Interlude: The Idea of “The West”

A brief look at a grand narrative

Sanford Robinson Gifford, <em>Ruins of the Parthenon</em> (1880)
Sanford Robinson Gifford, Ruins of the Parthenon (1880)

This week, Smarty Pants host Stephanie Bastek revisits a conversation from 2023 that originally sparked her desire to return to the debate over Humanities 110 at Reed College. The idea of “Western civilization” looms large in the popular imagination, but it’s no longer taken seriously in academia. In her book The West: A New History in Fourteen Lives, historian Naoíse Mac Sweeney examines why the West won’t die and, in the process, dismantles ahistorical concepts like the “clash of civilizations” and the notion of a linear progression from Greek and Roman ideals to those of our present day—“from Plato to NATO.” Through biographical portraits of figures both well-known and forgotten—Herodotus and Francis Bacon, Livilla and Phyllis Wheatley, Tullia d’Aragona and Abu Yusuf Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi—Mac Sweeney assembles a history that resembles less of a grand narrative than a spiderweb of influence. Successive empires (whether Ottoman, Holy Roman, British, or American) built up self-mythologies in the service of their expansionist, patriarchal, or, later, racist ideologies. Mac Sweeney joins the podcast to talk about why the West has been such a dominant idea and on what values we might base a new vision of contemporary “western” identity.

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Produced and hosted by Stephanie Bastek. Theme music by Nathan Prillaman. Exploding the Canon returns next week.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Stephanie Bastek is the senior editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.


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