Glimpses of a Book #8


By Niall Ferguson


In this book, the author describes how the West have become dominant to the Rest in today’s world, by explaining “the six killer applications of Western Power”.

I Competition : The Spice Race

“In short, the political fragmentation that characterized Europe precluded the creation of anything remotely resembling the Chinese Empire. It also precluded Europeans to seek opportunities – economic, geopolitical and religious – in distant lands. You might say it was a case of divide and rule – except that, paradoxically, it was by being divided themselves themselves that Europeans were able to rule the world.” (P. 39)

Well, what European Union is trying to do seems to contradict this observation of Europe’s power over the world in the past… Although I am for the idea of EU, it is true that sometimes competitions lead to better ideas, better solutions and developments.

About Chinese bureaucracy in the past, which was founded on Confucianism and people who passed extremely intense examinations ;

“No doubt after three days and two nights in a shoebox, it was the most able – and certainly the most driven – candidates who passed the examination. But with its strong emphasis on the Four Books and Five Classics of Confucianism, with their bewildering 431,286 characters to be memorized, and the rigidly stylized eight-legged essay introduced in 1487, it was an exam that rewarded conformity and caution. It was fiercely competitive, no doubt, but it was not the kind of competition that promotes innovation, much less the appetite for change. The written language at the heart of Chinese civilization was designed for the production of a conservative elite and the exclusion of the masses from their activities.” (P. 43)

This part made me realize how our education shape our thinking ability. In other words, education can profoundly influence society in that it has potential to control us through our thinking, which is really tricky because we don’t have the impression of being brainwashed. We feel that WE think, but actually what we’ve learned might have even constructed our entire personality… Maybe the level of education shows the level of society, and how our government wants us to be.

And then, the author explains the reason of collapse of the Ming dynasty (China), which was “the world’s most sophisticated civilization by almost any measure” ;

“What had gone wrong? The answer is that turning inwards was fatal, especially for a complex and densely populated society like China’s. The Ming system had created a high-level equilibrium – impressive outwardly, but fragile inwardly. The countryside could sustain a remarkably large number of people, but only on the basis of an essentially static social order that literally ceased to innovate.” (P. 44)

It’s pretty frightening how I can easily name a number of countries that are in the similar situation as the Ming…


2 Science : Osman and Fritz

A quote from Frederick the Great (1712-1786), king of Prussia, who is known as “the pioneer of enlightened absolutism” ;

“‘I can have no interests’, he declared, ‘ which are not equally those of my people. If the two are incompatible, the preference is always to be given to the welfare and advantage of the country.'” (P. 73)

It’d be nice if some of the modern politicians learned a little bit from him…


“In Frederick’s opinion, regal robes had no practical purpose, and a crown was merely ‘a hat that let the rain in’.” (P. 73)

Anyway, going back to our main theme, in this chapter the author demonstrates how Prussia (especially during the period of Frederick the Great) became so prosperous ;

“Prussia’s Enlightenment, in short, was about free thought, not free action. Moreover, this free thought was primarily designed to enhance the power of state.” (P. 81)

The problem in today’s world, however, is not the state limiting our free thought, but rather us, ceasing to think on our own, relying heavily on the Internet for the answer.


4 Medicine : The Skulls of Shark Island

Francis Galton (1822-1911), who is a half-cousin of the famous Charles Darwin, made the observation about human evolution. (No doubt he was influenced by Charles’s evolution theory.) He suggested “the use of selective breeding to improve the human gene pool”, knowns as ‘eugenics’. 

Now it goes without saying which political party had inherited this (disturbing) ideology, however at the time of Francis Galton ;

“Racism was not some backward-looking reactionary ideology; the scientifically uneducated embraced it as enthusiastically as people today accept the theory of man-made global warming.” (P. 177)

Here again the importance of education. Education is not about getting degrees to get a job, but it gives you the ability of think, be objective and shape your reality. No wonder majority of terrorists are uneducated, they are the easiest ones to persuade into extreme thoughts, because they have no immune system – ability to doubt – to protect against it.


6 Work : Get Your Kicks

“More commonly, competition between sects in a free religious market encourages innovations designed to make the experience of worship and Church member ship more fulfilling. It is this that kept religion alive in America” (P. 275)

Never thought of religions in terms of free markets. Interesting, indeed…


Conclusion: The Rivals

“Those six killer apps were the key to Western ascendancy. The story of our time, which can in fact be traced back to the reign of the Meiji emperor in Japan (1867-1912), is that the Rest finally began to download them. (…) The Japanese had no idea what elements of Western culture and institutions were the crucial ones, so they ended up copying everything, from Western clothes and hairstyles to the European practice of colonizing foreign peoples.” (P. 306)

Being Japanese myself, it’s true how we always have the feeling of looking up to the West. This part of the book made me certain of the significance of learning history, because it explains a lot about how we live today… even to the extent of both individual and state’s psychology.

So here are some of my thoughts while I was reading this book, as I forget things easily, I decided to share them on my blog in a series called Glimpses of a Book. It has an objective of recommending great books I’ve read, as well as collecting my random thoughts that may (hopefully) serve in the future…

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