Edward Gibbon wrote about it; Thomas Cole created paintings about it; Paul Kennedy worried about it; Jared Diamond tried to explain it. The rise and fall of empires has captivated us for centuries - and never more so than now, with suggestions swirling that our own American empire may be in decline if not in irreversible fall.
What’s a civilization to do? Wring its hands and succumb to depression? Curl up in the fetal position and await the collapse? Load up on Xanax and drift through the crisis? Raise a vodka gimlet to the good life and ease into a pleasant alcohol-induced blur?
None of the above, according to “Civilization: The West and the Rest’’ by Harvard’s Niall Ferguson, the latest entrant in the crisis-of-civilization derby, and indeed you’d better lay off the drugs and drink because you’ll require a clear eye to see the truth: We’re winning even though it feels as if we’re losing.
Here’s why: All the values fueling the rise of the new powers - the Chinese, the Indians, the Brazilians, all those people we didn’t worry about but who are now devouring our lunch - are our values. Those other guys believe in competition, just as we do, and in science, and, increasingly, in the rule of law. Medicine, too. They’ve created consumer societies and are slaves to the work ethic just like us, or, probably, more. There’s no clash of civilizations after all.
Those attributes are what Ferguson calls the West’s “killer apps,’’ and what’s happened is that the rest of the world “finally began to download them.’’
But it’s more complicated than that. It isn’t just that the values of the West have been adapted or adopted by the rest. It’s also that the West has lost faith in those values, or maybe we are too complacent, too self-satisfied, too affluent, or too lazy to employ them the way our new rivals do. He suggests - and it is a beguiling theory - that “the real threat is posed not by the rise of China, Islam, or CO2 emissions, but by our own loss of faith in the civilization we inherited from our ancestors.’’
This is not a how-to book on attitude adjustment that you might find in the airport. In title and intent, Ferguson’s “Civilization’’ is meant as answer or antidote to Kenneth Clark’s famous “Civilisation,’’ which in 1969 focused on the Sistine Chapel, Versailles, and painters such as Constable and Turner. Ferguson’s view is broader if not longer. His idea of civilization is about more than art, or even the art of living. It’s about the ideas, principles, and values that animate a people, or many peoples - in fact, the chapters are arranged thematically: “Competition,’’ “Science,’’ “Property,’’ “Medicine,’’ “Consumption,’’ and “Work.’’
At the core of this volume and this argument is the notion of the primacy of the West - an early clue that this book is not about declinism after all. Western superiority is, to his mind, quantitative: A century ago, 11 Western empires, accounting for a 10th of the world’s land surface, held almost three-fifth’s of the world population under their sway and accounted for 79 percent of global economic output. Beat that.
He argues, moreover, that the thing that makes us modern - the scientific revolution - was nearly all Western. “An astonishingly high proportion of the [scientific revolution’s] key figures - around 80 percent - originated in a hexagon bounded by Glasgow, Copenhagen, Kraków, Naples, Marseilles and Plymouth,’’ he argues, “and nearly all the rest were born within a hundred miles of that area.’’
And so on. He doesn’t skirt the inevitable question (Why were the citizens of the West the chosen people?) and, in answering it, makes a virtue of the West’s divisions. All those countries of Europe, plus the United States of course, competed with each other to create overseas empires, allowing the West to improve production and then to rule the world.
The role and rule of the United States is critical in this argument, not only because in time it would flex its cultural, economic, and military muscles but also because the near emptiness of this continent - all that land, all that possibility, which combined to produce social mobility - was filled mostly by Europeans, not by Asians or Muslims, and it was British America, and not Iberian America, that emerged as the engine of creativity and growth - and democracy.
All this is written with vitality and verve. It’s not every day you encounter a sentence like this: “Europe before 1500 was a vale of tears, but not of ignorance.’’ Or this comparison between Frederick the Great and Sultan Osman III: “Instead of a harem, he had a wife (Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick) whom he detested.’’ Or this: “The Enlightenment was always most effective when it was being ironical.’’
And along with the historical tour d’horizon that makes this volume a tour de force, it is full of interesting diversions, such as Ferguson’s meditation on why people around the world now wear the same clothing - fitting, he says, because the Industrial Revolution was rooted in textiles.
He has, in fact, an unsettling obsession with textiles, which extends to his survey of the 20th century, when he points out how well dressed were the Germans of the Nazi period, though he notes that “[i]f German men wanted to look smart by 1938 they needed to be in uniform.’’
He lingers, moreover, on the meaning of blue jeans and argues that the Western democracies were lucky the Cold War didn’t become hot (the Soviets would have won) and instead devolved into a consumer struggle rather than a military one. “Why could the Soviets not replicate Levi 501s the way they had replicated the atomic bomb?’’ he asks. Left unanswered is whether blue jeans are the defining talisman of civilization. Kenneth Clark surely would have voted no. I suspect Niall Ferguson votes yes.David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette .com.