Since classical antiquity, historians have tended to think that empires, like individual organisms, evince a discernible rhythm. They come into being, mature, and then, soon or late, decay and decline. What Edward Gibbon did for historical literature in performing this kind of imperial autopsy on Rome, Thomas Cole did for the world of art. In The Course of Empire, a series of five elegant paintings that hang in the New-York Historical Society museum, Cole captured this imperial life cycle in painstaking brushstrokes.
In Civilization: The West and the Rest (which won’t be published in this country till November, but which has made quite a stir in Britain), Niall Ferguson has come along to tell us that it need not be this way. Taking the long view of history has not, however, inclined him to the cheerful Whig presumption that civilization “shall not perish from the earth.” The study of history — described by Auden as “breaking bread with the dead” — is presumably too melancholy an endeavor to justify such vain hopes. Ferguson’s prodigious communing with the dead has led him to believe that not only will the forces of composition yield to those of decomposition, but they may do so with dramatic speed. If at times history appears to have a cyclical quality, he reminds us that it is actually far more haphazard. Contrary to the impression left by The Course of Empire, there is nothing historically determined about the life cycle of empires: “There is no such thing as the future. There are only futures, plural.”
Intimately acquainted with chaos theory, the author probes a sobering question: “What if history is not cyclical and slow-moving but arrhythmic — sometimes almost stationary, but also capable of violent acceleration?” To better press home his point, Ferguson might have employed the scientific term “hysteresis,” which comes from the Greek word hysterein, meaning “to be late” — that is, once decline well and truly sets in, it is too late to reverse it. Nonetheless, he succeeds at putting one in mind of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” in which the traveler “from an antique land” tells of passing in the desert a shattered, half-buried visage of some bygone pharaoh, whose pedestal bore the inscription “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” And yet those works were not immune to history’s special wrath, and a “colossal wreck” ensued, leaving behind nothing but sands “boundless and bare.”
But for a civilization to fall it must first rise. Ferguson sets out to answer why, beginning around 1500, a few small polities on the western end of the Eurasian landmass came to dominate the rest of the world. He identifies six factors — what he dubs, perhaps a touch too cleverly, the “killer apps” — that combined to give the civilization of the West a decisive edge over the Rest. He summarizes them as follows: competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society, and the work ethic.
Ferguson has long been a firm advocate of hypothetical or “counterfactual” history — replete with “What if?” questions — on the grounds that history cannot be understood without appreciating that what we call the past was once the future. He stays loyal to this (unfairly maligned) method in Civilization, and harnesses it to superb effect. He maintains that without developing — or, if you like, downloading — these crucial innovations, civilization never would have climbed to its present height. It is impossible not to notice that the profusion of economically destitute and politically repressive states around the globe owe their status to the absence of one or more of the “killer apps.” What’s more, the undeniable decline of former leading states is largely attributable to their losing them or, as the case may be, casting them off.
With this Western-centered framework, Ferguson invites charges of parochialism. Yet he does not intend “Western” to connote any sort of incompatibility with other cultures. The germ of the principles that he cites as catalysts of civilization is, in broad terms, classical liberalism — a concept that derives in large measure from the English-speaking peoples, but is universalist in nature. It is for this reason rarely an imposition, though armies have occasionally attended its advance. Its abiding power lies in magnetic attraction, spreading “more by the word than by the sword.” The foundations of civilization, as Ferguson shows, were put down in the West while they were being shunned almost everywhere else.
It is hard to quarrel with Ferguson on this score; it is a simple fact, for instance, that the scientific revolution owed scarcely any debt to the non-Western world. A good illustration of why this was so can be found in the story of Takiyüddin al-Rasid, the gifted scientist who constructed an observatory of some sophistication in medieval Istanbul. “Under the influence of Sheikh ul-Islam Kadizade,” Ferguson recounts, “the Sultan deemed the project blasphemous and in 1580 ordered it destroyed. There would not be another observatory in Istanbul until 1868.” One further fact assists in pointing up the contrast between the West and the Rest: In 1500, the future imperial powers of Europe were minor entities, accounting for about 10 percent of the world’s land surface and at most 16 percent of its population. By 1913 eleven Western empires controlled nearly three-fifths of the world’s territory and population and more than three-quarters of its economic output. So much for a universal civilization.
Ferguson is especially canny, however, on the imperial impulse that sought to make civilization universal. This will come as no surprise to those familiar with Empire, his illuminating work that painted the British imperial system as Oliver Cromwell asked to be painted: warts and all. Ferguson’s refusal to paint only warts deserves a brief mention because he has been dogged ever since by accusations of imperial whitewash — a “tenth-rate Kipling,” spat the master of synthetic outrage, Johann Hari. Ferguson could always be fairly acquitted on this unscrupulous charge, for his was not a crass apologia for the manifest crimes and blunders wrought in the course of Her Majesty’s empire, but instead a subtle argument that no better substitute had been evolved to promote freedom and prosperity in the world.