Sunday, March 06, 2011

Niall Ferguson's Civilisation: The West and the Rest -- Christian Values and Western Success?

Yongle Emperor, Ming Dynasty
Seated in Dragon Chair
National Palace Museum, Taibei
(Image from The Monthly)

Niall Ferguson has a new book out that I really ought to read, Civilisation: The West and the Rest (Allen Lane, 2011). It's one of those big-picture histories that I like to mull over. I've noticed that several blogs emphasizing religion have drawn attention to the book and have cited Dominic Lawson's review in The Sunday Times (27 February 2011). Unfortunately, I can't access the review without a subscription, so I have to depend upon the kindness of strangers, and one kind stranger, ABroad with a View, posted a couple of useful quotes in her blog entry "Agree or Disagree, Thought-Provoking Nevertheless . . ." (February 28, 2011), so I'm posting them here (with missing parts borrowed from other online sources, e.g., The Iona Blog):
Ferguson offers this moment of revelation on the part of a scholar from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences: "We were asked to look into what accounted for [the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of] the West all over the world. [We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective.] At first we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. [Next we focused on your economic system.] But in the past 20 years we have realised that the heart of your culture is your religion. Christianity. That is why the West has been so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don't have any doubts about this."

Ferguson naturally, offers the empirical follow-up to this theorising. The most entrepreneurial city in China, Wenzhou, where the free market is given full rein and where the state's influence is minimal, is also home to almost 1,400 churches -- half a century after Chairman Mao boasted it was "religion-free". One of its most successful business leaders, Hamping Zhang, argues that an absence of trust had been one of the main factors holding China back; but he feels he can trust his fellow Christians because he knows they will be honest in their dealings with him."
Well, those are interesting excerpts, but I'd like to see more to be able to judge fairly. The issue has been heatedly argued among historians, and especially historians of science. Hans Blumenberg developed a rather powerful argument in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age that only through overcoming Medieval Christian theology's voluntarist concept of God and rehabilitating human curiosity did the West manage to succeed so powerfully.

I doubt that Ferguson even accepts the Chinese view as the Chinese scholar expressed it (and I'll address that further in a moment). From Malcolm Turnbull's review in The Monthly, "Cry Freedom: Niall Fergusons Civilisation: The West and the Rest" (March 2011), which ignores the issue, I'd guess that Ferguson doesn't take the general view especially seriously (as I'll explain further below). Turnbull interprets Ferguson's main theme as the importance of freedom:
[I]f there is one thread that emerges from this most interesting book it is the golden thread of freedom. Societies that encourage freedom of competition, freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and do so in a way that secures and protects private property, will be stronger and more prosperous than those that do not.
Does Christianity generally encourage freedom? I doubt that one can successfully argue that it always has, though whether Christian suppression of freedom has been consistent or inconsistent with authentic Christian values remains a matter of debate. Ferguson apparently notes the threats sometimes posed by piety, for Turnbull again reports:
In 1575, as the Enlightenment was taking hold in the West, a fine observatory, equal to the best in Europe, was built in Istanbul. Yet five years on, at the behest of the mullahs, it was demolished; it was not until 1868 that a new observatory was built. As Ferguson writes: "The legacy of Islam's once celebrated House of Wisdom vanished in a cloud of piety." Once again, it was a lack of freedom that saw Islam turn its back on science, and a commitment to freedom in the West that resulted in the establishment of scientific academies in the seventeenth century -- hubs in a new network of investigation and knowledge.
Apparently, European disunity accounted for its success in pulling ahead of the Islamic and Chinese civilizations and conquering much of the world:
Ferguson puts it down to competition -- the fractious, divided state of Europe with roughly 1000 independent polities in the year 1400 still had around 500 polities two centuries later.

In short, the political fragmentation that characterised Europe precluded the creation of anything remotely resembling the Chinese Empire. It also propelled Europeans to seek opportunities -- economic, geopolitical and religious -- in distant lands. You might say it was a case of divide and rule -- except that paradoxically it was by being divided themselves that Europeans were able to rule the world.
But there must be more to the West's success than its mere political division, which could have led to weakness. Europe was politically divided, even culturally divided, but it shared a common civilization, and Europeans thus generally adhered to some common values. Here, then, is where Christianity may have played a general role, but I don't know that Ferguson delves into this broad issue in his book. He does deal with a more narrow, related point. In a summary of an essay by Ferguson in the inaccessible Sunday Times, James Forsyth, writing "How the West became so dominant" for Coffee House: The Spectator Blog (19th February 2011), tells us that there are six "killer apps" (an expression, meaning "very useful software applications," borrowed from the smart phone revolution, I suppose):
1. Competition: a decentralisation of political and economic life, which created the launch pad for both nation states and capitalism.

2. Science: a way of understanding and ultimately changing the natural world, which gave the West (among other things) a major military advantage over the Rest.

3. Property rights: the rule of law as a means of protecting private owners and peacefully resolving disputes between them, which formed the basis for the most stable form of representative government.

4. Medicine: a branch of science that allowed a major improvement in health and life expectancy, beginning in Western societies, but also in their colonies.

5. The consumer society: a mode of material living in which the production and purchase of clothing and other consumer goods play a central economic role, and without which the Industrial Revolution would have been unsustainable.

6. The work ethic: a moral framework and mode of activity derivable from (among other sources) Protestant Christianity, which provides the glue for the dynamic and potentially unstable society created by apps 1 to 5.
As we see, number 6 treats Christianity, but not the entirety of this religion. Rather, Ferguson follows Max Weber in stressing the so-called Protestant work ethic. But it's only one of the six, and Ferguson would likely scoff at emphasis upon merely a single one of them. For those readers interested in learning more about these "killer apps," go to "Niall Ferguson on the six 'killer apps' of Western civilisation," hosted at Intelligence Squared, where one can sign up to join and watch Ferguson give a lecture on these six apps, or not sign up but listen to an audio of the same.

Ferguson's larger point about the six "killer apps" is that anyone can download and use them, and he does note, in his lecture, the rapid growth of Protestant Christianity in the non-Western world, even quoting the scholar from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, mentioned above, who identified the West's religion, Christianity, as the central 'app,' but Ferguson clearly uses this quote to support his point about the Protestant work ethic.

I don't therefore think that Ferguson would identify Christianity generally as the reason for the success of the West. During the question and answer period after the lecture on the six "killer apps," Ferguson emphasizes the role of the Protestant Reformation in separating church and state and in promoting literacy, along with the work ethic, of course, as crucial to the West's success.

He might therefore even consider pre-Reformation Christianity to be a drag on the West's development, but I guess that I'll need to get and read Ferguson's book.

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At 5:51 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

Very meaningful post, both the sources and your remarks.

Nothing specific to add: it is a clever summary of the whole, several hundred year-old issue. As for The Answer, it's likely that nobody will ever give it.

At 5:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

No answer? Nonsense! It's the six "killer apps"!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:57 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

The Six Killer App(le)s?

The Six Killer Apes?

At 5:59 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

One or the other, doesn't matter so long as there are six.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:00 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

Six Six Six... yeah, it is "his" fault


At 6:28 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The actual reason for the success of the West . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:39 AM, Blogger John B said...

I'm not sure Ferguson's book is going to be very influential -- the field of world history has been disputing his thesis for the past 20-30 years. Frankly, the only time I run across Ferguson in history bibliographies is in European classicists trying to defend the relevance of their field.

At 3:33 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I guess that the proof is in the hasty pudding. I intend to order his book and see for myself. There's usually something worth integrating into my own worldview.

I just hope it's worth the price . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:24 AM, Blogger whitney said...

There is another way to look at the influence of Christianity in the west. Because of the uniqueness of Christianity in its lack of laws, the west was able to, first, throw off the yoke of religious rule with relative ease and then, second, was essentially forced to come up with laws for the people. This allowed the west a dynamic system that could change and grow with the age. Not that everything is perfect, it is more that it is striving to be perfect. I consider this a superior system to the minutia of laws in islam that can never be examined because that would insult somebody. I am insulted by that. God gave me free will. I intend to use it.

At 6:58 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Whitney, that's partly my view. Christianity, for the most part, left secular affairs up to secular authorities, which indeed meant that laws could be more flexibly dealt with and even abrogated in favor of better laws.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:53 PM, Blogger whitney said...

Hi John B.

Until i read your post, I did not know that Neill Ferguson was a historian but I did know who he was. I think of him as a conservative intellectual who has decided his purpose is to defend certain aspects of western civilization. So, he may have lost relevance to one group of people but he has gained to another. Maybe he is not writing about history anymore.

At 2:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems to me that one of the first books to read re what Western Civilization is REALLY all about is The Pentagon of Power by Lewis Mumford.

A book which describes the origins and historical developments of the drive to gain total power and control over every one and every thing. What Mumford called the Invisible Mega-Machine.

That mega-machine is now at its absolute zenith. It has also reduced ALL of human culture to rubble, and inevitably brought the planetary eco-systems to the brink of total melt-down.

At 2:59 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

John (not to be confused with John B), that's a rather bleak picture, but I have to agree that things don't look so good these days.

Jeffery Hodges

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