Some of the figures in her gallery are well known (Herodotus, Francis Bacon), while others are more obscure ... Her capsule biographies also present a number of fascinating counterfactuals ...
But for all her broadsides against the concept of Western civilization, Mac Sweeney is adamant that her book is not an attack on the West, and that its transmissibility and mutability are what she, a British-born academic of Irish-Chinese parentage who teaches in Vienna, seems to find worth preserving about it.
All this is presented in fluent and accessible prose, and Ms. Mac Sweeney skillfully blends analysis, erudition and anecdote. Inevitably, in a book of this scope, there are some misfires ... Oddly, Ms. Mac Sweeney doesn’t really address the emergence of the West as a political concept. Surprisingly, she says little about the importance of Athenian democracy or about the broad movement toward wider participation that created so much of what we now regard as characteristic of the West.
One by one she takes on hoary old myths... explodes them with panache, and leaves us instead with a richer, fuller understanding of epochs, worldviews and fascinating individuals from the past ... Though this argument again treads over familiar ground, Mac Sweeney’s gift for sparkling synthesis and gripping personal vignettes never flags. She’s especially alert to the many reinterpretations of Greco-Roman antiquity that accompanied every new fabrication of "western civilisation.
Despite its title, The West: A new history of an old idea has little to say about the history of the idea of "the West" ... She is distinctly hazy as to when and why an idea of "the West" and "western civilization" first emerged, and, more importantly, exactly how it differed from older cultural constructs ... A more serious problem with The West derives from Mac Sweeney’s choice to focus pretty much exclusively on the Greco-Roman strand in the founding mythology of the West. The paradoxical result is that she ends up reinforcing a very old-fashioned problematic of Western Civ ... This is a pity, because when Mac Sweeney gets down to the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries... she has fascinating things to say about alternative ways of mapping the history of cultures.
Wide-ranging ... Mac Sweeney does not so much question as dismantle ... Mac Sweeney is at her most persuasive when exploring the changing uses of ancient history, and indeed the book could perhaps have focused entirely on that ... Despite the fascinating selection of characters, its sweep can feel uneven ... It is inevitable that not everything can be covered in such a large sweep, and Mac Sweeney’s breadth of knowledge and elegant style keep the book highly engaging.
The author argues convincingly that [the Enlightenment] was a departure from Greek and Roman senses of who they were and how they fit into the world ... Mac Sweeney paints on a broad canvas and introduces numerous little-known characters ... A highly readable, vigorous repudiation of the Western-centric school of history.
Though Mac Sweeney sometimes overreaches in her eagerness to skewer the idea of the West... she skillfully synthesizes a wealth of scholarship and draws vibrant character sketches. It’s a case to be reckoned with.