he was convinced that each said essentially the same things."
But Philo was wrong. Although it is true that the Jewish conception of God is consistent with some aspects of the supreme God proposed by Plato, Aristotle, and the other Greek philosophers, the Jewish God is different in important ways. Like Plato and Aristotle's God, Yahweh is believed to be perfect, eternal, and immutable. But he is no remote ideal. He is the loving Creator who is intensely conscious of humankind. He sees and hears; he communicates; he intervenes. And it was the fully developed Jewish conception of God, not the remote and inert God of the Greeks or even the God of Philo, that shaped Christian theology and underlay the rise of the West.
Early Christianity and Greek Philosophy
From the start, the early Christian fathers were familiar with Greek philosophy — Paul correctly quoted the Stoic Greek poet Aratus (ca. 315-240 BC) in his impromptu sermon to local philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens (Acts 17:28). In fact, some early and influential Christian theologians had been trained as philosophers before they converted to Christianity. And as their conversions testified, the many points of agreement between the philosophers and Christian theology were widely acknowledged. Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-ca. 215), who probably was born in Athens and who studied with several philosophical masters before converting, wrote:
Before the advent of the Lord, philosophy was necessary to the Greeks for righteousness . . . being a kind of preparatory training. . . . Perchance, too, philosophy was given to the Greeks directly and primarily, till the Lord should call the Greeks. For this was a schoolmaster to bring "the Hellenic mind," as the law, the Hebrews, "to Christ." Philosophy, therefore, was a preparation, paving the way for him who is perfected in Christ.
Perhaps no early church father held Greek philosophy in higher regard than did Justin Martyr (ca. 100-165). Justin was born into a Greek-speaking pagan family in Samaria, was formally trained in philosophy, and continued to wear his philosopher's cloak even after his conversion to Christianity in about 130. Eventually he opened a school in Rome where two future church fathers, Irenaeus and Tatian, may have been his students. Justin was given the surname "Martyr" for having been flogged and beheaded during an outbreak of anti-Christian persecution during the reign of Marcus Aurelius.
Justin held that "the gospel and the best elements in Plato and the Stoics are almost identical ways of apprehending the same truth." One reason for this close correspondence, according to Justin, was that the Greeks depended immensely on Moses — a view ratified by Philo as well as by Neoplatonist contemporaries of Justin, including Plotinus, who asked, "What is Plato, but Moses in Attic Greek?" In this sense, Justin identified the Jewish prophets and Greek philosophers as "Christians before Christ." Of course, he and other early Christian thinkers were wrong about the early Greeks having learned from Moses, as Saint Augustine wryly admitted in his City of God. But that doesn't alter the fact of extensive similarities between Christianity and Platonism.
Justin gave a second reason for the great similarity between Christian theology and Greek philosophy: both rested on the divine gift of reason, which, he said, "has sown the seeds of truth in all men as beings created in God's image." And since God's greatest gift to humanity was the power to reason, Christian revelation must be entirely compatible with "the highest Reason." Consequently, Justin viewed Jesus as a philosopher as well as the son of God, as the personification of "right reason."
To Justin, then, Plato was correct when he conceived of God as outside the universe, timeless, and immutable, and when he said that humans possessed free will. But Justin, Clement, and other early Christian writers also pointed out many shortcomings in Greek philosophy. For example, they denied Greek claims that God was remote and impersonal, that souls took up life in a new body, and that lesser gods existed. And where Greek philosophy and Christianity disagreed, according to Justin, the latter was authoritative, for philosophy was merely human, whereas Christianity was divine — revelation was the ultimate basis of truth.
One problem early Christian writers identified was that none of the numerous divinities in the Greek pantheon was adequate to serve as a conscious creator of a lawful universe, not even Zeus. Like humans, the Greek gods were subject to the inexorable workings of the natural cycles of all things. Some Greek scholars, including Aristotle, did posit a god of infinite scope having charge of the universe, but they conceived of this god as essentially an impersonal essence, much like the Chinese Tao. Such a god lent a certain spiritual aura to a cyclical universe and its ideal, abstract properties, but being an essence, "God" did nothing and never had.
