Bookmarks Issue: 

The West and the Rest

A-CivilizationBritish author, historian, and Harvard professor Niall Ferguson routinely challenges accepted wisdom and explores alternative perspectives in such books as The Pity of War: Explaining World War One (1998), Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (2.5 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2004), The War of the World (4 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2007), and The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World (3 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2009). He is currently working on an authorized biography of Henry Kissinger.

The Topic: Carved up into small, squabbling fiefdoms and reeling from the plague, 15th-century Europe was no match for the majesty and might of Imperial China or the Ottoman Empire, but six "killer apps" inherent in its political, economic, and social structure led Western civilization to prevail over the next 500 years: capitalism; a culture of consumerism; individual property rights; scientific research and technological innovation; advances in medicine; and a strong work ethic. Today the West's greatest threats arise from those non-European nations (i.e., Japan, China, and India) that have successfully "downloaded" these apps. The "Western package," according to Ferguson, continues to be the model "most likely to unleash the individual human creativity capable of solving the problems the twenty-first century world faces."
Penguin. 402 pages. $35. ISBN: 9781594203053

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars"Ferguson's division of world societies into ‘Westerners' and ‘Resterners' may be too cute by half, but if his premise is correct, then the West is in for a spectacular fall. ... Ferguson, a Scotland native who teaches history at Harvard and is a research fellow at Oxford University, lays out his observations and arguments with an erudition that is enviable in its breeziness, sweep and confidence." Tyrone Beason

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars"Ferguson's tone is breezy and brash. ... Often provocative, Ferguson is not always persuasive." Glenn C. Altschuler

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars"Mr. Ferguson tells his story with characteristic verve and an eye for the felicitous phrase. ... Only occasionally does the style of Civilization echo that of the accompanying British TV series, with staccato two-word sentences that work better on-screen than on the printed page." Brendan Simms

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars"The book is the basis for a television series in Britain, and he told an interviewer that it aims to give a '17-year-old boy or girl ... a lot of history in a very digestible way.' Yet it must be said that bits of history are what they get, not the kind of 'big story' one requires to understand the character and development of Western and other civilizations. We still need a full account of how and why one thing followed another, of cause and consequence, of the role of chance versus the force of inherited tradition." Donald Kagan

New York Times 2 of 5 Stars"Not only do the book's more cogent arguments owe a decided debt to ones made by the New York Times Op-Ed columnist Thomas L. Friedman and the CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria, but its more original hypotheses also tend to devolve into questionable generalizations (‘Europeans today are the idlers of the world'), contradictory assertions and silly Power Point schemas that strain painfully to be relevant and hip. ... What keeps the reader pushing on through Civilization is the author's knack for making long-ago events as vivid and visceral as the evening news, for weaving anecdotes and small telling details together with a wide-angled retrospective vision." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

Although Ferguson's formidable knowledge and smart writing style are on full display in Civilization, his latest foray is a companion piece to a British television series--a relationship that becomes evident in the book's occasionally stilted prose, slapdash narration, and erratic, nonchronological order. (The series, like the book, is organized by "app.") Some critics were also annoyed by unconvincing arguments and, by the New York Times, outright bias. However, most--including the Times--praised Ferguson's easy ability to suffuse his claims with fascinating anecdotes and bring the past to vibrant, visceral life. Distilling five centuries of human society into fewer than 500 pages, Civilization is an ambitious and impressive achievement. Those who are able to overlook the books' flaws will find an interesting and thoughtful read.