The idea of “Western civilization” looms large in the popular imagination, but it’s no longer taken seriously in academia. In her new 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.
Go beyond the episode:
- Naoíse Mac Sweeney’s The West: A New History in Fourteen Lives
- We have covered Greece and Rome in previous episodes, as well as Njinga of Angola
- In our Summer 2023 issue, Sarah Ruden considers how modern biographers distort Vergil
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