Ever-nimble historian Ferguson (History/Harvard Univ.; The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, 2008, etc.) examines the factors that led to the rise of the West rather than the East.
The author boldly takes on 600 years of world events, keeping an eye always to the pertinence of the material in relation to the modern era, so that the history lesson remains fresh and compelling. The consideration of why Western Europe took predominance from around 1500 onward is not new, for example, having been undertaken by the likes of Samuel Johnson and Max Weber. Ferguson’s six factors are fairly standard, yet tidily presented and contextually developed in discrete chapters: competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic. Although China had developed enormous innovations early on—in medicine, the printing press, paper and gunpowder—the colossus had closed its door to exchanging ideas with the rest of the world; the Arab world, despite being the custodian of classical knowledge, innovator in mathematics and astronomy and conqueror of many lands, was finally turned back at the Siege of Vienna of 1683, marking the long Ottoman eclipse and the ascent of the West. While the “heirs of Osman” began looking at freethinkers and scientific inquiry as blasphemous to the Koran, England and France had established scientific academies sponsored by the crown, and rulers like Frederick the Great of Prussia welcomed religious tolerance and free inquiry. The Enlightenment took off, and through numerous brilliant works which Ferguson touches on briefly but comprehensively, important civilizing tenets were encoded in the West, such as the separation of church and state, the importance of literacy, the protection of private property, the rule of law and representative government. The author looks at the effect of the Protestant work ethic and compares it to the Chinese sense of labor and thrift—culminating in projections of similar ascent for China.
A richly informed, accessible history lesson.