Review | Civilization: the West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson

The elevator pitch for Niall Ferguson‘s “Civilization: The West and the Rest” is simple: Western civilization has risen to dominate world affairs over the last five hundred years, a record unmatched in world history and at odds with its population and geography relative to other countries and civilizations, due to six “killer apps” that have provided an advantage on the international stage. Further, it may be the West’s loss of those same “apps” that is leading to decline now.

Ferguson pegs the rise of the West to dominance at about the same time as the discovery of the Americas, and so, having just finished a look at that chapter of history in “1491” and “1493“, I decided to take a closer look at Ferguson’s argument. What was the secret of the West? And could we really be headed towards decline or collapse?

Where many histories today focus on the specific “modules” of history, drilling down to look closely at specific persons or events (think Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” on Abraham Lincoln’s political management or Horowitz’s “Midnight Rising” on the John Brown raid at Harper’s Ferry), Ferguson takes another tact by looking at the broad strokes of history to find themes, the grand “narratives” of history, as he calls them. Where other historians dig into the details, Ferguson wants to look at the big picture. As he explains in the preface:

Watching my three children grow up, I had the uneasy feeling that they were learning less history than I had learned at their age, not because they had bad teachers but because they had bad history books and even worse examinations. Watching the financial crisis [of the late 2000s] unfold, I realized that they were far from alone, for it seemed as if only a handful of people in the banks and treasuries of the Western world had more than the sketchiest information about the last Depression. For roughly thirty years, young people at Western schools and universities have been given the idea of a liberal education, without the substance of historical knowledge. They have been taught isolated ‘modules’, not narratives, much less chronologies. They have been trained in the formulaic analysis of document excerpts, not in the key skill of reading widely and fast. They have been encouraged to feel empathy with imagined Roman centurions or Holocaust victims, not to write essays about why and how their predicaments arose.

With that flippant, matter of fact, almost “devil-may-care” attitude then, Ferguson determines to take the reader through a grand narrative of the last five hundred years, identifying six “killer apps” that Western civilization adopted to rise to a dominance unmatched in breadth and duration in human history.  It is this broad overview, as told in Ferguson’s urgent and quick-witted voice, that makes the extended argument so interesting and in an age of multicultural relativism, refreshing. Welding his argument–not just about the cause of Western civilization’s success, but also that “the historian can commune with the dead by imaginatively reconstructing their experiences” to inform and predict the future–Ferguson spins together the documents, events, and personalities to form a narrative, a story, about why the West succeeded in the face of larger, richer, and, at the onset, more wealthy civilizations.

The “tools” to which he attributes the rise of the West are likened to “apps,” downloadable software that augment computers and mobile devices. By looking at the narrative, Ferguson finds the roots of the West’s success, as well as why, perhaps, the West as begun to decline while other civilizations advance.  Not specific to the West, but, like the real world apps in the metaphor, the values can be “downloaded” by any culture for similar results, and in the closing Ferguson addresses the adaptation by non-Western cultures that have done, and are doing,  just that with success.

The “apps” Ferguson finds, while not necessarily surprising, are informative: competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumption and the birth of the “consumer society” (“without which theIndustrial Revolution would have been unsustainable”) and  Max Weber‘s Protestant “work ethic”. While the narrative is anything but chronological, Ferguson’s grasp of history and the sweeping strokes with which he paints the narrative provide fascinating reading. One cannot sense, however, that Ferguson, almost anything but apologetic, is on the verge of glorying in the success of the British Empire during its hey-day as a colonial power, noting with statistical explanation the improvements brought to the world through Western influence, whether it be in medicine, literacy, and education. Or blue jeans, for in the end, one side effect of rise of the West is not diversity, but conformity as cultures imitate and emulate Western styles, habits, and philosophy.

Ironically to this writer, who sees such deep and lasting value in the political institutions of the West, Ferguson notes that one area where the West has not been uniformly imitated is the political.

