This article was first published in the March 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine


What do we mean by ‘western civilisation’?

To put it succinctly, ‘western’ is the ideas and institutions that arose in western Europe after around 1400 and were then spread across the Atlantic, to Australia and selected other places over the next 500 years. ‘Civilisation’ is simply the largest unit of human social, cultural and political organisation short of humanity itself. What makes the west different is that it is really the only civilisation in history to achieve such a global reach and to transform the world so comprehensively.

Your story starts in the 15th century. How did the west compare to other civilisations around at that time?

If you were to take a world tour in 1411 you certainly would not come back from it saying: “I tell you what, England has a big future ahead of it” or “watch those Portuguese”. London and Lisbon were pretty unimpressive places then, tiny by comparison with the big Asian cities and pretty nasty and smelly too.
On the other hand, if you had visited what was to be Beijing, or Nanjing and looked at what the Ming emperor was doing you would have been far more impressed. Or if you’d gone to the heart of the Ottoman empire, you would’ve seen a much bigger, more remarkable operation. Even the Maya, Inca and Aztecs would have borne striking comparisons, at least architecturally, with what you would have seen in western Europe. The civilisation that was going to achieve almost total dominance over the rest within a few hundred years was nowhere politically, economically or militarily in 1411.

What changed that enabled the west to become so dominant?

This is a question I have spent years grappling with and finally I’ve concluded that it boils down to six things. Obviously there was a legacy of western civilisation 1.0 – the Greeks and Romans. There was ancient learning in Greek and Latin that western civilisation 2.0 was able to draw on during the Renaissance. It was a kind of launch pad for this story and it survived not least thanks to the Arabs.

But there are these six killer applications – to use modern computer terminology – that differentiate the second western civilisation from the first and they are the key to my book. Each of them is unique and each, for a while, the west monopolised.

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I start by talking about competition and fragmentation of both political and economic institutions. Second is the scientific revolution, which really did change the game and was a purely western phenomenon. It was also different from what the ancients had done in both its methods and in the scale of its achievements.

Third is the idea of property rights as the basis for the rule of law and ultimately for politics. That was a hugely important idea and again it was new. Next is medicine, which doubled human life and that was a pretty big advantage. My fifth killer app is consumerism, or the consumer society. Finally there is the work ethic, the get out of bed at six, collapse into bed at midnight work ethic that I think was distinctively western for a time.

Each of these things gave the west an advantage and ensured it became unbeatably superior to the rest. It was richer, smarter and better capable of understanding the natural world. It was better ruled, because basing government on representative institutions and private property rights really works. The west became healthier, better clothed and sheltered. Ultimately it also became much more efficient at working.

Why did these developments not take place in the rest of the world?

One has to ponder why, say, the scientific revolution didn’t happen in China or in the Ottoman empire when both had made pretty significant advances in science. I think the answer to that is a kind of inversion of what I’ve said. In China, for example, there was a fairly monolithic political system with one emperor and one imperial civil service. It was very conformist and there wasn’t the kind of competition that went on in western Europe between these multiple small states.

European governments were incentivised to cross the Atlantic, sail round the Cape and try to go that extra 1,000 miles because they daren’t not compete. To sit idly by and leave it all to the Portuguese and Spanish would have been a major mistake for the north Europeans. Whereas in Asia there weren’t those tight races. You had the Chinese empire and then Japanese pirates and raiders from the north. Or you had the Mughal empire and some competing political entities. But in neither case was there the kind of perpetual contest that took place in Europe.

A second part to the answer is that in the Ottoman empire and the Muslim world generally the theocrats got the upper hand. In Galileo’s Europe it was a close-run thing but ultimately the churches couldn’t extinguish the scientific revolution, partly because the Catholic church’s monopoly was destroyed in the Reformation. The church, at least in Catholic countries, still tried its hardest to put the genie back in the bottle but it couldn’t. Europe was too fragmented for the scientific revolution to be stoppable. You could persecute people but they’d just go to Prussia and then you would be the loser.

Professor Ian Morris wrote a piece for us recently (Why the West Rules for Now – December 2010) arguing that Europe thrived because it was nearer to America than Asia was and therefore colonised it first, with the benefits that entailed. What are your thoughts on his theory?

