The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World


Written by Niall Ferguson “The Ascent of Money” is an adaptation of a television documentary. This documentary ran on PBS, an American channel and Channel 4, in the United Kingdom. In 2009, it won an International Emmy Award (Davies & Connors, 2016). The primary theme revolves around the long history of money, banking, and credit. In this book, author dwells on the rise of money as a medium of trade and tracks how it has progressed, developed, and affected the 21st-century society (Ferguson, 2017). Certainly, the most important thing documented in this book is how a new financial revolution has propelled some of the world’s biggest nations such as China and India from poverty to richness in a period of one generation. According to the author, this one economic transformation has remained unrivaled ever in the history of humankind.


The dramatic credit crunch crisis, coupled with the day-to-day problems of poverty, negative equity, and job loss have together brought to the fore financial matters (Craig 2011). As for Niall Ferguson, it was the perfect timing to produce the book. However, the problem is that money is apparently in free-fall. Even Ferguson himself acknowledges this by writing that the title of his book appears “to sound incongruously optimistic note” (Craig 2011). Nonetheless, Ferguson contends that the financial system is merely a “mirror of humanity,” symbolizing how human beings value themselves and the worldly resources around them. We cannot blame the mirror for reflecting the blemishes and the beauty of the world around us. In this book, Ferguson is keen to evaluate markets from a moral perspective. He believes that the ignorance and greed portrayed by human beings have given birth to the current credit crunch crisis and not the financial system. Though, this statement is true to some degree. It is important to bear some collective responsibility for the over-stretching budgets of households and the Western exchequers (Davies & Connors, 2016).

Ferguson provides a biography of finance that throws more light on the human predicament. He charts the rise, progression and development of money from clay tokens which were historically passed around the Mesopotamian villages, years ago to the current flickering figures on a foreign exchange wall. Overall, the author reminds the audience that money is a symbol of a relationship of trust (Ferguson, 2016).

Moreover, it is a persuasive argument that the development of money is connected to the development of modern societies, through fastening investment, loans, and transactions (Ferguson, 2017). The book contains a collection of case studies that showcase how money formed the basis for the rise of China, the colonization of South Africa and Roosevelt’s New Deal. Although money does not make the world to revolve, it certainly makes “staggering quantities of goods, people, and services move around the world” (Davies & Connors, 2016).

However, the author could be flawed based on the rate at which the current credit crunch crisis has penetrated the markets. The debacle unfolds from the credit bust to the housing crisis and to global recession making each chapter to pose different questions (Ferguson, 2017). In my opinion, it appears that Ferguson may have been distracted by the present condition to focus on the past. Part of the title claims to be “A Financial History of the World.” Therefore, the author has dutifully dabbed in societies that never experienced silver and gold as money and the clay tablets of Pre-Christian Mesopotamia that served as credit in exchange for goods and services (Ferguson, 2017). Ferguson traces how the bond market originated in the state’s need for money to fund warfare (Ferguson, 2017). In this line, he discusses how manias constantly engulfed greedy investors for centuries; Ferguson gives adequate concentration on John Law and how his schemes destroyed France in 18th Century (Ferguson, 2016). He further gives the story of financial risk as it originated in Scotland during the Enlightenment period.  

Sadly, it is not clear who the author is targeting. In my view, the book cannot target finance specialists because it lacks adequate information to compete with other finance works. Drawing from the fact that Ferguson has adopted his title from, “The Ascent of Man” it seems he is talking to a general audience. However, the general reader may remain baffled by passages that toss around words such as financial sterilization (Ferguson, 2012). Moreover, the audience will easily be put off by the author who gives in much effort to be as jolly as possible. For instance, Ferguson almost two pages of mathematics which are followed by things such as “how comes Mr. Bond has become so much powerful than Ian Fleming’s Mr. Bong.” How comes the two Bonds have a license to kill” (Craig 2011). 

Importance of the Book

The book is useful and relevant to people from all lifestyles, especially to students. For instance, it helps students to learn and explore the nexus between diplomacy, globalization, warfare, and money. This book is a beast. The author leads students and other audiences through a journey of money, from the clay tablets that established the financial sector in Mesopotamia ages ago to the present day global liquidity crisis. The author offers commentary throughout the ascending chapters that challenge the audience at varying levels of the society to drop their ignorance and embrace an intelligent understanding of how finance and money work. The book contains Ferguson’s personal life experiences and his historical research which inspires moral managers whose decisions shake and impact the interdependent basis of global financial organizations.

  Lastly, it is historical text, which offers valuable contributions to humanities, particularly the study of the human condition. This book makes the case that the human condition, as far as money is concerned, does not only mirror a unit of exchange but rather, it mirrors trust inscribed between the borrower and the lender.


Craig, L. A. (January 01, 2011). The Ascent of Niall: A Review of Ferguson’s Ascent of Money. Historical Methods, 44, 4, 185-190.

Davies, P. G., & Connors, D. D. (2016). A History of Money: Fourth Edition. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Ferguson, N. (2012). Civilization: The six killer Apps of western power. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Ferguson, N. (2016). The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World.

Ferguson, N. (2017). The square and the tower: history’s hidden networks.

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