Niall Ferguson confessed at the beginning of his talk this evening that when he had agreed to speak at Jewish Book Week, he had just launched one book, but by the time the talk came round, he had written and published another, so he was going to attempt to talk about both books during the course of the lecture. This was a somewhat egotistical start to the session, but Ferguson is a polished and practised speaker and he did manage to convincingly link the themes of his two books within the hour, although I regretted the fact that this meant less time on each equally interesting topic.
The first book in question, and the one for which Jewish Book Week booked him, is his recent biography of the investment banker Sigmund Warburg. Warburg was, by all accounts, a fascinating individual who aimed, and did, build a successful bank through a set of principles including acting ethically and having sound capital funds – standards sorely missed in today’s banking climate. Warburg was by no means a saint, rather a workaholic with a taste for flashy tantrums, but also a clever and moral businessman who grew his bank to be a very successful one by the time he died in the early 1980s.
Ferguson chose to link Warburg to the themes of his more recent book on Western Civilisation. His theory is that there are six key characteristics that marked out western civilization as having had more success in recent centuries than other civilizations. These six tenets were: political and economic competition, science, the idea of property rights being the basis for voting rights, medicine, the work ethic and the consumerist society. Ferguson argued that Jewish culture in particular encouraged behaviour that led to excellence in these six areas, and cited Warburg as an example of an extremely civilised man, with a well-developed work ethic and a strong moral code.
I found some areas of Ferguson’s argument to be a little too over-the-top (his view that the average number of working hours decreasing over the past 30 years is a bad thing is something I cannot agree with!) but he was an enjoyable and knowledgeable speaker to listen to, and both books sound like fascinating reading.
Rachel Buchanan is the General Manager of the Free Word Centre, a centre for literature, literacy and free expression. In her spare time she is the Vice Chair of the Camden Poets, and enjoys reading, knitting, walking and procrastinating rather than practising magic tricks