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Civilization: The West and the Rest

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Western civilization’s rise to global dominance is the single most important historical phenomenon of the past five centuries

How did the West overtake its Eastern rivals? And has the zenith of Western power now passed? Acclaimed historian Niall Ferguson argues that beginning in the fifteenth century, the West developed six powerful new concepts, or “killer applications”—competition, science, the rule of law, modern medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic—that the Rest lacked, allowing it to surge past all other competitors.

Yet now, Ferguson shows how the Rest have downloaded the killer apps the West once monopolized, while the West has literally lost faith in itself. Chronicling the rise and fall of empires alongside clashes (and fusions) of civilizations, Civilization: The West and the Rest recasts world history with force and wit. Boldly argued and teeming with memorable characters, this is Ferguson at his very best.

402 pages, Hardcover

First published March 1, 2011

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About the author

Niall Ferguson

94 books2,741 followers
Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, former Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University and current senior fellow at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University, a visiting professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing, and founder and managing director of advisory firm Greenmantle LLC.

The author of 15 books, Ferguson is writing a life of Henry Kissinger, the first volume of which--Kissinger, 1923-1968: The Idealist--was published in 2015 to critical acclaim. The World's Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild won the Wadsworth Prize for Business History. Other titles include Civilization: The West and the Rest, The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die and High Financier: The Lives and Time of Siegmund Warburg.

Ferguson's six-part PBS television series, "The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World," based on his best-seller, won an International Emmy for best documentary in 2009. Civilization was also made into a documentary series. Ferguson is a recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award for Public Service as well as other honors. His most recent book is The Square and the Tower: Networks on Power from the Freemasons to Facebook (2018).

(Source: Amazon)

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Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,177 reviews9,206 followers
July 22, 2013

Niall Ferguson is exhausting. He leaps, darts, pirhouettes, swandives, uses statistics as Molotov cocktails, he quotes, he hectors, he nudges, he booms, he hollers, he balances, he bulldozes, his book is like 500 years of history considered as a switchback ride, most of which is spent upside down going at 120 miles per hour.

The argument of this book is clear. NF wishes to explain why the West dominated the Rest for the last 500 years, and then ask if the West's time is now up. He identifies six features of western civilisation as essential. Here they are.

1. Competition. At the beginning of this story, in 1500, the Western European territories were occupied by a nasty bunch of uneducated murderous louts who would have cut your throat for a ducat but who died of plague before they found their cuirass. Over in the East there were the empires of China and Ottomania which had the science and the tourist attractions. It was clear where civilisation was. But then Westerners discovered the New World and some really violent Portuguese merchant adventurers began creating havoc, followed by Spanish and English versions of the same. Urgent competition broke out between the petty European states. At the same time China stopped trading with the outside world and declined Western approaches.
And this is often how it goes in this book – yes, this outbreak of early colonising fervour in South America and elsewhere was vital to what came next, as was China's inward-turning. Exactly why these things happened remains obscure.

2. Science. Christianity accepted a church/state division of power –God and Caesar, the pope and the emperor, spirit and matter – and this allowed a secular science to eventually flourish, once Gutenberg had re-invented printing. In contrast, Islam recognised no such division. Science had flourished under Islam but just at the time Western scientists were freed by printing Muslim theologians were successfully shutting down science in Islam. In 1515 Sultan Selim threatened anyone using a printing press with the death penalty. In the 1570s a scientist Taqi al-Din , who designed astronomic clocks and experimented with steam power, got permission to build an observatory. It was the equal of the famous Tycho Brahe's observatory in Denmark. On 11 October 1577 a comet was sighted over Istanbul. They asked Taqi for an interpretation. He said it prophesied a great Muslim military victory. Theologians then said to the sultan that such peering into heavens and prophesying was blasphemous. In 1580 the sultan ordered the observatory to be abolished. End of Islamic astronomy.

This translates to the following statistic – between 1980 and 2000 the number of patents registered in Israel was 7,652. The number of patents registered in all Arab countries for the same period was 367.

3. Property. The history of North and South America provides us with a perfect experiment to see which economic system – the Spanish/Portuguese or the British – worked better. Why did South America not become the economic superpower that the USA did? Because, says NF, of property rights, followed by the rule of law, followed by representative government. Which the North got and the South didn't.

Imagine if Britain had discovered Mexico and Peru and had captured their gold and silver instead of the Spanish. Then the British monarch would have had this vast source of private wealth which would have freed him from dependence on Parliament to vote him his tax revenue. The importance of Parliament itself would therefore have dwindled. Democracy would never have got going. Gold and silver killed democracy in Spain and Portugal.

Labour was scarce in North America and plentiful in the South. Emigrants to North America were given land if they were freemen or if (as most were) they were indentured servants, they could work off their indenture in five or six years, and then be granted land. In South America the Crown owned all the land and simply granted the rights to exploit it to a small conquistador class who immediately turned into the idle rich. They did not plant and farm, as in the north.

The North American Revolution created a federal republic . The South had their revolution 40 years later yet this consigned the whole area to 200 years of division, instability and underdevelopment.

4. Medicine. NF says that imperialism was not all bad – look at the war waged by the colonialists against tropical disease. But some of it was absolutely awful. This chapter was actually a survey of Western imperialism in Africa, and I discovered the story of German Namibia. Here's a great review of the book NF used for this part of the story :


4. Consumption.

Unlike modern medicine, which was often imposed by force on Western colonies, the consumer society is a killer application the rest of the world has generally yearned to download.

(What's that sound – could it be Gibbon and Macauley spinning in their graves?)

Here we run into another conundrum as we read about the remarkable explosion of human activity called the Industrial revolution, which began in Britain, spread to Europe and then north America. In one century, say 1750-1850, everything went off the charts – factories appeared, population doubled and trebled, wages increased, workers abandoned the countryside for the cities, appetites were discovered and attended to, such as the insatiable desire for clothes and crockery, and in general the idea came about that everyone gets rich if everyone can afford to buy the stuff and then work more and earn more to buy more stuff from more factories, and as we know, this tendency has not stopped, the gadgets and must haves have kept on a-coming, so the name of this chapter is consumption, which is also the name of a disease.

Is this the shape of the Industrial Revolution? :

World's largest cities : in 1800 seven out of ten were in Asia. Peking was bigger than London. In 1900 only one was Asian, all the rest European or American. In 2012 seven out of ten are Asian again. Only one European/North American (New York).

Ferguson lurches ever more hectically from one topic to another as the book proceeds – talking about the post-World War One period he goes from national self-determination to the Bolshevik Revolution to Fascism to the US economy to Hollywood movies to Duke Ellington to Federal banking policies to Keynes to the USSR to the nude in Western art all between pages 227 and 232.

5. Work. NF says it was Protestantism's work-and-save ethic which built up the capital which created the powerful economies in the West. I did not get how frugality, working all the hours and saving co-existed with the consumerism whose demands also created the powerful economies. It seemed a contradiction. But this is what NF is like, by the time you're formulating an objection to the points he slings out right and left, he's off onto something else.

NF gets some kind of prize for the most ridiculously eclectic pop-cultural referencing to be found in a modern history book. Quoting from The Hombres' 1967 single "Let it All Hang Out" he footnotes that the song was later covered by Jonathan King, who is "also noteworthy for having produced 'Leap Up and Down (Wave Your Knickers in the Air)'". From Immanuel Kant to Jonathan King in one book.

And finally :

NF dismisses the conventional notion that civilisations begin, bloom, fade and die in a cyclical manner, slowly, over centuries. He says the USSR is actually the model - civilisations can actually disappear within a decade. Happened to the Incas, happened to the Ming dynasty, various others too.

So, yes, it could happen to "the West" - but since the world had now downloaded our killer apps, whoever takes over from the West, if they ever do, will already be as Western as makes no never mind.

After sounding like another library-snorting Jeremiah to add to our collection, he ends with a sardonically raised eyebrow.


What was it someone was saying about everything being dumbed down these days? Look no further, my friends, look no further, should you be seeking proof. I ordered this new history book about the rise of the West and when I ordered it, it was called

Civilization : The West and The Rest

but when I unwrapped the paperback version, lo! it's been retitled :

Civilization: The Six Killer Apps of Western Power

O Niall Ferguson, should I ever encounter you in a public place, I will mock you.

- I've now uploaded the cover so you can shake your skinny fists towards heaven and curse along with me.
Profile Image for Harpal.
31 reviews13 followers
January 11, 2012
Ferguson’s latest book, grandiosely entitled “Civilization”, is a vapid, meandering, and mostly pointless effort that falls woefully short of its ambitious goals. His stated intention is to explain the rise of “the West” from the 15th century backwater that was pre-renaissance Europe to the utterly dominant powers they became in the 19th and 20th centuries. Not only does he offer no novel explanation or nuanced interpretation, but his very answer is incoherent, disorganized, and downright simplistic. Moreover, though meticulously referenced, Ferguson pays little heed to the enormous treasure of stellar scholarship that already exists on this question and, more importantly, adds nothing to it.

Ferguson argues that “the West” rose above “the Rest” (his own tedious language, complemented with references to “Westerners and Resterners”) for six key reasons: competition, science, property, medicine, consumption, and work. These six themes are the titles of his six chapters. Of course, upon seeing the generality of the chapter headings, one rightly expects to find the original theses buried deeper within, and yet one never discovers them. Instead, in his usual fashion, Ferguson unfurls dubiously generalizable anecdotes to argue his broader points, which in of themselves are dull and unoriginal. Yet it gets even worse. Some of his tangents veer so far off course as to have no recognizable relation to any broader point. His nine-page treatment of the French Revolution comes under the “Medicine” chapter, as do his thoughts on the First World War. And yet they are hardly thoughts at all, but a regurgitation of basic facts and agreed upon truths. “Yet there was little else that was backward-looking about the empire Napoleon sought to build in Europe. It was truly revolutionary . . . French rule swept away the various privileges that had protected the nobility, clergy, guilds, and urban oligarchies and established the principle of equality before the law.” You will not find any disagreement from me, but nor will you from the legions of high school students worldwide who have already been taught the same thing. Is this first-rate scholarship or an introductory high-school text?

A final point. While I have often appreciated Ferguson’s wit and flippancy, he has crossed the line into frank glibness. For instance, of the French colonial attempt to stamp out native faith healers, he writes “herbs and spells are singularly ineffective against most tropical disease.” Of the 1968 rebellions, he writes “there was one very practical demand that spoke volumes about the revolution’s true aims, and that was for unlimited male access to the female dormitories – hence the injunction to ‘unbutton your mind as often as your fly’.” This is history writing at its finest.

In short, “Civilization” adds nothing to the scholarship on one of the most important questions in the study of modern history. I am tempted to write that it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. An apt description this might be were it not for the sobering truth that the author is no idiot, but rather one of the most prolific and influential western historians of the last decade, a prodigious mind who has now forsaken true scholarship ostensibly in pursuit of more venal ends. Here lies the body of Professor Ferguson. May he one day rise from the dead.
Profile Image for Sir Jack.
77 reviews30 followers
April 10, 2015
Western civilization, the West. Decades ago, Edward Said noted Western Europe’s tendency to claim Greek, Roman, and even aspects of Egyptian civilization as its own. The Roman Empire has long been seen (perhaps anachronistically) by the West as a “Western” phenomenon, but it could instead be seen as a Mediterranean phenomenon. Certainly at the time Rome had less to do with the druids and barbarians in present-day northern Europe than it did tradesmen and soldiers from northern Africa and the Near East. In fact, you could easily take the Goths’ destruction of Rome as the first documented instance of “the West” destroying a foreign civilization: the destruction of a Mediterranean empire brought on by what we would now call militants/terrorists from the West.

