Book Review: Civilization, by Niall Ferguson

Civilization. Niall Ferguson. Penguin. Softcover. 402pgs. $18.

Civilization is a book which should be read by anyone needing a refresher course in World History, American History, or World Civilizations. The last sentence of the book explains why: “the biggest threat to Western civilization is posed not by other civilizations, but by our own pusillanimity – and the historical ignorance that feeds it.” I’ll save you the work of looking up “pusillanimity.” It means, “cowardice.”

Why would Niall say the greatest threat to Western civilization is “cowardice?” How can we, and by “we” I mean Europe, Canada, and the United States, be labeled as “cowards?” After, all didn’t we take on Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the Taliban?

First, Niall did not call “us” cowards, to be accurate. He means if we don’t wake up and smell what China is cooking, or see what is happening to U.S. fiscal and monetary policy, if we don’t face facts, if we choose to deny fiscal, monetary, and economic faults, then, yes, we are cowards, hiding our heads in the proverbial sand.

Niall sets forth 6 Pillars of Civilization. I call them “pillars,” a reference to the 5 Pillars of Islam. These pillars correspond to a question Niall asks at the onset of his book,

“What has made Western civilization so successful compared to the rest.”

The rest being Asia, China, Japan, Korea, Russia, and India; Brazil; Africa; and the Middle East. These countries, regions, and realms all had periods of at least moderate success in a a number of endeavors, exploration, agriculture, in bureaucracy, in science, literature, and arts. So what happened?

In Civilization, Niall sets forth to answer the above question for each of the above realms through the examination of 6 pillars, what he calls “Novel Complexes.”

  1. Competition
  2. Science
  3. Property Rights
  4. Medicine
  5. The Consumer Society
  6. The Work Ethic

Competition, Niall offers, was far more important throughout the history of Western civilization than within the histories of other cultures. Authoritarian governments, dictatorships, military juntas, and monarchies stifled competition. Not just stifled competition but in the case of 15th century China, competition and exploration were outlawed. During the Ming Dynasty, Chinese explorer Zheng He had ships at his disposal 4x’s larger than any ship found in Europe, wooden, masted ships about 50% the size of today’s modern aircraft carriers. Some of the Chinese fleet ships were over 400 feet from stem to stern, capable of mobilizing over 28,000 crew members. Over the span of 19 years, Zheng He’s fleet plied the seas from China to Africa to Portugal. In his book, 1491, Gavin Menzies argues the Chinese explored the western coast of North America.

The Chinese had invented numerous technologies which aided their commercial efforts, items like the magnetic compass, the toothbrush, and chemical insecticides. The Chinese also improved paper-making technology and also had a printing press.

So, what happened?

Zheng He’s supporter, Emperor Yongle died. His successor, Hongxi, declared all ships to be scuttled, made sailing and boat-building illegal, punishable by death. All exploration was effectively halted. Few of the advances made during the reign of Yongle carried forward into the new leadership.

In Europe, however, the “West,” many small territories, empires, and principalities all vied for control of both landscape, trade routes, and commercial opportunities. Portugal, for instance, benefited immensely simply from its simply geography, positioned on the end of the Iberian Peninsula. For such a small country to reach out and become an early world power is a testimony to the efforts of a small culture to identify the importance of trade, of exploration, of ship-building and investment in people.

From the early years of the 15th century, Portuguese explorers like Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco de Gama, set forth in ships the Chinese would have found to be tiny in comparison. The four ships of de Gama would have easily fit inside a single Chinese ship. Yet, with these small vessels, the Portuguese opened up trades routes with Africa, South Asia, and would eventually reach the coasts of South America. Even today, the imprint of Portuguese culture lives on the national language of Brazil, Portuguese.

The competition for resources, for spices, gold, silver, silk, sugar, and salt, plus the desire for textiles unavailable at the time in Europe, drove Portugal, Spain, France, Great Britain, Holland, and later Germany into commercial competition with each other around the world. Holland and Great Britain both had “companies” with private militias. The Dutch had the “Dutch East India Company,” while the British had the “British East India Company.”

Around the world, European countries would find themselves in direct competition with each other. Our own American history is direct evidence of the conflict between England and France. The British crown possessed territory outright or through patriots along the East Coast of North America. Territory west of the Mississippi River belonged to France. Florida was a Spanish possession.

