Why the West Won’t Die

Naoíse Mac Sweeney on writing a different kind of “big history” book

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

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:

Tune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek.

SubscribeiTunes • Feedburner • Stitcher • Google Play • Acast

Download the audio here (right click to “save link as …”)

Have suggestions for projects you’d like us to catch up on, or writers you want to hear from? Send us a note: podcast [at] theamericanscholar [dot] org. And rate us on iTunes!

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.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up