But the Roman Empire was successful, so let's just say it was Western. But even in Ferguson’s descriptions of “Western Civilization 1.0” you can see the tension in maintaining that the Roman Empire was distinctly Western: It was an empire that arose “in the so-called Fertile Crescent stretching from the Nile Valley to the confluence of the Euphrates and the Tigris....” So, Egypt, Syria and Iraq were part of the West?

So much for ancient history. What exactly “the West” refers to today is also not that easy. Ferguson falters when discussing, for example, whether Central and South America are considered part of the West. It would seem that by any definition they should be considered the West. After all, this is a portion of the world that is indeed as geographically Western and Christian as North America, and was largely colonized by Spain and Portugal, the westernmost European countries. And yet, Ferguson does not seem to think Central and South America make the cut.

That’s because for Ferguson, the West basically means whichever countries are economically the Best, and so this book is primarily concerned with four countries to the exclusion of all others: France, Germany, and especially the UK and the US. These four interconnected, economically strong republics are the primary reasons for the West’s ascendancy, and so they are the only countries Ferguson is concerned with. The rest of Europe is an afterthought, as are Central and South America (to say nothing of places like Canada and Australia).

Since this is a book whose purpose is to indoctrinate the youth and/or appeal to the general public, Ferguson employs young-folks terms (“killer apps”), uses alliteration whenever possible, and comes up with simplistic “what-ifs.”

Concerning the organization of the book, there is no organization. The chapter on the “killer app” medicine contains mostly a long harangue against the French Revolution and a breathless appreciation of the “prophetic” Edmund Burke. In each chapter he picks one opponent (in the first, it’s the Chinese, then the Arabs, and so on…) and then shows how the West beat them in this one thing. (The West is usually represented solely by nineteenth-century England or twentieth-century United States.)

There are several stretches in this book that are perceptive and compelling, but unfortunately these are undercut by Ferguson’s insistence on rallying the troops for his political ideology. He writes compelling stuff concerning the thriving of faith in the US compared to culturally similar Europe, for example (the difference is competition). And his thought that “we ... seem to doubt the value of much of what developed in Europe after the Reformation” does accurately reflect a kind of disenchantment and lack of appreciation for the rich, extraordinary culture most of us are embedded in.

Ferguson is provocative, as they say, but not in a way that effectively challenges prevailing opinion; no, Ferguson’s “provocative” is more of a pretentious, partisan near-idiocy. Too often, he comes off not as an historian you can respect, but rather a wannabe American who spends too much time talking on TV.

Concerning empire, his critique of the Iraq invasion early on is telling: the problem was (1) manpower deficit—in Ferguson’s view hundreds of thousands of troops were not enough to destroy an already poor and depleted country; and (2) attention deficit—in Ferguson’s words there is unfortunately “not enough enthusiasm for long-term occupation of conquered countries.” This lack of enthusiasm is not surprising: outside of neo-cons, the arms industry, and right-wing think tanks, the majority of Americans fully support defending this country, but usually not colonizing and invading others.

Seeking to control/exploit the affairs of other nations is perfectly okay we learn, as long as you do it the right way. Ferguson takes the moral high ground when it comes to Chinese investment in Africa: He is appalled that China is willing to do business with “military dictators, corrupt kleptocrats or senile autocrats....”

This is searing hypocrisy. There’s no need to belabor the point: the US supported Franco in Spain for decades; Saddam Hussein in Iraq; paramilitary death squads, far-right military dictators, and anti-democratic coups throughout Central and South America; Marcos in the Philippines; and continues to do business with dictators whenever convenient (Egypt and Saudi Arabia come to mind). The US has no leg to stand on here.

Ferguson, always looking on the bright side when it comes to warfare, nuclear weapons, and colonialism (especially when practiced by the British or the US), claims that “the Bomb’s net effect was to reduce the scale and destructiveness of war, beginning by averting the need for a bloody amphibious invasion of Japan.” The US’s bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed over 200,000 people, and the effects of the bombings have lived on for generations. And its impact on current warfare is purely speculative.

Whenever he delves into current affairs, the level of thinking lowers. He is strident and panicked over Iran, to an extent that is out of whack with reality. The double standard with which he takes Iran to task for legally enriching uranium and opening its doors to inspectors under the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is absurd, especially if you consider that, against international law and the NPT, the US supplied Israel with the only nuclear arsenal in the region, thus guaranteeing that other countries in the region would seek such weaponry.

Or when he compares today’s science supporting the human impact on climate change to last century’s pseudo-science of racial superiority: “Racism was not some backward-looking reactionary ideology; the scientifically uneducated embraced it as enthusiastically as people today accept the theory of man-made global warming.”

Soon after that, he contends that Jews as a race likely have a genetic superiority over other races. I take it Ferguson is scientifically uneducated, at the very least.

The level of thought sometimes lowers when covering the past as well. When discussing Marx for example, Ferguson just can’t help himself, he has to gossip about the man’s private affairs. Without saying anything about the atrocious factory conditions that Capital was written in protest of, Ferguson refers to Marx, needlessly, as “the son of an apostate lawyer....” I guess Ferguson thinks that people who convert from another religion to Christianity, or who are more interested in Kant and Voltaire than the religion they were born into, are apostates. He then goes on a long ad hominem rant about this “odious individual” and gleefully reports that he had an illegitimate son by his maidservant. (Presumably the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and Fords of the world are without such moral failings). Ferguson will go as low as needed to tarnish the name of someone who has an ideology he disagrees with, a not uncommon tactic.

Here’s how he characterizes protests against the Vietnam War (which as Ferguson grudgingly acknowledges had lost majority approval in the US) and racial inequality:

“They [young people in the 60s] had every reason to be grateful to their fathers’ generation, which had fought for freedom and bequeathed them opportunity. Instead they revolted.”

Nothing is safer than lionizing a generation that is currently dying off. Young men also enlisted in the military and died in high numbers in the Vietnam War, for seemingly no reason. The claim that the US joined WWII to fight for an abstraction such as “freedom” is naïve and ahistorical. I’d expect to hear such assertions from a patriotic citizen who has little concern or interest in the actual complexities of global affairs—not from a supposed historian.

Based apparently on the fact that you can see burqas on the streets of Instanbul and that the Turkish government allows this instead of imposing a law curtailing their freedom to do so, Ferguson compares contemporary Turkey’s place in the world to “the days of the Ottoman power.” You can see burqas in the US as well, obviously, since the US to its credit is loath to pass laws that limit people’s religious freedom. Such lazy comparisons don’t do any favors for Ferguson’s arguments.

Nor do snotty Ivy-League remarks like this: “He was not uneducated, insofar as a degree in sports science from Leeds Metropolitan University counts as education.”
Profile Image for Marc.
3,039 reviews1,041 followers
December 16, 2021
This was my first read of a book by the prolific historian Niall Ferguson. As a professor at Stanford, he is certainly not just anyone: he has an extensive list of publications to his name, is also a very public figure who presents himself as a right-wing conservative, does not shy away from polemics and likes to kick left-wing holy houses. Now, I think of myself as being above left or right (which is an illusion of course), but I have tried to read this book as open-minded as possible and that is what I try to do in my review.

Ferguson says he wants to explain why Western civilization succeeded in dominating the entire world from about 500 years ago. He thus ties in with the ‘Great Divergence’-debate that has been raging between historians, political and economic scientist since the 1990s, discussing the causes and extent of Western dominance. “The key point of this book is to understand what made their (i.e. western) civilization expand so spectacularly in its wealth, influence and power.” Ferguson offers 6 decisive explanations: the continuous mutual competition that led to permanent innovation, the free development of science, the rule of law and especially the more or less stable protection of property, the extensive development of medicine and public health, the focus on consumption that propelled the Industrial Revolution, and finally a strict work ethic. I'm not going to get into those 'killer apps' as Ferguson fashionably calls them (I’ll do that in my review in my History account on Goodreads). I’ll suffice to say here that Ferguson offers a lot of interesting stuff, not all of which is equally original (in fact, he pretty much sums up the Great Divergence debate) and not all of it indisputable. Of course, in the vein of his political convictions, he mainly underlines the merit of the West, especially against the anti-colonialist and 'subaltern' school (also more about that in my History account).

There is no doubt that Ferguson is very erudite and is able to offer a captivating narrative. But, overall, in this book I missed a sharp focus: there are too many side paths that Ferguson takes, both thematically and chronologically. For example, Chapter 2, on the Scientific Revolution, mainly focuses on the Ottoman Empire; and in chapter 4, on medicine and public health, his focus is on French and German colonization. All very interesting, but not 100% to the point. Ferguson's own agenda also emerges, certainly towards the end of the book. Because, in his own words, he also wants to expose why the West seems to be on the decline at the start of the 21st century, and also to estimate the chance that this civilization will 'collapse'.

Now, such a presentist agenda always is dangerous. For starters, this book was published in 2011, shortly after the great financial crisis, and already now, 10 years later, it shows how dated Ferguson's analysis was: a lot of other critical problems have since surfaced, not to mention the pandemic. His last chapter seems more like a political manifesto, which is very marked by his personal obsessions (a clearly anti-Islamist stance, for example). Moreover, there's also a basic conceptual problem here: Ferguson cites many examples that should prove that civilizations can suddenly collapse, but those examples are all about political regimes and states, not civilizations (the French Revolution that ended the Ancien Regime, the collapse of the British Empire after 1945, and the collapse of the Soviet Empire 1989-1991). Ferguson is intelligent enough to see that in the meantime 'Western civilization' has become a reality that is shared globally and therefore cannot simply be limited to a geographically defined area. Yet he stubbornly adheres to the elitist interpretation of the term: “the Western package still seems to offer human societies the best available set of economic, social and political institutions – the ones most likely to unleash the individual human creativity capable of solving the problems the twenty-first century world faces”. Of course, Ferguson is entitled to that opinion (and there are some arguments to it), but it is impossible to say that the 300 pages preceding his conclusion convincingly demonstrate that this 'package' alone is the perfect solution to the survival of Western Civ, or to the world in global. In that sense, I'm afraid this book is somewhat of a failure.
Profile Image for David.
643 reviews233 followers
February 24, 2013
Audio book cage match! Niall Ferguson vs. Jared Diamond! Two explanations of western domination of the world go in, only one comes out!

Ferguson and Diamond are public intellectuals, conservative and liberal, respectively, in the modern-day US political sense of the c- and l-words. Both of them have, with great effort, constructed historical folk narratives of how the world got the way it is, whether that way is a good thing, and what will cause that way to continue or fail. (To be completely clear, Diamond's narrative is
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.) Ferguson's book is later, and he talks intellectual smack about Diamond's contention that current prominent place in the world held by the West is a result of happy geographical accidents. No, no, no, says Ferguson, Western domination is the result of superior ideas, referred to somewhat annoyingly as “killer apps”. (This last has been so completely mocked by the reading public here at Goodreads and elsewhere that I feel no need to ridicule it further. Maybe it was something his editor suggested at the urging of the marketing department.)

The question simplified: How did the West end up on top?

A gross oversimplification of Diamond: we (Westerners) got what we got more or less by luck (e.g. where we were on the face of the planet) and superior intelligence or morality had little or nothing to do with it. Therefore (Diamond doesn't say the following, as I remember, but it is implied) we didn't really earn it and don't really deserve it, therefore maybe we should cut the rest of the world some slack and be receptive to other ways of doing things.