Competition was completely responsible for the commercialization and subjugation of people, of slavery. When European indentured servitude did not pan out like hoped, Europeans availed themselves to African cultures, buying slaves in Africa and shipping them to the Americas, North America, the Caribbean, and South America.

Niall has no section, or Novel Complex associated with Religion, and perhaps he should. Religion is a persistent, over-arching theme, associated with all six of his enumerated complexes.

Judaism allowed non-Jews a means of handling money. Islam, for example, forbids the charging of interest. Early Islamic scholars were responsible for a vast array of cultural improvements. In fact, early Islamic scholars argued God (Allah) desired all people to strive for learning and education. It was Islamic scholars who were responsible for saving many early Greek philosophical writings. Muslims developed the first hospitals, developed lens, developed early credit systems, and to the dismay of all students, algebra.

Christianity, Protestant Christianity, decidedly supported and encouraged commercial efforts and earning money. Wealth, many Christian sects believed, was evidence of God’s attention, of God’s support, and His complicit encouragement. There needs to be a distinction made between all flavors of Christianity, as not all supported the same notions. But, it was also Christianity, both in its Protestant and Catholic forms, which alleged slavery was a divine right of White people to own people just as if they were land, cattle, or any other property.

Remembering the Era of Slavery should be impressed upon every person, U.S. citizen or not. Those who attempt to rationalize the Confederacy and the underlying atrocities committed against other humans are simply electing to ignore the obvious. While other countries eliminated slavery, in fact, France allowed blacks access to Parliament in the 19th century, the United States, for however “free” we want to believe ourselves to have been, was free only to white, male property owners. While other countries outlawed slavery in the 1800s, one could argue slavery continued in some form or another into the 20th century in the American South. Attempts were made throughout U.S. to formalize slavery, either building slavery codes within state constitutions and the U.S. Constitution. Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina all had statutes which essentially stated,

“Once a slave, forever a slave. Even your children’s children will be slaves.”

To think the subjugation and barbarous treatment of people was literally codified into some state laws every person should find abhorrent. Even through the 1980’s, some states forbid miscongenation, the intermarriage of people from different races, going so far as to make such marriages unconstitutional. In 1967, sixteen states had laws forbidding racial intermarriage. Mississippi, in 1987, finally repealed laws forbidding racial intermarriage.

So much for “land of the free, and home of the brave.” As Niall states, the United States had the potential of becoming the “Land of the Permanently Unfree” for about 20% of the population.

The point being made was the early vociferous fight for the right to private property, whether the property fight was for a farm, cattle, or “chattel” (slaves). Countries which developed a rule of law, especially laws which allowed for the transfer of property and the demarcation of property, succeeded beyond those countries where land was entirely “public,” meaning owned exclusively by the government.

The Christian predilection to presume dark-skinned people, or people of color were inferior carried over into the both individual property rights and national policy. Manifest Destiny presumed the white peoples of the United States had a God-granted mission to expand across North America to the Pacific Coast and control all lands from coast-to-coast. In carrying out their mission, Native American people were routinely rounded-up and forced onto marginal lands, those tribes who acquiesced. Some tribes were obliterated while others were infected with smallpox, dying down to a few remaining number of members.

On the one hand, lands were opened to investment, capital, and development. The iron tendrils of the railroads would curl across the interior plains with the graces of the U.S. government along with the free land granted for growth. Villages, towns, and cities would evolve on the landscape which would eventually give rise the United States sharing a place at the table of World Powers as the 20th century arrived. However, we mustn’t forget the journey was not without very real and human costs.

Two of Niall’s “Novel Complexes,” Science and Medicine, go hand-in-hand with each other. Both are also affected by the over-arching theme of Religion. Again, I would suggest Religion as a 7th Novel Complex. In many ways, science and religion have been constantly at odds. From the Earth-centric view of the universe, to the eugenics practiced by the Germans in Namibia, religion has typically been an adversary to science, understanding, and enlightenment. Not just Christianity, but Islam, too, has been an obstacle to innovation.

In Islam’s Golden Age, science was revered. Muslim scholars, scientists, worked out geometry, algebra, optics. Muslim traders were responsible for developing some of the best cartographic representations of Africa, and the coasts along the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean.

