Deconstructing David Brooks

"The Holy Capitalists" is the headline of a David Brooks column from December 15, 2005.

"Pointing to faith to explain success," is the subhead.

In it, David Brooks took on the history of Western Civilization and turned it inside out.

The good thing is that history sits a great deal more still than current events do. We can grab hold of the bits and pieces of the story and see that neo-con punditry is more than a matter of opinions. It's a technique of using a handful of false facts that the reader or listener is unlikely to have a chance to look up while the story is being read or heard. It frequently conflates separate ideas that don't exactly belong together. Then it spins a theory that fits the false facts and the confusion of the mismatched concepts. They don't fit reality, but never mind, there's no one around to point out what reality is.

The column says it is based on a book, The Victory of Reason, by Rodney Stark.

I have not read the book. I am not counter-reviewing the book or making any statements about the book. I am looking at what David Brooks has said and what he has put out in the world from his pulpit of print at The New York Times, the nation's leading newspaper.

The thesis of the column is that dogmatic religion – specifically medieval Catholicism -- promoted learning and capitalism and was the root of all modern progress. "Religion didn't stifle economic and scientific ideas – it nurtured them."

"Recent research," he claims, "has reversed earlier prejudices about the so-called Dark Ages." This prejudice against the era is, I suppose, like the liberal bias in the media.

This discussion references a vast sweep of history, from the age of Greece and Rome, through the fall, then up through the Renaissance toward modern times. So first some dates.

The Western Roman Empire became Christian in 324.

It fell apart 175 years later. Edward Gibbons, in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire blamed the rise of the barbarians and rise of Christianity.

The Dark Ages ran from 500-1000.

They are encompassed by the Middle Ages which ran from 500 to 1500. The Middle Ages are divided into Early (500-1000), High (to 1300), and Late (to 1500).

The Renaissance was first named in print by Giorgio Vasari in 1550. He dated it as beginning in the middle 1300s. So it overlaps with the Middle Ages.

All of these are rough designations that scholars and historians use to group a collection of impulses and events. They are not distinctly different the way that elements in the periodic table are definitely not each other.

Back to Mr. Brooks.

He says: "... the more we learn, the more we realize that most of the progress we link to the Renaissance or later years actually happened during the Middle Ages."

Then he gives an example: "Roughly a hundred years before Copernicus, Jean Buridan (circa 1300-1358) wrote that the Earth is an orb rotating on an axis. Buridan, a rector of the University of Paris, was succeeded by Nicole d'Oresme (1323-1382), who explained why the rotation of the Earth doesn't produce wind."

But Buridan put forth his scientific ideas around 1340 – within minutes of the Renaissance -- and d'Orseme published mostly in the 1370s – definitely within the Renaissance years.

Also, how much does it say that after 830 years of complete and utter scientific stagnation, a few people began to think again and put forth ideas that were brought to fruition in the ensuing 200 hundred years?

Third, and most important, it does nothing to refute the fact that the Church tried to suppress the works of Copernicus and Galileo and made it a crime to say the earth moved around the sun.

Brooks next cites "a vast array of technologies: the compass, the clock, the round-bottom boat, wagons with brakes and front axles, water wheels, eyeglasses, and so on ..." as the inventions of Catholic monasteries in the Dark or Middle Ages.

It is true that eyeglasses were invented sometime during the 1200s. As for the rest:

The first use of compasses was in 8th Century China and their first recorded use for navigation on a ship was in the 15th Century, also in China.

Water clocks date back to 1500 BC.

The next advance, clocks using weights seem to have come from Muslim engineers in Spain, around the Eleventh Century and then began to appear in Italy in the early Fourteenth Century, as the Middle Ages were giving way to the Renaissance.

Round bottom boats were everywhere in the ancient world. Take a look at Phoenician boats from 1500 BC.

Brakes and front axles were in use on Romans wagons. They also had pivoting front wheels and suspension systems and were not equaled until well after the Middle Ages.

The first reference to a water wheel is from about 4000BC.

Brooks wants to claim that the Church brought us capitalism. He says "Catholic monasteries emerged as capitalist enterprises, serving not only as manufacturing and trading centers, but also as investment houses. ... These innovations and discoveries, Stark argues, were not made by the newly secular, but by people who had a distinctly Christian sense of the sacred."

He specifically cites Albertus Magnus as a pre-Adam Smith prophet of capitalism, firmly based in the Middle Ages. By the calendar, he is, but his personal history is a quintessential renaissance history.

Renaissance means rebirth. At the time, and by historians ever since, the seed of that rebirth was considered to be the rediscovery of Greek and Roman classics. Most particularly, of the works of Aristotle.

Why did that cause a rebirth? The Greeks and the Romans had so much that virtually disappeared in the Dark Ages: general literacy, secular drama, science, history, roads, aqueducts, much engineering, hygiene, sophisticated legal systems. With the end of the Roman Empire – that den of secular sin -- people stopped bathing for 1000 years.

The Greeks and the Romans did business. They had private property. They had industries. They invested. They had banks, credit, and trade.

Albertus Magnus was steeped in Aristotle. This is meant to take nothing away from his brilliance and his vast output. But it is to say that even though he wrote in the early Thirteenth Century his output was a renaissance event, since it came from the rediscovery of pre-Christian thinking. Indeed, both Aristotle and Plato had theories of currency and Aristotle wrote on economics.

Brooks concludes: "Ideas and culture drive civilizations." True and unarguable.

Then he says: "The Catholic Church nurtured one of the most impressive economic takeoffs in human history."

But that is arguable. And unsupported by anything in Brooks' article. For five hundred years, starting with the people who were there, and moving forward to almost everyone -- except Rodney Stark and David Brooks -- credits the economic takeoff out of the Middle Ages with the Renaissance and the Reformation, the first being the rediscovery of the pagans, the second being the break toward Protestantism.

It is the kind gosh-gee whizbang! thinking that neo-cons use to convince themselves that the seeds of the eight boom years of the Clinton administration were actually sown under Bush I, and then that Clinton is to blame for Bush II's recession and the stagnant overall economy in which corporate profits increase. It makes them think that we'll march into Iraq to huzzahs and Ahmad Chalabi will be General DeGaulle and unite the new born nation as a democracy.

Although Books is a columnist, writing "opinion," that doesn't mean that the false facts that he cites should go unanswered. Frankly, he deserves to have a column side-by-side with his, each time he writes, debunking him line by line.