A gross oversimplication of Ferguson: we got here by inventing superior institutions, we thought of them and implemented them ourselves, we justly reaped the fruits. The rest of the world will prosper in direct proportion to how completely and sincerely they adopt our way of doing things. Those who reject our way of doing things are condemning themselves, and often their neighbors, to poverty and backwardness.

Most of Diamond's causes of the triumph of the west are based on things that happened thousands of years ago (domestication of horses, innovations in agriculture, early exposure to viruses), whereas most of Ferguson's causes of the triumph of the west are relatively new (property rights, the Protestant work ethic). Here's a crazy idea: both of them are right – in sequence. The West got a leg up on other civilizations by dint of lucky breaks. Then the West took those advantages and widened the gap through the creation of Ferguson's six (forgive me) “killer apps” of Western Civ.

Diamond came first, so the worst he can really be faulted for is not talking about Ferguson's rest of the story. However, Diamond's book is already a great fat tome already, and it took him years to even get the first half right, so maybe he gets a pass. Ferguson, on the other hand, would have to have been fairly myopic not to notice that his book often covers a significantly different period than Diamond's, but he chose to ignore it. Why? Probably because Diamond's view cheesed him off greatly, and he couldn't pass up a good opportunity to take an ax-handle to it.

In short, it is a liberal-conservative story-telling problem. It seems like both explanations account for part of the phenomena. Ferguson won't admit it because admitting that your opponent could be partially correct doesn't play well in the English public-school debating society political culture which his mind seems to be helplessly stuck. A shame. Another opportunity to go beyond the usual political name-calling missed.

Profile Image for James Murphy.
982 reviews155 followers
July 3, 2012
This is a story that can be told in many ways. It's history, a history of the European dominance in world affairs and the reasons for it. It's geopolitics told through Ferguson's prism which receives the vast record of European history during the last several hundred years and projects it into a patten. The West has dominated, he explains, because they differed from the Rest, or excelled while the Rest didn't, in 6 key areas: the spirit of competition, the scientific revolution in the West, stronger social and political systems based on property ownership, the medical breakthroughs of the West, the demand and creation of cheaper goods, and greater capital accumulation through the work ethic.

In 6 chapters devoted to these ideas, Ferguson explicates his thesis. I was a little surprised to find the Rest wasn't always the undeveloped nations of the world. Different examples of the Rest illustrate each of the 6 main points. Africa, for instance, is the Rest in comparison with the West's leadership in medical advances and disease control. South America is the Rest when he contrasts the differences in property ownership. In explaining the West's domnance in manufacturing and consumption the Rest becomes the communist political system.

As I say, the story can be told in different ways. It has been before and will be again. Ferguson's book is a system of understanding the West's global dominance. But it's a system that works. Ferguson is a learned historian and writer able to fill a book like this with many aha moments and fresh ways of seeing. Religion is mentioned quite a lot. The Protestant ethic drove part of the West's success, he says, and now declining interest in religion is resulting in a less stringent work ethic. In another example, he writes that European geography with its many rivers and mountains dictated the formation of more numerous, smaller states necessitating the competition among them which was at the heart of European exploration and drive for empire. He compares this to China's large single-government rule and less complex geography.

Is he right? I don't know. His ideas are one way to explain it. They're convincingly laid out and argued, and in ways providing an interesting, gripping read from beginning to end.. I suspect there's room for disagreement within the community of historians and geopolitical experts at his level, and I suspect there are detractors.

He himself is an admirer of Samuel P Huntington. He mentions his thesis of "clash of civilizations" more than once. And agrees with Huntington that such things as the economic rise of China and the rise of Islam held up against the decline of Christianity are direct threats to the West. Like Huntington, too, and many others, he subscribes to the notion that civilizations rise and fall in cycles. Ferguson's conclusion deals with the West's downward trend in the cycle. All civilizations fall, he says, and their fall is always accompanied by and trumpeted by fiscal difficulties. Every time. Like we see on the news and read in the papers. Ferguson says the fall is swift, too--decades, a generation. Cycling upward? China, of course, though he admits there's room for them to stumble. But even with China dominating the globe economically and militarily, it's not the end of civilization. It's geopolitics.
Profile Image for أحمد عبد الرحمن.
211 reviews88 followers
July 17, 2022

كتاب ثري، يحلل أسباب النهضة الغربية الحديثة في الخمس مئة عام الأخيرة، ويقارن بين وضع الحضارة الأوروبية في عام 1500 والحضارات المعاصرة لها آنذاك والتي كانت متوفقة على الحضارة الأوروبية
ويبين كيف انزوت تلك الحضارات وتخلفت، وكيف نهضت حضارة الغرب حتى سيطرت على باقي الشعوب والحضارات

والمؤلف غربي قُحّ، لذلك تجده قليل الموضوعية حينما يأتي الحديث عن انتقاد الحضارة الغربية، فلا تكاد تسمع إلا تبجيلاً لها
ومع ذلك فالكتاب لا يخلو من مواضع كثيرة فيها مخازي تلك الحضارة المادية الدنيئة، عديمة الأخلاق والقيم، رغم أن المؤلف لا يذكر تلك على أنها مخازٍ أصلا!
وقد اقتبست شيئاً يسيراً من ذلك، تجده أسفل هذه الكلمات في نسخة الموقع، لا التطبيق

وعلى كل حال فالكتاب قيم مفيد، يستحق القراءة الجيدة المتأنية، وهو ممتع جميل الأسلوب
Profile Image for Karl Rove.
Author 7 books148 followers
August 3, 2011
I read everything this man writes that I can lay my hands on. He’s an opinionated, deeply informed, pungent, pugnacious, provocative and often surprising writer. On these scores, his latest book doesn’t disappoint.

A companion volume to British television series of the same name, this trans-Atlantic historian (he teaches at Harvard and Oxford and this year at the London School of Economics) argues the West grew to world dominance because it embraced competition, the scientific revolution, the rule of law and representative government, modern medicine, a consumer society and the Protestant work ethic. He suggests much of the rest of the world (particularly China) is embracing these same “killer aps,” as he calls them, leading to a relative decline of Western power. The question is whether this relative decline will suddenly turn into a complete collapse, as other once dominant world powers suffered.
Profile Image for Brian Griffith.
Author 6 books213 followers
May 4, 2022
Ferguson raises a good question, answers it himself, and gives a far-ranging tour of history to show that he's basically right. Why has the Western world been dominant for 500 years? His answer is its six virtues of competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society, and the work ethic. Ferguson upholds the worth of these virtues, and shows that they've enabled enormous progress around the world. He considers the recent setbacks and deficiencies of Western societies, but remains optimistic that Western values shall yet prevail, to uplift all humanity. He complains that "Empire has become a dirty word, despite the benefits conferred by the rest of the world by the European imperialists." That's close to being an editorial war crime, but at least his storyline beats the common apocalyptic predictions of inevitable war to the death between civilizations.

I enjoyed Ferguson's big-issue discussion and appreciated his practical, quantified assessments of issues, solutions, and results. But as with most works of collective self-praise, the holes in the account were glaring. Concerning "competition," he admits that early-modern Europe was exceptionally divided into hundreds of constantly warring principalities, and such competition was a spur to innovation. But wasn't that competition largely in the means of killing, and wasn't that the primary kind of superiority by which Western states conquered most of the world? Concerning "property rights," wasn't it military superiority that enabled the expropriation of three entire continents from their native people, and turning much of that seized property into highly profitable plantations worked by enslaved people?

Concerning the past century or two, Ferguson details the impact of Western scientific innovation on industrial development and medical care. It's an impressive story, highlighting how Japan made massive progress by emulating Western ways. In other nations, however, such as Iran, Guatemala, Congo, Brazil, Chile, or Vietnam, progress was much delayed, either due to anti-Western values or because "U.S. interventions were shorter in duration." Did Chile, Vietnam, Algeria, Angola, Congo, Guatemala, etc. suffer from a LACK of U.S. or European intervention?

Of course it's a good thing when people affirm what's great about their culture, and Ferguson gives powerful testimony to the virtues of his people. But sometimes a shadow side of presumed superiority appears. Ferguson repeats the conspiracy theory that Muslim migrants in Europe threaten to replace European civilization, because their birth rates could make Muslims outnumber Westerners by 2050. He suggests that Barack Obama wrongly ceded the West's primacy to China, because he gave a slight bow of politeness when shaking hands with premier Wen Jiabao. And then we have Ferguson's full-throated affirmation of the Christian religion as the real source of Western greatness. He waxes enthusiastic about the growth of home-grown Christian churches across China, and holds out hope that Christian values may yet transform Chinese culture. I just hope he doesn't go making a similar pro-proselytization speech in India. And concerning "the Protestant work ethic," were the people of Asia ever lacking a work ethic?

Finally, I should mention that Ferguson's measures of progress mainly concern growth of income, with an assumed goal of maximizing that growth. There is no measure for the value of sustainability, as achieved for example in the virtually permaculture farming systems of Asia that have always sustained the greatest populations on earth. If the book was a real dialogue among civilizations, it would consider what Westerners can learn from others.
Profile Image for Sense of History.
364 reviews408 followers
January 4, 2022
This book has some problematic aspects, which I mentioned earlier in my general account on Goodreads (see here). I'll ignore them here, and want to focus on what this book contributes to the 'Great Divergence' debate, the scientific debate about how the West has managed to dominate the world. Half a library has been written about which factor was decisive. I'd like to refer to the Wiki article which perfectly sums up this extremely engaging discussion. Of course, numerous perspectives are conceivable, but roughly speaking, a distinction can be made between books that mainly highlight the ‘merit’ of the West (as a more or less autonomously driven development), and others that put this into perspective by the coincidences, contingencies and negative sides of the Western 'success story'.

Ferguson's book was published in 2011, at a time when the greatest contributions to the Great Divergence debate had already been made. He can therefore more or less build on an extensive basis, and in a way, this book offers a good summary of the state of affairs (I almost wanted to write 'consensus', but there is none, on the contrary). But Ferguson wouldn't be Ferguson if he didn't clearly state and argue his preference for the first school, that of Western ‘merits’. He therefore does not miss an opportunity to criticize, in particular, the views of the left-wing/subaltern school.

What are the six 'killer apps' that according to Ferguson have been the deciding factor in Western dominance? The first is one in the political-military domain (of course always with an economic background): the constant mutual competition between European states and kingdoms, which incited permanent innovation (in contrast to the Chinese and Ottoman empires) and which, above all, stimulated to adventures elsewhere; “in short, the political fragmentation that characterized Europe precluded the creation of anything remotely resembling the Chinese Empire. It also propelled Europeans to seek opportunities – economic, geopolitical and religious – in distant lands.” I think this is a valuable argument. Ferguson is honest enough to also point out how much this competitive race was accompanied by excesses (up to and including actual genocides), but for him that mutual competition was and is a healthy principle in itself.

According to the author, the free development of science was a second killer app. That too seems indisputable to me, on the understanding that the West naturally drew heavily on previous legacies (antique, Arab and also Chinese). It strikes me that in this chapter Ferguson offers a purely intellectual history (with the well-known great names of thinkers and discoverers), and too little on the substantial contribution of craftsmen and engineers with their infinite interlocking chain of small, mechanical, highlights improvements.

Third app: the rule of law. That too is a classic that of course has some ground. But Ferguson's own contribution in this field is that he mainly focuses on widely distributed 'property' as a driving force for development and innovation, and which would therefore only come into its own in a more or less stable environment (guaranteed by legal rules). I suspect that Ferguson's Thatcherian background plays a role here. And, of course, there are strong arguments for this 'killer app'; the author himself uses the pernicious, different development in Latin America as a argument ‘a contrario’, although his presentation seems a bit too selective to me (too much focused on the period of Simon Bolivar).

In my opinion, the chapter on the 4th app, the advanced development of medicine and public health, lacks some focus, because it mainly gives an outline of the French and German colonization policies in the 19th and early 20th centuries, whereby Ferguson stresses the merits of the more pragmatic British colonization model, an obvious nationalistic accent.

A particularly captivating chapter is the 5th, which shows to what extent the Western success story was driven by taking the consumption side seriously. Ferguson keeps the focus on the textile industry, demonstrating, sometimes to the absurd, how much the demand for certain consumer items (jeans, for example) helped drive the Industrial Revolution; he therefore speaks of an equally important 'Consumer Revolution'. Interesting, certainly, although he also uses this argument to emphasize his Western-exception thesis: “that mass consumerism, with all the standardization it implied, could somehow be reconciled with rampant individualism was one of the smartest tricks ever pulled by Western civilization”; he rightly points to this as one of the main causes of the collapse of the communist planned economies. At the same time, his derogatory remark about the cultural turnaround of 1968 is very characteristic in his one-sidedness: “the 1968 revolution was all about clothes”.

The latest killer app is that of the strict work ethic that would have been honoured in the West, naturally mentioning the inevitable Max Weber. Ferguson rightly puts Weber's specific link to Protestantism into perspective, but also uses it to strike out sharply against the current loss of faith in Europe, which threatens to fall victim to more assertive religions. It is clear that Ferguson is referring to the Islamist danger, and he even explicitly mentions the 'population replacement’ (Umvolkung) problem.

This last example demonstrates more than anything else how deeply marked Ferguson's approach is by his own political agenda. This book certainly has merit, at least as a fairly good introduction to the Great Divergence debate. But the "presentism" that resounds in nearly every chapter means you'd better be on your guard.
Profile Image for Vaishali.
1,030 reviews258 followers
February 11, 2021
A must-read for history buffs. Surprisingly, the most interesting stats are on China. Ferguson loses credibility only when opining that tall height is a western introduction. (Colonial New England diarists habitually recount 6 foot native men, and Maasai male warriors average just under 7 ft.)

Wow moments :

“In 1500… the biggest city was Beijing, with a population of 600,000 to 700,000.”

“As late as 1776, Adam Smith could still refer to China as ‘one of the richest, that is, one of the most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious, and most populous countries in the world … a much richer country than any part of Europe.’ "

“By the time his chief engineer Bai Ying had finished damming and diverting the flow of the Yellow River, it was possible for nearly 12,000 grain barges to sail up and down the Canal every year. Nearly 50,000 men were employed in maintaining it.”

“It had taken… more than twenty years to build the wall around his capital and it extended for as many miles, with gates so large that a single one could house 3,000 soldiers. And it was built to last. Much of it still stands today, while scarcely anything remains of London’s medieval wall.”

“In 1086 Su Song added a gear escapement to create the world’s first mechanical clock, an intricate 40-foot-tall contraption that not only told the time but also charted the movements of the sun, moon and planets.”

“Weng Zhen’s 1313 ‘Treatise on Agriculture’ was full of implements then unknown in the West.”

“With a combined crew of 28,000, Zheng He’s navy was bigger than anything seen in the west until the First World War… (Vasco de Gama's) four small ships… could quite easily have fit inside Zheng He’s treasure ship.”

“The compendium of Chinese learning Yongle commissioned took the labor of more than 2000 scholars to complete, and filled more than 11,000 volumes. It was surpassed as the world’s largest encyclopedia only in 2007 - after a reign of almost exactly 600 years - by Wikipedia.”

“In East Asia, an acre of land was enough to support a family. Such was the efficiency of rice cultivation, whereas in England the average figure was closer to 20 acres.”

“… China was ruled from the top down by a Confucian bureaucracy recruited on the basis of perhaps the most demanding examination system in all history… 3 stages of grueling tests conducted in specially-built exam centers… observed by soldiers in a look-out tower. The only movement allowed was the passage of servants replenishing food and water supplies for removing human waste.”

“The Caliphates also produced what some regard as the first true hospitals… in 707… designed to cure rather than merely house the sick.”

“The Ottoman (war) encampment was itself a statement of confidence. Kara Mustapha had a garden planted in front of his palatial tent. The message was clear : the Turks had time to starve the Viennese into surrender if necessary…”

“The abandoned Ottoman coffee was used to found the first Viennese cafe.”

“… The Quran was translated into Latin and published in Basel by the printer Uranus Operinus. When in 1542 the Basel City Council banned the translation and seized the available copies, Luther himself wrote in Operinus’ defense ‘Set this book free…’ ”

“Printing, too, was resisted in the Muslim world. For the Ottomans, script was sacred (due to) a preference for the art of calligraphy over the business of printing… In 1515 a decree of Sultan Selim I had threatened with death anyone found using the printing press. This failure to reconcile Islam with scientific progress was to prove disastrous. Having once provided European scholars with ideas and inspiration, Muslim scientists were now cut off from the latest research.”

“In all, between 1500 and 1800, precious metal worth roughly £109 billion at today’s prices was shipped from the New World to Europe or via the Pacific to Asia… The Spaniards had literally found mountains of silver in Mexico and Peru.”

“Mexico City had 100,000 inhabitants in 1692… Boston had barely 6,000. Twenty-five Spanish American universities were founded, like the one at Santo Domingo, which predates Harvard by nearly a century.”

“What made the Royal Society so important was not so much royal patronage as the fact that it was part of a new kind of scientific community, which allowed ideas to be shared and problems to be addressed collectively through a process of open competition.”

“Frederick (the Great) maintained only a small retinue of staff at Sanssouci… In Frederick’s opinion, regal robes had no practical purpose, and a crown was as merely ‘a hat that let the rain in.' "

“But abolition was only the first part of this revolution in French Africa. It was also announced that the newly freed slaves would get to vote, unlike the natives in British colonies.”

“Not only did the French extend their own public healthcare system to the whole of French West Africa, in February 1905 Governor General Rhume issued an order creating a free healthcare service for the indigenous population, something that didn’t exist in France.”

“Yet the scramble for Africa was also a scramble for scientific knowledge, which was as collaborative as it was competitive… Now every European power with serious imperial ambitions had to have a tropical medicine institute.”

“We were what we wore… These days people in the world dress much in the same way… the same jeans… What is it about our clothes that people can’t resist? … It’s about freedom, the right to dress or drink as you please, even if that turns out to be like everyone else.”

“That quantum leap in material standards of living for a rising share of humanity had its origins in the manufacture or textiles… a dynamic consumer society characterized by an almost infinitely elastic demand for cheap clothes.”

“The worker was also a consumer. The wage slave also went shopping… the result is one of the greatest paradoxes of modern society : that an economic system designed to offer infinite choice to the individual has ended up homogenizing humanity.”

“Marxism took Carlisle’s revulsion against the capitalist economy and substituted a utopia for nostalgia. Marx himself was an odious individual. An unkempt scrounger and savage polemicist, he liked to boast that his wife was 'née Baroness von Westphalen’... He depended on handouts from Engels for whom socialism was a hobby along with fox hunting and womanizing… running one of his father's cotton factories in Manchester. No man in history has bitten the hand that fed him with greater gusto then Marx...”

“Japan’s institutions were refashioned on western models… The Japanese even started eating beef, hitherto taboo… The most visible change, however, was in the way the Japanese looked. It began in 1870, with the formal ban on the blackening of teeth and shaving of eyebrows at court.”

“Here’s one of the many puzzles… The Indians were introduced to the textile mill, steam engine, and railway long before the Japanese… Yet industrial development failed to take off in India… ‘Everywhere it was apparent there was little or poor supervision and an entire lack of discipline,’ lamented one American visitor to a Bombay mill."

“No less creative was the live, recorded and broadcast music business, once white Americans had discovered that black Americans had nearly all the best tunes. Jazz approached its zenith in the swinging sound of Duke Ellington’s big band, which rolled out hit after hit even as the automobile- production lines ground to halt."

“The naked body has been an integral part of western art since the ancient Greeks, a reminder that what we don't wear is often as important as what we do wear.”

“Before the war most clothes were made to measure by tailors, but the need to manufacture tens of millions of military uniforms encouraged the development of standard sizes.”

“About 15,000 women participated in a survey conducted by the National Bureau of Home Economics of the US Department of Agriculture. It was the first large scale scientific study of female proportions ever undertaken…. The results were published in 1941 as USDA Miscellaneous Publication 454 “Women’s Measurements for Garmet and Pattern Construction.” Standardized sizes allowed civilian clothes as well as uniforms to be mass-produced and sold…”

“The key from the outset was the association between jeans and youthful misbehavior… In 1944 Life magazine caused a storm by publishing a photograph of two Wellesley College women in jeans. By the time Levi’s competitor Lee introduced zippers, the reputation of jeans as sexually arousing was established.”

“The Protestant ethic… provided the capitalist with sober, conscientious, and unusually capable workers who were devoted to work as the divinely willed purpose of life. For most of history, men had worked to live, but the Protestants lived to work.”

“In 1941, over 55% people in what is now Kerala were literate - a higher proportion than in any other region of India , 4 times higher than the Indian average… This is because Protestant missionaries were more active in Kerala, drawn by its ancient Christian community, than anywhere else in India.”

“The question is: has the west today - or at least a significant part of it - lost its religion and the ethic that went with it? Europeans today are the idlers of the world. On average they work less than Americans and a lot less than Asians.”

Profile Image for Usman Hickmath.
31 reviews22 followers
February 15, 2018
“In 1412, Europe was a miserable backwater, while the East was home to dazzling civilizations. So how did the West come to dominate the rest?”

Ferguson has picked up competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumerism and work ethics as the reasons for the domination of West during last five centuries and supported his argument with ample historical evidences. This book is a proof for Ferguson’s ability to tell history in an interesting way: even with so much of historical information and over 20 pages of end-notes, it never sounded slow or boring.

From the exemplary violence Europe engaged in to capture the spice route to the embracing of Western manufacturing and consumption models by East, from the failure of clergies of Ottoman Empire to accept and adopt science to the developments in property right practices of US, the journey through this book was so thought-provoking.
Profile Image for Emily.
687 reviews617 followers
August 4, 2016
It's not a good sign when you spend an entire book wondering "What exactly are you getting at?" I admired Ferguson's book on the history of finance and Jared Diamond's much more famous book on why the West dominated the world, so I expected to enjoy this. While it does have some novel discussions (for example, comparing how England, France, and Germany comported themselves in the treatment of their colonies), I was generally unimpressed by Ferguson's failure to tie his observations into a larger argument. For example, he lionizes a particular town in the American Midwest for having a huge number of churches, but doesn't explain why this is good. It would seem that he lumps together secularists and fans of aromatherapy and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in one bucket, as bad Christians, but this seems facile to me (secularists might be productive scientists; aromatherapy devotees might be entrepreneurs) and besides, who cares, if you can't actually elucidate why Christianity produces a better society? To be clear, I don't dispute that the factors he cites (e.g. medicine, science, consumption) are key factors that differentiated Western society from others or tended to make European cultures more outgoing; I do disagree that this was uniformly desirable and frequently failed to see how Ferguson's discussion tied into that point.