So what happened?

As the European began to realize their perspective of the universe was wrong and Christianity altering basic tenets to allow for a solar system with the Sun at the center, and planets orbiting, Islam was faltering. Islam became infiltrated with fundamentalists, mullahs who decided Science was against God, that scientists were trying to deny the Qu’ran and prove God “wrong.” In Islam, all efforts must go to the glorification of God. One must strive to always be in a holy, spiritually mindful state. Anything, pursuing math or science, which takes time away from thinking about God became forbidden.

In Civilization, Niall calls Islam a “cult.” Islam is not a cult, no more than Christianity is a cult. In his book, Niall tends to drift off course from providing arguments to his established thesis to engage in nothing short of prejudice , or at least biased. Regardless of how one feels about religion, Islam, Christianity, or Hindu, to make such a statement undermines the intellectual pursuit of the book’s premise. I am not a religious person myself but I recognize the importance of religion to billions of people and to claim a religion with over 1 billion adherents as “a cult” is simply dismissive and wrong.

Niall does generate good points in his discussion of the importance of Science and Medicine. The pursuit of both require open minds, sharing of information, overcoming religious dogma, even to the point of putting one’s own life in jeopardy. The Freedom of Speech, of Expression, becomes paramount. Part of the continuing problem with health care in across Africa is the denial of modern medicine and the continued acceptance of shamanism (witch doctors) and tribal medicine. Even with 500 years of missionaries, established churches, conversions of masses to Christianity, millions of Africans still accept witch doctors with the same or more regard as Western doctors and medicine. Religion can suppress speech and ideas which superficially contradict God’s message, according to some. In early Europe, astronomers could be imprisoned or even set afire for promoting anything but an Earth-based center to the universe.

Eventually, Science and Reason would find benevolent advocates and sponsors. Expression and Speech would be recognized as being important to both Science and Religion, specifically the protection of speech, expression, and religion. The schism which led to the creation of the Anglican Church from Catholicism would lead to further Christian branches forming, thanks to Martin Luther. The rise of Protestantism would necessitate protection of speech simply to guarantee the rights of Quakers, Anglicans, Puritans, Lutherans, and Catholics to preach and have Sunday services.

The French Revolution would spawn one of the most important documents of any age, “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen” (1789).

No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law…

The “law” would be established not by king, but by the “general will” of the people. From this, representative government becomes necessary. However, we must remember representatives (in the United States) at this moment in history were to be wealthy male landowners, with more than 500 acres in their possession. To merely vote for a representative, a white male must own at least 50 acres. In France, their laws would become much more liberal, allowing any person to vote and hold a parliament position. France would elect the first black parliamentarian in the West.

Throughout Civilization, Niall draws upon copious references from all disciplines to support his thesis of why the West has succeeded. Readers who enjoy exposure to a variety of sources will find this book interesting. One cannot investigate civilization without drawing into question the fundamental question of , “What is Civilization?” and, perhaps equally important, “Who gets to define and decide what civilization is?”

Niall does not succumb to hubris to decide this for us. Instead, he offers insights from two millennia of philosophers, Jan-Jacque Rousseau, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, R.G. Collingwood, Karl Marx, Winston Churchill, Frederick Hayek, and John Maynard Keynes. Niall does provide a decent cross-section of ideas, of philosophies, along with insightful commentary to assist the reader with putting historical events into perspective. Being an armchair economist, I appreciated his extensive use of Smith, Ricardo, Hayek, and Keynes, among other notable economists. Having economic thought placed contemporaneously with repercussions of economic policies based upon economic theories I always appreciate.

Niall even manages to work in a brief discussion on video games, in particular, Sid Meier’s long-running Civilization series. Having played a few version of Civilization myself, I can appreciate the mention. How does a civilization succeed? By conquering all other civilizations? Or, perhaps by acquiring the most amount of toys (money or points)? Maybe a better measure is what the civilization has achieved, such as securing a moon colony, or reaching Alpha Centauri. While the discussion may seem trivial, the questions deserve bearing out. How does a civilization succeed? What goals or ideology should be a civilization’s focus? What direction, what purpose, should a civilization endeavor to move? Those are fundamentally important questions.

The final section of Civilization offers some seriously cautionary advice. China is on the rise, of that there is no doubt. China will eventually become the world’s largest economy, and the largest single force in Asia, achieving a near-hegemony over the entire western Pacific basin. To suggest otherwise is ludicrous. Actually, to fear this rise is just as ludicrous. Just as the sun rises, and sets, China is pre-destined to become a primary economic and political giant in the years ahead.

Does this mean the West has lost preeminence? That all depends on how the West chooses to respond. When economists examine Western lifestyles and economic choices visvis Chinese counterparts, distinct trends are unmistakable. First, Chinese workers work far longer hours. Chinese workers save far more money. Chinese families are thrifty. The Chinese government recognizes the value of keen investment opportunities abroad. The Chinese government has established relationships in Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America in order to supplement and ensure a steady supply of resources. In return for grain, oil, raw materials, the Chinese are building roads, railroads, and electrifying rural areas.

The Chinese also value education as much as some people adhere to their religion. The Chinese government is now the world leader in solar photovoltaic cell technology and manufacturing, and the manufacturing of wind turbines. The Chinese government invests in education, investing in scientists and engineers at nearly 3x’s the rate of Western cultures. The Chinese government scientists and engineers are encouraged to be innovative, and as a result, the number of patents and patent applications are skyrocketing, growing at a faster rate than their Western counterparts.

And, the Chinese are making dramatic progress  in addition to becoming more lenient towards religion. In the West, people have gotten soft. We are working less, retiring early, and receiving our public support money, our retirement benefits earlier. In fact, countries like Greece and Spain strike to work less, earn more, and receive greater benefits than either of their countries can financially afford. In the United States, a turn towards fundamentalist Christianity has impaired scientific progress. Portions of U.S. society opening mock education, science, climate change, space exploration, and other research pursuits. Even members of Congress argue scientific research should be submitted to political bureaucrats prior to any funding. Furthermore, United States military engagements in both Iraq and Afghanistan siphon money away from education and infrastructure improvements at home. To add insult to injury, an aging U.S. population threatens to further stagnate growth as a growing percent of national income must be used to accommodate those in retirement. Futhermore, our financial networks operate with principles apparently modeled upon the casinos of Monaco or Las Vegas, rather than on the application of sound financial strategies. Rampant speculation and unscrupulous investments by financial mavens coupled with unrealistic mortgages in an over-inflated housing market nearly brought the world to brink of ruin. The derth of moral and ethical ethos of  Western financiers has literally and figuratively bankrupted millions of people since 2008.

Niall usually speaks in plain terms, but I did find myself digging out my dictionary, on occasion, especially the word, “pusillanimous.” Cowardice. Timidity. For the West not to “fall,” tough decision must be made. National egos, nationalism, must be set aside. Politicians must release their adherence to entrenched political dogma, false memes, irrational ideas, and look towards the future of Western society.

But, as we are all too cognizant of, politicians are seldom brave, rarely break from the ideology of their cohorts, and thus are “pusillanimous” in their choices.

I also understand Niall Ferguson has openly spoken negatively about John Maynard Keynes and has made insensitive remarks about Keynes homosexuality. In my speculation above, I suspect Niall also harbors some prejudice against Islam. Not that I support Islam, or Christianity for that matter, those comments do not serve his message. But, whatever you think about the person aside, Civilization is a good “bird’s eye” review of history. Civilization is not a “hack” attempt to re-write history, nor does Ferguson present some doom-and-gloom perspective of the Fall of Western Civilization as if that is a surety. In my opinion, Civilization is mild clarion call, a mild warning, should Western civilization continue to discount Asia while simultaneously squandering wealth on ill-fated war efforts and arguing for less work hours and more social welfare – in other words, squander its intellectual resources, then we have no one to blame but ourselves when China replaces the United States, i.e. Western Civilization, as the dominant world culture.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, the tenor, the brevity of discussion, the insight, and the research effort Niall Ferguson engaged to pen this work. I read the book to engage my brain, to challenge my notions, and to educate myself. I had wanted to read this book since first becoming available in hardback. I rarely read hardbacks, due to expense. Thus, my review is old compared to the actual hardcover publication date. I do recommend the read.

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