552 of 598 people found the following review helpful
on March 1, 2011
While I suspect that David Starkey would violently object the two current giants of television history in the UK in terms of providing a worldview are the left leaning Simon Schama and the combative neo conservative Niall Ferguson. Their dust up at last years Hay Literary festival in Wales was a colourful sparring session between two big intellects firing verbal potshots at each other and a joy to behold. Schama concentrated on providing a robust defense of Barack Obama while Ferguson spent much of his allotted time dissing the President's now famous speech delivered in Cairo in 2009. Indeed he has described it as "touchy feely nonsense" and has in recent weeks sent out lurid warnings about Obama's failure to anticipate the demise of Mubarak and to come to terms with what Ferguson sees as the potential rise of the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt and the possible "restoration of the caliphate and the strict application of Sharia". Strong stuff, but Ferguson does like a good row. (see his feud with the nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman)
These themes above are the heart of this new book "Civilization: The West and the Rest" since Ferguson comes from the controversial standpoint that Western dominance has on the whole been a progressive force and that on the basis of a cost benefit analysis the good outweighs the bad (it is a constant theme in all his books). He recently argued that "the rulers of western Africa prior to the European empires were not running some kind of scout camp. They were engaged in the slave trade. They showed zero sign of developing the country's economic resources....and the counterfactual idea that somehow the indigenous rulers would have been more successful in economic development doesn't have any credibility at all." This is a bold, confrontational, contentious and provocative thesis and his new book reinforces these arguments postulating that there were six killer "apps" which propelled the West to a position of predominance. These were competition, science, property, modern science, consumption and work ethic all with a dedicated chapter in the book.
Space precludes a detailed debate on each theme but for example he contrasts how China was the world's most advanced civilization in the 15th century but stagnated and was overtaken by Dutch mercantilism and the rise of capitalism employing his six "skills". He will equally generate a furious response to the view that scientific development was "by any scientific measure, wholly European". Other ideas that the spread of the market was as influential in the rise of the West as the role of force tends to neglect that the often were inseparable and rather evil twins. Just look at the bloody history of German East Africa prior to the First World War, But even more close to home Ferguson has himself previously recognized in another part of his prodigious output that "When imperial authority was challenged - in India in 1857, in Jamaica in 1831 and 1865, in South Africa in 1899 - the British response was brutal".
That said all Ferguson books, whether you love or hate his arguments, are immensely readable and his historical sweep is vast. There is little doubt that he relishes the big strategic themes and his tone is one of super confidence and often compulsively provocative not least in his view that the West must relearn some of its old tricks to maintain its position. His ability however to take a small example and write it large often leads to accusations of research selectivity and the fact that the successful Chinese business city Wenzou also has 1,400 churches is used to tie some of his "apps" together in what is a very unconvincing argument. The title for this narrative is oddly lifted from another very recent book by the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton albeit the latters theme was Islamic terrorism. Similarly other historians such as Ian Morris, Eric Ringmar and John A Hall have covered these issues with much more subtlety and nuance. Yet Ferguson's strengths are his readability, populism and his headlong assault on some sacred cows. His weaknesses are the employment of the sweeping generalization and a strong streak of cultural arrogance. You can clap loudly or boo vehemently at Niall Ferguson when the television series to accompany this book commences on US television.
219 of 247 people found the following review helpful
Wow, what an amazing, exciting and insightful historical analysis of how we all got here! By "here," I mean to say, at Amazon, browsing books on line, reading the reviews of anonymous readers with wildly divergent opinions!
Before I write anything, remember this: Comparative Culture is, by definition, based on human opinion, and its study can be polarizing and emotionally sensitive. This book will get your back up, one way or the other.
There are many detailed reviews already written on this controversial volume, so I'll just cut RIGHT to the chase: If you're a conservative American (or European, for that matter), and you think we are "by God, the strongest country on earth, never been stronger, and all you foreign hordes coming from Asia can love it or leave it!" then this book is NOT for you. If you're a Tea Partier or a Rick Perry supporter, this book is going to rankle you, maybe even offend you, because Dr. Ferguson recognizes that the United States is an empire in serious trouble. But he doesn't leave the story there.
