The Disappointed Lover of the West

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,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.