Niall Ferguson CivilizationCivilization: The West and the Rest, Niall Ferguson

‘The West’, then, is much more than just a geographical expression. It is a set of norms, behaviours and institutions with borders that are blurred in the extreme.—Niall Ferguson, Civilization, Chapter 1.

Before reading Civilization by Niall Ferguson, I’d never heard of the man. Well, more likely, I’d heard his name, but I’d not registered its importance. After starting the book and looking him up, I was rather stunned by how much he’s accomplished, and how I missed knowing about him until now.

A 49-year old history professor and political commentator, holding positions at Harvard, Stanford, and Oxford, Ferguson seems to possess an opinion on or about nearly every subject under the sun. He’s written a number of books and has produced a number of DVDs.

In Civilization: The West and the Rest, Ferguson attempts to explain why the West rose so rapidly between 1400 and 1945. He’s equally concerned with why Islam declined so precipitously during the same time, and, finally, why China has re-emerged so powerfully over the last two decades. 

Why did the West emerge?

The immortal English lexicographer Samuel Johnson rejected all such contingent explanations for Western ascendancy. In his History of Rasselas: Prince of Abissinia, published in 1759, he has Rasselas ask: “By what means…are the Europeans thus powerful? or why, since they can so easily visit Asia and Africa for trade or conquest, cannot the Asiaticks and Africans invade their coasts, plant colonies in their ports, and give laws to their natural princes? The same wind that carries them back would bring us thither.” To which the philosopher Imlac replies: “They are more powerful, Sir, than we, because they are wiser; knowledge will always predominate over ignorance, as man governs the other animals. But why their knowledge is more than ours, I know not what reason can be given, but the unsearchable will of the Supreme Being.” Knowledge is indeed power if it provides superior ways of sailing ships, digging up minerals, firing guns and curing sickness. But is it in fact the case that Europeans were more knowledgeable than other people? Perhaps by 1759 they were; scientific innovation for around two and a half centuries after 1650 was almost exclusively Western in origin. But in 1500? As we shall see, Chinese technology, Indian mathematics and Arab astronomy had been far ahead for centuries.—Niall Ferguson, Civilization, Chapter 1.

Rather taken with Apple and Steve Jobs, Ferguson more often than not compares history and civilization to operating systems and “six killer apps”: competition; science; property rights; medicine; consumption; and work ethic.

In Ferguson’s view, The Roman Republic and Empire served as Western Civilization 1.0 and, currently, we seem to be at the end of Western Civlization 2.0.

Many common historical prejudices remain in Ferguson’s history of things. Despite his own evidence and his bending over backwards to nuance certain criticisms (charming, in its own way), he proclaims the Medievals backward and superstitious, and he has almost no use for Catholicism. Christianity came into its own only with the Protestant Reformation.

Sadly, these ridiculous biases mar what could have (and should have) been a much more profound book.

Let me make clear three things.

First, this is a serious take on history, and it needs to be read by every reader of The Imaginative Conservative. Indeed, any educated person should read this book. As Ferguson well knows, he’s addressing St. Augustine, Khaldun, Gibbons, de Tocqueville, Spengler, Durant, Toynbee, Braudel, Butterfield, and Dawson as fellow meta-historians. Though clever in his selection of facts and stories, Ferguson writes not to entertain but to educate and provoke thought. Should Ferguson choose a more academic and less public path, he will be read by scholars a hundred years from now. As it is now, Civilization will appear too much like a flash in the pan in our deluge of popular culture and consumption of ideas. Still, this book should stand out. It’s far better than the various similar works by Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukiyama, and Paul Kennedy.

Second, while he might not always be correct in his interpretation of events, as noted above, he can write with the best of the best. An excellent writer, Ferguson has the power to mesmerize his reader, leading one to almost any conclusion. To be sure, a moment of reflection disabuses the reader of the author’s arguments, but it does take a forced moment of reflection, so powerful is Ferguson’s writing.

Sometimes, he’s even wrong in his facts. For example, when talking about the contemporary of Erasmus and Sir Thomas More, he refers to “Matthew Tyndale.” He also presents certain characters—such as the Chinese explorer, Cheng Ho; the Polish king, Jan III Sobieski; and Frederick the Great—with loving care, each a delight to the reader.

Third and finally, Ferguson’s argumentation verges on so much eclecticity (I’m making up a word, here), that one would label him only with error. My guess is that most who know and read Ferguson consider him somewhere on the Right, especially with his connections to the Hoover Institute and the Mont Pelerin Society. But, he espouses no ideology throughout his book. This turns out to be one of the most attractive features of his writing. If someone forced me to label him, however, I would have to fall back on some airy notion of “Edwardian soft imperialist.”

While Fergus accepts that Americans, not Brits, now run the Anglo-American Empire, he seems to see the obligations as the same. Not surprisingly, he offers much praise for Winston Churchill.

While reading Civilization, the somewhat wacky, upper-middle class banker from Disney’s 1964 version of Mary Poppins sprang to my mind a number of times.

It’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910! King Edward’s on the throne, it’s the age of men! I’m the lord of my castle, the sovereign, the liege! I treat my subjects, servants, children, wife with a firm but gentle hand, noblesse oblige.—Mr. Banks, Mary Poppins (Disney, 1964)

Ferguson I fear, wishes it so.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Reviewer’s personal note:

I’ve just returned from a Fund for American Studies/Liberty Fund colloquium, discussing this book. While I think most of the ideas I presented above are my own, I would hate to ignore the vitality and dynamism of the conversation in Arlington, Virginia (November 1-3, 2013), especially with such fine minds as Michelle Le, Andy Morriss, Mark Yellin, and Lauren Goldberg in the room!

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