Politics & Policy

The Futures of Civilization

On the glorious (though not unblemished) past and uncertain future of the West

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.

In the chapter of Civilization on medicine, he continues to demonstrate his moral seriousness. Acknowledging that Africa “brought out the destructive worst in Europeans,” he does not allow the blemishes, hideous as they were, to vitiate the real benefits conferred on subject peoples. Gandhi may have considered Western civilization “a disease,” but without it the “Dark Continent” would have gone even longer bereft of the mercies of modern medicine. It wasn’t just the banning of witch doctors. Medical breakthroughs — from isolating the yellow-fever virus to discovering Vibrio cholerae, the bacterium that transmits cholera — proved crucial “in keeping Europeans, and hence the colonial project, alive in the tropics,” as Ferguson notes, but the lethal afflictions they cured or treated also felled Africans. It may come as a revelation that the indigenous population of French West Africa was provided free health care, something that did not exist in France. Even so, the French were not immune to the false and ugly “science” of eugenics that animated German imperialism in Namibia, where the Kaiserreich dispatched “cleansing patrols” to herd the native peoples into concentration camps. This pestilential practice remained mostly in the realm of theory among the French, impeding their mission civilisatrice, but not enough to prevent Ferguson from describing the medical wing of French imperialism (without even so much as an apology to Dr. Kouchner) as “médecins sans frontières” — doctors without borders.

The role of faith is at the center of Ferguson’s account of the work ethic. Registering a deep suspicion of atheism, he quotes approvingly from G. K. Chesterton’s The Miracle of Moon Crescent: “You hard-shelled materialists [are] all balanced on the very edge of belief — of belief in almost anything.” Himself a confirmed religious skeptic, Ferguson thus embodies a fascinating paradox: Plumbing the shallow reserves of his trust in human nature, this hard-shelled materialist finds that religious dogma, if not metaphysically true, is nonetheless a bulwark of civilization. “Religious belief (as opposed to formal observance) of any sort appears to be associated with economic growth, particularly where concepts of heaven and hell provide incentives for good behavior. This tends to mean not only hard work . . . but also thrift, honesty, trust and openness to strangers, all economically beneficial traits.” (Emphasis mine.)

This claim of the spiritual and the material as natural allies is undermined in the very next paragraph, on the evidence that “the power of the imams and mullahs snuffed out any chance of a scientific revolution in the Islamic world” and that “the Roman Catholic Church acted as one of the brakes on economic development in South America.” Ferguson does not quite address this problem, but he provides ample evidence to suggest that his defense is less of Christianity — let alone “any sort” of faith — than it is specifically of the Protestant tradition. “Protestantism made the West not only work, but also save and read.” True as this may be, given the severe burden under which civilization labors where religion holds unlimited sovereignty, perhaps it was less Christianity than Christ’s singular distinction between the temporal and the spiritual that set the West apart. This is so important a development that Ferguson might even have made more of it.

The distinction no longer applies in Europe, where God has decisively lost His contest with Caesar. To this religious atrophy Ferguson has assigned great weight. The waning of Christianity in Europe, he comments sadly, has fostered a soft relativism that has shrunk patriotism (to make use of a nice image from David Gelernter) to the size of a soccer ball. It is easy to press this rigid secularism into the service of the declining role Europe has adopted since “the Beatles, the Pill, and the mini-skirt.” Arguably a little too easy. For if European civilization was paralyzed by social liberation and got its death blow from bowing out of Christendom, then what explains that societies retaining a thick Christian residue — Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain spring to mind — share similar below-replacement-level birthrates and one-way multiculturalism with the continent’s more godless countries? Nor have the Christian churches been conspicuous in their resistance to cultural masochism. The link that Ferguson draws between religious belief and civilizational confidence therefore seems rather tenuous. As far as I can figure out, it is not the abandonment of God but the withering of natural law that exhausts the resources of civilization. It would be nearer the truth to place the blame for Europe’s crisis of civilizational morale on moral relativism rather than on atheos. The former is unreasonably “neutral toward worldviews” (as George Weigel has characterized Europe’s public ideology); the latter is nothing more than a philosophical position about the nature of the cosmos. 

Here I would be remiss to omit mention of a small but significant feature of the book: The dedicatee is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the author’s companion and, more importantly, the Somali-born former dissident member of the Dutch parliament who found asylum in the U.S. after her confident brand of liberalism fell afoul of murderous foes among the chauvinist and aggressive wing of European Islam. Ferguson’s militant liberalism discloses itself more here than in his unapologetic defense of The Wealth of Nations or The Theory of Moral Sentiments. His view of Hirsi Ali furnishes a clue to his own purpose when we read that the first political refugee from Europe since the Holocaust (as Salman Rushdie has described her) understands better than the rest of us “what Western civilization really means — and what it still has to offer the world.”

Edward Gibbon tells us that the idea of writing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was conceived as he “sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing Vespers in the Temple of Jupiter.” For Ferguson, portents of the (second) decline and fall of the West came as he sat in Carnegie Hall, mesmerized by the music of Angel Lam, the gifted Chinese composer who “personifies the Orientalization of classical music.” This inspiration might seem a trifle less grandiose than Gibbon’s — though, admittedly, the present Capitol has not yet been laid waste by barbarian invaders. But whatever occurred to Ferguson that melodic evening has him convinced that the era of Western predominance — set in train more than 500 years ago — is spiraling toward its close. As the son of a defunct Western empire, he seems to recognize the stench of decay. And it is not obvious that his nostrils are leading him astray. The only consolation to be found is in the fact that the future is, as Ferguson knows very well, no sure thing.

— Brian Stewart is an NRO editorial associate.


The Latest

The Wuhan Lab Cover-Up

The Wuhan Lab Cover-Up

It's now certain that the U.S. government misled the public about the kind of research that the U.S. taxpayers were indirectly funding in China.