On the other side of the coin, if you're a staunch "declinist," a radical environmentalist, an Occupier, or a gloom-and-doom jeremiah, this book will ALSO put you off. Niall Ferguson is far too sophisticated a social critic to be easily labeled. He's not a flag waving patriot, and he's not a red-hot revolutionary. He's an enormously accomplished historian who believes that our times are BAD, that civilization is dangerously close to rapid disintegration, that the loss of standards and civility in life are creating a world of unimaginable selfishness, that fear and greed rule the WORLD, not just the markets, and that mass consumerism leads to boredom, loneliness and depression. There's just one catch: He believes we can fix it. He believes we NEED to fix it, quickly, URGENTLY!
So who will actually LIKE this book? Political scientists, intellectuals, and liberals with enough time and money to contemplate BIG issues will love this book. Your typical suburban professional, with a mind inquisitive enough to wonder what the hell is going on will love this book. Anyone living in the "West" with the feeling that we're muddling through a decade-long malaise will appreciate this book. Your political persuasion is really not important.
Dr. Ferguson gets our attention by first dispelling the historical misconception that strong empires tend to fade away with time, due to internal stagnation and external competition. Well, he wants us to know that empires don't fade away, they CRUMBLE, usually within a generation. He supports this view with historical evidence. In other words, we live in a world within which many great civilizations have come crashing down due to [the same] internal stagnation and external competition in a matter of a few years. He thinks the "West," and the United States in particular, are dangerously close to falling off the cliff. The Eurozone, too.
He wants to "save" the "West" from this outcome by 1) sounding the alarm and 2) offering recommendations on how this might be done. This is really, REALLY important and amazing stuff.
The book centers around a metaphor of the "West" using its "killer apps" to rapidly advance economically from the "Rest" over the past 500 years. He sets up a beautifully effective structuralist argument that the "West" adopted an "operating system" which became the world standard, and that six "killer apps" were designed for that operating system that completely marginalized the rest of the world. Dr. Ferguson is quite specific about the six "killer apps" around which he constructs his argument. You'll have to read the book to learn what they are! He dedicates a chapter to detailed discussion of each of these killer apps, and explores how the "Rest" are catching up to the "West" because they have simply learned how to download these apps, and make them work within their own "operating system."
The "Rest" adopted an "operating system" that may have been technically superior, but became marginal because it was not pragmatic or expedient. Here, he's referring to the great Asian and African civilizations, and he's stuffing (and generalizing) the comparative political analysis into a "Beta vs. VHS" or "Apple vs. Microsoft" metaphor. I love it!
Here's the punchline: The six killer apps of the West have become corrupted by viruses and are losing there competitive advantage due to COMPLACENCY. We need to refocus on the continued development of our killer apps, and then "reboot" the entire system. We'll become the better performing, restored machine after this, moved back from the brink by own our effort and skill. We'll need to accommodate a new operating system too, because Asia is rapidly advancing.
If we fail to recognize the problem, our killer apps, and our entire operating system may be replaced by another more aggressive and adaptable standard. The world will become one-sided. The metaphor refers here to the emergence of Asia, once again, supported by historical trends. For those of you who rave that Dr. Ferguson's thesis is racist, I offer this: He's not comparing RACE anywhere in the text, but he is comparing CULTURE. Once again, we're talking about comparative culture, which is an extremely sensitive topic. And, if anything, he is praising the enormous advancements of the civilizations OUTSIDE the "West."
I think this is a brilliant thesis, told with powerful insight, strong historical references, and a lovely post-modern allegorical structure.
Niall Ferguson doesn't know everything, but he is smart enough to know when things are bad enough to take notice. And he's optimistic enough in the tools he learned as a "Westerner" to believe that there's much more good work to do. The West is too young to die. Our apps work. They need updates... now.
Will we heed the call to fix things, or will we let stagnant gridlock, selfish intolerance and complacency destroy our civilization? Niall Ferguson believes the choice is ours. WE can work for a better society, or we can continue to go our own way, knocking down anyone and everyone who stands in our way to... what? More debt, more stagnation, and more Lexapro?
This book is, obviously, highly politically charged, and it does NOT respect the decorum we would generally describe as "politically correct." It's an easy read about weighty issues, but it's going to make you either mad as hell or thankful for such a penetrating mind. But if it moves you to action or, at least to contemplation, it's a successful book.
213 of 246 people found the following review helpful
on March 6, 2011
This book is for anyone who loves history. It is an eloquent defence of our civilisation's values, and also an impassioned and compelling argument for why the study of history is so important and is a vital discipline. It is not a matter of agreeing with every point Professor Ferguson makes, although his arguments are very convincing and it is hard indeed to see how to disagree. This book raises a question, which is how the West has achieved predominance over the rest of the world, and, by extension, how it can possibly maintain that predominance if it loses the features which made it so successful and which are being adopted by its rivals. It is a cultural analysis backed by historical evidence, and it is deliberately provocative even in terms of the question posed, not to mention the answers provided. The main value of this book is not, however, its all-encompassing sweep of world history and rich collation of stories and anecdotes, although that is what makes it so much fun to read and saves it from being boring (which many good books are). Professor Ferguson's virtue is that he does not sacrifice intellectual rigour in order to engage the interest of a non-specialist. As an economist as well as an historian his analysis is underpinned by serious scholarship that is not easily accessible to the layman, yet he vigorously challenges the established conventions that are characterised by complacency, presumed even-handedness, and relativism. Professor Ferguson is magnificent at marshalling a wide range of knowledge to support his opinions. It is what history should be all about. This book is an incisive analysis of the past which aims to stimulate debate. It is a reassessment of our assumptions that have a profound impact on the present, and of course also on the future.
30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on November 25, 2011
Having read The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000,The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, and The War of the World, which is by far Ferguson's best book, I had great exceptions and I wasn't disappointed.
In Civilization, Ferguson tries to answer the question of what caused the West (mostly North America and West Europe), from approximately the year 1500, to dominate the world militarily, scientifically and economically. Ferguson attributes the Western dominance to six "qualities" or the "killer apps". In Ferguson words:
1. Competition, in that Europe itself was politically fragmented and that within each monarchy or republic there were multiple competing corporate entities
2. The Scientific Revolution, in that all the major seventeenth-century breakthroughs in mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology happened in Western Europe
3. The rule of law and representative government, in that an optimal system of social and political order emerged in the English- speaking world, based on private property right and the representation of property- owners in elected legislatures
4. Modern medicine, in that nearly all the major nineteenth- and twentieth -century breakthroughs in healthcare, including the control of tropical diseases, were made by Western Europeans and North Americans.
5. The consumer society, in that the Industrial Revolution took place where there was both a supply of productivity-enhancing technologies and a demand for more, better and cheaper goods, beginning with cotton garments
6. The work ethic, in that Westerners were the first people in the world to combine more extensive and intensive labor with higher saving rates, permitting sustained capital accumulation
As usual, Ferguson puts his vast amount of knowledge into play by covering a wide range of topics accompanied with great anecdotes and a splendid writing style, which makes this book a highly enjoyable read.
Having said that, this book is not without flaws. I found some of the chapters to be somewhat unfocused. For example, in the chapter covering the "killer app" medicine, Ferguson starts by providing a short brief of the European colonization of Africa, and the effect of Western medicine had on Africans. Having read this chapter, I got the sense that Ferguson tried to defend European colonization by saying that it improved African health care, which the bulk of the chapter is devoted to. Interesting, but not very related to the topic.
Overall, this is a provocative read which will definitely upset some people, however, it is still a very informative and interesting read.
P.S. An interesting lecture of Niall Ferguson explaining the 6 "killer apps" can be viewed at Ted.com (just search for Niall Ferguson).
