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The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community is a book by Canadian and University of Chicago historian William Hardy McNeill, first published in 1963 and enlarged with a retrospective preface in 1991 (University of Chicago Press, 1992). Its first edition won the U.S. National Book Award in History and Biography in 1964[1] and it was named one of the 100 Best Nonfiction Books of the 20th century by the Modern Library.[2]

The Rise of the West
The Rise of the West.jpg
Cover of the first edition
Author William Hardy McNeill
Country Canada
Language English
Subject World history
Publisher University of Chicago Press
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)



The Rise of the West explores human history in terms of the effect of different world civilizations on one another. McNeill assumes "decent familiarity with Western history", which allows describing "underrated" matters. The footnotes teem with specialized studies that support the bold strokes in the text. Development is thematic within periods rather than entirely chronological. The book is in three parts of approximately equal length.[3]

Part I (pp. 1–246) begins with evolutionary prehistory and the breakthrough to civilization in Mesopotamia. This is followed by the era of Middle Eastern dominance and the formation of peripheral civilizations in India, Greece, and China to 500 B.C.

Part II (pp. 247–562) discusses the Eurasian cultural balance to 1500 A.D., including the expansion of Hellenism, the closure of the Eurasian ecumene, the development of major religions, the barbarian onslaught, resurgence of the Middle East, and the Steppe conquerors. McNeill proposes that the basic engine of world history during this period is the temporary primacy of different regions of the ecumene, with a rough parity re-established as innovations spread to other centers of civilization. The sequence is Hellenistic / Indian / Islamic / Chinese and Mongol. Generally the eras are structured in terms of the internal history of the dominant region, followed by the history of the rest of the world with a focus on how they reacted to the diffusing techniques and ideas of the dominant region.[4]

Part III (pp. 563–803) examines the era of Western dominance. From 1500 to 1750 this is represented by the challenge of Western Europe to the world in a period of exploitation and colonization and the changing balance of the ecumene in the Islamic world, the Far East, and Africa: before 1750, Western superiority is similar in scope to the primacy previously enjoyed by other regions. The book describes the "tottering balance" of older orders within Europe, European expansion and acculturation in outliers, including the Americas. The rise of the West on a cosmopolitan scale from 1750 to 1950 is described as to continued territorial expansion, industrialism, the democratic revolution, and intellectual aspects. This period marks a discontinuity: the global influence of the West expands beyond all historical parallels.[5]

The many plates, maps, and charts each should offer "its own limited yet coherent insight into the history of the human community" whereas their combination and the text "is designed to multiply the meaning of any one taken by itself."[6]

The phenomenonEdit

The Rise had a major impact on historical analysis, challenging the view of civilizations as independent entities subject to rise and fall, such as developed by Arnold J. Toynbee and Oswald Spengler (the title of the book was a deliberate contrast to Spengler's The Decline of the West.) McNeill stresses instead the diffusion of techniques and ideas, making connections between civilizations crucially important.

Joseph Needham was another scholar (cited by McNeill 1963) who considered the relations and differences between West and East Eurasia, primarily in Science and Civilisation in China (1954–1995), and primarily regarding science and technology. In his words, "Why, then, did modern science, as opposed to medieval and ancient science (with all that modern science implied in terms of political dominance), develop only in the Western world?"[7]

McNeill recalled in the expanded edition (Retrospective Essay, 1991) that the "rise of the West" had become a synonym for historical processes in Europe in the last 500 years, and their effects on other civilizations. A unifying theme of his book, however, had been interrelation and cultural diffusion from its Neolithic beginnings to the present.[8]

The Rise of the West has had a big influence upon the subsequent development of World Systems Theory.[citation needed]

One critical response has been that the West did not rise, the East fell or withdrew.[9]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "National Book Awards – 1964". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-17.
  2. ^ "100 Best Nonfiction". Modern Library (Board). Random House. 1999.
  3. ^ Enlarged edition, pp. v and vii–xii.
  4. ^ Enlarged edition, pp. 247–253.
  5. ^ Enlarged edition, pp. 565–568.
  6. ^ Enlarged edition, pp. v–vi.
  7. ^ Needham, J (1993). "Poverties and triumphs of the Chinese scientific tradition". In Harding SG. The "Racial" Economy of Science: Toward a Democratic Future. Indiana University Press. pp. 30. ISBN 978-0-253-20810-1. 
  8. ^ William H. McNeill, 1963 [1991]. The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community [With a Retrospective Essay], University of Chicago Press, ISBN 978-0-226-56141-7. Description (click "More"), Table of Contents Summary and scrollable preview.[permanent dead link]
  9. ^ Thomas D. Hall, 1997. "World system theory" in The Dictionary of Anthropology, Thomas Barfield, ed. Wiley-Blackwell, ISBN 1-57718-057-7, pp. 498-499.


Synopsis[permanent dead link], Table of Contents Summary and scrollable preview.

  • _____, 1990. "The Rise of the West after Twenty-Five Years", Journal of World History 1:1, p. 1–21. Also in McNeil, 1991 (above).
  • _____, 1998. "World History and the Rise and Fall of the West", Journal of World History 9:2, p. 215–236.