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The rise to global predominance of Western civilization is the single most important historical phenomenon of the past five hundred years. All over the world, an astonishing proportion of people now work for Western-style companies, study at Western-style universities, vote for Western-style governments, take Western medicines, wear Western clothes, and even work Western hours. Yet six hundred years ago the petty kingdoms of Western Europe seemed unlikely to achieve much more than perpetual internecine warfare. It was Ming China or Ottoman Turkey that had the look of world civilizations. How did the West overtake its Eastern rivals? And has the zenith of Western power now passed?
In Civilization: The West and the Rest, bestselling author Niall Ferguson argues that, beginning in the fifteenth century, the West developed six powerful new concepts that the Rest lacked: competition, science, the rule of law, consumerism, modern medicine, and the work ethic.
It's almost taboo to openly ponder the question of why the "Western World," its customs, institutions, political structures, technologies, and even fashions have come to dominate the world for at least the last 500 years. There is almost an inherent implication that race or at least culture must play some role in the comparative dominance of West. Several authors have recently attempted to explain the ascendancy of the West by focusing on distinguishing factors or circumstances other that the West being predominately "white." Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" is probably the most well known of these attempts. Diamond explicitly rejects race as an advantage and instead posits a theory of initial geographic/environmental advantage that is amplified throughout the course of history by positive feedback loops.
Text: In "Civilization," Neil Ferguson does not see race as worth even a mention, even if to just to discount it. Instead, Ferguson's analysis focuses on what factors that he deems "killer apps" (I know) that the West had and the Rest somehow lacked. These are (1) competition, (2) science, (3) the rule of law including property rights, (4) modern medicine, (5) consumerism, and (6) the work ethic arising from Christian and Protestant values. These "apps" were "downloaded" sometime around the Enlightenment and in conjunction propelled the West to world dominance. The relatively decentralized nature of Eurasian governments allowed competition between and within the political divisions. Competition was not limited to trade but included ideas. In the West, competition often took the forms of warfare and the race to claim colonial possessions. This fostered the rise and application of science and technologies, including the medicine necessary for Westerners survive in the lands they conquered. I found Ferguson's discussion of consumerism as a relatively new and positive societal aspect to be particularly interesting. The word "consumerism" is so negatively loaded these days that it is surprising and refreshing to hear an author intelligently expound its virtues and the positively role it plays as an engine for increasing the quality of our lives. Ferguson goes on to heap praise on the Protestant work ethic as healthy sense of competition and cohesion within communities. He also roundly maligns fundamentalist Islam and its repression of individual freedom. Frankly, I don't have a problem with that. Finally, the author concludes with a discussion of whether the West is in decline - something he points out has happened several times in the last couple of thousand years - and whether civilizations actually follow a cycle of rise and decline at all.
Narration: I always feel a bit of dread when purchasing a book narrated by its author. There are very few who can pull off a reading of their own text, but fortunately Neil Ferguson is one of those authors who can. The listener would be forgiven for thinking this narrator to be a professional actor instead of a gifted author.
Conclusion: "Civilization" is a interesting, sometimes fascinating, analysis of the particular characteristics of the Western World that set it apart and above the Rest of the World.
15 of 15 people found this review helpful
If you could sum up Civilization in three words, what would they be?
Revised my thinking
What does Niall Ferguson bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?
Having heard him live, that same charisma he projects comes through the audio.
Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?
Not necessarily. But I did listen to the book more than once.
Any additional comments?
I have always found Niall Ferguson, in his books and lectures, to be insightful and thought-provoking. 'Civilization' may be the best example of this to date. Here is one example of a perspective that I found very instructive, Ferguson includes in his list of explanatory variables for the acceleration of civilization in the West the role of Protestant churches. But he goes beyond the obvious, the Protestant work ethic, to explain how church communities and the mutual trustworthiness they engendered enabled smaller merchants early access to credit and so develop early forms of supply chains in the fledgling free-markets of the colonial US (and Northern Europe). He also differentiates between monopolistic and ‘free market’ religions. The former refers to the state religions common in Europe, the latter to the open market for religion in the US. And clearly, churches and church-going have flourished in the US where free-market competition compelled churches to adapt to the changing needs of their congregations. Without that competitive motive, churches in Europe have stagnated or declined.Agree with Ferguson or not, this is a highly informative and enjoyable listen. And I must add, the voices used for quotes that several reviewers complained about I found neither distracting nor offensive. Niall’s reading of the text was articulated very clearly and sufficiently animated, enhanced all the more by that Scottish accent that I have come to enjoy.
35 of 37 people found this review helpful
Guns, Germs, and Steel explains how Eurasians nations had an geological head start over rival nations, but it paints too simplistic a stroke to explain the last 500 years of western dominance. This book will finish your introduction to civilization competition throughout human history and why those that won - won and those that lost - lost by providing a detail understanding of why western civilization progressed past the rest.
Some answers are as you might expect but some may surprise you.
Read Guns, Germs, and Steel first then read this book. together you will have a much better understanding of how the current geopolitical situation has come about and then you can truly begin to postulate on where it is going and what policies you should support if you wish to change its progress or keep it on track.
28 of 30 people found this review helpful
Would you recommend this book to a friend? Why or why not?
In general I would not recommend it. This is a quirky book, quite unlike other of Niall Ferguson's efforts. He relies on the anecdotal, "I talked to a man in the streets of Istanbul..." approach of Thomas Friedman, with similar superficial impact. He devotes at least half of chapters on Science, Property, and Medicine, to discussions of various wars between West and the rest. He makes some novel and interesting observations, but they are not presented in a logical flow.
