In his latest book, Niall Ferguson identifies the six vital ingredients which have led to western supremacy. Jack Straw argues that he is too pessimistic about our futureby Jack Straw / February 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
Christmas in Wenzhou: “the most entrepreneurial city in China.” The country’s rise in wealth has been paralleled by a rise in Christianity
Civilisation—The West and The Rest by Niall Ferguson (Allen Lane, £25)
The six volumes of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire have been staring at me with mounting disapproval ever since my wife inherited them from her father 25 years ago. They have not been inviting me to read them; rather demanding my attention.
I have started to comply. I finished the first volume before Christmas. Five more to go. The bestselling historian Niall Ferguson, of course, long ago digested all six, and much more besides. But happily for me it is the first volume that contains Gibbon’s polemic against Christianity, which Ferguson paraphrases as “Christianity was one of the fatal solvents of the first version of western civilisation”; so I understood better his point.
In his new book, Ferguson sets out to provide answers to what he says is “perhaps the most challenging riddle historians have to solve”: the rise of the west as the “pre-eminent historical phenomenon of the second half of the second millennium after Christ.”
In seeking to answer this riddle—and that of why Britain was first from the traps—Ferguson is contemptuous of the Whig interpretation of history, “with its assumption that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was divinely ordained.” Instead, his approach echoes the aphorism of historian Frederic Maitland, that “events now long in the past were once in the future,” whose outcome was neither predictable, nor usually predicted. And there is the reminder from Gibbon, repeated like a dismal drumbeat through the book, of the suddenness and speed of the Roman empire’s collapse. The author asks if “our own version of western civilisation [could] collapse with equal suddenness” and give way to new empires of the “rest”—above all of China.
While Ferguson does not appear to argue with Gibbon’s view of the role of Christianity in the decline of the Roman empire, he does distinguish it from the “very specific form of Christianity that gave the modern version of civilisation [one of] its key advantages over the rest of the world: Protestantism, or rather the peculiar ethic of hard work and thrift with which it came to be associated.”
This view, as Ferguson acknowledges, goes back to Max Weber, the early 20th-century academic and founder of modern sociology. Ferguson…