Niall Ferguson's new grand theory of history is carried off with panache and sardonic witby David Marquand / November 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Niall Ferguson belongs to an endangered species. In an age of academic specialisation, when most historians devote themselves to learning more and more about less and less, Ferguson is a polymath. He scorns disciplinary boundaries, mixing economics with computer science and anecdotes with sweeping generalisations. As he puts it, he seeks to undermine the “tyranny of the archives.” He uses evidence drawn from a much wider range of sources than most historians dare to examine. In the last two decades, he has published an astonishing range of learned and intellectually provocative books, ranging from a financial history of the world entitled The Ascent of Money, to a study of the bloody 20th century, entitled The War of the World. He is also the author of a biography of the banker Siegmund Warburg, and in 2015 brought out the first volume of a projected two-volume biography of Henry Kissinger, challengingly subtitled The Idealist.
In some ways, The Square and the Tower is a summation of years of his intellectual achievement. It draws on the insights garnered in Ferguson’s previous books and on the research they reflect. But it is much more than that. In a host of ways it breaks new ground. Combining chutzpah, panache, imagination, learning and sardonic wit, it offers a new way of looking at and understanding half a millennium of human history.
Hierarchies, Ferguson argues, have been part of the human condition since the neolithic age. But in the 500 years since Gutenberg invented printing and Martin Luther pinned his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg church, hierarchies have been challenged again and again by networks, through which like-minded people communicate with each other, independently of those set in authority over them. Sometimes hierarchies have crushed networks; sometimes networks have undermined hierarchies. But the tension between them has been constant and inescapable.
Ferguson’s cast list is astonishing: from Alan Bennett to Anna Akhmatova; from Immanuel Kant to Joseph Stalin; from the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who annexed Peru for the vast domains of the Spanish crown, to John Buchan, the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps; from financier George Soros to traitor Kim Philby; from Donald Trump to Julian Assange; and from Hillary Clinton to Mark Zuckerberg. He has not chosen these seemingly disparate figures at random. They, and a host of others, illustrate a complex mix of interwoven stories.