DAILY TELEGRAPH BOOKS OF THE YEAR
If in the year 1411 you had been able to circumnavigate the globe, you would have been most impressed by the dazzling civilizations of the Orient. The Forbidden City was under construction in Ming Beijing; in the Near East, the Ottomans were closing in on Constantinople.
By contrast, England would have struck you as a miserable backwater ravaged by plague, bad sanitation and incessant war. The other quarrelsome kingdoms of Western Europe - Aragon, Castile, France, Portugal and Scotland - would have seemed little better. As for fifteenth-century North America, it was an anarchic wilderness compared with the realms of the Aztecs and Incas. The idea that the West would come to dominate the Rest for most of the next half millennium would have struck you as wildly fanciful. And yet it happened.
What was it about the civilization of Western Europe that allowed it to trump the outwardly superior empires of the Orient? The answer, Niall Ferguson argues, was that the West developed six "killer applications" that the Rest lacked: competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic. The key question today is whether or not the West has lost its monopoly on these six things. If so, Ferguson warns, we may be living through the end of Western ascendancy.
Civilization takes readers on their own extraordinary journey around the world - from the Grand Canal at Nanjing to the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul; from Machu Picchu in the Andes to Shark Island, Namibia; from the proud towers of Prague to the secret churches of Wenzhou. It is the story of sailboats, missiles, land deeds, vaccines, blue jeans and Chinese Bibles. It is the defining narrative of modern world history.
Ferguson (Colossus), Harvard historian, polymath, and bestselling author, joins others who've tried to explain the rise and dominance of the West, "the pre-eminent historical phenomenon of the second half of the second millennium after Christ." He also has his eye on an increasingly pressing concern: the threats, from inside and outside, to Western hegemony. Ferguson attributes the West's supremacy and the spread of Western ways to six factors: competition, science, property rights (the rule of law), medicine, the consumer society, and the work ethic. It's a grab bag of plausible conditions that differ from reasons cited by other students of the subject, but all hard to prove. Ominously, from Ferguson's perspective, "the fortuitous weakness of the West's rivals" is turning to strengths, threatening Western supremacy. Turning from historian to seer, Ferguson thus foresees the West's decline and fall (of which he seems convinced) arising from both self-inflicted wounds (such as self-indulgence and weakening educational systems) and the strengthening of nations, such as China, that are modernizing and improving the education of their young people. Perhaps. The book would have gained by greater focus and less of a jumble of details. The reason for Ferguson's fear of "the rest" isn't clear, but those who share his concern will find that he has penned a sobering caution. Illus.
Fantastically interesting and original
This book is easily in my Top 5 of all time.
If you want a book that clearly tells the fascinating story of how the West came to dominate the world, rather than say the Ming dynasty and any other past or present civilisation, then this is the book. Filled with the most interesting of information, and told in a captivating way, i was spellbound and have drawn on it countless times since finishing.