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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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Madame Bovary’s Daughter

by Linda Urbach

Random House, Bantam Books Trade Paperbacks | 484 pages | $15.00

An essay by Jan Alexander

linda howard urbach

Mademoiselle Bovary, c’est Chanel

On the last page of Madame Bovary is a sort of postscript that doesn’t get much attention in lit classes though it could be the beginning of a sequel. Young Berthe, Madame Bovary’s neglected daughter, having watched her mother die of arsenic poisoning, and found her father dead of a broken heart, is now a near-penniless orphan.

Flaubert is specific about her finances: When everything left in the Bovary home was sold, Berthe had only 12 francs and 70 centimes to pay the trip to go live with her grandmother, Charles Bovary’s mother. The old woman died the same year. An aunt took charge, but the aunt “is poor, and sends her (Berthe) to earn her living in a cotton weaving factory.” Flaubert put it in present tense, leaving the girl stuck forever as exploited labor in the industrial revolution

Flaubert seems to have intended this as his final swat at the French class structure. The growth of industry and urbanization in mid-19th century France produced a milieu where a country girl such as Emma Rouault could, if not exactly marry up, at least join the urban strata by virtue of marriage to a man licensed to practice medicine (Charles was an officier de santé, not an actual physician, and a doctor was just a few social rungs above a tradesman at the time) and spend her days reading romantic novels.

She could even live beyond her means, thanks to credit that was easy to get until it wasn’t. Not unlike the big banks that brought us the financial crisis, Emma Rouault Bovary was over-leveraged, and the repercussions on her household economy were just as dire..

Her daughter, at the age of seven in Flaubert’s novel, lost her footing in the middle class, which as the world now knows is a precarious social strata. To be born into the middle class—then as now—was to grow up with a certain sense of entitlement to even better things, whether you aspired to great riches or, like Flaubert, to spurn the banal trappings of the bourgeoisie for a life of the mind. But if the economy around you suddenly collapses and kicks you down into the huddled masses, do you have the wits to live a life of bare-knuckled survival?  

In Linda Urbach’s new novel, Madame Bovary’s Daughter, the sequel begins at Charles’s death and Berthe faces that kind of basic survival test.  Still a child when the story begins—Urbach takes poetic license and makes her 12 at her father’s funeral—Berthe Bovary has something of her mother’s sense of fantasy when it comes to imagining that she’s going to be able to earn money and live a comfortable life. She is both more than her mother and less. She has a talent of her own, something her mother never imagined, and, spoiler alert, becomes the most famous fashion designer in Paris.

But Berthe Bovary is no Flaubert creation, and it shows in her what-you-see-is-what-you-get state of mind.

“Was any daughter ever cursed with a mother such as hers? A self-centered, social-climbing, materialistic, coldhearted, calculating adulteress. Oh, yes, and she disliked children, too.” That is what the plainspoken folks of Yonville, where Berthe was born, and Rouen and all the towns in between are muttering about her mother, and that’s as far as their tedious provincial minds take them. It is the readers for the past century and a half who see Emma for the vain, self-deluded, but fascinating woman Flaubert created. Dreadful to her loving lapdog of a husband and indifferent to her daughter—guilty as charged. Yet Emma lives on.

“Well, I guess the mark of a classic is that you can re-read it 1,000 times and always find something new,'' says a professor when he finds “a bald Jew is kissing Madame Bovary.” That’s Woody Allen’s fantasy of entering the book and having an affair with Emma, in his famous story “The Kugelmass Episode,” in which Sidney Kugelmass, an aging humanities professor at City College of New York and hardly Emma’s type, sees his bubble burst when he and Emma get to know each other, much as Emma did with her lover, Leon.

Vincent Minelli’s 1949 film of Madame Bovary scrutinized her with a “neurotic waltz” scene much talked-about in its time, and was perhaps inspired by his own wife, Judy Garland’s, breakdowns.  Flaubert famously said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” She is all of us who’ve ever craved a life more transcendent than the one we have. She did dance with a Viscount and more or less blend in at the Marquis d’Andervilliers’ ball, after all.  In another era, she would never have returned home to Yonville after that; she would have thrown her ball gown into the back of a second-hand Peugeot and cast her fate to the boulevards of Paris.

Berthe Bovary, by contrast, is all pathos and pluck; feisty and ambitious, yet more likeable than seems valid after the many cruelties she endures. Novelists these days get a lot of simplistic feedback about the importance of having a sympathetic protagonist, but it’s the complexities that make a character sympathetic enough to live through the ages, not anything so tame as being nice.

Since I’ve already given away part of the ending, I’ll say this: I couldn’t help but think of the parallels between Madame Bovary’s Daughter and a real-life French orphan girl who went to work as a seamstress early in the 20th century and eventually became the toast of Paris.

But Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, otherwise known as Coco (1883-1971), was more an Emma Bovary without the romantic illusions. She had useful affairs with rich and well-connected men, and is remembered as a secretive and prickly legend, not to mention a collaborator in occupied France, though the degree to which she helped the Nazis is a subject of much debate. She wasn’t nice, but books and movies about Coco Chanel, like her logo, never seem to go out of style. At least seven new biographies of her have appeared in the last 18 months.

