Civilization - Book Review - New York Times

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Click on this section for our traditional full-length book reviews by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

In addition, there follows below a so-called “Capsule Review” in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs Magazine by Prof. G. John Ikenberry.

[Ikenberry is the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton U and Co-Director of Princeton’s Center for International Security Studies. The author of eight books and editor or co-editor of another 14, he has won numerous awards, was ranked 10th in scholars who have produced the best work in the field of International Relations in the past 20 years, and ranked 8th in scholars who have produced the most interesting work in the past 5 years.]

Ikenberry’s “Capsule Review” of Prof. Ferguson’s “Civilization: The West and the Rest” -

"This enjoyably sprawling history of “the rise of the West,” written for a general audience, follows in the footsteps of major works by such scholars as John Darwin, Jared Diamond, William NcNeill, and Douglass North. Like them, Ferguson grapples with the grand puzzle of the modern world: Why did the West, which in 1500 was no more advanced than the other world civilizations -- most notably China, India, and Islam -- rise up over the following five centuries to amass great power and wealth and come to dominate the world? Ferguson rejects explanations that focus on European imperialism or the uniqueness of geography, climate, or culture. Instead, he argues that Western ascendency was unleashed by the uniquely decentralized, open, rule-based, and competitive character of European politics, economics, and society. Individual chapters look at the role of competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumer society, and the work ethic in distinguishing the West. The book is written with an eye on the rise of China and leaves the reader with a crucial question: Are the ideas and institutions of Western civilization becoming truly universal, or will the rise of non-Western states usher in alternative pathways to modernization and advancement?"
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johnkarls
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Civilization - Book Review - New York Times

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https://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/27/book ... eview.html


A Good Run

Review by Prof. Donald Kagan – Yale’s historian and classicist specializing in Ancient Greece; he is most famous for his four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War; his latest book is “Thucydides: The Reinvention of History.”

Nov. 25, 2011


This is a difficult time in which to present an account — and what amounts to a defense — of the West’s rise to pre-eminence and its unequaled influence in shaping the world today. The West is on the defensive, challenged economically by the ascent of China and politically and militarily by a wave of Islamist hatred. Perhaps as great a challenge is internal. The study of Western civilization, which dominated American education after World War II, has long been under attack, and is increasingly hard to find in our schools and colleges. When it is treated at all, the West is maligned because of its history of slavery and imperialism, an alleged addiction to war and its exclusion of women and nonwhites from its rights and privileges. Some criticize its study as narrow, limiting, arrogant and discriminatory, asserting that it has little or no value for those of non-European origins. Or it is said to be of interest chiefly as a horrible example.

Niall Ferguson thinks otherwise. A professor at both Harvard University and the Harvard Business School, quite aware of the faults and blemishes of the West, he flatly rejects the view of those who find nothing worthwhile in it, calling their position “absurd.” He recognizes both good and bad sides and decides that in comparison with other civilizations, the better side “came out on top.”

Many of the observations in “Civilization: The West and the Rest” will not win Ferguson friends among the fashionable in today’s academy. He upbraids critics who speak scornfully of “ ‘Eurocentrism’ as if it were some distasteful prejudice.” “The scientific revolution was, by any scientific measure, wholly Eurocentric.” Ferguson pays due respect to the intellectual and scientific contributions of China and Islam, but makes it clear that modern science and technology are fundamentally Western products. He asks if any non-Western state can simply acquire scientific knowledge without accepting other key Western institutions like “private property rights, the rule of law and truly representative government.”

Ferguson is so unfashionable as to speak in defense of imperialism: “It is a truth almost universally acknowledged in the schools and colleges of the Western world that imperialism is the root cause of nearly every modern problem, . . . a convenient alibi for rapacious dictators like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.” Contradicting historians who “represent colonial officials as morally equivalent to Nazis or Stalinists,” he points out that in most Asian and African countries “life expectancy began to improve before the end of European colonial rule.”

Ferguson does not attempt a thorough investigation of the many charges made against the West, or a defense against them. Instead, he addresses the interesting and difficult question: “Just why, beginning around 1500, did a few small polities on the western end of the Eurasian landmass come to dominate the rest of the world?” The book’s method, he says, is to tell “a big story,” along with many little ones, but that is not a proper description. Rather than a chronological narrative, Ferguson offers six chapters of what he calls “killer apps,” each addressing a major element in his answer to the question of Western domination: 1) competition, both among and within the European states; 2) science, beginning with the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries; 3) the rule of law and representative government, based on the rights of private property and representation in elected legislatures; 4) modern medicine; 5) the consumer society that resulted from the Industrial Revolution; and 6) the work ethic. These, he argues, were crucial to the growth of the West’s power, but weak or nonexistent in other societies.

Excellence in these categories, Ferguson says, may explain the West’s remarkable rise, but late in the 19th century “the Rest,” especially Japan, began to catch up in all but internal competition and representative government. By the 1950s states in East Asia, especially and increasingly China, made great strides in economic modernization and now compete successfully against the West. At present, he says, we are experiencing “the end of 500 years of Western predominance,” and he foresees the possibility of a clash between the declining and rising forces. He wonders “whether the weaker will tip over from weakness to outright collapse.”

What’s worse, Ferguson sees the current financial crisis as “an accelerator of an already well-established trend of relative Western decline.” He worries that there may come a moment when a “seemingly random piece of bad news — perhaps a negative report by a rating agency” panics investors, who lose confidence in the credit of the United States. This could cause disaster, “for a complex adaptive system is in big trouble when a critical mass of its constituents loses faith in its viability.”

Nonetheless, Ferguson has not given up on the West; it still has more “institutional advantages than the Rest.” The lack of political competition, the rule of law, freedom of conscience and a free press help explain why countries like China, Iran and Russia “lag behind Western countries in qualitative indices that measure ‘national innovative development’ and ‘national innovative capacity.’ ” Still, his hopes for continued success do not seem very strong. Although the “Western package” offers “the best available set of economic, social and political institutions,” he questions whether Westerners are still able to recognize it.

An element central to all this is education, especially history, and Ferguson is appalled by the decline of historical teaching and knowledge in the Western world. His conclusion is not encouraging: “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.”

“Civilization” is part of his solution. The book is the basis for a television series in Britain, and he told an interviewer that it aims to give a “17-year-old boy or girl . . . a lot of history in a very digestible way.” Yet it must be said that bits of history are what they get, not the kind of “big story” one requires to understand the character and development of Western and other civilizations. We still need a full account of how and why one thing followed another, of cause and consequence, of the role of chance versus the force of inherited ¬tradition.

Over all, Ferguson calls for a return to traditional education, since “at its core, a civilization is the texts that are taught in its schools, learned by its students and recollected in times of tribulation” — by which he means Great Books, and especially Shakespeare. The greatest dangers facing us are probably not “the rise of China, Islam or CO2 emissions,” he writes, but “our own loss of faith in the civilization we inherited from our ancestors.”

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