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Historian explores the rise and possible fall of Western civilization

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 08:08 AM

"Civilization: The West and the Rest," by Niall Ferguson (Penguin Press, $35)

Here's one to anger your left-leaning friends. Or, of course, yourself, should you be left-leaning. Although if you are in the latter group, it's better to view this as an entertaining look into one of the right's brightest minds.

Or, at least, that's how British historian Niall Ferguson is perceived: bright, erudite, conservative. This book does nothing to change that image. It's actually more interesting and, at times, brilliant than one who has only seen Ferguson on television (which was the case with this reviewer) might expect.

In this extensively researched and eminently readable book, Ferguson is an unabashed fan of the West and what it has exported to the rest of the world.

He offers a welcome opposing view to the current trend of downplaying the good and emphasizing the bad in Western culture that, like it or not, has resulted in the richest, safest and healthiest civilization in the history of the world.

He writes: "It wasn't all good. No serious writer would claim that the reign of Western civilization was unblemished. Yet there are those who would insist that there was nothing whatever good about it. This position is absurd. As is true of all great civilizations, that of the West was Janus-faced: capable of nobility but also capable of turpitude."

It's so uncool that it almost feels … cool. Or even dangerous. That's where we are these days: The establishment guy now seems like the revolutionary.

The focus of the book is isolating what made the West so dominant and looking at whether we are seeing its decline (he thinks we are if we don't change leadership and direction). Ferguson identifies six categories that helped the West rise: competition, science, property, medicine, consumption and work.

His argument boils down to the fact that Western inventions — the corporation, modern medicine, property laws and a free market, among others — provided a successful template for the world to copy.

The most interesting, and sure to be most controversial, section concerns the work ethic, and Ferguson's argument that it has all but disappeared in the West.

"Europeans are the idlers of the world," he writes. "On average, they work less than Americans and a lot less than Asians."

Ferguson goes further, writing that it was Christianity, particularly Protestantism and "the peculiar ethic of hard work and thrift with which it came to be associated" that provided one of the keys to the ascension of Western culture.

With so many Westerners turning their backs on religion, he argues, they have lost the key ingredients to making the culture work.

You are either nodding or shaking your head at this point. Either way, you'll find Ferguson engaging — and either edifying or infuriating. Isn't that all you can ask from a book designed to make you think?

Politics aside, the book is full of interesting insights. Early on, Ferguson complains that people today, with more comforts and distractions than ever, simply "do not listen to the dead." Centuries of knowledge left by those who have already lived is an often neglected trove of insight for people trying to understand life today.

Another interesting point he makes: "Most people in the past either died young or expected to die young, and those who did not were repeatedly bereft of those they loved, who did die young."

It takes a great deal of imagination for a modern person to put themselves in the shoes of anyone, from John Donne to George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte, because almost everyone in history was driven in a way we are not for one reason: They expected to be dead by 40.

Ferguson writes: "The much greater power of death to cut people off in their prime not only made life seem precarious and filled it with grief. It also meant that most of the people who built the civilizations of the past were young when they made their contributions."

Think about that the next time you want to dismiss the arguments or ideas of a young person. Conversely, it makes those who extend their adolescence as long as possible, a growing number, seem directionless by comparison.


Kevin Walker edits the book pages and Friday Extra for The Tampa Tribune.

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