The West: A New History of an Old Idea

by Naoíse Mac Sweeney

Hardcover, 2023



Call number



WH Allen (2023), 368 pages


Biography & Autobiograph Histor Nonfictio HTML:‚??A bold, sweeping bird‚??s eye view of thousands of years of history that provides a truly global perspective of the past. A fantastic achievement.‚?Ě‚??Peter Frankopan, internationally bestselling author of The Silk Roads Prize-winning historian Nao√≠se Mac Sweeney delivers a captivating exploration of how ‚??Western Civilization‚?Ě‚??the concept of a single cultural inheritance extending from ancient Greece to modern times‚??is a powerful figment of our collective imagination. An urgently needed emergent voice in big history, she offers a bold new account of Western history, real and imagined, through the lives of fourteen remarkable individuals.   In this groundbreaking, story-driven retelling of Western history, Nao√≠se Mac Sweeney debunks the myths and origin stories that underpin the history we thought we knew. Told through fourteen figures who each played a role in the creation of the Western idea‚??from Herodotus, a mixed-race migrant, to Phylis Wheatley, an enslaved African American who became a literary sensation; and from Gladstone, with a private passion for epic poetry, to the medieval Arab scholar Al-Kindi‚??the subjects are a mind-expanding blend of unsung heroes and familiar faces viewed afresh. These characters span the millennia and the continents, representing different religions, varying levels of wealth and education, diverse traditions and nationalities. Each life tells us something unexpected about the age in which it was lived and offers us a piece of the puzzle of how the modern idea of the West developed‚??and why we've misunderstood it for too long.   The concept of ‚??the West‚?Ě is present in every daily interaction you have, from entertainment and politics to world markets and world history. This engagingly intimate history will reshape the way you see the world around you. At this moment of civilizational redefinition, if we are to chart a future for th… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member jsburbidge
This is generally a welcome and well-written book with which I have no overall arguments. It is particularly strong in handling the relations between the Hellenic and Asian cultures, which has been coming into greater focus in the past few decades, and the identification of the varied inheritors of
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Greece and Rome in the mediaeval period.

But I do have to note that her choice of Roman and mediaeval figures downplays the continuing acknowledged importance of the Greek heritage within the Latin tradition - the derivation of Latin literature (from Ennius on) from Greek models and the derivation of all philosophy from the Greek philosophical schools.

Wallace-Hadrill, whom she cites, provides a good treatment of the complex relationship between Hellenic and Latin cultures in the context of the early empire. Capability in Greek culture was a basic part of the equipment of the educated Roman, and acknowledged as such.

Dante could not read Homer, but he places him at the head of the poets; Platonic, and, later, Aristotelian philosophy was followed well before the Renaissance rediscovered Cicero. So I would argue that there was a greater degree of recognized intertwined and interdependent relations between Latin and Greek heritage throughout the period than Mac Sweeney allows for. The idea of a joint Greek-Roman heritage was constructed rather earlier than the book suggests.

The other adjustment I would make would be to note that Gladstone's treatment of "Classical" versus Hebrew influence is in reaction to a widely popular view that she dies not cover: that the "West" represents a fusion of three, not two cultures: Greek, Roman, and Hebraic. (This view tended to overplay the division between Hebraic and other Semitic cultures, a fault which was forcibly corrected by the discovery of Ugaritic texts in the 20th Century.)

Neither of these points detracts to any serious degree from the book's thesis and general treatment.
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LibraryThing member shirfire218
The West: A New History in Fourteen Lives is a fascinating, well written book that lays out the history of how the (incorrect) narrative of Western Civilization came about and was finally molded into the dogma instilled into American children, generation after generation. This finalized version of
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the Western Civilization narrative was moulded by the founders of the United States during Revolutionary times, and was a necessary tool in their justification of white supremacy, slavery and manifest destiny doctrines. It explains to a large degree how Americans have ended up on the brink of a division so great that our very Democracy is in grave and immediate danger.

It outlines this concept of the Western Civilization narrative through 14 very interesting individuals from history, from Herodotus in the fifth century B.C.E. to Carrie Lam, of modern times. These short biographies and how they fit into the concepet of "The West" were engrossing.

Through education and breaking through a narrative that just doesn't stand up, and is no longer seen to be viable, we can move past it, and open up discussions, form new narratives not based on color and prejudice and foresee a future that can get past the hate and violence of our American past and present.
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Original language


Physical description

368 p.; 9.45 inches


0753558920 / 9780753558928
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