Brain Pickings

The Ascent of Money: A PBS Financial History of the World

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Renaissance royalty, Oriental math, and why financial history is the essential backstory behind all history.

Among yesterday’s selection of 5 must-read books by this year’s newly announced TED Global speakers was The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Harvard historian Niall Ferguson. But the book was actually meant to accompany a 2008 six-part documentary commissioned by Channel 4 — the same folks who gave us What Is Reality?, The End of God?: A Horizon Guide to Science and Religion, How Music Works, What Is Time? — and distributed in the US by PBS.

The program is now available online in a clip of questionable legality that may or may not get pulled down by the copyright watchdogs at any point. But, while it lasts, it’s very much worth a watch — eloquent and digestible, it distills one of the most powerful driving forces of our civilization and its multiplicitous impact on just about every aspect of our lives.

Banks financed the Renaissance, while the bond market decided wars. Stock markets built empires and monetary meltdowns made revolutions. From ancient Mesopotamia right down to present-day London, the ascent of money has been an indispensable part of the ascent of man. But money’s rise has never been a smooth upward ride. As we’ll see, financial history has repeatedly been interrupted by gut-wrenching crises, of which today’s is just the latest.” ~ Niall Ferguson

(The sixth and final episode was uploaded as a separate video due to YouTube’s length restrictions.)

For an excellent companion to and enhancement of the documentary, you won’t go wrong with the book.

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