Only in the realm of political institutions does there remain significant global diversity, with a wide range of governments around the world resisting the idea of the rule of law, with its protection of individual rights, as the foundation for meaningful representative government.

In other words, we’ll take your blue jeans, your medicine, even your work ethic, but you can keep the Bill of Rights and representative government, they say.  Indeed, it is that  imitation of the West that has brought China from the depths of the Cultural Revolution to heights today when its economy can weather the financial crisis without more than a hiccup.

After Ferguson’s narrative through the six “apps”, then, we reach the essential question suggested by any study of the West’s rise: is the West now in decline? And if so, is it too late to reverse?

Perhaps not. Although China’s rise seems ominous, and indeed, Ferguson cites China’s relative nonchalance towards doing business with the dictators and warlords of the world business “it’s just business” as evidence that China is more concerned about rising than its popularity, China still faces problems that could arrest its progress, especially from social unrest, political pressure from its growing and unrepresented middle-class, or friction with its neighbors in Asia.

Noting that a “retreat from the mountains of the Hindu Kush” (Afghanistan) seems to proceed the fall of any empire–be it Alexander’s, British, Russian, or most recently American–Ferguson is unwilling to give up on the West, yet.  No, the things that set the West apart are no longer distinct, but nor has the entire package of “apps” been embraced.

The Chinese have got capitalism. The Iranians have got science. The Russians have got democracy. The Africans are (slowly) getting modern medicine. And the Turks have got the consumer society. But what this means is that Western modes of operation are not in decline but are flourishing nearly everywhere, with only a few remaining pockets of resistance. A growing number of Resterners [Ferguson’s name for non-Westerners] are sleeping, showering, dressing, working, playing, eating, drinking and travelling like Westerners.  Moreover, as we have seen, Western civilization is more than just one thing; it is a package. It is about political pluralism (multiple states and multiple authorities) as well as capitalism; it is about the freedom of thought as well as the scientific method; it is about the rule of law and property rights as well as democracy. Even today, the West still has more of these institutional advantages than the Rest. The Chinese do not have political competition. The Iranians do not have freedom of conscience. They get to vote in Russia, but the rule of law there is a sham. In none of these countries is there a free press. These differences may explain why, for example, all three countries lag behind Western countries in qualitative indices that measure‘national innovative development’ and ‘national innovation capacity’.

True, the West is not without its faults, he says, but our downfall will come from within, not from external pressure. It’s the loss of the “killer apps” by our culture that will, in the long and short run, lead to our continued decline.  Don’t mistake the adoption, however, by others as the reason for the decline of the West. Rather, it is the West’s abandonment of the values that brought them prominence that is leading to the decline. Here, again, Ferguson picks up the theme in his preface–we must learn from history. If we are to maintain the great values that gave the West its rise, we must study and learn the great works–the documents–that teach those values.* Add up all the values, and, like any follower of Churchill, it adds up to courage and action.

Today, as then [1938 and the German Nazi threat to Western civilization], the biggest threat to Western civilization is posed not by other civilizations, but by our own pusillanimity – and by the historical ignorance that feeds it.


If you’re interested in a brief version of Ferguson’s views on the six “apps” that he discusses in the book, check out his speech at TED.


* Ferguson’s recommended “standard works” for Western civilization are:

  • The King James Bible
  • Isaac Newton’s Principa
  • John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government
  • Adam Smith’s Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations
  • Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France
  • Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species
  • William Shakespeare’s plays
  • Selected speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill
  • Also, if he could select only one of the above, it would be Shakespeare’s collected works.


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Parent’s guide:

  • Content rating: G to PG, if just because it’s not really geared towards kids
  • Sex: None.
  • Violence: Some reference to war, torture, and other Western malfeasance, but it’s non-fiction.
  • Language: None
About Daniel

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. He reads about history, politics, and current events, as well as more serious genres such as science fiction and fantasy. You can also follow him on his blog where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas.