The West A new history in fourteen lives

Naoíse Mac Sweeney, 1982-

Book - 2023

"A captivating exploration of how "Western Civilization"-the concept of a single cultural inheritance extending from ancient Greece to modern times-is a powerful figment of our collective imagination"--

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2nd Floor New Shelf 909.09821/Mac Sweeney (NEW SHELF) Due Oct 12, 2023
New York : Dutton [2023]
Physical Description
x, 438 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 357-423) and index.
Main Author
Naoíse Mac Sweeney, 1982- (author)
  • Introduction Obsessed with origins
  • Chapter 1 The rejection of purity: Herodotus
  • Chapter 2 The Asian Europeans: Livilla
  • Chapter 3 The global heirs of antiquity: Al-Kindī
  • Chapter 4 The Asian Europeans again: Godfrey of Viterbo
  • Chapter 5 The illusion of Christendom: Theodore Laskaris
  • Chapter 6 The reimagining of antiquity: Tullia D'Aragona
  • Chapter 7 The path not trodden: Safiye Sultan
  • Chapter 8 The West and knowledge: Francis Bacon
  • Chapter 9 The West and empire: Njinga of Angola
  • Chapter 10 The West and politics: Joseph Warren
  • Chapter 11 The West and race: Phyllis Wheatley
  • Chapter 12 The West and modernity: William Ewart Gladstone
  • Chapter 13 The West and its critics: Edward Said
  • Chapter 14 The West and its rivals: Carrie Lam
  • Conclusion The shape of history
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Further reading
  • Index.
Review by Booklist Review

While researching in the Library of Congress reading room, Mac Sweeney realizes she is being watched--not by staff, but by 16 statues representing the "grand narrative" of Western civilization. A classical archaeologist and ancient historian, Mac Sweeney considers this group of "elite white men," asking herself who gets to decide which figures best represent Western history. "The shape of history is different depending on your vantage point," she notes, pointing out that history is written from a subjective viewpoint, often by people with an agenda. Mac Sweeney argues convincingly that the commonly accepted history of Western civilization was constructed to "underpin ideologies of superiority, discrimination, and oppression" and proposes it is time to reimagine this narrative. In her detailed and nuanced book, she suggests a revised gallery of statues, with figures representing greater racial, ethnic, and gender diversity, and uses those figures to tell a new version of Western history; Al-Kindī and Njinga of Angola are two of the most interesting and memorable figures she proposes. This well-researched revisionist history is recommended for serious students of history.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission. Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

The idea of a coherent Western tradition is "both morally repugnant and factually wrong," according to this pugnacious and erudite historiography. University of Vienna archaeology professor Mac Sweeney (Troy) debunks the "grand narrative of Western Civilization"--a distinctive European culture evolving from Greco-Roman antiquity through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment to modernity, and tending toward democracy, capitalism, and individualism--through biographical sketches of historical figures. The multicultural worldview of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, she argues, shows that the Greeks had no notion of a Western civilization distinct from Asian and African cultures, while ninth-century Muslim scholar al-Kindī considered Greek philosophy the intellectual foundation of Islamic, not European, culture. The idea of Western civilization, Mac Sweeney contends, was a 17th-century innovation that served mainly to justify racism and colonialism, as demonstrated in her profiles of enslaved poet Phillis Wheatley, whose "erudite allusions to classical and biblical literature" clashed with assumptions that nonwhites could not master Western learning, and 19th-century British statesman William Gladstone, who imagined an exclusively white, Western tradition to rationalize British imperialism. Though Mac Sweeney sometimes overreaches in her eagerness to skewer the idea of the West, as when she suggests that medieval Europe recognized no continuity with ancient Greece, she skillfully synthesizes a wealth of scholarship and draws vibrant character sketches. It's a case to be reckoned with. Illus. (May)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved Review by Kirkus Book Review

A classical archaeologist examines the "grand narrative" of Western civilization and finds it wanting. The Enlightenment may have had its good points, but as prizewinning British scholar Mac Sweeney notes, it was thoroughly racialized in its mania for classification, leaving little room in the rise of the West for "someone like me (female, mixed-race) [who] did not belong in a tradition personified by…elite white men." The author argues convincingly that it was a departure from Greek and Roman senses of who they were and how they fit into the world. A modern portrait gallery of the products of those traditions would be the White European males whose images Mac Sweeney found enshrined in the Library of Congress, but the Greeks took it as a given that "a big part of being Greek was about doing Greek things in a Greek sort of way," which did not involve being White, Black, or any other skin color so much as speaking and thinking Greek. As Mac Sweeney adds, Herodotus looked more to the East than to whatever might have qualified as the West in his day, when the second tradition, the Roman, was beginning to rise--and which was also not racialized nor particularly ethnocentric, its influences stretching to and from as far away as South Asia. Indeed, writes the author, despite the bleatings of latter-day Italian racists, the Romans, counterintuitively, "saw themselves as the descendants of refugees," namely the Asian survivors of the siege of Troy. The clash-of-civilizations narrative--in part driven by a misreading of Herodotus, Mac Sweeney points out--is based on incorrect and harmful presumptions. Mac Sweeney paints on a broad canvas and introduces numerous little-known characters, from the Roman aristocrat Livilla to the African ruler Njinga of Angola. She builds on arguments by Edward Said and other contemporary critics of Western triumphalism, and she also examines the counternarratives offered by the likes of the Islamic State and China, which have their own intellectual problems. A highly readable, vigorous repudiation of the Western-centric school of history. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.