I’ve read Ian’s book and I think it’s excellent. He’s an ancient historian so comes at this from a different angle and he’s attracted to the idea that it was sheer luck that it takes six weeks to sail across the Atlantic, whereas the Pacific is vastly larger and it takes much longer to get a Chinese man to California.

What makes me sceptical about this argument is that China was already an empire, as it had expanded over much of north-east Asia. It had the territory and the manpower and all that by 1400. The puzzle is that with all the people and acres it couldn’t turn its technical ingenuity into sustainable growth.

Western Europe was pretty densely populated and with hindsight North America looks like a fabulous windfall, but that’s not how it seemed at the time. It appeared the Spanish and Portuguese [with South and Central America] were the lucky ones. Luck, if you define it in terms of 1500 is: “I’ve just found a country inhabited by people who have no resistance to the diseases I can survive and it’s got tonnes of gold and silver”. That’s luck but it turned out to be a curse because the gold and silver doesn’t make you rich if all you do is spend it on wars and if it drives up the price level.

The British were unlucky. They were late on the scene, with colonies that did not have gold and I don’t think anybody thought they were fortunate. But if there had been gold they probably wouldn’t have made anything of Massachusetts.

So even within European civilisation, were certain parts more successful than others?

There has been considerable variation in outcomes within ‘the west’. The Spanish and Portuguese, for example, were great at sailing and conquering but they didn’t plant institutions that did what the institutions of north-west Europe did when they were planted in America, or for that matter Australasia.

Why has it taken the rest of the world nearly 500 years to finally start catching up with the west?

With the exception of Japan it is very close to 500 years and Japan’s catch-up was disastrously mishandled in the sense that it produced the Second World War. We need to ask why the magic of industrialism was not embraced more readily by the likes of China or India.

One argument is that there was a high level equilibrium trap in China. They’d figured out how to feed an enormous amount of people by growing rice, and they had a very carefully structured system that just worked. However this system turned out to be a victim of its own success because it removed the incentive for progress.

I don’t think north-western Europe was ever like that. It was a place that was conducive to innovation. Every civilisation has its risk takers but if you were a risk taker growing up in northern Italy, the Low Countries or England and Scotland in the 1500s or 1600s there were opportunities your counterparts in China or the Ottoman empire or Mughal India didn’t have.
That lasted until they realised that if you can’t beat them, join them. It began with the Japanese in the 19th century and that was the first time a non-western society said: “Right, we are going to copy these guys. They have it figured out.” They didn’t know what it was that the west did that was crucial so they copied absolutely everything – even hairstyles – in the hope they would copy the things that mattered.

It’s interesting because the technology was there. All that the west had figured out, particularly with respect to the production of manufactures, was completely open source. It wasn’t a secret. The killer apps that made the western advance possible were available but it wasn’t until the mid-20th century, with the exception of Japan, that non-western powers started to successfully download them. There’s as much a story to be told about inertia in the east as dynamism in the west.

Are we now witnessing the death knell of western supremacy?

Yes, although it may not be a death knell. It may be a ring tone. It’s not necessarily the end of the world that the most populous countries on earth escape from grinding poverty.
China, the west’s main rival, now has all the killer apps except for one. It doesn’t have a political system anything like as representative or law based as the ones in the west. That might be a problem for them at some point. But I believe China will have a larger economy than the US in the next 10 to 20 years. In that sense the death knell, or ring tone, is definitely ringing for western supremacy.

Has the rest of the world not just become part of western civilisation?

That’s the key issue: what if we’ve westernised them? Much of what we regard as the modern world, the way we live, has been adopted to a huge extent by the Chinese. Let’s say you took today’s Chinese family and told them they had a choice: either go to Florida in 2011 or stay right here but we’re going to turn the clock back to 1411. Nobody would choose the second option.

Lifestyles have been westernised wherever you go. Even under the burqas they’re wearing Armani jeans. The question is not whether the east has conquered the west or vice-versa, it’s more what this fusion will look like.

Niall Ferguson holds chairs at Harvard and the London School of Economics. His books include Empire, Colossus, The Ascent of Money and The War of the World, and he has also presented several TV series for Channel 4. His book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, is published by Allen Lane (March 2011).


If Niall's feature has given you a taste for history's big moments, why not have a read of our feature 12 Giant Leaps for Mankind, in which 12 historians nominate alternative moments in the past that they consider to be great leaps for mankind – from ancient Greek carnivores to Galileo’s telescope.