Since I liked his other book so much, I'm not sure where this leaves me with this author. I would probably avoid his other general-history books, but perhaps read his work on the Rothschilds or his controversial book on the British Empire.
Profile Image for Jason Fernandes.
68 reviews4 followers
October 27, 2013
Civilisation is historian Niall Furguson’s attempt to answer what he sees as perhaps the most important historical question; how did the West go from being the world’s backwater, in the early 15th century, to come to dominate the rest?

Furguson was inspired to write this book in the wake of China’s impressive rise, exemplified by the speed of their economic ascent, their superlative Olympic Games and their impressive cities. Furguson notes that there is an air of concern in the West that we are witnessing our own decline. In order to consider whether that is in fact the case, he argues, we need to identify what Western dominance consisted of.

Furguson argues that it was six things, which he calls ‘killer apps’; Competition, Science, Property Rights, Medicine, the Consumer Society and Work Ethic.

Competition between the many small states that comprised Europe allowed the West to develop a ruthlessly competitive streak. The Scientific Revolution gave the West a distinct advantage, particularly in warfare. The fight for property rights in the age of revolution, led inevitably to other rights and democracy. Medical science allowed the West to heal soldiers, colonise the world and experience large improvements in health, infant mortality and life expectancy. Consumerism is the key to why American capitalism triumphed where European imperialism and communism failed. Finally a cultural change as a result of the Protestant Reformation encouraged a strong work ethic and thrifty living leading to increased productivity and surplus capital.

Already, anyone reading this will feel their argumentative juices flowing. Some might argue for another aspect that has been overlooked, or challenge the basis these six have been formed on or even the legitimacy for simplifying historical forces into such a format. But overall there is nothing terribly controversial or particularly new in the above summation. A lot of the strengths of this theory will come down to how well Ferguson has argued, presented and demonstrated his case.

Unfortunately this is where the book fails terribly. I am not necessarily saying that I disagree with the importance of the factors listed, but this book is a poor attempt to support them. The book is distracted, wayward, unanalytical and ultimately, in its greatest failing, unpersuasive.

The chapter on Competition is less than 30 pages. If you are expecting a strong rationale for competition as a driver for efficiency and innovation – economically, politically, scientifically and militarily – supported by carefully considered historical evidence, with consideration of alternatives, you will not find it here. Most of the chapter is an anecdotal comparison of the voyages of Zheng He’s Ming fleet against the voyages to the East by Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama.

In principle there is nothing wrong with using a historical story to illustrate the points you are trying to make. Ferguson’s point is that, as Ming China was largely unified and without rival and Confucian philosophy made it increasingly insular, the lack of competition stifled innovation and led to decline and stagnation. The voyages of the Ming fleet were not about discovery, trade or conquest, but about showing off might and commanding tribute. European voyages of discovery by contrast were driven by the prospect of conquest and achieving trading advantages over rivals.

Interesting as all this may be, it is disappointing for anyone wanting a strongly argued case for the value of competition over rival systems, its limitations, the sources and influences in its evolution, and causative relationships to Western ascendency. It is emblematic of the shortcomings throughout the book.

The chapter on Science has similar failings. In attempting to answer the question of how the West overtook the scientific achievements of the Ottoman Empire, Ferguson mostly uses a comparison of Prussia under Frederick the Great against the declining Ottomans, where an increasingly fundamentalist interpretation of Islam led to a rejection of science and mathematics as blasphemous. The fact that a similar restraint of science within Christendom had also existed and how it was overcome is not thoroughly examined.

The chapter on Science also contains much that is not, strictly speaking, ‘science’. For instance Ferguson spends much time talking up the value of Prussia’s meritocratic civil service. The Ottoman’s too had a very meritocratic bureaucracy and benefited from it, but without constant reinforcement it declined into favouritism and corruption. The value of appointments based on merit as opposed to high-birth is a good point, but why does it come under ‘Science’? The issues and inconsistencies of labelling, categorising and defining things are a persistent problem in this book and provide strength to arguments against its format.

These issues continue in the next chapter. Ferguson argues that Western democracy began with lawmaking aimed to protect ones property. Fair enough, but the chapter spends most of its space comparing the Spanish/Portuguese colonisation of South America to the British/French colonisation of North America. It is interesting and some good points are made but again the relevancy of the material varies, is sometimes questionable and it fails to be persuasive.

In his chapter on Medicine, Ferguson briefly mentions the work of Louis Pasteur and the French scientists that followed him in revolutionising medicine. Here his anecdote is a comparison of French and German attempts to colonise Africa, how they dealt with the significant medical hurdles and how all of us benefited. This argument, in addition to the previous chapters lengthy comparison of the colonisation of the New World, will make some readers question what this book is really about. It increasingly feels less of an analysis of Western ascendency and more a polemic championing imperialism, colonialism and interventionism.

Ferguson has been accused variously of being ‘nostalgic for Empire’, of lacking commitment to scholarship and that his writing fails to be persuasive. It is hard to argue against these claims after reading this book.

What you want from a chapter on medicine is a thorough discussion on how the improvements in infant mortality, treatment of disease and longevity benefited society and the variety of impact it had. Instead, as mentioned it spends much time championing colonialism, and then goes on to a lengthy discussion of German racist ideologies. Ferguson argues that legitimising of racist ideologies, such as those adopted by the Nazis, were an unfortunate consequence of the development of medical and biological science (before the further development that would eventually quash those ideas), pointing first to Francis Galton, a cousin of Darwin, who coined the term ‘eugenics’. In doing so he ignores the social theories that originated in mid-19th century America in response to freed slaves and increased immigration from Mexico, Italy and Ireland (not to mention that most of the Mexicans, Italians and Irish were Catholic). Notions of the supremacy of white Protestants as a race coming from 19th century America have at least an equal claim to inspiring later German ideology.

The book was really starting to lose me at this point.

The chapter on consumerism is the best in the book. It is the longest and here Ferguson for once makes use of his space and gives plenty of examples and evidence and argues his case much more assuredly.

In covering his final ‘killer app’, Ferguson argues that the Protestant Reformation embodied considerable cultural change. The two he highlights as being key to future Western supremacy being a belief in work for the sake of work and of modest living. This, he argues, was a response to some of the issues people took with the Catholic Church leading to the Reformation. Specifically, the emphasis on work as a form of worship was in contrast to the previous belief that the best way to honour God was through a monastic lifestyle of penitence and quiet contemplation, while the thrifty living was a response to the opulence and expensive tastes of the Catholic Church.

These two cultural ideas, Ferguson argues, resulted in a boost in productivity and surplus capital that enabled sustained Western economic growth and improvements in quality of life. Ferguson notes that the West has lost touch with this aspect of its culture – Europe is increasingly secular and less productive and, also with America, no longer spends within its means. Ferguson laments the lack of work ethic and net savings and the bubble-and-burst economics it has created.

There are many problems with this work, some I have already alluded to. The first problem is with the names, labels, categories that Ferguson has applied. To call the book ‘Civilisation’, referring specifically to the West from the 15th century, is irksome to the point of infuriating to anyone who studies and enjoys history. It carries an implication than those who are not Western, or have not embraced Westernism (the way the Japanese, Koreans and increasingly the Chinese have) are not civilised.

Calling the key characteristics of the West, ‘Killer Apps’, is wince-inducing, like a gaudy uncle trying to be cool. It has been suggested the format and language of this book is emblematic of the way history is increasingly being taught to youth in Britain and the US – with an emphasis on categorising, over-simplifying and correlating. Ferguson may be deliberately speaking to the audience he hopes will pick up his book. One can’t help but be concerned if those whose critical faculties are not fully developed take this book as an example of what a history book should be like. This is short-cut history.

The names he has given for his six apps are also problematic. And what are they? Are they principles, practices, ideas? As mentioned, the chapter on ‘Science’ contains much that is not science. Would it be better named as ‘Meritocracy’, ‘The Scientific Method’, ‘Institutionalised Reason’? If they are practices then shouldn’t the sixth app be split into two – productivity and thrift? Are they representative of the source of the app or its final embodiment? The chapter on Property Rights is so-named as it is argued to be the source for later achievements. Should the chapter instead be named for those achievements – ‘Democracy’ or ‘Representation’? It might make more sense since those property rights in turn resulted from earlier achievements, history after all is one thing after another.

Are these six things really ‘apps’? Doesn’t that give the West too much credit?

After all, these things were not invented and developed with much forethought. They were responses to the challenges of the time, and they were not the only ones. At the time no one could have predicted their durability over any other solution that was attempted. Would it be more appropriate to call them the six ‘Accidental Discoveries’, the six ‘Blind Fumbles’?

The Chinese were well aware of glass of course. But glass is ineffective when it came to their beverage of choice, tea. So the Chinese spent much more effort developing something more impressive than glass; porcelain. Meanwhile, beer and wine drinking Europeans continued to develop glass, never realising that centuries later their efforts would put them far ahead of the competition in developing reading glasses, telescopes, microscopes and spyglasses that gave them a distinct scientific and military advantage.

Frankly, even if the rise of the West can be attributed to a small set of principles such as these, I am more inclined to see the source discovery or invention of those principles as the result of a combination of unrelated factors rather than conscious effort or choice. In the century before the West began its steep climb, the plague reached Europe. In wiping out 30-60% of Europe’s population, it provided the beginning of the end of the feudal system as well as people’s faith in the Church regarding temporal matters. This set the West on a path towards universal rights, representation, a reformation of the Church and a scientific revolution. All of which may not have happened to the West when they did if the feudal system had continued to function and the Church’s authority remained unquestioned as they did in other parts of the world.

Let’s consider the series of fortunate events before we start patting each other on the back.

As well as failing to be persuasive as to the effect and import of his apps, Ferguson also does not do enough to persuade us that they represent fundamental principles – is this just how things turned out, or are they the only way they could have turned out, whether by the West or anyone else?

What about the downsides?

For example, competition may have flourished due to Europe’s small states but it also meant near-constant war. Ferguson is not ignorant of the downsides of his apps, the moral questions and the sometimes ugly history of their evolution, but he only briefly mentions them and does not indulge deep discussion. Without that he fails to answer some obvious questions. Is it possible to enjoy the benefits of these apps without the downsides? Can we apply them in such a way that they are universally good, or will we always have to take the good with the bad?

Ferguson does not do enough to convince us we can have the advantages without the downsides or how that might be achieved. The path of Western ascendency is littered with achievements we would consider morally dubious today, in particular the exploitation of indigenous people and the resources of their land that mostly went to benefit their colonial masters. Such things could not be repeated today without offending the moral outlook of most people (although, one could argue such things are being done today, not by nations but by corporations). Given that, aren’t some of these apps more like the six cheats, off-sides, forward passes and no-balls of the West? What good are they if they can’t be repeated as they were in the past?

A better title for this book may be ‘Imperialism: How the West Got Away With it’.

One gets the feeling that Ferguson is an ends-over-means person. Someone for whom the taste of his omelette is the only criteria when considering whether to break some eggs. Whether those eggs could be used for something besides an omelette is not something he thinks about, especially if it has not been done before. Ferguson has defended colonialism in the past, stating that, well maybe a quote will suffice; “Did Senegal ultimately benefit from French rule? Yes, it's clear. And the counterfactual idea that somehow the indigenous rulers would have been more successful in economic development doesn't have any credibility at all."

Balance is another thing this book is missing.

Not just in terms of alternative ideas to the author’s, or of presenting a larger amount of info for the reader to consider their own conclusions, but that some of these apps oppose each other. Saying that both shopping and saving were keys to Western advances is a relatively easy conclusion compared to the much harder question of where we find the balance between the two. It is a question Ferguson does not attempt to answer even though he laments the shift to spending on credit in the last thirty years that has been to the West’s detriment.

Productivity may be falling in Europe, where workers have more leave and shorter working hours than Americans, who in turn are less productive than those in developing countries. But what about the benefits in terms of less stress, longer life expectancy, more happiness? It is not considered. Of course, whether this reduced labour is a luxury than can be afforded or sustained in the long term is a good question, but again it is a question that is never asked.

There has been a lot of recent discussion about Scientism. In his introduction, Ferguson argues against using the scientific method to study history. But when the aim of the book is a Newtonian ambition to find the hidden laws underpinning the rise of the West, and yet the book relies heavily on anecdotal, selective evidence, and confuses correlation for causation, it only makes the reader cry out for a better method. I haven’t been this disappointed by a book in a long time and as a non-fiction it is probably unchallenged in frustrating me.

What can we say in conclusion?

We can be kind and see this book as an ugly first draft. A fumbled ball that a better historian can pick up and run with. Again, I do not necessarily disagree with the import of these factors he has highlighted, but my acquiescence is due more to what I have read and learned from other sources rather than anything to be found in this book.

So I am more inclined to say that this is a very poor book, unfocused, full of waffle, selective, poorly written and most of all; unpersuasive.

There is a third option.

A documentary series was produced to accompany this book which I watched in parallel as I read the book. Documentary series that follow a book are most worthwhile if they provide the powerful visual appeal to bring the material to new life. Their weakness is that they cannot deliver the detail in the short format that a book can. You needn’t concern yourself with that issue here. If after all this you are still interested in what Ferguson has to say, you can save yourself the trouble of reading this book and watch the documentary instead. So thin is his argument that you can absorb it all in less than six hours of television and not worry about missing any essential details.
Profile Image for Ian Robertson.
86 reviews29 followers
January 6, 2012
Prolific Oxford, Harvard and Stanford professor Niall Ferguson continues his excellent string of publications with a well researched and erudite tour of the past 500 years of western civilization. The book is very, very detailed (over 700 end notes, plus a 30 page bibliography), but extremely readable. Its many facts are both interesting and woven together logically and chronologically to support a central thesis - that the West has predominated because it developed six killer apps: competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society, and the work ethic.

Not just another book trumpeting the West’s superiority, Ferguson highlights the West’s good luck as well as it’s superior political and economic structure. He notes the West’s willingness to have its killer apps downloaded by other countries, which will mean more wealth for all but also a change in the balance of power.

Like all history books, the content is filtered through the author’s particular lens - in this case a right wing, British Empire loving polymath and wit - but Ferguson is thorough in supporting his thesis, confronting other historians’ theories and mistakes head-on, and documenting his own views with ample political, economic and cultural references and a fair amount of humour. The prolific references range from esoteric to pop-cultural (e.g. Sid Meier’s Civilization computer game).

There are some minor flaws - the chapter on medicine is mostly about subjects other than medicine; the slave trade to the Americas listed as beginning in 1450, almost half a century before Columbus’ voyage to the New World; and Ferguson seems curiously unscientific in his footnote musing that genetics may explain Jews’ disproportionate success in arts, science and commerce - but on the whole this is an excellent, densely packed historical tour.

For those familiar with Ferguson’s other works, Civilization falls somewhere between his story filled and highly readable “Ascent of Money” and his more academic “The Pity of War”. A broad, detailed canvas with the most interesting of stories laying the foundation for us to speculate about the future of western civilization and the rise of China.

Much better and more thought provoking than other, often economics oriented, books heralding the decline of the West. Civilization the television series will surely cross the Atlantic to North American viewers, just as “The Ascent of Money” did, but read the book for its rich detail. Buy it, read it, and reflect on the future of both the West and the Rest.
Profile Image for Maru Kun.
215 reviews476 followers
Shelved as 'not-to-read'
October 17, 2018
"...all that we admire on this earth - science, art, technical skill and invention - is the creative product of only a small number of nations...All this culture depends on them for its very existence...If we divide the human race into three categories - founders, maintainers, and destroyers of culture - the Aryan stock alone can be considered as representing the first category...".
Hitler doesn't have a goodreads account, so we have to look in Mein Kampf to see what he would have to say about this type of book.
Profile Image for 11811 (Eleven).
662 reviews136 followers
November 12, 2016
This dude is a genius. I never hesitate to read every article I come across in Foreign Affairs, The Wall Street Journal, or wherever his name pops up but this is only my second book length material after reading Colossus over ten years ago.

This was a combo of Colossus and Guns, Germs and Steel - why some civilizations make it and others do not. If macro-history was a real word, I would use it to describe this book but it isn't so I won't.
Profile Image for Ahmed Zakaria.
109 reviews26 followers
February 5, 2015
- أظن ان هذا هو التعليق الاول بالعربية على هذا الكتاب ، لذلك دعنا نكتب كل ما نريد لقراء العربية الذين ينون قراءة هذا الكتاب

- بداية ، عنوان الكتاب : الحضارة: كيف هيمنت حضارة الغرب على الشرق والغرب؟ ، وخلال الكتاب تتضح الاجابة ، يقدم لك الكاتب العوامل التى ادت الى ذلك بداية من المنافسة بين الدول الاوروبية مما جعل كل دولة تبرز الافضل عندها لتتقدم ثم ظهور العلوم والاهتمام بالعلماء التى غير حياة الغرب ثم تحدث الملكية وكذلك الطب الذ انقذ الكثير من حياة الاوروبيين الذين كانوا يقلون عاما بعد عاما بسبب الامراض ، وفى النهاية تحدث عن الاستهلاك وكيف هيمنت الشركات الرأسمالية بمنتجاتها على الاسواق الشرقيه .

- اختصر الكاتب كل التغيير الذى جعل من الغرب هكذا فى ( النظم ) وقارن هنا بين احتلال الانجليز للشمال الامريكى واحتلال اسبانيا لجنوبها ، كانت الأرضين تقريبا متشابهين فى كل شئ ، ولكن النظام الأنجليزى افرز لنا الولايات المتحدة القوة الأولى فى العالم حاليا ، والنظام الاسبانى اخرج لنا دول امريكا الجنوبية القابع اكثرها فى الفقر او قل على الاقل ، المختلف جذريا عن الشمال الأمريكى ، كل هذا لاختلاف النظام الذى ارساه المحتل الانجليزى عن المحتل الاسبانى ، فالانجليز كما يقول الكاتب وزعوا الأراضى على كل المهاجرين الآتيين من انجلترا ، بعكس الاسبان الذين استحوذ فيهم قادة المحتلين على كل شئ ، كذلك قارن بين ثورة جورج واشنطن وثورة سيمون بلويفار ، الكاتب متعصب جدا لأمريكا .

- فى حديثة عن العلم تكلم الكاتب عن الاختراعات التى قام بها الاوربيون ، وكيف انتقلت بمنتهى السرعة الى البلدان المجاورة ، وان ذلك كان سبب فى تقدمهم جميعا ، ثم يتحدث عن الدولة العثمانيه ويقول ان شيوخها قد حرموا الاشتغال بتلك العلو�� مما جعل الدولة اصبحت كالشخص المريض ، اعلم ان الدولة العثمانية توقفت عن التجديد وانشغلت بالحروب ، ولكن كلام الكاتب اختصر شئ لا اعلمة ، ومن الضرورى انه كان هناك فجوه اوصلت العثمانيين لذلك ، فمن غير المعقول ان يصل المسلمون فى العلم الاسلامى الى قمة التقدم العلمى فى كافة العلوم قبل ظهور العثمانيين بمئات السنيين ثم يترك العثمانيين كل ذلك وقد وصل العلم الى ذروته وكان عليهم ان يستفادوا منهم ، لا اعلم السبب الذى جعل العثمانيون يفكرون فى ذلك وقد كان من قام من قبلهم بالتقدم هم مسلمون مثلهم وليسوا غرب او اعداء ، كذلك اورد الكاتب ان العثمانيين تأخرولانهم لم يريدوا ان يقوم الغرب بتدريب الجيوش العثمانييه على الاسلحة والآلات الجديدة ، انا أرى ان هذا منطقى وان رأى العثمانيين ربما يكون صوابا ، فكيف يقوم عدوى بترديى على حمل سلاح احمله فى وجه ؟ ، واى عقيدة سيزرع داخلى وأى انتماء سيختلف بعد ذلك التدريب ، رأينا كيف تحول الجهاد فى مصر ضد اى محتل وكان اخره امام الحملة الفرنسية ثم جاء محمد على وجاء بسليمان بك الفرنساوى لتدريب الجيش المصرى النظامى الجديد ، انخرجهم بالجهاد ثم يأتوا لتدريبنا ؟ ، فأصبح عقيدة الجيش ليست جهادية بالمعنى الاسلامى واصبحوا موظفين كأى وظيفة فى الدولة ، وأصبح العمل الحربى هو وظيفة عادية وليس جهادا فى سبيل الله .

- تكلم الكاتب ايضا عن البروتستانتية وكذلك عن الحروب التى حدثت فى اورويا بعد ما يسمى بعصر التنوير ، العصر الذى يتكلم عنه الماديين العرب حاليا بأن اوروبا قد تقدمت بسببة وان المسلمين مشفولون فى حروبهم ، وهنا بين الكاتب ان ابشع الحروب فى الغرب جاءت بعد ان اصبحوا ( متنورن ) ، الحروب المذهبية والحروب بين الدول نهاية بالحرب العالمية التى قامت بين المتنورين وراح ضحيتها عشرات الملايين ، وما حدث فى الامريكتين لاهلها وما حدث لمن سموهم العبيد الافارقة ورمى معظمهم لموتهم فى البحار اثناء النقل ثم موت الباقى فى الاراضى الامريكية لان مدة صلاحية الواحد كما يقول كانت سنة واحدة ، لا يقدر بعدها على الحياة من شدة ما يتعرض له ، كل ذلك جاء بعد الاصلاح الدينى الذى يزعمونه ، كل ذلك قام به من صلح دينهم وتنورا .

- اسوء ما تحدث الكاتب عنه هو حديثة عن الطب ، وملخص ما قاله ان الطب الاوروبى هو الذى انقذ افريقيا ، اى طب الذى انقذها وقد قتلتم منهم الملايين ، قمتوا بذلك هناك خوفا على مستعمريكم من الامراض ، وعندما اراد الكاتب ان يتسم بالحيادية تحدث عن قسوة الالمان فى المستعمرات الالمانية وكيف فعلوا بالافارقة ، الكاتب اصق كل دنيئة ونقص بالنازية والشيوعية او قل اكثر بهتلر ، فكل ما فعله هتلر اصلا فعل مثله اعداءة ، الكاتب يورد كل نقص بهتلر ولا يتحدث الا قليلا عن افعال امريكا وانجلترا فى المستعمرات ، كذلك الكاتب يدافع فى كلامة عن الرأسمالية بضراوة بشعة وينتقد فى كل شطر الاشتراكية ، واراد ان يقول ان كل دولة احتلتها امريكا اصبحت عظيمة لأن النظام الامريكى راقى ، وكلن كل دولة احتلها روسيا اصبحت سيئة لسوء النظام الروسى ، ولم يتحدث عما جرى فى افغانستان والعراق وفيتنام ، اى حُسن ونظام ترك الامريكان بتلك الدول؟ ، لم يتركوا الا كل فقر وجهل وتقطيع بين الشعوب مثلهم مثل الروس لا يقلوا عنهم نقصا او اجراما .

- فى حديثة عن الاستهلاكية تحدث عن سيطرة الغرب على الشرق بالمنتجات الاستهلاكية وكان المثال الذى اورده كثيرا هو الحديث عن ( البنطلون الجينز ) وكيف اصبح العالم كله مُسيطر عليه بالشركات الغربية وخاصة الامريكية حتى ان رؤساء الدول اصبحوا يرتدونها ، وهزم الغرب الشرق فى صراع الاحتفاظ بهويته حتى فى ملبسه .

- الكاتب متعصب جدا للمسيحية ، ومثيرا ما يورد كلمة اسلام متبوعه بكلمة ارهاب او تطرف ، وتحدث كثير عن الارساليات المسيحية والذى ندعى نحن المسلمون ان الدعوة ليست من الاسلام ويدعى مسلمون ان الدعوة ليست من الاسلام ، ها هم من تضربون بهم الامثال يتحدون عن المسيحية ودورها فى بناء الحضارة ، الكاتب اورد كثير ان القيم لمسيحية كانت سببا مباشرا فى نمو الحضارة ، وان قيمها واخلاقها هى من جعلت من النفوس الغربية قادرة على التقدم والانجاز ، ونحن كمسلمون اصبحنا نرى ذلك عيبا وان المهم الانجاز والتقدم ولا يهم الدين ، ونضرب المثل بالغرب مع ان الحقيقة ان الغرب نفسه تعيش المسيحية فى قلبه ، وتخوف الكاتب من سقوط الغرب بسبب بداية الابتعاد فى بعض المجتمعات عن المسيحية ، الكاتب ربط الانهيار بترك الكنائس وقلت مريديها ، هكذا يتحدث علمائهم .

- فى النهاية تكلم الكاتب ان المنافس الذى يخشاه هو التطرف الاسلامى بوجودة فى قلب الغرب خاصة كما قال جماعة الاخوان المسلمون ، وخاصة فى انجلترا وانجذاب الكثير لها ، والهم الاكثر الذى تحدث عنه هو التنين الصينى واورد الكثير من ارقام التقدم التى اصبحت عليها الصين الأن ، ولكن من الاسباب الذى يرى انها مضيئة ان الكثير من الصينيين قد اقتنعوا بالمسيحية ودخلوا فيها وهذا طريق اخر من طرق السيطرة الصين ، هكذا تحدث الكاتب ، والكاتب يقول فى نهاية الكتاب ان الحضارة الغربية قد استنفذت رصيدها من الآثام التاريخية ، بدءا بوحشية الاستعمار الى ابتذال المجتمع الاستهلاكي وكذلك اغراقها فى المادية .

- الكتاب ملئ بالفوائد ولكن ستختلف الفائد بحسب القاري ، فكما ترون انى انتقدت الكتاب كثيرا ولكن استفدت من الكاتب فى طريقة تفكير بعض الكتاب الغربيين وكيف ينظرون الى الشرق والى الاديان وغيره ، وكيف ير سُبل التقدم وكذلك الانحطاط ، الكتاب دسم ، مبذول فيه الكثير من الجهد ، وانصح باقتنائة .
Profile Image for Петър Стойков.
Author 3 books263 followers
January 7, 2023
Добре де, защо някои държави са приятни за живеене, богати и устроени, а други са отвратителни бедни дупки?

Много хора се опитват да обясняват това с географско местоположение, природни ресурси, империализъм, даже масоните. Но за мен тия теории не обясняват достатъчно - защото от държавите с много ресурси има и бедни и богати, от държавите които са били империи има в момента и бедни и богати, от тия, които са били колонии има и бедни и богати... Едни са били силни, огромни империи в миналото, а в момента са други...

Найл Фъргюсън е британски историк и икономист, който има няколко доста добри книги - а в тази обяснява неговата идея за просперитета на държавите, чрез 6 идеи/практики, които много държави през човешката история са прилагали поотделно и са имали известен успех, но тези, които са прилагали повече от тях едновременно са имали по-голям. Те са:
- Конкуренция
- Наука
- Собственост и нейната защита
- Медицина
- Потребителска култура (консумеризъм)
- Трудова етика за упорита работа

Наличието/отсъствието на тези практики обяснява (според мен много добре) защо китайската империя, построила неизмеримо по-огромни кораби за околосветско плаване от тези на Колумб така и не завладява нищо и не се развива, а мънички Португалия, Холандия и Испания завладяват огромни световни империи... и после ги губят. Защо Япония, сразена във Втората световна война аграрна островна държава без никакви полезни изкопаеми се издига до световна икономическа сила за 30-40 години, а Русия с огромната си територия и население, с неизброими природни ресурси, се тътри на опашката на цивилизования свят...

Накратко, идеята на книгата, в лекция на автора:
Profile Image for Ihor Kolesnyk.
383 reviews
January 26, 2020
Дочитав другу книгу Фергюсона, завдяки чому збагнув, що мене найбільше у ньому приваблює і що знімає бали з його творчості)
Огляд у нього очевидно історичний, підкріплений великою кількістю фактажу, який не знайдеш у наших академічних монографіях. Це ті невеликі деталі, без яких історія виглядає надто нудною і знеособленою. У нього цього достатньо.
Також його суб'єктивний погляд і вміння виділяти тенденції у минулому - своєрідне мистецтво, навіть якщо опирається він на класику і вже покійних науковців. Позиції, які він досліджує у цій книзі можуть дати певний каркас (скелет!) для власних роздумів та аналізу Заходу/цивілізації.

Однак він повторюється у невдалих прогнозах - він дуже хоче (і це видно в обох книгах), щоб його прогнози стали реальністю і він зумів перейти (щодо його мотивації можна сперечатися) у категорії "людина, яка, написавши історичний екскурс, змогла передбачити події у глобальному масштабі". І він помиляється. У багатьох речах просто екстраполює історію минулого у майбутнє і знову помиляється. Також є ще одна суттєва хиба (але без неї важко написати книгу лише на 500 сторінок) - він обмежує поле лише тими фактами, які вписуються у його концепцію, у хід його думок, ігноруючи багато чого поза межами тої ж англо-сакської цивілізації. Ніхто із європейських цивілізаторів не був білим і пухнастим, у тому числі і англійці, і американські колоністи - усі мають руки в крові по плечі. Але ці факти згадуються не так глибоко, натомість далі читаємо, що загалом усе йшло на краще.
Коли вже нарешті знайду книгу, в якій автор детально розбирає причини кризи західної цивілізації у логіці із подіями минулого, із механізмами, які згадана цивілізація сама ж і заклала? Якщо знаєте таких - киньте мені, буду вдячним. А щодо Фергюсона, то мабуть найближчим часом він має усі шанси замінити Гарарі як той замінив Талеба.

Profile Image for Mark Livin.
8 reviews52 followers
March 17, 2021
Перше читання Фергюсона викликало захват, щось схоже було з Харарі.

Обох критикуть в академічній спільноті за вільнодумство та зручне підлаштування історії під те, що «продається».

Вдруге читав Фергюсона, краще підготовлений, після Даймонда, Джадда, Фукуями, Ріса тощо.

Не шкодую про повторне читання, але захват від книги змінився на обережність – чи можна довіряти цьому автору?

Раджу читати книги в міксі інших видань, які дають так звану «коротку» версію цивілізації, особливо у відрізку 18-20 століття.
Profile Image for David .
1,223 reviews147 followers
December 19, 2012
If you had toured the world in the late 1400s you would have been certain the future powers of the world lay in the east, specifically China. Yet over the next 500 years the west ascended into the most prosperous culture on the planet. Ferguson's book seeks to illustrate how and why this happened. He identifies six "killer apps" that the West adopted: competition, science, property, medicine, consumption and work. It was these which put the west on track to dominating the world.

Ferguson also argues that the west's place at the top is in jeopardy primarily because other civilizations have downloaded these apps. To use one easy, and somewhat simplistic, example - people all over the world wear western clothes (jeans) and consume western products (coca-cola). The "rest" are closing the gap by becoming like the west in many ways. Ironically, while this is happening the west is losing confidence in its own culture, contributing to its weakening.

Ferguson's book will frustrate some, especially those who see all cultures as equal. To be fair, he never claims the west was or is a perfect culture or that other cultures are worthless. It is simply true that the West has been dominant and Ferguson asks why. He provides a good answer. Recommended for those who enjoy history.
Profile Image for Kiki Dal.
170 reviews25 followers
November 13, 2019
Όταν ο Ferguson μιλάει για Πολιτισμό εννοεί τον Δυτικό Πολιτισμό. Πολύ ενδιαφέρον σε γενικές γραμμές αν και βρήκα λίγο ενοχλητική την ειρωνεία του.
85 reviews
July 8, 2012
I give this book a four not because I agree with this, obviously, biased account of how "the West" dominated the world for the last 500 years, but because it was an enthralling read, and it's super enjoyable for me to challenge my own opinions and knowledge.

It's also, at times, relatively nuanced, and it does, in horrendous detail, explain the pseudo-science, hubris, and psychology that precipitated colonization, empire and imperialism, for example. The sections on Nazism, and how it grew from African colonization was something you just not would see discussed by other Neocons this honestly. (At least I've never read/heard any other Neocon do this.) That being said, much of the book is problematic. His categorical, and shallow, (and laughable) take down of all-things "Marxism", is but one example. The other salient categorical insult was shouted at Islam. Also, Ferguson's almost complete refusal to discuss ecological, environmental destruction and collapse, caused by the same "Western" ideals, values, and attitudes he admittedly mostly praises, was disappointing, yet expected.

Again, I highly enjoyed this book, and yes, in the hands of the uneducated, uncultured, or people with an agenda, the history provided will probably only reconfirm what they already think, and add fuel to their capitalistic-Eurocentric-loving fire. However, I am not one of those people, so I can "entertain a thought without accepting it."

So yes, if my rating 4( out of 5) was based on one factor - Did I agree with it? - I would have given the book a lower rating but I rate things differently with all sorts of factors in mind.

Profile Image for Bas Kreuger.
Author 4 books1 follower
February 10, 2012
Is Niall Ferguson an historian? Some people doubt it. I can see what they mean when reading "Civilization, the west and the rest". He is certainly no historian who just relates what happend and how it happend. He is not afraid to give his view on the way the West gained supremacy over the rest the last 500 years or so. I see him more as a pamphleteer, an opinionater, a publicist with a historical streak. His thesis why the west became dominant rests on the 'six killer applications' (to use a modern analogy) which the west invented or used best while the rest ignored these mostly. They are competition, science, property, modern science, consumption and work ethic. By showing the reader how the west has lost the edge in most of these nowadays, he explaines why the rest is closing the gap by applying the apps to their own civilazation. He concludes by saying that the west has to re-invent the use of all these apps to stay ahead of the pack.
Ferguson is very readable, has a broad palet and sweeping statements and is a joy to read, wether you agree with him or not! Highly recommended.
Profile Image for John ....
8 reviews
November 9, 2020
Ο Νίλ Φέργκιουσον είναι εξαιρετικός αφηγητής ιστοριών και φυσικά άριστος γνώστης της παγκόσμιας ιστορίας. Αυτό δυστυχώς δεν τον απέτρεψε στο παρόν σύγγραμμα, να κατρακυλήσει χωρίς καμία αναστολή σε μια χυδαία απολογητική της αποικιοκρατίας και των εγκλημάτων της, στην προσπάθειά του να αποδείξει την ανωτερότητα της Δύσης (στην πραγματικότητα του καπιταλιστικού συστήματος). Η απολογητική και δη η χυδαία είναι ένας κατά κοινή ομολογία λάθος και αντιεπιστημονικός τρόπος να γραφεί η ιστορία. Οπότε, smass or pass? Χωρίς καμία αμφιβολία, PASS!
Profile Image for Adam Marischuk.
219 reviews21 followers
June 4, 2020
What caused the ascendancy of Western Europe over and against much larger, more established, homogenous and resource rich clans, kingdoms, empires? Professor Ferguson lays out six "killer apps" that the West possessed or developed that the Rest lacked to varying degree (p. 305-6):
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 rights and the representation of property-owners in elected legislatures.
4. Modern medicine, in that nearly all the majr nineteenth and twentieth century breakthroughs in healthcare, including control of tropical diseases, were made by 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 labour with higher savings rates, permitting sustained capital accumulation.

Answering the question "Why the West?" is like answering the question "What caused the collapse of the Roman Empire?" It has been attempted numerous times and though some answers are better than others, finding the correct balance of competing causes approaches impossibility. Professor Ferguson does an admirable job here defining the root causes of the ascent and notes the numerous modern threats to Western hegemony. But nothing this side of the river Styks is perfect. The chapters frequently meander and the content is sometimes only loosely related to the chapter heading.

But to continue with Professor Ferguson's metaphor of "applications", the book seems to assume that if other groups (nations, states, regions whatever) were to download these applications, they would experience a similar rise in GDP, productivity, wealth, life expenctancy and quality etc. But I remain unconvinced that all hardware and operating systems are similarly capable of simultaneousless running the programmes. East Asia, with its extremely intelligent and stable population has done an admirable job aping (opps, mimicking, imitating) the success but can this be transplanted over as easily to less fertile ground?

There is much beyond these six apps which is required culturally, intellectually and perhaps even religiously for the Rest to experience similar success. In fact, whether the Rest can experience similar success, even with increased developement, is not guaranteed either as stronger groups will simply be competing more effeciently with likewise stronger groups for limited resources. A GDP arms race, if you will, without the corresponding expansion of power.

Additionally, some of the sections relied heavily on a Whig intepretation of history which is not above criticism. Professor Ferguson's writing exagerates the economic, intellectual and technological stagnation of the Middle Ages and pre-Reformation period, and exagerates the Chinese, Incan and Arab/Ottoman advantages at that time. This has the effect of making the rise of the West that much more spectacular, but not necessarily more historically accurate. The relatively rapid rise of the West had its roots in the Italian Renaissance and even prior, the 12th Century Renaissance, a point nearly completely ignored. Even his list of scientific, technological and medical advances (p. 65-66) belies the fact that it was primarily and Anglo-Saxon accomplishment.

This theme is revisited frequently, in the chapters on science, medicine and work, and bears a large debt to Max Weber's Protestant work ethic. But the reader remains unconvinced that it was Protestanism in general which had any noticeable impact on developement of these apps, much less being a cause. The final chapter (on work) on Christianity in China remains unconvincing as China's economic developement predates much of the expansion of Christianity (in its Protestant manifestation), and ignores the previous Japanese, Taiwanese or South Korean development without Protestantism.

However, Professor Ferguson hints at, but never fully developes what I believe to be a more foundational thread running through most of these apps, that is subsidiarity and shattered allegiances. Professor Scruton explored the impact of the dual and competing allegiances of the person to 1) God and 2) the nation-state, which seems rather unique in the West, especially in the Protestant West prior to the collapse of the Catholic monarchies where Church and State remained intertwined. But once freed, the Catholic countries like Austria, Belgium or France quickly caught-up with their Protestant neighbours. How this limited control, both ecclesial and governmental, freed the individual to pursue whatever self-interests and contribute to the common good how he sees fit, is fertile ground for exploration. And so is the poisoned pill which it contains, as hyper-individualism results in the weakening of the foundational family, the declining birthrate, aging population and general sense of alienation experienced in the West today.

Another somewhat less cumbersome problem is that the conclusion, detailing all the threats to the West from China, Russia and radical Islam and including the financial crisis, debt crisis, Global Warming and mass immigration is somewhat dated. The financial crisis is firmly in the rear-view mirror now, though the debt time-bomb remains. But Professor Ferguson failed to anticipate a growing reaction: the rise of right-wing populism in Europe and the United States, culminating in Brexit, Trump and the current Italian government. "Maybe the real threat is posed not by the rise of China, Islam or CO2 emissions, but by our own loss of faith in the civilization we inherited from our ancestors." (p.325) Perhaps Professor Ferguson failed to anticipate the reaction, like so many of his contemporaries locked in the Ivory tower and the University echo-chamber, distanced from the dynamic core of the West. I've lived long enough to have outlived more apocalypses, as Mark Twain said, "Rumours of my death have been greatly exagerrated."
Profile Image for Dvd (#).
440 reviews64 followers
June 5, 2022
19/05/2014 (***)

Sono perplesso.
Premetto, il saggio è scritto benissimo. Scorrevole, chiaro, ammiccante verso il lettore. Tipico dei saggisti anglosassoni. Fin qui niente di nuovo.

Poi c'è il ragionamento di Ferguson, che parte da basi storiche, politiche, economiche e si protende fino al presente; e proponendo la sua teoria, ovviamente opinabile, costruisce i capitoli del libro.
La teoria è che la civiltà occidentale, la nostra, sia fondata su 6 aspetti, che ne hanno decretato il ruolo dominante rispetto al resto del mondo negli ultimi 5 secoli e che sono:
1) la competizione derivante dalla sua peculiare frammentarietà;
2) lo sviluppo scientifico e tecnologico;
3) lo stato di diritto basato sulla proprietà;
4) il consumismo e il capitalismo;
5) le conoscenze mediche;
6) l'etica del lavoro;

Non serve sottolineare che il fatto di considerare il consumismo e il capitalismo come uno dei punti di forza dell'Occidente pone Ferguson lontano da coordinate marxiste e socialiste. Il che è comprensibile, anche se a parer mio la liquidazione brutale e sbrigativa di Marx e del comunismo è poco valida: sia per l'impatto che ha avuto sui diritti dei lavoratori (enorme) che per l'importanza storica della sua applicazione pratica, se così si può dire, ossia l'URSS: credo che senza la presenza di quello sciagurato blocco, che tanti morti ha pur fatto, e lo spauracchio che è stato per 60 anni, gli stati capitalisti dell'Occidente europeo mai avrebbero dato vita a quel sistema di welfare e intervento pubblico nei settori fondamentali della vita sociale di cui oggi andiamo tanto fieri rispetto agli yankee.

Sono d'accordo invece sul fatto che il consumismo, con tutti i suoi enormi difetti di sterminio culturale e la sua struttura a circolo vizioso, sia per assurdo il migliore e più adattabile sistema economico che si sia riusciti a creare. Nonché quello che c'ha garantito il tenore di vita attuale: sputtanarlo radicalmente ora dopo averci amoreggiato senza pudore per decenni lo trovo assai vigliacco; criticarlo e rivederne in maniera virtuosa molti aspetti, lo trovo invece saggio.

Sul punto 1) c'è poco da dire, e ne aveva già parlato J. Diamond nel suo saggio Armi, acciaio e malattie; abbastanza ovvi anche i punti 2) e 5).
Pienamente d'accordo anche sul punto 3): un sistema sociale non costruito sulla proprietà privata non può stare in piedi. Essenzialmente perché siamo uomini, fallibili e instabili, con tutte quel che ne consegue. Ed è infatti qui, nella non considerazione di questo aspetto, che la teoria (comunque fondamentale) marxista cade di schianto. E sarebbe auspicabile, come suggerisce l'autore, anche una rivalutazione complessiva dell'epoca del colonialismo. Senza paraocchi moralisti ma tenendo pur conto senza pietà dei misfatti e delle rapine perpetrate, ieri come oggi.
Sul punto 6), si può molto discutere. Ferguson non riprende del tutto la celebre teoria di Weber sull'etica protestante del lavoro, ma la tiene giustamente in considerazione. Poi l'allarga su tutto l'Occidente europeo.

E la stessa cosa avviene su tutto il resto. C'è il mondo anglosassone (prima) e poi c'è il resto dell'Europa (dopo): il padre nobile, che aveva già capito tutto, e i figli piacchiatelli e un pò tardi che colgono, se colgono, dopo. E giù a latere col mondo moderno forgiato dall'impero britannico prima, e da quello americano poi, con l'unica descrizione sensata di "civiltà" che è quella fatta da Churchill, con l'unico ad aver capito le dinamiche sociali corrette che è Locke. Con i testi fondanti della civiltà occidentale che sono, nell'ordine: la Bibbia di Re Giacomo, Newton, Locke, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Darwin, Shakespeare, Lincoln, Churchill.

Che ci sia anche (soprattutto, probabilmente) un altro continente un pò più a sud e un pò più a est che da più o meno 2500 anni elabora teorie, concetti, idee che hanno portato agli autori di cui sopra e a numerosi altri altrettanto importanti negli ultimi secoli, pare conti poco.
L'hybris anglosassone è inarrivabile. Ve lo dice uno di lontane ascendenze francesi. E purtroppo questo senso di superiorità malcelato è la principale tara di questi bravi storici e abili narratori: vale per Ferguson come per parte degli altri. Non si può essere obiettivi quando non si vede un metro oltre il proprio centro di gravità permanente (che varia, da Neew York a Londra, da Londra a Los Angeles).

Detto questo, la tesi finale è che l'Occidente sta declinando (e non c'era ombra di dubbio), che la Cina è vicina (anzi, c'ha già sorpassato) e che il nostro collasso sarà, con ogni probabilità, molto più rapido e improvviso di come siamo abituati a pensare.
Con le classi politiche che abbiamo in Europa, non c'è da dubitarne. Sarà uno schianto improvviso e magari poco sorprendente, ma sarà uno schianto a modo suo memorabile. I fucohi d'artificio che ne seguiranno li vedranno pure da Marte.
Resta da capire se li vedranno inglesi o americani. O forse, quel giorno, saranno troppo impegnati a guardare quelli provenienti dal Continente tutto senza accorgersi dei bengala sopra le loro teste.
543 reviews16 followers
January 3, 2012
Ferguson is a conservative economic historian and an ardent Anglophile. Although there's nothing wrong with either, the bias comes out throughout the book. Ferguson is only the latest in a series of books trying to assign a cause to the rise of the west over other civilizations. Jared Diamons' Guns, Germs and Steel comes to mind and is more original and better than Ferguson's efforts.

Ferguson neglects to discus natural resource starting points and begins instead with cultural advantages. He posits seven reason behind the rise of the West and outlines each "killer app" and its contribution. There's nothing wrong with any of his choices and in fact they are so broadly defined that its impossible to say that each "app" didn't contribute. However, he never supplies the evidence necessary to prove that each app was essential and that the decline of these factors will allow the Rest to catch up. He needs to do both to be successful. Instead the reader should be left wondering why China and other countries which he admits are catching up don't seem to use all the "apps" and in fact may be using the exact opposite of his factors. In one case, he describes China's new successful foray into the African resource game but doesn't admit this success is due to state owned countries whereas his factors of civilization include the free market, property rights and the individual entrepreneur. This in turn should remind the reader that much of Europe's initial success was due as much to mercantilism as its later success was due to capitalism.

Finally, expressing one's personal opinion does give a book a human dimension but at times Ferguson becomes snide and overly confident. A small but illustrative example; he condemns Marx for never having a job yet Marx was a journalist (correspondent for a New York paper), an entrepreneur (ran several small newspapers which were usually shut down before they could go bankrupt) and a published paid author. One can see the parallel job histories between Marx and Ferguson -- except as a conservative Ferguson has better patrons.
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