This was a fascinating read. Mac Sweeney takes what you think you know about "Western Civilization" and attempts to flip it on its head via fourteen mini-biographies about historical figures, only a few of which I knew immediately.
I feel horrible it's taken me this long to push my response out. The publisher reached out in January 2023. I blew past the publication date in May 2023, and finally read it in December 2023. So, I'm hanging my head, because it's now taken me another month and a half to actually publish my response.
Where this book soars is in highlighting just how limited our public education is in the United States. I vaguely had ideas about some of these facts and people, but I mean like the fuzziest foggiest of ideas. What I could follow along with was the rote learning we were forced to memorize that provided the counter-narrative to so much of this book.
In our modern times, this image of the non-Western 'other' is set up in the mirror image of the idealized Westerner through a series of patriarchally informed conceptual oppositions—West versus East, masculine versus feminine, strong versus weak, brave versus cowardly, light-skinned versus dark-skinned. In the West today, it is a rhetoric that sits uncomfortably beneath the surface of acceptable political discourse, occasionally bubbling to the surface. In fifth-century BCE Athens, this racism was mainstream. (Chapter 1, The Rejection of Purity)
The framework of the novel was a bit forced, statues in the Library of Congress, I think, and how those were chosen and how she chose the fourteen narratives for her book, but hey it acts as a hook and a connection to the idea that all history is constructed in the moment of the writer, not before. If there was one fact that struck me more than any other, that I knew, but hadn't seen it connected so explicitly to the history of what I was taught it was in Chapter 5, "The Illusion of Christendom", in which she broke down explicitly so many things that mostly white Western Christians forget or ignore. Christianity has never been a monolith; it has never been solely the property of the west and it is so much more diverse in belief than we were ever truly taught.
Cultural products including academic writing both are shaped by the historical and political contexts in which they are produced, and also, at the same time, go on to shape those contexts as well. This is the feedback loop of culture and identity. (Chapter 13, The West and Its Critics)
This book is therefore necessarily my own subjective interpretation of Western history, focused not on 'great men,' like those of Spofford and Bacon, but rather on individuals whose lives I feel encapsulated something the Zeitgeist or something else important of their age. (Conclusion, The Shape of History)
There were a couple of quotes that just made me laugh and or I was like OMG I forget how historical Boston is (since I didn't grow up here). I mean don't get me wrong I know the big things and every time someone visits, we go do a new touristy historical thing more often than not, but the second quote below was like WHOA, we walk the dog there :-D
Al-Mamūn's vision for knowledge acquisition was nothing short of global—it is said that when he defeated foreign kings in battle, he often demanded tribute from them not in gold, enslaved people, or treasure, but rather in the form of books from their royal libraries. (Chapter 3, The Global Heirs of Antiquity)
The winter of 1763–64 saw Boston in the grip of a deadly smallpox pandemic. While most wealthy Bostonians fled, Warren and his colleagues set up an emergency field hospital at Castle William, a fortified peninsula in the south of the city. As well as providing free care for the sick and the dying, they also embarked on a controversial campaign of inoculations, saving hundreds more lives in the process. When the epidemic waned, the city council decreed that 'the Thanks of the Town be and are hereby given [to] those Gentleman Physicians, who in this Season of difficulty and distress have generously Inoculated and carried through the Small-Pox Gratis so considerable a Number of the poor inhabitants.' The doctors of Castle William became overnight celebrities. (Chapter 10, The West and Politics)
I mean come on right? If I were ever going to take over other countries/powers I would pull an Al-Mamūn and demand their libraries and knowledge over most anything else. And legit, we live about a mile and a half from what is now known as Castle Island (it's no longer an island) and just reading this was like WHOA. I think the guides mention it on the tour that it was used as a hospital, but it's been a few years since I last did the tour. Most people just go to hang out on the beautiful peninsula to see boats coming into and out of the inner harbor and the planes taking off from Logan Airport just over the water.
The writing was super approachable, and I enjoyed that each chapter could be read as almost an encapsulated biography. They overlapped via theme and Mac Sweeney tied them together, but there was no direct lineage between the chapters. I believe Mac Sweeney did this to show just how disjoined and discombobulated history is and that the idea of a direct lineage for anyone from ancient times is impossible and there are always complications and offshoots. I also really appreciated her bringing in at the end how Russia and China are rewriting or redefining their own histories as well as those of the west within their borders. I think there could've been a bit more about the unwritten histories and oral histories of native peoples, but for such a dense book and for how much Mac Sweeney does break down in it, I'm not surprised it was more of a nod than any actual ability to dig into those.
Recommendation: This was a fascinating read. I'm sad I waited as long as I did to read it, but it was well worth the read. Mac Sweeney writes engaging prose while dropping in dates and details that build to a comprehensive retelling of how the idea of Western Civilization should be deconstructed and rewritten. It was a little disappointing not to see any direct references of queer theory, especially Michel Foucault and his theories around power, but they could've been in the footnotes and endnotes. I am also struggling to remember if there were any queer historical figures written or included and none pop to mind immediately, but there may have been allusions them and there may have been some. If there are, that's on me for not remembering and for not writing this earlier. If there aren't queer individuals that just shows there are still more versions of the story to be written.
4.5 stars, rounded up.
Those that have taken a course on Western Civilization—as college freshmen or otherwise—are familiar with its framework, that the modern world can attribute its earliest, most progressive, democratic, and technically superior attributes to the dead White European men that came before us. Archeologist and award-winning historian Naoise Mac Sweeney has taken a sledgehammer to this construct, proving that many of the smartest scientists, inventors, and social, military, and political leaders were not White, not European, and not male.
My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. This book is for sale now.
Mac Sweeney demonstrates her thesis by discussing fourteen key figures from the past that don’t fit into the standard framework. She begins with Herodotus and ends with Carrie Lam. Some chapters read like a college text or lecture, one where I know that this information is important, but my mind keeps wandering, and I check to see how much longer the chapter will be. Others woke me up. In chapter seven, she features Safiye Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. She was not legally able to become sultan following her husband’s death, so she saw her son installed, and then “summarily executed” his nineteen younger brothers to prevent anyone from contesting his right to rule. Another that made me sit up and take notice is Njinga of Angola. I was riveted by this one, to the extent that I actually shouted at one point. (It’s all right; I was at home.) If we judge her work by whether she has proven her thesis, then unquestionably she has done so.
There are two aspects that I didn’t care for here. The first is a mannerism. The use of the Victorian “we” is grating. “As we shall see…” “We have discussed…” No. She has already seen, and the only one doing the discussing within the pages of this book is the author. Also, since the title itself identifies this tome as a history book, Carrie Lam of Hong Kong, whose quotes date from 2021 and 2017, has no business being included here. History is defined as what has occurred fifty years or more prior to publication. Mac Sweeney knows this.
In a fit of pique over these two flaws, in addition to the snoozy parts of the narrative, I initially rated this book with four stars, but this is a groundbreaking body of work, and after reflection, I changed my rating to 4.5 stars, rounded up.
Highly recommended to students and to anyone interested in world history.
I absolutely loved her analyses and critiques – she methodically examined the origins of thought and concepts surrounding Western Civilization and its evolution throughout history, including its omnipresent indoctrination upon its citizens via the educational system, political agenda, and the varied forms of media. Granted, not all will agree with her; but I loved reading her viewpoints.
This novel looks at the ideologies and principles of today’s Western stance as it attempts to move away from white racial superiority and imperialism to one that values democracy and liberalism. The author chooses 14 individuals from varying eras to dispel inaccuracies – starting with the classical world (with Herodotus, a reintor of history and Livilla, granddaughter of Emperor Augustus) and moves through the Dark Ages, Renaissance, etc (including Francis Bacon, Njinga of Angola, and my namesake Phillis Wheatley) to land at today’s views and perceptions. Basically - how it starts with narratives to explain how it started and how we got here (today).
Recommended for historians, political scientists, sociologists, etc. - there is a lot to be gained and pondered in this offering.
Thanks to the publisher, Penguin Group, Dutton, and NetGalley for an opportunity to review.
The West looks at the current unified concept and identity of Western Civilization and how it has changed and been transmitted through history across multiple groups of people. Through the lives of 14 individuals, it makes the case that people are a product of their times and that both informs how they view history but also how they may use history to bolster different ideas. It reminds the reader to put events in context and think about them more critically. Even though this book was primarily focused on the West, it could apply to many other entities and how they view or use their past. While somewhat academic in tone at times, it was still highly readable overall and the use of individual biographies to expand upon different time periods was interesting.
The Concept of The West as Political History
The author makes several important points in this survey of western civilization. Using fourteen individual lives from different time periods, she shows that the people living at the time did not always have a concept of The West as a unified civilization. This is particularly true of the Greeks who considered themselves as much Asiatic as European.
The second point the author makes is that history is often written to embrace a political narrative. This orientation gives more coherence to history to illustrate a position than is factually correct. Thus the concept of The West is used to present a history that focuses on the ideas and ideals embraced by the culture at that time usually to prove their origin theory and illustrate why the people believe in a particular paradigm.
I thought the author did a good job of illustrating her thesis with the lives of a variety of individuals. It made the book much more readable that a straight argument from historical facts. Certainly, if you read in depth history of past civilizations, it’s clear that their conception of who they were at a particular time period is not necessarily the same as the way they are portrayed in modern history books.
I recommend this book as an antidote to the prevalent notion of history as an unbroken sweep from Greece and Rome through the Middle Ages and Enlightenment to the present day.
I received this book from Penguin Random House for this review.
What I appreciated about this book is that MacSweeney gave in-depth analysis about a list of historical figures and their contributions to the synthesis of Western and Eastern traditions. The tradition of Edward Said’s contemplation of the Orient and Occident clearly informed her book. I learned about a cast of historical figures that I did not have as much prior knowledge to like Al-Khindi and Phillis Wheatley, to figures where their works were analyzed from a unique perspective, especially the first chapter on Herodotos.
Her arguments for the Eastern influence of the mythos of the West is convincing, though for most historians they would identify her points of analysis from earlier historiographical works. Nevertheless, this work is meant to inform an audience outside of academia, setting a new foundation for understanding “Western history” as “Global History,” a very important turn in historical thinking of the last decade or more. There is a lot to learn from this book and I enjoyed the author’s engaging writing style and interpretation of primary sources. This is simply effective history writing!
Naoíse Mac Sweeney's The West: A New History in Fourteen Lives has a great concept. She executes the introduction and her argument well, but the book falls flat for me in many of the lives she chooses to profile. Rather than connect these lives strongly back to her thesis, her choices seem somewhat random. They succeed better as thin biographies of historical figures I didn't know, rather than a group whose lives redefine the history of Western civilization. Her writing is a bit too academic for the average reader as well. All in all a great concept and argument with less-than-stellar execution.
The publisher's blurb says that this is a "radical new account", but this is actually a fairly measured critique of the idea of a Western Tradition from "Plato to NATO" that doesn't overreach, except perhaps in thinking its critique is more radical than it is. The idea that the historical and religious stories we tell are fictions designed to bind us to greater causes, whether they are nefarious (e.g. imperialism and racial hierarchy) or benevolent (e.g. human rights and free inquiry) doesn't strike me as particularly shocking. But while the arguments may not be shocking, they are always interesting and this book captivated me.
The book particularly shines in the way it uses 14 lives to back up its central arguments: that the "West's" claim to being the inheritors of the Greek and Roman civilizations of antiquity is a relatively new idea; that both "Western" and "Eastern" cultures had laid claim to Greek or Roman legacies (but rarely both); and that the Greek and Roman civilizations weren't all that "Western" to begin with, but were very multicultural societies. I hadn't heard of most of the people profiled, and even when I had (e.g. Francis Bacon, Edward Said) there was plenty to learn.
I read this almost immediately after reading Humanly Possible by Sarah Bakewell - a history of 700 years of mostly "Western" humanism - and I couldn't imagine a better pairing. At first I thought The West would be a useful corrective to Humanly Possible which largely embraces the "Western" tradition, but it turns out these two books are complementary in that both honor the processes of self-criticism and disputation of received wisdom that are among the best aspects of that tradition.
Many thanks to Net Galley for providing an egalley.
Despite all the arguments over the last three decades over what is excluded from “Western culture” and what “the West” can gain from greater interaction and appreciation of other cultures, very little has changed in the way most in the West view history. As I was taught in school, most students are still taught that Ancient Greece and Rome represent the beginnings of Western civilization, the “dark ages” represent a temporary lose of that heritage and the Renaissance and Enlightenment represented Western cultures renewed appreciation for its roots. Mac Sweeney, however, sets out to demonstrate that our view of “Western” origins as separate from the rest of the world is simply a convenient myth. Fascinating and clear writing. Highly recommended.
Super cool cover! Unfortunately, reads more like a textbook, I prefer novels. Had plenty of textbooks while working on doctorate. Anyways, someone else might appreciate this more than I. Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC.
Mac Sweeney's argument is, to oversimplify, that the the history of the term "West," and of the "West" itself, is grossly misrepresented in the common narrative: origins in Greece and Rome, followed by Judeo-Christianity, Europe, Enlightenment, etc. She makes her case by focusing each chapter on a historical figure whose life and views demonstrate how the idea of "the West" arose, which parts of the world understood themselves to be part of that West, and how those parts of the world thought of their own history.
Some of the persons Mac Sweeney instantiates are well known even to non-historians: Herodotus, Francis Bacon, Phillis Wheatley, Edward Said. Others will be less familiar to general readers: Tullia d'Aragona, al-Kindi, Njinga of Angola (aspects of whose story will ring a bell for anyone who's seen The Woman King, although Njinga was much less appealing as a person than the movie's protagonists are). Chapter by chapter, historical figure by historical figure, year by year, century by century, the common understanding of the "West"'s origins and what regions were included under that rubric shifts and shifts again.
The short answer to whether Mac Sweeney makes her case is yes. The West certainly undid my conception of this intellectual and political history; most people in "the West," probably, need the corrective supplied by works like this, along with the books, essays, and podcasts produced by historians like those associated with Medievalists.net (undermining, among other idiocies, the white-nationalist narrative of the European Middle Ages as all white and uninfluenced by Africa and Asia) (yes, that was a plug!).
I dinged a star for two reasons. The first is that although each chapter builds on the previous one, and there is of course an intellectual throughline, the overall effect is hard going for a general reader like me. With each chapter we face a whole new set of historical names and events, and since most of those are unfamiliar, it's difficult to keep them straight in one's mind. This may have been unavoidable given the nature of Mac Sweeney's argument.
The second reason is the occasional points where Mac Sweeney goes beyond facts. Her case is a strong one, so there's no need for "likely" to do as much work as it sometimes has to, nor for speculations about anyone's inner life. To take just examples from the first chapter: Herodotus no longer "felt at home" in a particular place; he "was evoking the world of his own youth"; he "would have shuddered" at a specific misconception. This kind of thing produces a weird pop-history effect that jars against the careful, serious argument being made, an argument that doesn't need dressing up.
Thanks to NetGalley for the ARC of this valuable book.