85 of 102 people found the following review helpful
Didn't we tread this way before with Kenneth Clark in "Civilization" and Michael Wood in "Legacy, the Origins of Civilization ?" Every thirty years, a learned British historian comes on PBS Sunday after Sunday, usually during fund raising season, educating us, colonists, about the roots of our Western Civilization. The series is invariably accompanied by a book, text and photos, favorably reviewed by the Times, but marked by either the shallowness of its text or the randomness of the author's approach to history. Niall Ferguson's "Civilization" appears to be that book with a catch; it is an argumentative brief packaged with catchy phrases like " apps" to describe the historical causes and effects to edify our twenty first century sensibilities. Ferguson synthesizes his history drawing from many sources, picking and choosing random events forging them together, sometimes helter skelter, to make his point. The meandering artistic erudition of Kenneth Clark does not fit Ferguson's ramped up, fly over approach to historiography. Not given to original research, he reads widely, has a formidable and forceful command of the English language, and draws from many modern historians to tell his tale. The reign of Frederick the Great is extolled as a time of innovation and military discipline; his source is Christopher Clark's masterful history of the Prussia Empire. For the intellectual strength of European cultures, he repackages Charles Murray's "Human Accomplishment" on his categorization of ethnic traits.
His assuredness in writing, however, is not matched by his fact checking. For example, his statement that "Thomas Jefferson is only the most famous American to have fathered children by one of his slaves" has been debunked by contemporary research. The Sally Hemings affair, to which he alludes, has been subjected to ''serious skepticism'' by Jeffersonian scholars for over a decade and has been scientifically rebutted by the distinguished Scholars Commission in a lengthy final report. Ferguson, as a historian writing on American themes, should have been sensitive to this long standing controversy, or, otherwise softened his assertive language on such a fiery topic to many Americans.
Some chapters are focused and thought provoking (his discussion of the philosophy of Edmund Burke on the American and French Revolutions and on Max Weber and the centrality of Christianity); others are wordy and rambling. His chapter on medicine is less about the contributions of Western medicine in Africa than a withering attack on the French and German imperialism in Africa (while ignoring England's imperialistic activities in South Africa). His fondness for statistics is his rhetorical hammer to drive home his points and it gets tedious. His charts are unattributed. He frequently dots his analysis with cryptic references and short blurbs (a reference to a Larkin poem, but no poem, an all but obscure reference to the main character in a Turgenev book but no connection), leaving the reader adrift as to their meaning. One senses a sparkling and forceful intellect, a driving need to bring forth the insights of others, both modern and obscure, but the question for this reader is: is this a book or a television script for the upcoming series? Is his mention of Wenzhou, China to be a stopping off point in his upcoming series and is this why it is mentioned? Survey books, bent by the demands of a television production, tend to skewer the story line but on the other hand are often and commendably jumping off points for further readings and, surely, Ferguson fulfils that need in this book. But, while his judgments and observations are provocative and fascinating this is not the easiest book to admire.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on December 1, 2011
This book is the effort of a distinguished historian to identify those things that have clearly shown themselves to work best for humanity, over the course of history; which by the way, he clearly explains, work just as well for people of any race or nationality (and to the converse, impoverishment and subordination of any peoples who chose ineffectual social structures).
Though anyone with any kind of an open, objective intellect will find it difficult to see this book as particularly politically incorrect, you can see from the other reviews, that it is apparently intimidating to people who seem to fear that it threatens their cherished orthodoxy of anti-capitalist anti-western, counter-cultural ideology. I am in favor of reviewers providing a warning of potentially politically-challenging material. I am offended when negative reviews such as: "Please don't read this book." are posted, which seek to (metaphorically) "burn" a book to suppress the ideas contained therein. I will do the former by suggesting that if you simply cannot tolerate thoughts or observations which may not square with the arbitrary dogma of the leftist establishment, then you probably want to skip this book. For the rest of you, consider the "book burning" reviews to be a supreme endorsement of this tome: They wouldn't be so threatened if it weren't substantive, and compelling!
While the main thrust, and greatest accomplishment of this book is to expose the social behaviors and institutions that have, in actual historical fact, created the best living conditions for the greatest number of people in human history, and (attempt) to crystallize these into a comprehensible (and actionable) summary, I would have enjoyed the book JUST for the historical interest.
