It is hard to describe the joy of reading a book so well-crafted that words like “masterpiece” and “genius” come to mind. Reading Niall Ferguson’s “Civilization: The West and the Rest” feels like getting bowled over by an intellectual wrecking ball again and against and again — but you keep coming back for more. If you can take the punishment, then you too are handed a wrecking ball of your very own upon completion of the final page. With your newly acquired weapon you can knock down cultural relativists and anti-Western internet trolls who are too lazy to go through Mr. Ferguson’s gauntlet.
The task before Mr. Ferguson was great: he had to break down the entire history of Western Civilization and explain the key traits — the “killer apps” — its members downloaded to make them rise above the rest. He then had to explain how nations like the U.S. and the U.K. are at risk of letting it all slip away.
Ferguson’s six “apps” are:
- The Scientific Revolution
- The rule of law and representative government
- Modern medicine
- The consumer society
- Work ethic
A sentient drop of water in Lake Ontario would have no clue that it was going to shoot over Niagara Falls in a few days without a broader sense of perspective. Likewise, it can be difficult to see just how close Western civilization is to going over a cliff without trying to obtain a bird’s eye view.
Mr. Ferguson writes:
What is most striking about this more modern reading of history is the speed of the Roman Empire’s collapse. In just five decades, the population of Rome itself fell by three quarters. Archaeological evidence from the late fifth century —inferior housing, more primitive pottery, fewer coins, smaller cattle — shows that the benign influence of Rome diminished rapidly in the rest of Western Europe. What one historian called ‘the end of civilization’ came within the span of a single generation.
Could our own version of Western civilization collapse with equal suddenness? It is, admittedly an old fear that began haunting British intellectuals from Chesterton to Shaw more than a century ago. Today, however, the fear may be more grounded. — Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest (New York: Penguin, 2011), 292.
To make matters worse, those charged with providing that elevated view have done a horrible job — for decades. The author accurately observes in the preface:
For roughly thirty years, young people at Western schools and universities have been given the idea of a liberal education, without the substance of historical knowledge. They have been taught isolated ‘modules’, not narratives, much less chronologies. They have been trained in the formulaic analysis of document excerpts, not in the key skill of reading widely and fast. They have been encouraged to feel empathy with imagined Roman centurions or Holocaust victims, not to write essays about why and how their predicaments arose. …
The current world population makes up approximately 7 percent of all the human beings who have ever lived. The dead outnumber the living, in other words, fourteen to one, and we ignore the accumulated experience of such a huge majority of mankind at our peril. … [T]he past is really our only reliable source of knowledge about the fleeting present and to the multiple futures that lies before us, only one of which will actually happen. History is not just how we study the past; it is how we study time itself. (Preface, xx)
‘Civilization: The West and the Rest’ is an extremely important book. If you find yourself looking around and asking, “Where did it all go wrong? What’s happening to us?” then you should buy it today. Mr. Ferguson and the researchers who helped put together his book should be proud. It’s a masterpiece that will be studied for years to come, whether Western civilization retains its global seat of prominence or not.