Urbach tells a compelling story, nevertheless, and in spite of  language that is as utilitarian as a pair of sensible shoes, with some downright cringe-worthy sex scenes thrown in. Madame Bovary landed Flaubert in court for public obscenity—all over an adulteress who never regrets her acts, but repeats to herself over and over, with a sense of thrill, “I have a lover—a lover.”

He was acquitted, but it’s sad to think he fought his battle for artistic freedom so that 21st century authors could suffer no ill effects for phrases like “the rightness of Armand’s strong sex inside her.” (Well, there’s always hope of winning the annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award from the British Literary Review.) But if you skim past those clunky parts, the novel is a page-turner. That might be partly a matter of nepotism, but there is a will-this-poor-little-orphan-make-it suspense that is Urbach’s alone.

And she’s done her research about the period. She has Berthe thrust into the cruel world in 1852, a time when the textile mills in industrial cities such as Lille, where Berthe eventually goes, were growing at a steady pace. England might have been the China of the 19th century, but France was not far behind, and specialized in the manufacture of luxury goods.

The story has a partial gift from Flaubert in the character of the grandmother who takes her in, but Urbach makes the old woman a cruel witch who forces her granddaughter into unpaid hard labor as maid, laundress and farm hand. From there most of the supporting characters are Urbach’s creations. There is, for starters, the blue-eyed farm boy who provides Berthe with her first carnal yearnings. For a funnier take on rolling in the hay, see the 1932 novel Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, made into a 1995 movie starring Kate Beckinsale as a fashionable Londoner who memorably says, “All oversexed farm boys are named Seth or Rubin.” But this is France and the oversexed farm boy is named Renard.  Berthe, in her innocence, imagines marrying him, but thank heaven that goes seriously awry.

Her budding womanhood also catches the aesthetic eye of a real-life artist, Jean-Francois Millet, who wanders into the countryside from another world, not entirely unlike Sidney Kugelmass’s wandering into Madame Bovary. “Ah, the smell of good clean country water,” says Millet, who is looking for authenticity, and there is a nice ironic juxtaposition---if not quite up to Flaubert’s standards--- in which while Millet is rhapsodizing about the purity of country water, Berthe sees her grandmother though an open window, sitting at the table tallying figures in her accounting ledger. Her grandmother is even happy to play the role of artistic pimp when Millet pays Berthe for posing nude. There a reader might pause and consider how easily Berthe might slip into a life of prostitution.

She comes so close, in fact, her escape feels like some invisible force from the 21st century, buoying her up and filling her with a sense of self-preservation, so that she turns up her nose at opportunity of a certain nature just because it’s, well, perverse, and it comes at the hands of none other than Rodolphe Boulanger.

Yes, that Rodolphe, the minor nobleman who seduced her mother on horseback. Woody Allen skewered Rodolphe thusly: “To me he's one of those faces you see in the pages of Women's Wear Daily. With the Helmut Berger hairdo. But to her (Emma) he's hot stuff.'' 

Berthe hates Rodolphe because he’s the man who drove her mother to suicide. Urbach doesn’t seem to think much of his seduction techniques either; he’s more Dominique Strauss Kahn than Don Juan. 

After her grandmother’s death Berthe turns down an offer of employment of an unspecified nature in Rodolphe’s home and then has no choice but to go to the industrial town of Lille and become part of the proletariat—but then, that part is already writ. Here life is so desperate that the inmates of her boarding house steal bread and pennies from one another, and children have sickly gray complexions and backs permanently curved into a “c” shape. Berthe’s response is to learn to steal and fight back, and whenever possible remind the mill bosses that she alone among the workers can read and write. 

History is on her side: with the growth of industry in 19th century France came a class of newly-rich industrialists whose wives inevitably would want to dress like aristocrats. Someone had to design their gowns, so why not Berthe Bovary, whose mother taught her to love fine fabrics? Already she has shown a propensity to make things beautiful; when Grandmere gave Berthe a homespun dress to wear day in and day out on the farm, she dipped it in beet juice and turned the hideous garment a pleasant pale rose color.

Her old friend Millet is scornful of those who earn their livelihoods in the fashion trade —purveying goods, as he puts it—but in an era where art and commerce were indeed finding common ground, Berthe ultimately makes use of her talents. The road to her career involves an arduous journey as a maid in the mill owner’s home in Paris, where Berthe is fully aware that the job will require sexual favors, but Urbach’s tale takes an imaginative twist here, and the predator is not the household member Berthe and the reader expect. The master of the house, Monsieur Rappelais, turns out to be a man who really loves ladies’ dresses, so much that he wears them.

Berthe has a love interest, too, a temperamental and philandering young artist named Armand, who on their early meeting says “I have better things to do than educate a maid about my work.”  That might be enough warning to a more self-assured woman, but Berthe’s response is to take her first trip to the Louvre to try and learn about art. The bittersweet conclusion finds her straddling that divide between art and consumerism.

It feels, in fact, like homage to an oft-told tale about Flaubert. One day the great anti-bourgeois author, who had no use for marriage or property, was out walking with his sister, and suddenly stopped at a small house with a white picket fence, watching a very middle class family in the yard—the enemy. Yet instead of sneering, he said, reportedly without irony, “Ils sont dans le vrai!” (“They are in the truth!”)

Berthe, who once rebelled by stealing to get enough to eat, becomes a little more than a bourgeoisie wife, a little less than a great artist. But I like to think she might have hosted salons from time to time, and Flaubert might have stopped by and been civil. . .

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