While I don't necessarily agree, or take as fact, every word of this, or any 13 hour reading, I found the historical review interesting, entertaining, and informative, and the author's conclusions both compelling, and useful.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on May 23, 2012
The elevator pitch for Niall Ferguson's "Civilization: The West and the Rest" is simple: Western civilization has risen to dominate world affairs over the last five hundred years, a record unmatched in world history and at odds with its population and geography relative to other countries and civilizations, due to six "killer apps" that have provided an advantage on the international stage. Further, it may be the West's loss of those same "apps" that is leading to decline now.
Ferguson pegs the rise of the West to dominance at about the same time as the discovery of the Americas, and so, having just finished a look at that chapter of history in "1491" and "1493", I decided to take a closer look at Ferguson's argument. What was the secret of the West? And could we really be headed towards decline or collapse?
Where many histories today focus on the specific "modules" of history, drilling down to look closely at specific persons or events (think Goodwin's "Team of Rivals" on Abraham Lincoln's political management or Horowitz's "Midnight Rising" on the John Brown raid at Harper's Ferry), Ferguson takes another tact by looking at the broad strokes of history to find themes, the grand "narratives" of history, as he calls them. Where other historians dig into the details, Ferguson wants to look at the big picture. As he explains in the preface:
"Watching my three children grow up, I had the uneasy feeling that they were learning less history than I had learned at their age, not because they had bad teachers but because they had bad history books and even worse examinations. Watching the financial crisis [of the late 2000s] unfold, I realized that they were far from alone, for it seemed as if only a handful of people in the banks and treasuries of the Western world had more than the sketchiest information about the last Depression. For roughly thirty years, young people at Western schools and universities have been given the idea of a liberal education, without the substance of historical knowledge. They have been taught isolated `modules', not narratives, much less chronologies. They have been trained in the formulaic analysis of document excerpts, not in the key skill of reading widely and fast. They have been encouraged to feel empathy with imagined Roman centurions or Holocaust victims, not to write essays about why and how their predicaments arose."
With that flippant, matter of fact, almost "devil-may-care" attitude then, Ferguson determines to take the reader through a grand narrative of the last five hundred years, identifying six "killer apps" that Western civilization adopted to rise to a dominance unmatched in breadth and duration in human history. It is this broad overview, as told in Ferguson's urgent and quick-witted voice, that makes the extended argument so interesting and in an age of multicultural relativism, refreshing. Welding his argument--not just about the cause of Western civilization's success, but also that "the historian can commune with the dead by imaginatively reconstructing their experiences" to inform and predict the future--Ferguson spins together the documents, events, and personalities to form a narrative, a story, about why the West succeeded in the face of larger, richer, and, at the onset, more wealthy civilizations.
The "tools" to which he attributes the rise of the West are likened to "apps," downloadable software that augment computers and mobile devices. By looking at the narrative, Ferguson finds the roots of the West's success, as well as why, perhaps, the West as begun to decline while other civilizations advance. Not specific to the West, but, like the real world apps in the metaphor, the values can be "downloaded" by any culture for similar results, and in the closing Ferguson addresses the adaptation by non-Western cultures that have done, and are doing, just that with success.
The "apps" Ferguson finds, while not necessarily surprising, are informative: competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumption and the birth of the "consumer society" ("without which the Industrial Revolution would have been unsustainable") and Max Weber's Protestant "work ethic". While the narrative is anything but chronological, Ferguson's grasp of history and the sweeping strokes with which he paints the narrative provide fascinating reading. One cannot sense, however, that Ferguson, almost anything but apologetic, is on the verge of glorying in the success of the British Empire during its hey-day as a colonial power, noting with statistical explanation the improvements brought to the world through Western influence, whether it be in medicine, literacy, and education. Or blue jeans, for in the end, one side effect of rise of the West is not diversity, but conformity as cultures imitate and emulate Western styles, habits, and philosophy.
Ironically to this writer, who sees such deep and lasting value in the political institutions of the West, Ferguson notes that one area where the West has not been uniformly imitated is the political.
"Only in the realm of political institutions does there remain significant global diversity, with a wide range of governments around the world resisting the idea of the rule of law, with its protection of individual rights, as the foundation for meaningful representative government."
In other words, we'll take your blue jeans, your medicine, even your work ethic, but you can keep the Bill of Rights and representative government, they say. Indeed, it is that imitation of the West that has brought China from the depths of the Cultural Revolution to heights today when its economy can weather the financial crisis without more than a hiccup.
