BOOK REVIEW: Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson

I have read several of Niall Ferguson’s books and while I may not always agree with him hi writing style and analysis are always interesting and thought provoking.   Civilization: The West and the Rest is no different.   I have the UK edition of the book, I doubt it is significantly different from the US edition except for the cover, but cannot guarantee it.

In this book Dr. Ferguson attempts to analyze and explain why the West, which he defines as European and countries with a European heritage, has prospered so much over the past 500 years and how the West managed to control so much of the globe.   He does this by identifying what he calls the Six ‘Killer Apps’ of western civilization.   They are:

  1. Competition
  2. Science
  3. Property
  4. Medicine
  5. Consumption
  6. Work[1]

It is these six apps that he credits with making the West so successful over the past half millennium.   He analyzes each in detail and it is both entertaining and illuminating to read.   Not only does he describe what each app did and does but he talks about the how and why each app was so successful and if the West still has those properties.

He also provides some profound insights into why the west currently seems to be in a period of decay.   One of the best I read was “Maybe the ultimate threat to the West comes not from Radical Islam, or any other external source, but from our own lack of understanding of, and faith in, our own cultural heritage.”[2]  The other discussion of his I found particularly compelling was his analysis of the unique dangers of the current trend of moral and cultural relativism in Western thought.   His basic premise is that if Westerners lose sight of the heritage: “All we risk being left with are a vacuous consumer society and a culture of relativism – a culture that says any theory or opinion, no matter how outlandish, is just as good as whatever it was we used to believe in.”[3]  that analysis that goes into those two insights alone make this book worth reading.

Dr. Ferguson has done it again with Civilization: The West and the Rest and come out with another book of history that informs the reader not just about the past, but puts that path into a perspective that makes it extremely worthwhile for the contemporary world.   I highly recommend this outstanding work by one of the best historians writing today.


[1] Ferguson, Niall. Civilization: The West and the Rest. (London, UK, Allen Lane Publishing. 2010), 12

[2] Ibid, 255

[3] Ibid, 288