Civilization: The West and the Rest/The Uniqueness of Western Civilization/The World America Made/Why the West Rules - for Now

By Haggman, Bertil | Comparative Civilizations Review, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview
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Civilization: The West and the Rest/The Uniqueness of Western Civilization/The World America Made/Why the West Rules - for Now

Haggman, Bertil, Comparative Civilizations Review

Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest. Penguin, 2011.

Ricardo Duchesne, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization. Brill, 2011.

Robert Kagan, The World America Made. Knopf, 2012.

Ian Morris, Why the West Rules - For Now. Strauss and Giroux - Farrar, 2010

During the last years there has been a growing interest in civilizational issues, and no fewer than three large volumes have been published on civilizations and on the reasons for the rise of the West. Niall Ferguson in his Civilization: The West and the Rest notes that before the rise, European civilization was more of a "backwater" divided into small competing kingdoms. In comparison Chinese civilization was strong and prospering. The threat of the Ottomans in Eastern Europe was a matter of survival for Western civilization.

In the 19th century things were different. Chinese civilization was in stagnation and the Ottomans were no longer a threat to Europe. Turkey had become the "sick man" of Europe. Europe was prospering and able to project its power in all corners of the earth. European settlers were moving in large numbers into North and South America and other parts of the world. In the world-encompassing British Empire, India was the "jewel in the crown."

There were six main reasons for the rise of the West, according to Ferguson:

1. Competition. Decentralization made nation-states and capitalism possible. It was the intense rivalries between Western powers that gave them the edge over nonEuropeans, whose realms were vast and stagnant.

2. The growth of science, which gave the West a way of understanding and conquering nature. One of the most important parts was a leap in military technology.

3. Property rights defined by law. This led to stable governance that furthered growth.

4. Western medicine, which was good for productivity and extended life expectancy. Improving health also meant that Europeans could cope with colonial climes.

5. A consumer society, which in turn fueled demand and economic growth.

6. Possibly the most important was work ethic. This held together society and helped keep society together when the other five could have led to fragmentation. The work ethic to a great degree depended on the rise of Protestantism (Max Weber).

Ferguson, being an economic historian, forgets much of the roots of Western civilization (he even calls the Roman Empire the first incarnation of the West), although he readily accepts civilizations as complex systems that sooner or later, he says, succumb to sudden and catastrophic malfunctions. Ricardo Duchesne (The Uniqueness of Western Civilization) has, however, shown us that we have to go back thousands of years before Athenian democracy to find the roots of the West. He argues for more attention to our Indo-European roots, so often forgotten today.

One of the standard assumptions of modern Western social science (history included) is that material conditions drive historical development. AU of the "Great Transitions" in world history-the origins of agriculture, the birth of cities, the rise of high culture, and the industrial revolution-can be associated with some condition that compelled humans to act in new ways. Not so, says Duchesne: history is driven by creative people and their ideas and he points to the aristocratic warlike ethos of the Indo-Europeans as a vital contribution to the origins of Western civilization.

Indo-Europeans migrated westward into Europe over a long period from around 4000 BC to about 1000 BC and the Mycenaeans, representing a new type of warlike society, managed to Indo-Europeanize Greece: they had ox-drawn wheeled wagons, cattle rearing and ploughs and a more robust culture.

In the field of war they introduced chariot warfare, which resulted in military victories. The Indo-Europeans glorified death in battle and their religion included warrior gods of the sky. The culture was essentially warlike.

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