After Ferguson's narrative through the six "apps", then, we reach the essential question suggested by any study of the West's rise: is the West now in decline? And if so, is it too late to reverse?
Perhaps not. Although China's rise seems ominous, and indeed, Ferguson cites China's relative nonchalance towards doing business with the dictators and warlords of the world business "it's just business" as evidence that China is more concerned about rising than its popularity, China still faces problems that could arrest its progress, especially from social unrest, political pressure from its growing and unrepresented middle-class, or friction with its neighbors in Asia.
Noting that a "retreat from the mountains of the Hindu Kush" (Afghanistan) seems to proceed the fall of any empire--be it Alexander's, British, Russian, or most recently American--Ferguson is unwilling to give up on the West, yet. No, the things that set the West apart are no longer distinct, but nor has the entire package of "apps" been embraced.
"The Chinese have got capitalism. The Iranians have got science. The Russians have got democracy. The Africans are (slowly) getting modern medicine. And the Turks have got the consumer society. But what this means is that Western modes of operation are not in decline but are flourishing nearly everywhere, with only a few remaining pockets of resistance. A growing number of Resterners [Ferguson's name for non-Westerners] are sleeping, showering, dressing, working, playing, eating, drinking and travelling like Westerners. Moreover, as we have seen, Western civilization is more than just one thing; it is a package. It is about political pluralism (multiple states and multiple authorities) as well as capitalism; it is about the freedom of thought as well as the scientific method; it is about the rule of law and property rights as well as democracy. Even today, the West still has more of these institutional advantages than the Rest. The Chinese do not have political competition. The Iranians do not have freedom of conscience. They get to vote in Russia, but the rule of law there is a sham. In none of these countries is there a free press. These differences may explain why, for example, all three countries lag behind Western countries in qualitative indices that measure`national innovative development' and `national innovation capacity'."
True, the West is not without its faults, he says, but our downfall will come from within, not from external pressure. It's the loss of the "killer apps" by our culture that will, in the long and short run, lead to our continued decline. Don't mistake the adoption, however, by others as the reason for the decline of the West. Rather, it is the West's abandonment of the values that brought them prominence that is leading to the decline. Here, again, Ferguson picks up the theme in his preface--we must learn from history. If we are to maintain the great values that gave the West its rise, we must study and learn the great works--the documents--that teach those values.* Add up all the values, and, like any follower of Churchill, it adds up to courage and action.
"Today, as then [1938 and the German Nazi threat to Western civilization], the biggest threat to Western civilization is posed not by other civilizations, but by our own pusillanimity - and by the historical ignorance that feeds it."
* Ferguson's recommended "standard works" for Western civilization are:
The King James Bible
Isaac Newton's Principa
John Locke's Two Treatises of Government
Adam Smith's Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations
Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France
Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species
William Shakespeare's plays
Selected speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill
Also, if he could select only one of the above, it would be Shakespeare's collected works.
13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on February 20, 2012
A wonderful book you should add to your reading pile. Ferguson is a Scots historian now at Harvard. This is a terrifically researched exploration of why a few petty squabbling states in Europe, against all odds, came to dominate the world. The author has a great ability to pull the illuminating fact or pertinent quote from the morass of history. He also explores why South America, which was by far the richer set of colonies, is now far poorer than North America. (Hint: widespread property ownership and property rights.) Fergusson says Western Civilization had six "killer apps" that led them to dominate the world: competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic. He makes a solid case that these six factors not only led to western dominance, but the high standard of living in western society, pursued today by the rest of the world.
Some of the bits were worth the price of the book. Martin Luther's defense of publishing the Koran in order that Christians could see "how entirely cursed, abominable and desperate a book it is." John Locke's attempt to ban lawyers in Carolina. The author proclaiming the US Constitution "the most impressive piece of political institution building in all of history." His note that Tocqueville identified the essential difference between the American and French revolutions, a preference for liberty in ours and equality in theirs (a warning to us today). His insight that the threat to the west comes not from radical Islam, "but from our own lack of understanding of, and faith in, our own cultural heritage." He points out that Asians now work far more hours than Americans, and we more than Europeans.
