Yet, beyond the question of why imperial unity in the west failed while it was maintained in China, Scheidel asks a question that may well be the real motivation behind such study: “How the presence or absence of a near-monopolistic super-state shaped the preconditions for modern economic growth and levels of well-being?”
In other words, was political division good for material prosperity? Would we enjoy today such “prosperity” had it not been for the West’s disunity (if, for example, Justinian had managed to maintain and expand his reconquest)?
Weber, Benedict, and their followers would of course see in culture–Protestantism in this instance–the necessary condition for our modern world. But could Protestantism have occured had there been a single, unified imperial government? Would such a government have prevented the excesses of Roman Catholicism, therefore the Reformation, and thus prevented the rise of material prosperity as an ideology? Perhaps of course both elements worked together, and the absence of one element would have made the outcome that we know impossible. One thing is certain, the material “prosperity” that is the central element of our world today is an accident of history, the result of certain cultural, political and other patterns that made this prosperity possible, but in no wise predetermined it. It is something that did not have to occur as it did; and certainly not at the cost of our very selves.