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Friday, February 10, 2017

“Civilization: The West and the Rest”, by Niall Ferguson

432 pages, Penguin Books, ISBN-13: 978-0143122067

Since classical antiquity, historians have tended to think that empires, like living creatures, evince a discernible rhythm: they are born, they mature, and then they die, and Niall Ferguson, in Civilization: The West and the Rest, informs us that while this need not always be so, it’ll probably still happen, anyway. Ferguson reminds us that if at times history appears to have a cyclical quality, it is actually far more haphazard and that there is nothing historically determined about the life cycle of empires. Intimately acquainted with chaos theory, the author probes a sobering question, namely, “What if history is not cyclical and slow-moving but arrhythmic – sometimes almost stationary, but also capable of violent acceleration?” (putting one in mind of Shelley’s poem Ozymandias). But for civilizations to fall they must first rise, and Ferguson sets out to answer why, beginning around 1500, a few small polities on the western end of the Eurasian landmass came to dominate the rest of the world. He identifies six factors that, combined, gave the civilization of the West a decisive edge over the Rest: Competition, Science, Property Rights, Medicine, The Consumer Society, and The Work Ethic.

Within this Western-centered framework, Ferguson invites charges of Eurocentrism, yet he does not intend “Western” to connote any sort of incompatibility with other cultures. The germ of the principles that he cites as catalysts of civilization is, in broad terms, Classical Liberalism, a concept that derives, in large measure, from the English-speaking peoples but is Universalist in nature. It is for this reason rarely an imposition (although armies have occasionally attended its advance) and its abiding power lies in the magnetic attraction of its ideas and ideals, spreading “more by the word than by the sword”. The foundations of civilization, as Ferguson shows, were established in the West while they were shunned almost everywhere else. It is hard to quarrel with Ferguson on this score; it is a simple fact, for instance, that the scientific revolution owed scarcely any debt to the non-Western world (a good illustration of why this was so can be found in the story of Takiyüddin al-Rasid, the gifted scientist who constructed an observatory of some sophistication in medieval Istanbul. “Under the influence of Sheikh ul-Islam Kadizade”, Ferguson recounts, “the Sultan deemed the project blasphemous and in 1580 ordered it destroyed. There would not be another observatory in Istanbul until 1868”).

Ferguson is especially canny, however, on the role of faith in his account of the Work Ethic and how it drove Europeans onwards and upwards. Registering a deep suspicion of atheism, he quotes approvingly from G. K. Chesterton’s The Miracle of Moon Crescent: “You hard-shelled materialists [are] all balanced on the very edge of belief – of belief in almost anything.” Himself a confirmed religious skeptic, Ferguson thus embodies a fascinating paradox: plumbing the shallow reserves of his trust in human nature, this hard-shelled materialist finds that religious dogma, if not metaphysically true, is nonetheless a bulwark of civilization. “Religious belief (as opposed to formal observance) of any sort appears to be associated with economic growth, particularly where concepts of heaven and hell provide incentives for good behavior. This tends to mean not only hard work . . . but also thrift, honesty, trust and openness to strangers, all economically beneficial traits”. This claim of the spiritual and the material as natural allies is undermined in the next paragraph on the evidence that “the power of the imams and mullahs snuffed out any chance of a scientific revolution in the Islamic world” and that “the Roman Catholic Church acted as one of the brakes on economic development in South America”. Ferguson does not quite address this problem, but he provides ample evidence to suggest that his defense is less of Christianity (let alone a particular faith) than it is specifically of the Protestant tradition. “Protestantism made the West not only work, but also save and read”.

It is a distinction, however, that no longer applies in Europe, where God has decisively lost to Caesar. To this religious atrophy Ferguson has assigned great weight, for the waning of Christianity in Europe, he comments sadly, has fostered a soft relativism that has shrunk patriotism to the size of a soccer ball. It is easy to press this rigid secularism into the service of the declining role Europe has adopted since “the Beatles, the Pill, and the mini-skirt”, but then again, if European civilization was paralyzed by social liberation and got its death blow from bowing out of Christendom, then what explains that societies retaining a thick Christian residue (Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain all spring to mind) share similar below-replacement-level birthrates and one-way multiculturalism with the continent’s more godless countries? Nor have the Christian churches been conspicuous in their resistance to cultural masochism. Perhaps a better explanation for Europe’s crisis of civilizational morale, after two World Wars that almost destroyed it utterly and a Cold War that made them the frontline between warring ideologies, is on moral relativism that cannot see any redeeming value in native culture.

Edward Gibbon tells us that the idea of writing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was conceived as he “sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing Vespers in the Temple of Jupiter.” For Ferguson, portents of the (second) decline and fall of the West came as he sat in Carnegie Hall, mesmerized by the music of Angel Lam, the gifted Chinese composer who “personifies the Orientalization of classical music”. This inspiration might seem a trifle less grandiose than Gibbon’s, but whatever occurred to Ferguson that melodic evening has him convinced that the era of Western predominance, set in train more than 500 years ago, is spiraling toward its close. As the son of a defunct Western empire, he seems to recognize the stench of decay, and it is not obvious that his nostrils are leading him astray. The only consolation to be found is in the fact that the future is, as Ferguson knows very well, no sure thing. 

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