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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.
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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.
37 of 39 people found this review helpful