A Review of Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson

The book attempts to define what we call Western Civilization and provide the answer to the (mythical) Rasselas’s question “By what means … are the Europeans thus powerful.” The book contains a lot of material but it is poorly organized and I did not find any new arguments in it. The historical fact is that until the early fourteenth century Western Europe was lagging not only the remote Chinese empire but also the Muslim states of the Middle East. The following story is indicative. In 799 the famous Caliph Harun al-Rashid received an embassy from Charlemagne. When the embassy went back it carried Harun's gifts that included a clock that was the source of amazement amongst the Europeans. During the Arab Golden Age (roughly 750-1250) learning and the arts flourished. But that came to an end while at the same time Western Europe was waking up.

Ferguson provides six factors that underpin Western civilization: Competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society, and the work ethic. However these factors are not independent and it is clear that some of them are the fruits of learning and commerce. Furthermore the author wanders around when he discusses each of the factors. For example the chapter on Science contains a long discussion of the second siege of Vienna by the Ottomans in 1683 even though science did not figure out in the outcome of that war. The Ottomans were not well prepared but they had hoped to take advantage of the religious disputes in Europe getting some Protestant Hungarians to join them against the Catholic Hapsburgs. That alliance produced little and at the end the Ottomans were defeated by the Polish cavalry that came to the aid of Vienna. (I rely on Caroline Finkel’s book Osman’s Dream for my account of the siege.)

When Ferguson finally gets down to discuss Science he makes a blunder by stating that in Christianity Church and State have been separate because of fundamental Christian tenet stated in the Gospel of Matthew. But that tenet (together with much of the Gospels) has been violated in practice. The Roman emperor Constantine I presided over a synod of bishops that defined in detail the minutiae of the Christian faith (Nicean creed). About 50 years later the Roman emperor Theodosius I made that version of Christianity the ONLY religion of the Roman Empire. This is a quote from the Imperial decree: “It is our pleasure that all the nations which are governed by our clemency and moderation should steadfastly adhere to the religion which was taught by St. Peter to the Romans, which faithful tradition has preserved, and which is now professed by the pontiff Damasus, and by Peter, bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness …… Besides the Condemnation of Divine justice, (non believers) must expect to suffer the severe penalties which our authority, guided by heavenly wisdom, shall think proper to inflict upon them.” (The quote is from Gibbon’s book, Chapter XXVII.) This passage is instructive not only because it puts to rest any claims of separation of church and state but also because the Pope Damasus is listed in the same level as the bishop of Alexandria. The Pope did not become independent of the emperor and the main Christian authority until several centuries later when Alexandria fell under Muslim rule and around that time the Roman emperors lost control of Rome. (Ironically, their state continued to be called the Roman Empire, although modern historians refer to it as the Byzantine Empire.)

This is certainly the worst but not the only flaw in Ferguson’s analysis. My main criticism is that there is no effort to find the underlying cause for the Renaissance that later gave birth to the Industrial Revolution. Ferguson points out the importance of the Rule of Law but the question remains. Why did the rule of law take root in Western Europe and not elsewhere? Fareed Zakaria (in his book The Future of Freedom) has pointed out that in resource rich states the rulers become wealthy by selling resources (oil is a prime examples) while in resource poor states the rulers acquire wealth by taxing their subjects, so it is in the ruler’s interest to have affluent subjects. That is however a modern classification and the rule of law did not always exist in Western Europe.

The best explanation for rise of the West I have read comes from Gibbon. He states that the Crusades decimated the Western European ruling classes and that led to the establishment of the rule of law. For example, the Magna Carta was granted in 1215, past the halfway point of the era of the Crusades (1096-1272). Gibbon writes (Chapter LXI) "The estates of the barons were dissipated ... Their poverty extorted from their pride those charters of freedom which unlocked the fetters of the slave, secured the farm of the peasant and the shop of the artificer ...” He concludes the section with a metaphor: "The conflagration which destroyed the tall and barren trees of the forest gave air and scope to the vegetation of the small and nutritive plants of the soil."

This leaves unanswered the question of what caused the end of the Arab Golden Age. The most direct answer is the rise of religious conservatism in Islam. The story of Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), known to Europeans as Averroes, is instructive. He was a physician who wrote a seven volume medical encyclopedia and a physicist who first expressed what it became known later as the law of inertia. He achieved high positions and was a favorite of the emir Abu Yusuf al-Mansur to whom Averroes dedicated his Commentary on Plato's Republic. But in 1195 Abu Yusuf dismissed Averroes from his high office and sent him into exile in order to appease the Islamic jurists and theologians who did not like Averroes' rationalism.

One could argue that the Crusades caused a rise in militancy and conservatism in the Muslim world that in turn caused the suppression of intellectual pursuits. At the same time the Crusades removed an impediment to progress from Western Europe. Progress requires freedom to experiment and make mistakes that authoritarian rulers are not going to tolerate. Ferguson quotes an Ottoman writer who stated that “the people of Turkey excel all other peoples in their nature of accepting rule and order.” (p. 86). Ferguson misses the chance to point out that this “praiseworthy” quality was exactly what kept the people of Turkey back.

The view that irreverence is a prerequisite for innovation is expressed today in efforts of non-Western nations to emulate Western innovation. A recent issue (Nov. 26, 2011) of the Economist described how that realization is coming into play in the recently established Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology.