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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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3 replies to this post
  1. Sometimes I think your blog should be called The Imaginative Catholic. At other times, I am sure of it. It is simply amazing how delicate the light touch of the rapier is delivered with fatal conclusiveness. The biggest problem of metahistorians is the failure to address the issue of conspiracy. Civilization is so brainwashed into thinking that those who make mention of such must be certifiable cup cakes, fit only for the consumption of bedlam’s denizens. Even when the truth be told by participants, they are ignored in the glad rush to please the overlords (shades of Childhood’s End!). But some do read and do research and one of these days, the façade and the charade will run aground on the rocky shores of self-delusion. And if the author of Pilgrim’s regress and the sci/fi trilogy that ends with That Hideous Strength had been able to make the connections, we might find ourselves once more on the verge of that Awakening which shall reach every soul on earth and continue for a thousand generations and a million billion planets. And that is not just wishful thinking. The hidden depths of Holy Scripture defy the greatest minds of all civilizations and all levels of scholarship, making the deepest swimming hole on earth, the Mariannas Trench, look like a droplet of water, but the future is rushing upon us with more terrifying and wonderful events than a tsunami or even a nova of blessings.

  2. I have not read this book, but I have seen the BBC documentary that Ferguson produced. I thought it was well done, and yes, Ferguson does in a way ignore much of Catholicism’s contributions to western history. However, if I am not mistaken, I believe Ferguson is actually an atheist, and not a Protestant. I could be wrong, but I thought I read/heard it somewhere. Anyway, I have read another book by him called “The Ascent of Money”, which I thought was good.

  3. Ferguson is supposed to be atheist!? That sounds odd. The way he writes about religion and how great it is, I was certain he was a protestant himself. In his book he almost seems to imply that the west is declining because religion is.

    Personally I think he simplifies a lot of issues too much. E.g. I believe the values which helped propel the west is routed in a lot more than christianity. One should not underestimate previous pagan traditions, the greecko-roman tradition for public debate and disagreement. I think work ethic is explained better by Malcolm Gladwell. He has quite a detailed analysis of the nature of rice growing in China and Japan, as well as how the restrictions put on Jews that they could not own land, caused important changes in their culture and attitudes toward work.

    Ferguson also seem to mix up strong work ethic with how many hours people work each day. I think you can find plenty of examples in the world were people stay very many hours at work without getting very much done. Actually it is rather odd he paints it this way when earlier in his book he points out how productivity in the 1800s was so much lower in textile mills in India than in say the US. This wasn’t about hours on the job, but about the lack of efficiency when people were at work.

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