Insightful, not incisive

Saumil Shah of KPMG reviews Civilization: The West and the Rest

Published 9 years ago on Nov 10, 2012 3 minutes Read

Civilization offers a meta-narrative of why one civilisation transcended the constraints that has bound all previous ones and smaller tales or micro-histories within it. He identifies six novel complexes of institutions and associated ideas and behaviours that enabled the West to rule the Rest. These “Killer Apps”, namely competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumer society and work ethic, have been explained, intertwined with historical facts and figures to make them readable. But they fail to answer the question that really made me pick up this book — is this really the end of the West’s world and the advent of a new Eastern epoch? However, it provides us with enough information and perspective on the reasons for Western dominance over the East.

The book provides several insights into the Western world’s fascination with China’s stupendous growth in the past few decades and why as Indians we might feel that we have arrived on the global arena but still have a long way to go. Consider this: Wikipedia surpassed a Chinese encyclopedia in 2007 after 600 years. The Chinese encyclopedia, commissioned by one of the greatest Ming emperors, ran into 11,000 volumes!

There are many interesting anecdotes and narratives in the book that educate and entertain you. The comparison between Yangtze and the Thames provides a perfect backdrop to explain the six killer apps and set the ball rolling. The mysterious disappearance of the entire civilisation of Machu Pichu and the fall of the Roman Empire reiterates the point: everything that goes up has to come down. 

Also, the many comparisons between West and East definitely made me appreciate the fact that East too had its moments. Another reason why one cannot rule out that the next few centuries could belong to the East although one cannot predict that pondering over the newspapers today.

Of course, one cannot take away the fact that as a Westerner Ferguson will romanticise the West’s ascendancy. But to his credit, he has tried to be quite objective and, in fact, at some places, especially on the Westerners’ occupation of Africa, has exposed the heinous crimes and hypocrisies of the so-called progressive nations. 

While reading the book, there were three questions that constantly crossed my mind. First, why would anybody in this age and time want to write about East and West as if slicing the world at its heart? Second, why hasn’t India preserved historical data and evidence the way it is preserved in the West? After all, one can learn a lot from past mistakes. Third, is this a book on civilisation or a book on power, money, greed and imperialistic attitudes? I did not get my answers, although I can definitely state that this is the first book on civilisation that I have read and I am quite certain that yesteryear authors on the subject might have dealt with it in a more theoretical manner than Ferguson.