Niall Ferguson's study of the financial history of the world made him prescient about today





Historian Niall Ferguson offers no apologies to disapproving colleagues and other naysayers who insist that he should keep his formidable and wide-ranging intellect fixed firmly on the past.

The high-profile, 44-year-old Glasgow-bred author and academic, who holds down prestigious posts at both Oxford and Harvard, has written vividly and provocatively about what has come before. His new book, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, is a rigorous but accessible survey of the Western monetary system from the Crusades through the development of banking by the Medicis in Renaissance Italy to the stock market crash of 1929 and beyond.

But Ferguson is as likely to be found on CNN parsing the relative merits of the recent U.S. banking bailout with Lou Dobbs. And even when he does excavate the past, he sometimes practises the heresy of "counterfactual history," most notoriously making the argument in The Pity of War that the globe would have enjoyed a happier 20th century fate had Britain stayed out of World War I.

"Many professional historians would say that I have no business talking about the present or even the recent past, much less the future," he says over coffee during a promotional stop in Toronto.

"I don't really understand what the point of that self-denial ordinance is because if historians can't illuminate the future, I don't know who can. There's all sorts of bogus futurology out there, but in my experience most of what people say about the future is implicitly based on some understanding of the past.

"My caveat is simple: There is no such thing as the future, singular. There are futures, plural. And the historian is quite well-placed to offer plausible scenarios based on past analogies."



comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Randll Reese Besch - 12/3/2008

The kinds of Historians we need more of.

Subscribe to our mailing list