Civilization by Niall Ferguson

I recently had the pleasure of reading historian Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West & the Rest. I can’t recommend it highly enough.


Ferguson is an acclaimed Scottish financial historian who now teaches at Harvard and seems to have a cottage industry of hosting documentary series for the BBC. His book (like Victor Davis Hanson’s Carnage & Culture) seeks to explain the so-called Great Divergence in wealth, power, and standard of living that catapulted Western civilizations beyond the rest of the world over the past 500 years, particularly China and the Muslim world. He points to a set of six cultural institutions or concepts mastered by the West to explain its preeminence: competition, science, property (a baseline for rule of law and democracy), medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic. As an analogy and a hook, he characterizes these as “killer apps” the West has developed that non-Western societies can download (as has been the case in many parts of the Far East) and that Western societies themselves can delete.

The book reads quickly, filled with unexpected left turns and tantalizing tangents. It’s like being led by the hand by a brilliant instructor who doesn’t quite have enough time to get in all the fun stuff he’d like to impart. Along the way toward making his argument, Ferguson covers topics like the popularization of blue jeans, the French Revolution (it was Rousseau’s fault!), the divergence between North and South America, and why Gandhi was full of crap. At times, this approach can be a little too clever. There were moments during the “Medicine” chapter where I had to remind myself what the topic of that section was as Ferguson was going on about late-period colonialism in Africa. Such complaints are slight, however. This book made a deep impression on me, and it has quickly been incorporated into my high school world history class syllabus.

This talk by Ferguson to a TED conference gives a good overview of the style and arguments of the book. It starts a bit slow, but quickly becomes compelling – the power of these ideas is remarkable.

Some scattered tidbits from the text that I enjoyed and will defend to my death:

-To me, the most tantalizing and potent chapter of the book was his examination of the killer app of competition. In it, he contrasts the fabulously successful, monolithic state of Ming China and the famous pre-Columbian world explorations of Zheng He with the petty, squabbling states of 15th century Europe. From there, he traces how the dynamic of competition (between states, between companies, between religious groups, etc.) benefitted Europe’s development step by step, while the lack of any such competition in China led to it becoming what Adam Smith called “a stationary state”. While competition certainly made European explorers, merchants and missionaries more ruthless and cutthroat, it also made them far more successful, influential, and in the end benefitted far more people.

-One of the books interesting asides has Ferguson compare the West’s relative luck in leisure drugs. In the 16th & 17th centuries, already increasingly industrious Europeans were introduced to stimulants like tobacco and caffiene. Meanwhile, China began its struggles with the engorged lethargy and whispy mustaches of the opium dens. In unrelated news, Niall Ferguson loves meth.

-Near the end of the book, Ferguson muses on the end of the West’s preeminence that we appear to be living through. He questions whether we as Westerners are still able to recognize the power and superiority of the institutions we have inherited. Too many Westerners today shrug this away and forget that, as he writes, “no civilization has done a better job of finding and educating the geniuses that lurk in the far right-hand tail of the distribution of talent in any human society.” (324) He ends the book with a call for a reaffirmation of our Western heritage.

-Other, less herlded Western innovations: corn dogs and kissing with tongue.

-Ferguson dedicates his book to his wife, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the famous Somali-Dutch activist and critic of Islam who, he says, “understands better than anyone I know what Western civilization really means.” Unconfirmed, unspoken, and untraceable reports as of the time of this posting, however, indicate that Ferguson actually wanted to dedicate the book to me but his wife wouldn’t let him.

-Whereas Chinese society was built on Confucianism and Islamic societies built on the Qur’an, Western society is built on texts by Isaac Newton, John Locke, Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, William Shakespeare and the ideas therein. Ferguson also tosses in the speeches of Lincoln and Churchill for good measure, along with the King James Bible. He pointedly questions whether our schools emphasize these enough for our students to understand the forces that have driven the last 500 years.

-My lone addition to that list of Western civilization’s defining works: Metallica’s Ride the Lightning.

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