That the Chinese Communists party had a report "specifying three requirements for sustainable economic growth: property rights as a foundation, the law as a safeguard and morality as a support" is telling. And Ferguson's comment that, "mass immigration is not necessarily the solvent of a civilization, if the migrants embrace, and are encouraged to embrace, the values of the civilization to which they are moving" should inform our immigration debate.
And this: ""It is important to remember that most cases of civilizational collapse are associated with fiscal crisis as well as wars. All of the examples discussed above were preceded by sharp imbalances between revenues and expenditures, as well as by difficulties with financing public debt." Are you listening, Washington? (No, alas.)
Ferguson asks if we can maintain western civilization and western dominance. That's an open question. I read the hard copy, but my wife listened to it on disk in the car. Ferguson reads the book himself, but adds in wonderful accents on the quotes. Do yourself a favor and read this book.
Robert A. Hall
Author: The Coming Collapse of the American Republic
All royalties go to help wounded veterans
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on October 17, 2013
In Civilization, Niall Ferguson draws upon his rich and diverse bank of intellectual capital to provide some good answers to the fundamental question implicitly embedded in the History of the World since 1492 - namely, why did the West come to so thoroughly dominate the rest of the world (at least up until the end of World War II) ?
This book is filled with colorful anecdotes about interesting people and important events from across the globe. Ranging freely over a period of several centuries, Ferguson uses these interwoven stories to construct his argument that Western Civilization serendipitously developed six institutional advantages at a time when older, initially bigger and more powerful civilizations were undergoing a period of stagnation and decline.
These six institutional bedrocks (or`Killer Apps') of Western Civilization are identified as:
3. Property Rights
5. The Consumer Society
6. The Work Ethic
In Ferguson's view, it is better to look at institutional structures rather than cultural tendencies, geography, or ethnicity to explain significant material divergences between groups. He quite effectively highlights the recent historical examples of how East and West Germany, and North and South Korea, so quickly and starkly diverged in material terms, despite their cultural and ethnic affinities, based solely on differences in their governmental institutions.
The book is not flawless; there are times when the narrative appears to wander and it is not clear where the author is going with a particular point.
In the concluding chapter, Mr. Ferguson highlights how non-western societies have now successfully downloaded at least some of Western Civ's' Killer Apps. He sees an emergent China as being more of a problem for the West than an aggressive, expansionist Islam; he may be making the wrong call there.
More plausibly, he describes our current exposures to economic and military disaster as being a set of `complex systems', subject to nonlinear proliferation with minimal advance notice but with potentially devastating results. In the end, Ferguson redeems himself by making it clear he believes that, to the extent Western Civilization actually is at risk, our worst enemy is our own pusillanimous, narcissistic, ignorant selves.
If any of these matters are of interest to you, I strongly recommend you read this book.
101 of 143 people found the following review helpful
on December 28, 2011
The book attempts to define what we call Western Civilization and provide the answer to the (mythical) Rasselas's question "By what means ... are the Europeans thus powerful." The book contains a lot of material but it is poorly organized and I did not find any new arguments in it. The historical fact is that until the early fourteenth century Western Europe was lagging not only the remote Chinese empire but also the Muslim states of the Middle East. The following story is indicative. In 799 the famous Caliph Harun al-Rashid received an embassy from Charlemagne. When the embassy went back it carried Harun's gifts that included a clock that was the source of amazement amongst the Europeans. During the Arab Golden Age (roughly 750-1250) learning and the arts flourished. But that came to an end while at the same time Western Europe was waking up.
Ferguson provides six factors that underpin Western civilization: Competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society, and the work ethic. However these factors are not independent and it is clear that some of them are the fruits of learning and commerce. Furthermore the author wanders around when he discusses each of the factors. For example the chapter on Science contains a long discussion of the second siege of Vienna by the Ottomans in 1683 even though science did not figure out in the outcome of that war. The Ottomans were not well prepared but they had hoped to take advantage of the religious disputes in Europe getting some Protestant Hungarians to join them against the Catholic Hapsburgs. That alliance produced little and at the end the Ottomans were defeated by the Polish cavalry that came to the aid of Vienna. (I rely on Caroline Finkel's book "Osman's Dream" for my account of the siege.)
