Civilization, By Niall Ferguson

Europe’s journey from medieval civilisers to today’s idlers

Christopher Hirst
Thursday 17 May 2012 18:02
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Written by a historian lauded in The Times as "the most brilliant of his generation", this defence of Western civilisation contrives to be off-puttingly trendy in its sub-title ("The Six Killer Apps of Western Power") and starchy in its preface (two pages devoted to the historiography of R.C.Collingwood from 1939). Fortunately, the narrative proper bears Ferguson's hallmarks of readability and impressive research. With the skill of a master strategist, he marshals facts and opinion.

Ferguson's six major reasons for the success of the West begin with medieval competition that propelled our technology ahead of even the advanced Chinese. Ferguson maintains that "multilevel competition" between states and even within cities explains the rapid development of the mechanical clock from the 1330s onwards. "Not only more accurate than the Chinese water clocks, they were intended to be disseminated rather than monopolised by the Emperor's astronomers."

Other forces that bolstered Western advance include science, which enabled the West to dominate the Orient, particularly following the Ottoman failure to take Vienna in 1683, and the property rights inherent in British colonisation, which "generally produced better economic results than Spanish or Portuguese, wherever it was tried."

Ferguson adds medical developments ("There is no question that here, as elsewhere, Western empire brought real measurable progress), the consumer society and the work ethic: "The Western model of industrial production and mass consumption left alternative models of economic organisation floundering in its wake."

However, Ferguson goes on to point out that "Europeans are today the idlers of the world", which he links to "a comparable divergence in religiosity. Europeans not only work less; they also pray less – and believe less." Citing the tumultuous collapse of the Roman empire – "in just five decades the population of Rome itself fell by three-quarters" – he concludes that "Maybe the real threat is posed not by the rise of China, Islam or carbon dioxide but by our own loss of faith in the civilisation we inherited."

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