How would you have changed the story to make it more enjoyable?
Better logical flow.
How did the narrator detract from the book?
If you're listening to the Audible version, you may find the accents of the un-credited talent who mouth quotes from various people to be bizarre. Spanish, French, German, and Russian historical figures sound like Nelson Mandela. Even Siegmund Freud and Mahatma Gandhi sound like Nelson Mandela! Ferguson does a workman-like performance with the rest of the reading, but I question the decisions both to have him do the reading, and to have these other voice talents massacre their attempted accents.
Was Civilization worth the listening time?
Maybe, maybe not.
7 of 7 people found this review helpful
This is an interesting and comprehensive treatment of Ferguson's examination of the dominance of the West for the last half-millenium. It is well-written and mostly engaging, though it does cover some of the same ground as his "Ascent of Money," to be expected as Ferguson's interest is largely material history rather than intellectual or political history. The narration by Ferguson is for the most part good and easy to listen to. However, the rendition of the non-Scottish voices (whether by Ferguson or someone else, I can't tell) should have been dropped for a straightforward reading. The "foreign" accents are in most cases not believable, in many cases rather badly done, and in some cases risible and even offensive to the nationalities being portrayed. I still recommend the book and wish it a wide audience. It raises very important questions about the nature of "civilization" and the properties that make a civilization both viable and potentially victorious.
21 of 23 people found this review helpful
This captivating story of the origins and demise of civilizations in the West and East starts off a little slow, but as you listen, it begins to unfold and explain how so many countries in the West outpaced and produced so much more than other nations existing during the same time.
The unifying theme of the 'killer apps' is appropriate for postmodern readers, giving a clear direction and 'visual' picture of how the West continues to lead the world. The most riveting parts of the book include Ferguson's discussion about the United States' perpetual dependency on religion, specifically Christianity. Why are other Western nations withdrawing from religious activity and the US is not? Is there a correlational connection between capitalism and religion or is the relationship causal?
This book is not for generalists hoping for an easy read, but perhaps would best suit someone who has a particular interest in anthropology and sociology from a historical perspective.
In any case, I really enjoyed the author's lively narration of his work.
18 of 20 people found this review helpful
Is there anything you would change about this book?
The main narrator for this book did a great job. My problem was with the random guy who filled in as everyone who was quoted in the book. He acted as historical figures from all over Europe, Africa, and even Asia, all the while using the same Germanic-sounding accent and very distinct, wispy voice. This did not translate well at all and at times sounded like a caricature, particularly when he tried to adopt a fake Italian accent. When it came to Japanese, he didn't even try to modify his accent, which was probably for the better. <br/><br/>This book would have been stronger if 1) the main narrater just read everything or 2) there were different voice actors for each country.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful
While Niall Ferguson's new book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, is mostly about the past, it true importance is what it says about our future. Nowadays it is hard not too worry about the future, as we struggle from one funding crisis to the next, watching resources for public investments (like education) erode. The most powerful antidote to depression about our future is a good understanding of our past, particularly the changes in the past 5 centuries that are Ferguson's main subject. Five hundred years is really not that long of a time, but within this time frame we can trace a transition from a world dominated by scarcity, hunger, and disease to one characterized by health and abundance.
Ferguson asks two key questions in Civilization:
1) Why is it that a relatively few number of people living in a few small countries in the West became so wealthy and powerful in the last few hundred years as compared to people in Asia, South America, and Africa?
2) Will the 21st century belong to non-Western civilizations, and is it possible that the U.S. and Western Europe could even share the same fate of decline and fall as the Roman Empire?
Ferguson's answer to the first question, why the West got wealthy, basically comes down to institutions. The West developed a set of key institutions (Ferguson calls these killer apps), that the others lacked. The killers apps include: competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the Protestant work ethic. The book is (loosely) organized around these themes, with Ferguson jumping (sometimes confusingly) across centuries and continents in support of the narrative.
On the second question, will "The Rest" catch-up, Ferguson is guardedly optimistic. While the non-Western world may not have all the structures in place for sustained growth (most obviously the lack of democracy in China), the overall trends are all going in the right direction. The BRIC's (Brazil, Russia, India, China) are rapidly integrating into a world energy, consumer and production market, although none of these societies enjoy all of the institutional underpinnings that have sustained Western growth. It was not solely the availability of coal or oversees markets that drove the development of the British Empire, but also the presence of property rights, a free press, and representative government.
Making sense of why some countries are wealthier today than others, and who will be wealthy tomorrow, requires the skills of an economically literate historian. Ferguson is as good a guide as anyone writing on these questions today. Civilization is not a systematic or deep investigation of a few narrow questions, but rather a simultaneously concise and sweeping narrative around big questions and large trends. Enjoyable but not overly taxing.
18 of 21 people found this review helpful
Would you listen to Civilization again? Why?
lots of intriguing detail of rarely referenced non western sources which bear further investigation
What other book might you compare Civilization to and why?
Gold God and Guns - WRM
Which character – as performed by Niall Ferguson – was your favorite?
Simon Bolivar - hard to believe the stereotype I was taught in school was such anti democratic figure in reality - lots of good quotes
Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?
I was touched by the in depth look at slavery in North and South America with the different forms this evil took in different cultures
Any additional comments?
looking forward to the second half
8 of 9 people found this review helpful
Any additional comments?
I am really surprised at some of the other comments saying that Niall didn't do a good job reading this one, I thought he did exceptionally well.
7 of 8 people found this review helpful