Even when Plato posited a demiurge — an inferior god who served as creator of the world, the supreme God being too remote and spiritual for such an enterprise — this creator paled in contrast with an omnipotent God who made the universe out of nothing. Moreover, for Plato the universe had been created in accord not with firm operating principles but with ideals. These primarily consisted of ideal shapes. Thus the universe must be a sphere because that is the symmetrical and perfect shape, and heavenly bodies must rotate in a circle because that is the motion that is most perfect. As a priori assumptions, Platonic idealism long impeded discovery: many centuries later, Copernicus's unshakable belief in ideal shapes prevented him from entertaining the thought that planetary orbits might be elliptical, not circular.
A second problem in Greek philosophy, according to early Christian writers, related to the Greek conception of the universe as not only eternal and uncreated but also locked into endless cycles of progress and decay. In On the Heavens, Aristotle noted that "the same ideas recur to men not once or twice but over and over again," and in his Politics he pointed out that everything has "been invented several times over in the course of ages, or rather times without number." Since he was living in a Golden Age, he concluded, the levels of technology of his time were at the maximum attainable level, precluding further progress. As for inventions, so too for individuals — the same persons would be born again and again as the blind cycles of the universe rolled along. According to Chrysippus in his now-lost On the Cosmos, the Stoics taught that the "difference between former and actual existences of the same people will be only extrinsic and accidental; such differences do not produce another man as contrasted with his counterpart from a previous world-age." As for the universe itself, Parmenides held that all perceptions of change are illusions, for the universe is in a static state of perfection, "uncreated and indestructible; for it is complete, immovable, and without end." Other influential Greeks, such as the Ionians, taught that although the universe is infinite and eternal, it also is subject to endless cycles of succession. Although Plato saw things a bit differently, he too firmly believed in cycles, that eternal laws caused each Golden Age to be followed by chaos and collapse.
Finally, the early Christians saw that the Greeks insisted on turning the cosmos, and inanimate objects more generally, into living things. Plato taught that the demiurge had created the cosmos as "a single visible living creature." Hence the world had a soul, and although "solitary," it was "able by reason of its excellence to bear itself company, needing no other acquaintance or friend but sufficient to itself." The problem with transforming inanimate objects into living creatures capable of aims, emotions, and desires was that it short-circuited the search for physical theories. The causes of the motion of objects, for example, were ascribed to motives, not to natural forces. According to Aristotle, celestial bodies moved in circles because of their affection for this action, and objects fell to the ground "because of their innate love for the centre of the world."
For these reasons, the early Christian fathers did not fully embrace Greek philosophy. They were content to demonstrate where it supported Christian doctrines and, where there was disagreement, to show how much more rational and satisfying were the Christian views. Thus the primary effect of Greek philosophy on Christianity had far less to do with doctrines per se than with the commitment of even the earliest Christian theologians to reason and logic.
The Rational Creator of the Cosmos
Justin Martyr was not alone in stressing the authority of reason. That has been the most fundamental assumption of influential Christian theologians from earliest times. From the very start the church fathers were forced to reason out the implications of Jesus's teachings, which Jesus did not leave as written scripture. The precedent for a theology of deduction and inference began with Paul: "For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophesy is imperfect."
As Tertullian (ca. 160-ca. 225) put it, "Reason is a thing of God, inasmuch as there is nothing which God the Maker of all has not provided, disposed, ordained by reason — nothing which he has not willed should be handled and understood by reason." This was echoed in The Recognitions, which tradition attributed to Clement of Rome: "Do not think that we say that these things are only to be received by faith, but also that they are to be asserted by reason. For indeed it is not safe to commit these things to bare faith without reason, since assuredly truth cannot be without reason."
Hence the immensely influential Saint Augustine (354-430) merely expressed the prevailing wisdom when he held that reason was indispensable to faith: "Heaven forbid that God should hate in us that by which he made us superior to the animals! Heaven forbid that we should believe in such a way as not to accept or seek reasons, since we could not even believe if we did not possess rational souls." Augustine added that although it was necessary "for faith to precede reason in certain matters of great moment that cannot yet be grasped, surely the very small portion of reason that persuades us of this must precede faith."
Augustine devoted all of book 8 in his City of God to explicating and assessing the bonds between Greek philosophy and Christianity, placing the primary emphasis on reason as a basis of truth. He noted that Plato "perfected philosophy" by using reason to prove the existence of God and to deduce many of his aspects from the many observations of order in the universe — such as the predictable movements of the heavenly bodies, the succession of the seasons, and the rise and fall of the tides.
But Augustine recognized something else inherent in Plato's commitment to reason: Socrates had surpassed his predecessors, Plato had advanced knowledge beyond Socrates, and Christianity was far advanced beyond all the Greeks — clearly philosophy was progressive. Indeed, some Greek philosophers were inclined to think that history was itself a progressive phenomenon. Augustine shared that view, stressing that the general trajectory of history is progressive as knowledge accumulates and technology improves. Scholars have identified this belief as the idea of progress.
By this I do not mean that human progress is inevitable, as Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716) may have believed, but merely that, at least in the West, there has been a progressive trend, especially in the sphere of technology, and in the widespread agreement that things can be and ought to be made better. Because humans lead their lives "under the spell of ideas," the idea of progress has marked the path to modernity.
Faith in Progress
A remarkable amount of nonsense has been taught about the idea of progress. The prolific Cambridge professor J. B. Bury's 1920 book The Idea of Progress dominated opinion for several generations with the message that belief in progress is a recent development, having originated during the eighteenth-century era sometimes called the Enlightenment. This claim is as mistaken as the notion that science developed despite the barriers religion erected. The truth is that science arose only because the doctrine of the rational creator of a rational universe made scientific inquiry plausible. Similarly, the idea of progress was inherent in Jewish conceptions of history and was central to Christian thought from very early days.
The Jews believed that history was progressing toward a golden Messianic Age, when, in the words of the distinguished historian Marjorie Reeves, "a Holy People was expected to reign in Palestine in an era of peace, justice, and plenty, in which the earth would flower in unheard of abundance. . . . The Messianic age is conceived as within history, not beyond it." Early Christianity fully incorporated Jewish millenarianism and hence a progressive view of history. There was another aspect to Christian faith in progress as well: almost without exception, Christian theologians have assumed that the application of reason can yield an increasingly more accurate understanding of God's will.
Augustine noted that there were "certain matters pertaining to the doctrine of salvation that we cannot yet grasp" — but "one day," he added, "we shall be able to do so." Progress in general was inevitable as well, he supposed. Augustine wrote: "Has not the genius of man invented and applied countless astonishing arts, partly the result of necessity, partly the result of exuberant invention, so that this vigour of mind . . . betokens an inexhaustible wealth in the nature which can invent, learn, or employ such arts. What wonderful — one might say stupefying — advances has human industry made in the arts of weaving and building, of agriculture and navigation!" He likewise celebrated the "skill [that] has been attained in measures and numbers! With what sagacity have the movements and connections of the stars been discovered!" Augustine concluded that all of these advances resulted from the "unspeakable boon" that God conferred on his creation — a "rational nature."
Many other Christian thinkers echoed Augustine's optimism about progress. In the thirteenth century Gilbert de Tournai wrote, "Never will we find truth if we content ourselves with what is already known. . . . Those things that have been written before us are not laws but guides. The truth is open to all, for it is not yet totally possessed." In 1306 Fra Giordano preached in Florence: "Not all the arts have been found; we shall never see an end to finding them. Every day one could discover a new art." But the most notable statement came from Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) in the Summa Theologica, which stands as a monument to the theology of reason and set the standard for all subsequent Christian theologians. Because humans could not see into the very essence of things, Aquinas argued, they must reason their way to knowledge, step by step — using the tools of philosophy, especially the principles of logic, to construct theology.
For Augustine, Aquinas, and the others, such views reflected the fundamental Christian premise that God's revelations are always limited to the capacity of humans at that time to comprehend. In the fourth century Saint John Chrysostom stated that even the seraphim do not see God as he is. Instead, they see "a condescension accommodated to their nature. What is this condescension? It is when God appears and makes himself known, not as he is, but in the way one incapable of beholding him is able to look upon him. In this way God reveals himself proportionately to the weakness of those who behold him."
In addition, with all these thinkers we see the Christian belief in man's rational nature — what Augustine called that "unspeakable boon" — and also in God himself as the epitome of reason.48 Had they seen God as an inexplicable essence, as had the Greek philosophers, the very idea of rational theology — and, more broadly, of progress itself — would have been unthinkable.
The twentieth-century classical scholar Moses I. Finley was quite aware that the European embrace of progress was "unique in human history." But he seems not to have realized that the idea of progress is profoundly Christian. The philosopher John Macmurray put it best when he said, "That we think of progress at all shows the extent of the influence of Christianity upon us."
The West and the Rest
To this discussion a qualification must be added: faith in progress was fundamental to western Christianity. As for Orthodox Christianity in the Byzantine East, it prohibited both clocks and pipe organs from its churches.
Nor was it only the Orthodox Church that did not embrace the idea of progress. By looking at other major traditions from the East, we can appreciate the uniqueness of the Western approach.
Consider life under Islam, which arose as a religion and cultural force several centuries after Christianity did. In 1485 Bayezid II, sultan of the Ottoman Empire and caliph of Islam, outlawed the printing press. That ban remained in effect throughout the Muslim world for at least the next three centuries.
The sultan's action represented far more than the power of tyrants. It reflected Muslim commitment to the idea of decline in contrast to the idea of progress. In addition to the Qur'an, Muslims give great authority to a collection of writings known as Hadith. These consist of sayings attributed to Muhammad and accounts of his actions. In the first Hadith Muhammad is quoted as saying: "Time has come full circle back to where it was on the day when first the heavens and earth were created." The second Hadith quotes the prophet thus: "The best generation is my generation, then the ones who follow and then those who follow them." The Palestinian historian Tarif Khalidi interpreted these passages — which were "both frequently cited and commented upon" by Muslim scholars — to "suggest a universe running down, an imminent end to man and all his works." They also imply the superior virtue of the past. In this context, prohibiting the printing press was not surprising, for books written by hand — the standard from the past — would seem inherently better.
Even more important, Islam holds that the universe is inherently irrational — that there is no cause and effect — because everything happens as the direct result of Allah's will at that particular time. Anything is possible. Attempts at science, then, are not only foolish but also blasphemous, in that they imply limits to Allah's power and authority. Therefore, Muslim scholars study law (what does Allah require?), not science.
But what of the "Golden Era" of Muslim science and learning that flourished while Europe languished in the "Dark Ages"? Chapter 4 makes it clear that the "Dark Ages" are a myth. The "Golden Era" of Islamic science and learning is too. Some Muslim-occupied societies gave the appearance of sophistication only because of the culture sustained by their subject peoples — Jews and various brands of Christianity (see chapter 14).
Islam's conception of the universe and its resulting opposition to reason, science, and philosophical inquiry have had a profound impact down to the present day. Muslim societies today are manifestly backward in comparison with those of the West. As Robert Reilly points out in The Closing of the Muslim Mind, "The Arab world stands near the bottom of every measure of human development; . . . scientific inquiry is nearly moribund in the Islamic world; . . . Spain translates more books in a single year than the entire Arab world has in the past thousand years; . . . some people in Saudi Arabia still refuse to believe man has been to the moon; and . . . some Muslim media present natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina as God's direct retribution."
It is also useful to look at China. Many historians claim that, until modern times, almost every significant invention was first made in China. If so, then it also must be admitted that nearly every one of these Chinese inventions was either disregarded or very little exploited; some even were prohibited. As Jean Gimpel, the French historian of medieval inventions, put it: "it is a feature of Chinese technology that its great inventions . . . never played a major evolutionary role in Chinese history.
Consider the case of gunpowder. Whether gunpowder was independently invented in Europe or imported from China is irrelevant. It is well known that the Chinese had gunpowder by the thirteenth century and even cast a few cannons. But when Western voyagers reached China in the sixteenth century the Chinese lacked both artillery and firearms, whereas the Europeans had an abundance of both. The Chinese also invented a mechanical clock, but the court Mandarins soon ordered all of them destroyed. As a result, when Westerners arrived, nobody in China really knew what time it was.
The reason so many innovations and inventions were abandoned or even outlawed in China had to do with Confucian opposition to change on grounds that the past was greatly superior. The twelfth-century Mandarin Li Yen-chang captured this viewpoint when he said, "If scholars are made to concentrate their attention solely on the classics and are prevented from slipping into study of the vulgar practices of later generations, then the empire will be fortunate indeed!"
Nothing sums up the importance of the idea of progress better than the story of the great Chinese admiral Zheng He (also Cheng Ho). In 1405 Zheng He commanded a large Chinese fleet that sailed across the Indian Ocean and reached the coast of East Africa. His purpose was to display the power of China and to collect exotica — especially unusual animals — for the imperial court. The voyage was entirely successful, making its way to and from Africa without major mishaps and bringing back a cargo of exotic goods and strange animals, including several giraffes. In all, Zheng He led seven of these voyages, each of them successfully completed, the last one in 1433 (during which he may have died and been buried at sea). It is believed that Zheng He's Chinese fleet included several hundred ships and that the major ships dwarfed anything being sailed in the West at this time.
The Chinese flotilla must have awed the occupants of the Indian and African ports it visited, and had the Chinese been so inclined, they could easily have imposed their rule over coastal areas all along their route, just as Westerners were soon to do following Vasco da Gama's Portuguese expedition that reached India in 1498. Moreover, had Chinese voyaging continued, they might well have sailed around Africa to Europe or across the Pacific to the "New World."
But after 1433 the voyages ceased. What happened?
The death of Zheng He would not have been enough to halt the voyages completely, given the obvious successes of the previous expeditions and the opportunities at hand. Instead, a decree came down from the emperor forbidding the construction of any oceangoing ships. The emperor also had Zheng He's fleet dragged ashore and stripped of useful timbers; the remains were allowed to rot. Even the plans for such ships were destroyed, and the Chinese attempted to erase all records of Zheng He's voyages. Soon it was a capital offense to build a seagoing ship (as opposed to junks for sailing along the coast and on the inland waterways). For good measure, all the exotic animals Zheng He had brought back to the imperial zoo were killed.
Why? The court Mandarins believed that there was nothing in the outer world of value to China and that any contacts were potentially unsettling to the Confucian social order. Progress be damned.
Contrast this with the medieval West's eager adoption of technologies that had been invented elsewhere. As Samuel Lilley wrote in his history of technological progress, "The European Middle Ages collected innovations from all over the world, especially from China, and built them into a new unity which formed the basis of our modern civilization."
These counterexamples to the history of the West expose the weakness of the widely accepted claim that technological progress is pretty much an inevitable product of the times — that, for example, when conditions were right the incandescent bulb and the phonograph would have been invented whether or not Thomas Edison ever existed. Inventions don't just happen. Someone has to bring them about, and the likelihood that anyone will attempt to do so is influenced by the extent to which they believe that inventions are possible — that is, the extent to which the culture accepts the idea of progress.
Perhaps of even greater significance is that inventions not only must be made but also must be sufficiently valued to be used. That is not inevitable either. What if the phonograph had been outlawed, as the printing press was in the Ottoman Empire? What if the state had declared a monopoly on the incandescent lightbulb and destroyed all privately produced bulbs, as the Chinese did with iron production in the eleventh century?
The Road to Modernity
Throughout the remainder of the book, we shall see how the Christian conception of God as the rational creator of a comprehensible universe, who therefore expects that humans will become increasingly sophisticated and informed, continually prodded the West along the road to modernity.