When Ferguson finally gets down to discuss Science he makes a blunder by stating that in Christianity Church and State have been separate because of fundamental Christian tenet stated in the Gospel of Matthew. But that tenet (together with much of the Gospels) has been violated in practice. The Roman emperor Constantine I presided over a synod of bishops that defined in detail the minutiae of the Christian faith (Nicean creed). About 50 years later the Roman emperor Theodosius I made that version of Christianity the ONLY religion of the Roman Empire. This is a quote from the Imperial decree: "It is our pleasure that all the nations which are governed by our clemency and moderation should steadfastly adhere to the religion which was taught by St. Peter to the Romans, which faithful tradition has preserved, and which is now professed by the pontiff Damasus, and by Peter, bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness ...... Besides the Condemnation of Divine justice, (non believers) must expect to suffer the severe penalties which our authority, guided by heavenly wisdom, shall think proper to inflict upon them." (The quote is from Gibbon's book, Chapter XXVII.) This passage is instructive not only because it puts to rest any claims of separation of church and state but also because the Pope Damasus is listed in the same level as the bishop of Alexandria. The Pope did not become independent of the emperor and the main Christian authority until several centuries later when Alexandria fell under Muslim rule and around that time the Roman emperors lost control of Rome. (Ironically, their state continued to be called the Roman Empire, although modern historians refer to it as the Byzantine Empire.)
This is certainly the worst but not the only flaw in Ferguson's analysis. My main criticism is that there is no effort to find the underlying cause for the Renaissance that later gave birth to the Industrial Revolution. Ferguson points out the importance of the Rule of Law but the question remains. Why did the rule of law take root in Western Europe and not elsewhere? Fareed Zakaria (in his book "The Future of Freedom") has pointed out that in resource rich states the rulers become wealthy by selling resources (oil is a prime examples) while in resource poor states the rulers acquire wealth by taxing their subjects, so it is in the ruler's interest to have affluent subjects. That is however a modern classification and the rule of law did not always exist in Western Europe.
The best explanation for rise of the West I have read comes from Gibbon. He states that the Crusades decimated the Western European ruling classes and that led to the establishment of the rule of law. For example, the Magna Carta was granted in 1215, past the halfway point of the era of the Crusades (1096-1272). Gibbon writes (Chapter LXI) "The estates of the barons were dissipated ... Their poverty extorted from their pride those charters of freedom which unlocked the fetters of the slave, secured the farm of the peasant and the shop of the artificer ..." He concludes the section with a metaphor: "The conflagration which destroyed the tall and barren trees of the forest gave air and scope to the vegetation of the small and nutritive plants of the soil."
This leaves unanswered the question of what caused the end of the Arab Golden Age. The most direct answer is the rise of religious conservatism in Islam. The story of Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), known to Europeans as Averroes, is instructive. He was a physician who wrote a seven volume medical encyclopedia and a physicist who first expressed what it became known later as the law of inertia. He achieved high positions and was a favorite of the emir Abu Yusuf al-Mansur to whom Averroes dedicated his "Commentary on Plato's Republic." But in 1195 Abu Yusuf dismissed Averroes from his high office and sent him into exile in order to appease the Islamic jurists and theologians who did not like Averroes' rationalism.
One could argue that the Crusades caused a rise in militancy and conservatism in the Muslim world that in turn caused the suppression of intellectual pursuits. At the same time the Crusades removed an impediment to progress from Western Europe. Progress requires freedom to experiment and make mistakes that authoritarian rulers are not going to tolerate. Ferguson quotes an Ottoman writer who stated that "the people of Turkey excel all other peoples in their nature of accepting rule and order." (p. 86). Ferguson misses the chance to point out that this "praiseworthy" quality was exactly what kept the people of Turkey back.
The view that irreverence is a prerequisite for innovation is expressed today in efforts of non-Western nations to emulate Western innovation. A recent issue (Nov. 26, 2011) of the Economist described how that realization is coming into play in the recently established Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology.