Guest post by Nathan West*
Civilization: the West and the rest, by Niall Ferguson is a fascinating book, which I wholeheartedly recommend because it offers an original take on the West’s rise to global dominance and an interesting view about what constitutes the biggest threat to Western civilization.
As Professor Ferguson sees things, it was not at all obvious some five hundred years ago that the West – meaning, roughly, the European countries (and now the US and Canada) – would dominate the planet. In fact, China and the Muslim Ottoman Empire were, for a considerable time, both more advanced and more prosperous than Europe. With that in mind, Ferguson sets out to explain how it is that the West came to dominate the world and, having done so, he examines the question whether it can maintain its dominance.
To illustrate China’s impressive achievements, Ferguson discusses, among other factors, Chinese exploration. We learn that in the early 15th century, China built a massive treasure ship, nearly 5 times the size of Columbus’ ship, the Santa María. It was part of a fleet “of more than 300 huge ocean-going junks [...which] were far larger than anything being built in fifteenth-century Europe,” with 28,000 man combined crew, thus making China’s navy the largest in the world until the time of World War I. (p. 54). The fleet sailed far and wide “to Thailand, Sumatra, Java and the once-great port of Calicut (today’s Kozhikode in Kerala); to Temasek (later Singapore), Malacca and Ceylon; to Cuttack in Orissa; to Hormuz, Aden and up the Red Sea to Jeddah.” However, when Emperor Yongle died, the voyages were suspended and exploration effectively came to an end. “From 1500, anyone in China found building a ship with more than two masts was liable to the death penalty; in 1551 it became a crime even to go to sea in such a ship.” (p. 54).
China’s technological prowess was not limited to sea exploration. China brought the world printing, among many other useful inventions:
It was the Chinese who first revolutionized textile production with innovations like the spinning wheel and the silk reeling frame, imported to Italy in the thirteenth century. […] Other Chinese innovations include chemical insecticide, the fishing reel, matches, the magnetic compass, playing cards, the toothbrush and the wheelbarrow. […] Jiao Yu and Liu Ji’s book Huolongjing, published in the late fourteenth century, describes land and sea mines, rockets and hollow cannonballs filled with explosives. Even as late as 1788, British iron-production levels were still lower than those achieved in China in 1078. (p. 52).
Notwithstanding these impressive achievements, China lacked the qualities which, according to Ferguson, allowed the West to eventually dominate China. Since the book is about Europe and the West, China and the Muslim Empires serve mainly as the foil for showing what allowed the West to gain its advantage.
Ferguson’s explanation of the decline of China and the Ottoman Empire highlights the fact that in both countries, society turned inward. In the case of the Ottoman Empire, the clerical class came to dominate, and, in the name of religion, precluded even the use of such inventions as the printing press. By the time the Ottoman Empire came to understand its looming demise, it was too late to salvage the Empire, which collapsed after the Ottoman defeat in WWI.
The role that religion played in the demise of the Ottoman Empire can also be seen in the fact that, while Muslims were not permitted to use the printing press, non-Muslims were permitted to do so – a point Ferguson does not mention. In fact, non-Muslims had been using the printing press from early on, as noted by Bernard Lewis in his brilliant study The Muslim Discovery Of Europe. This innovation was denied to Muslims because the sacred language of Islam, Arabic, used the same characters as the language spoken by Muslims including those we now call Turks. It is also to be noted that the printing press did not spread to the Arab regions – at least for its Muslim population – until the 19th century. For the Arabs, Arabic was the written language and it was the religion’s sacred language. Hence, it was not to be desecrated by the printed page.
To the extent that Ferguson appears to place the bulk of the blame for the decline of the Ottoman Empire (and, to some extent, China) on religion, I think he is surely mistaken, although religion’s impact ought not be underestimated either. As Professor Lewis notes with reference to Islamic civilization, curiosity about the unknown has not been a trait of very many societies throughout history; rather, inward directed societies are the norm in history. Thus, investigation of the unknown is one thing that sets European societies apart from other societies. It is therefore the “normal” lack of curiosity in the Muslim regions, not Islam, that should be regarded as a major reason for the failure of the Islamic world to keep up with the West.
Ferguson, in pointing to internal causes, hopes to undercut the argument that imperialism was the dominant cause for the West’s rise. Obviously, the Ottoman Empire was also an imperial power, as Lewis rightly notes. Ottoman policy brought their empire to the outskirts of Vienna as late as the 1680s only to be turned back, once and for good, in 1683. After that, it was one humiliating defeat after the next. Importantly, however, the decline of both China and the Ottoman Empire preceded imperial dominance by the West.
Most of Civilization focuses on answering Ferguson’s central question why the West came to dominate the world, and on pages 308 – 309, he presents a short summary of his answers:
Why did the West dominate the Rest and not vice versa? I have argued that it was because the West developed six killer applications that the Rest lacked. These were:
1. Competition, in that Europe itself was politically fragmented and that within each monarchy or republic there were multiple competing corporate entities
2. The Scientific Revolution, in that all the major seventeenth-century breakthroughs in mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology happened in Western Europe
3. The rule of law and representative government, in that an optimal system of social and political order emerged in the English-speaking world, based on private property rights and the representation of property-owners in elected legislatures
4. Modern medicine, in that nearly all the major nineteenth- and twentieth-century breakthroughs in healthcare, including the control of tropical diseases, were made by Western Europeans and North Americans
5. The consumer society, in that the Industrial Revolution took place where there was both a supply of productivity-enhancing technologies and a demand for more, better and cheaper goods, beginning with cotton garments
6. The work ethic, in that Westerners were the first people in the world to combine more extensive and intensive labour with higher savings rates, permitting sustained capital accumulation. Continue reading