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The Disappointed Lover of the West

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Colin McPherson/Corbis
Niall Ferguson, Edinburgh, August 2011

Civilization was once a popular subject. Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization, published between 1935 and 1975, told the history of the arts and sciences and the major events of political history from “Our Oriental Heritage” through “The Age of Napoleon.” Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation was a memorable 1969 TV documentary, in thirteen parts, which guided viewers to monuments of art, architecture, and philosophy from the Dark Ages to the “heroic materialism” of the mid-twentieth century. Clark made a book out of the show, but the appeal of the series lay in the combination of spoken words and camera shots. It took as its unit of interpretation the career rather than the isolated deed, thought, or masterpiece. As a venture of high popularization, the series set a standard that the next generation has yet to meet.

Niall Ferguson mentions Clark in his opening pages, and not without self-consciousness. Like Clark’s book, Civilization: The West and the Rest derives from the script of a documentary conceived for television; but where Clark confined himself mainly to the visual arts, Ferguson has aimed to cover a much wider field. The political, economic, military, and technological bases of civilization are his subject, including other civilizations besides that of the West. His disposition, however, toward the civilizations of China and Islam is indicated by his decision to call them “the rest.” Works of art make an early appearance but are soon given up.

Since Ferguson regrets what he calls the “de haut en bas” authority that Clark exemplified, he has taken precautions not to sound too high. He moves from artifact to structure to event, from king to president to imam, with a relentless horizontality. The book has a spiffy, jazzed-up, knowing air, which says to the reader: “You, too, can possess this kind of knowledge; you can make your own connections—the levers are in your grasp.” The tone is well adapted to the link culture of laptops and iPads, and it suits the message of the book: a dominant civilization must not hesitate to sing its own praises.

As his guide to the philosophy of history, Ferguson invokes R.G. Col- lingwood, the polymath philosopher and historian of early Britain. Collingwood in his Autobiography (1939) described the work of the historian as a reimagining of the mind of the past: “the re-enactment of a past thought.” The process could succeed only when one put a question to the partly resistant materials and had the patience to coax an answer in terms not wholly dictated by present concerns.

The further one reads in Ferguson’s book, the more incongruous this opening citation from Collingwood appears. Ferguson has not, in fact, launched his inquiry into the rise and fall of civilizations from an inward mastery of the named virtues or values of any particular civilization. Rather, his questions, and the answers that sometimes seem to hit before a question is asked, are dictated by habits, traits, and products of the very recent West, framed in an idiom strongly associated with American schools of management. The almost-personified West whose triumph he celebrates, and whose future he prognosticates, was shaped from the first, Ferguson wants us to believe, by six “killer apps”: elements comparable to the applications you download to enhance a smart phone.

The killer apps are “competition” (which, to make a proper “launch-pad” for states and economies, requires “a decentralization of both political and economic life”), “science,” “property” rights, “medicine,” “the consumer society,” and the “work ethic.” These make an absurd catalog. It is like saying that the ingredients of a statesman are an Oxford degree, principles, a beard, sociability, and ownership of a sports car. Ferguson’s killer apps of the West—both the idea and the phrase—in less than a decade will date the book as reliably as the adoption by a pop psychologist in 1966 of the word “groovy.”

If for several centuries, as Ferguson believes, the West has enjoyed an “edge” on the rest, what should we mean by the West? It is “much more than just a geographical expression”; one must think rather of “a set of norms, behaviours and institutions with borders that are blurred in the extreme.” A key word that occurs quite early is “dominance.” Ferguson locates the decision points or historical residues of dominance by writing about a landmark, crux, or monument (the author being filmed in the historically significant place). He backs his claim for its importance with statistics and charts, where relevant, and cuts to another comparable place or thing. In this presentation, pictures are all-important. Unhappily, in the book version we do not have the pictures. The added value may be that the book contains more words than the television series. Then again, a second drawback is that the words were punched in with images in mind. In a passage like the following, for example, the on-screen continuity is plainly meant to cut from the environs of the Yangzi River to the Thames:

The Black Death—the bubonic plague caused by the flea-borne bacterium Yersinia pestis, which reached England in 1349—had reduced London’s population to around 40,000, less than a tenth the size of Nanjing’s. Besides the plague, typhus, dysentery and smallpox were also rife.

Poor sanitation, Ferguson concludes, made London “a death-trap.” Two pages later comes a paragraph on Breughel’s Triumph of Death. The images may make all this vivid as the words do not.

A contrary-to-fact premise with which Ferguson occasionally teases us is that China could have dominated the West. Sanitation was on its side, and the place was full of inventions: “Chinese innovations include chemical insecticide, the fishing reel, matches, the magnetic compass, playing cards, the toothbrush and the wheelbarrow.” Great little things, and yet: “By comparison with the patchwork quilt of Europe, East Asia was—in political terms, at least—a vast monochrome blanket.” This was because it lacked the first killer app, “competition”: an active virtue that the West came to understand in the age of exploration. Early on, Ferguson sums up his conclusion in favor of the West: “As Confucius himself said: ‘A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace.’ But there was too much that was commonplace in the way Ming China worked, and too little that was new.”

Evidence of Western ascendancy is made to issue from data of the most various kinds. For example: “The average height of English convicts in the eighteenth century was 5 feet 7 inches,” while “the average height of Japanese soldiers in the same period was just 5 feet 2½ inches.” So, “when East met West by that time, they could no longer look one another straight in the eye.”

This is a curious deduction from an unexpected comparison. Another sort of commentator might infer that the Japanese soldier, keeping guard on the English convict, would be compelled to learn a new dexterity in the martial arts: to swing his rifle butt upward, in a chopping motion, which would lead to the refinement of jujitsu—an art that cross-fertilized the Western mind after World War II. Ferguson ignores the eccentric invitations that lie in his path, and cannot be trusted to realize how an asset like height might be turned against the advantage of its owner.

The triad of goods familiar to Americans—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—appeared in Locke’s Second Treatise on Government as life, liberty, and property. Ferguson prefers the no-nonsense Lockean version, and says of the American Revolution: “At root, it was all about property.” At root, all about. This sort of locution pervades the book. Again: “In the end, of course, the anomaly of slavery in a supposedly free society could be resolved only by war.” Of course? The end might have been a long way off had Stephen Douglas won the election of 1860. At-root motivations and of-course developments and in-the-end inevitabilities suggest the grip of teleology: the turn of mind that tells us things had to come out the way they did because they were always leading to us, and how can we imagine “progress” toward something different from ourselves?

For all his jumps, Ferguson sticks to a largely familiar subject matter framed by conventional judgments. The American Revolution stands for true progress, and the French Revolution for counterfeit progress. The latter, he believes, put into practice the political philosophy of Rousseau: it went astray by a literal adoption of the doctrine of the general will. This discovery Ferguson credits to Edmund Burke, but the truth is that Burke wrote very little about Rousseau, and never commented on the doctrine of the general will. He criticized the cult of Rousseau among the revolutionists for nontheoretical reasons: because it was a cult, a mask for collective egotism.

In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke charged that the wildness of Jacobinism had a British rather than a French source. It came from the post-1688 development of the radicalism of natural rights. Though he does not cite the name, Burke certainly does mean Locke, among others. What was wrong with Locke, or with supposing that the Glorious Revolution really was a revolution? Burke thought British liberty a tradition that England and perhaps America were able to digest; but “the old Parisian ferocity” was too little practiced in the arts of self-restraint to be trusted with so volatile a mixture. This emphasis, if acknowledged, would spoil the simplicity of Ferguson’s reading—the good individualist Locke versus the bad collectivist Rousseau. But history comes out of just such accidents as violate our cherished allegories.

Finally, when Ferguson writes about “Rousseau’s pact between the noble savage and the General Will,” he can only mislead. There is no character called the “noble savage” in the writings of Rousseau; there is, rather, an image of man in a presocial state, which Rousseau invents to clarify his ideas of law and convention in the Discourse on Inequality; but the Discourse is a different book, which advances a separate argument from the Social Contract with its doctrine of the general will. The distortion here goes beyond the compression that is necessary in a work of popularization. It is a falsification of intellectual history.

No scholar looking in from outside would guess that the foregoing materials are all brought forward in a chapter on “Medicine.” The rest of the contents of that chapter give a fair suggestion of the capriciousness that the killer-app divisions have forced on this book. “Medicine” alone takes us past the eighteenth-century revolutions, through the Napoleonic Wars, to the French Empire with a passing remark on Indochina (since Ho Chi Minh was a follower of the French Revolution). Still tracking what he calls medicine, Ferguson recounts the numbers that perished by tropical diseases in French West Africa, and comes to a temporary point of rest at the German prison camp on Shark Island.

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