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Civilization—the West and the Rest

by Niall Ferguson

The Penguin Press, New York | 2011

An essay by Jane M McCabe

niall ferguson

Niall Ferguson, noted British historian, the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, and author of Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, and The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, recognizes that, “We are living through the end of 500 years of Western ascendancy.”

He asks, “Just why, beginning around 1500, did a few small polities on the western end of the Eurasian landmass come to dominate the rest of the world, including the more populous and in many ways more sophisticated societies of Eastern Eurasia?”

His subsidiary questions are, “If we can come up with a good explanation for the West’s past ascendancy, can we then offer a prognosis for its future? Is this really the end of the West’s world and the advent of a new Eastern epoch?”

Indeed! “Are we witnessing the waning of an age when the greater part of humanity was more or less subordinated to the civilization that arose in Western Europe in the wake of the Renaissance and Reformation—the civilization that, propelled the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, spread across the Atlantic and as far as the Antipodes, finally reaching its apogee during the Ages of Revolution, Industry and Empire?”


If you had been able to circumnavigate the globe in 1411, you would have been impressed with the quality of life in Oriental civilizations and found Western Europe a miserable backwater, recuperating from the ravages of the Black Death, bad sanitation, and incessant war. The biggest city in the world then was Beijing. By the end of the Fifteenth Century all that began to change—the West was on the ascendancy. By the 17th Century it dominated the rest of the world.

Dr. Ferguson identifies six novel complexes of institutions and associated ideas and behaviors, which he calls “killer apps,” as being responsible for the change:

  1. Competition
  2. Science
  3. Property Rights
  4. Medicine
  5. The consumer society
  6. The work ethic

The construction of Civilization is clever. Starting with the 15th Century, Dr. Ferguson contrasts two civilizations, usually one in the East, and one in the West, probing the differences that helped the West to ascend.

In each chapter the time period advances. He provides information but does not draw conclusions—perhaps he feels it’s the reader’s job to do this. I felt challenged to do so, and will include the conclusions I drew in this essay.

In the chapter on Competition, he contrasts the Tang dynasty of 15th China, when the Yongle Emperor commissioned the building of the Great Wall and the Forbidden City in Beijing, while the fledging European countries were constantly at war with one another.

But European countries that also embarked on the voyages of discovery. They resulted in Vasco de Gama sailing around the horn of the Africa, Christopher Columbus’s discovering the New World, and Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe.


The difference here was that China, always suspicious of foreign influences, turned inward, while the European countries reached out. When not at war, they traded with one another. After the Reformation, Europe was involved in religious wars for the next one hundred years.

The competition for the spice trade, even with the constant fighting, was beneficial and caused European civilization to supersede the Chinese.


Lesson: Isolationism does not advance civilization.

In the chapter on Science, he contrasts the European Habsburg Empire with the Ottoman Empire. How did the Muslim world come to fall behind the West in the realm of science? One of the important inventions that Muslims were late to embrace was the printing press, invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-15th Century. Their reluctance was born out of the idea that it was a desecration to print the Koran. By contrast, no Christian author profited more from that invention than Martin Luther.

The Muslim clergy effectively snuffed out the chance of Ottoman scientific advances. Meanwhile, in the West, by the mid-18th Century, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, with inventions such as the steam engine and automated loom leading the way. The Enlightenment yielded some of the most important philosophers the world has known, including Kant, Voltaire and Descartes.

Lesson: Reactionary views are disastrous to progress. Advances are made when the human spirit of inquiry is unhampered.

The chapter on Property is most interesting. Here Dr. Ferguson contrasts the civilization built by those who colonized North America with that of South America. What is of particular interest is that of the two regions, South America was much richer in natural resources, particularly gold and silver. North America’s wealth was its immense land open to settlement and cultivation. So why did the civilization built largely by the British supersede that of the Spanish?

The answer has to do with the allocation of land. Although ecomiendas were granted to the conquistadores, the property was still owned by the Spanish crown. The native Indian populations were enslaved. In the North, even the lowest of the low had the chance to get a foothold on the property ladder.

The American West is full of stories of pioneers who were allowed to own whatever land they homesteaded. Under Spanish rule, there was none of the upward mobility that characterized British America, and this ultimately made a huge difference, rendering the United States the most prosperous country on earth when South American countries fell into poverty.

Lesson: Economies that favor the already rich are doomed to failure whereas those that accommodate the middle class and the poor have a much better chance of prospering.

This lesson is all the more poignant now that our middle class has been sliding into poverty and our poor are barely surviving.

I have taken the liberty to skip over the chapter on Medicine to advance on to the chapter on Consumption.

During the Industrial Revolution goods started being made by machines, factories were created, and the rural population migrated to cities where they found work.

In the late 19th Century Karl Marx produced his famous work Das Capital, in which he analyzes the evils of capitalism. He envisioned that the day would come when the proletariat would overthrow their slave owners and create a society where everything was shared in common. Yet the revolution anticipated by Marx never materialized. According to Dr. Ferguson, Marx and Engels were wrong on two scores. First, their iron law of wages was nonsense. “Wealth did indeed become highly concentrated under capitalism, and it stayed that way into the second quarter of the twentieth century. But income differentials began to narrow as real wages rose and taxation became less regressive. Capitalists understood what Marx missed: that workers were also consumers.”

In my opinion, this important point worked well for capitalism until recently. Once again, we have great wealth concentrated in the hands of very few, the 1% whom the Occupy Wall Streeters are accusing. They are largely nameless because they are the CEO’s of the multi-national corporations, and what average American even knows their names?

Lesson: A strong consumer class is good for a nation’s economy.

The last “killer app” discussed by Dr. Ferguson is the Protestant Work Ethic, which certainly contributed to Western ascendancy. Here he expresses his worry about the state of late-date capitalism, and his misgivings about our future. He ominously comments that when previous empires fell, for instance the Roman Empire, which collapsed in 410 ad when overrun by barbarians, the collapses came about suddenly. To my surprise, he mentions the large number of Evangelical Christians who believe we are living in the End of Times. Largely, he feels that the West is suffering from a lack of faith in itself.

This is an ambitious book. We should be grateful to Dr. Ferguson for tackling these weighty questions.

I had to laugh at the book’s last sentence: “Today, as then, the biggest threat to Western civilization is posed not by other civilizations, but by our own pusillanimity—and the historic ignorance that feeds it.” I had to look up ”pusillanimity.” If you don’t know it’s meaning, you will have to do so, too.

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