on April 4, 2013
I have a technical background, but have an interest in history. I found this book much more interesting and understandable than I expected. The book presents the thoughts and arguments of the best Western thinkers of the past 2,500 years. The author first sets each thinker in their historical context, then goes into their major thoughts and conclusions. What made this book rewarding for me is the realization that all modern political questions and arguments have been well thought out with great subtlety over the ages. The consensus agreements have changed greatly, but the questions are not new.
This book has greatly changed my perspective on "current events" in world politics. There are no simple answers in the book, but now I have a fantastic context in which to think about the day to day world politics.
on September 17, 2013
Other reviewers and numerous magazines and newspapers have given this book the excellent review it deserves. As such, I cannot do much more justice to it in my own review, but would like to touch upon some of the best aspects of this book.
There are some other books that are summaries on Political Thought but none are as good as this one. This book is really a dialogue between the author and the ideas of the thinkers presented within in a considered, nuanced,and subtle fashion. The author speculates on the merits and drawbacks of each of the ideas contained in the book without coming off as too strong or without seeming as though he is propagating one particular world view. The book has a unity to it that would not be possible if it were simply a collection of essays by different authors or even the same author; in short, it is held together by the question, which the author refers to again and again on what is the best way for people to organize themselves politically. Thankfully, the book is not teleological either, which allows various ideas to be considered in and of themselves instead of as points on the way to the present. In short, the book is not polemic. Nor is it overly esoteric (some thinkers such as Leo Strauss have a much more esoteric take on political thought), since it deals with the political organization of humanity, a topic that involves application in the form of practical and organizational questions, though these often derive from theory. In fact, it is interested to see two strands of political thinking highlighted in this book and their interplay with each other- one which derives specifics from a pre-conceived theory (Plato, Hobbes, Marx) and one which sets up some general maxims on the basis of observation (Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Tocqueville).
This book really contains two volumes. I found some aspects of each of these volumes more interesting than others. The first volume includes the expected- that is, Plato and Aristotle among some other Classical and Medieval thinkers. I would assume that most readers such as myself would have some knowledge of Plato and Aristotle and as such I personally found the sections of Medieval thought to be most interesting because, other than Augustine and Aquinas, much of it was new to me. The second volume was where the author truly shines. Many of the questions and issues posed by thinkers in the period between 1500-1900 are relevant to the present and were instrumental in thinking about how the modern state and political order have developed. I especially enjoyed his sections on Hobbes, counterrevolutionary thinkers (Burke for example), Tocqueville, Mill, Hegel (who is often not discussed through the lens of political theory), and 20th century anxieties and reactions to modernity and social trends. (I wish the author also included some more thinkers in their own chapters instead of talking about them through other chapters; for example, Hume and Kant but as the author himself notes, when undertaking such a large project, it is inevitable that one has to be selective. There is enough food for thought for the seriously thinker to do further research on his/her own).
Finally, this book contains some other strengths. The Economist has put them better than me, so I will quote it a couple of times in order to point out the things that make this book worth buying (copyrighted by the Economist and I claim no authorship):
(1) "Mr Ryan has devoted his life to studying political ideas...and he reminds us that politics is about fundamental philosophical issues rather than just horrible hacks calling each other poopy-heads. How can people run their collective affairs without sacrificing individual rights to collective order? What is the basis of the state's authority over its citizens? Should that authority be absolute or limited by constitutional checks and individual rights?"
(2) "It is also important that, as Mr Ryan puts it, "long-dead writers often speak to us with greater freshness and immediacy than our contemporaries." James Madison has the best advice for Egyptian liberals who want to prevent Muhammad Morsi from turning democracy into dictatorship. John Stuart Mill...has the best arguments against Michael Bloomberg and the "soft despotism" entailed in his soft-drink regulations...Mr Ryan's historical approach helps us at the very least to look at our problems from new angles, and at best to harness the help of history's sharpest minds in producing policies."
(3) "Mr Ryan's approach to political theory is thoroughly old-fashioned--and all the better for it. In recent years historians and political theorists have been busily undermining the Western canon--dissolving the great political theorists in their wider intellectual contexts or discovering seminal thinkers in the rest of the world...Mr Ryan is happy to put the greatness back in. He treats Hobbes and company as thinkers to be grappled with rather than historical figures to be contextualised."
These three quotes demonstrate why this book is such a pleasure to read, because it is deep and thoughtful yet immediate. This is a great book to have as a reference and a reminder especially when one cannot always go back and reread, say, Plato or Hobbes on a daily basis. My background does include Political Theory and I have read most of the thinkers in this book (in college before I got this book) but personally I think this book captures the essence of political thinking in a very informative and readable way. Furthermore, I believe a book like this is useful in providing unity and structure to the cannon of thinkers which if read individually could come across as disparate unless one has a volume such as this and/or a good knowledge of history, especially Western history. Finally,if a person does not have the chance or interest in reading the original works of the thinkers, then this book is a good alternative. This book represents a tradition of Western political thought that reached its highest form in the West over the past 500 years so one should not expect to find much non-Western thought in it, which is fine, since Western political thought evolved in its own manner in conversation among its various texts and thinkers while other civilizations's intellectual thought evolved in their own largely independent ways until recently. To summarize, this is perhaps one of the best books I have ever read, so I recommend it highly.
on April 15, 2013
If like me you're interested in political history - and especially how we came by our modern forms of government - but don't have the time to read around the subject in depth then this is absolutely the perfect primer. Alan Ryan's very readable yet comprehensive gloss on nearly twenty-five hundred years of political thought is a great introduction to many of the works that shaped later thinking and action. I find books like this to be an invaluable road-map for later reading, so that anyone with interest in learning more knows just where to look. As I also happen to share the author's prejudices regarding Plato, for example, it was pleasant to have some old biases reinforced while having my eyes opened to things I'd not previously known, such as the political implications of Augustine's writings. For anyone who wants to understand how the great adventure of the American republic got its start nearly eighteen hundred years earlier, and why tyrannical systems inevitably implode, this is the place to start.
on December 23, 2012
This is a superb book, engaging and beautifully written. A delight. Few philosophers have the breadth and depth of understanding to make sense of the long history of political philosophy. Alan Ryan is exceptional in combining authority, a light touch, and a contagious enthusiasm for his subject. Highly recommended.
on October 25, 2014
I just finished reading this two volume tome having started it over a year ago. This book is not about politics as in red versus blue. The book covers political thinking from ancient times to the present. I do not know when this book was published but I wish I could have read it when I was in my 20s or 30s and my mind was readily absorbing ideas. The names of the political thinkers presented by the author were familiar to me from high school history and college courses. (I am over 60 now.) The author's topics are fascinating. His sentence structure can be quite complex but it is worthwhile rereading certain sentences to understand his points. He presents each political thinker in historical perspective while occasionally subjecting such thinker to other times in history. If you enjoy history and complex ideas, give this book a try.
This is a major work—and a welcome one. Once upon a time, I thought that Sabine’s history of political philosophy was the apogee in this arena. But I think that the author, Alan Ryan, has actually surpassed Sabine. He does a nice job of introducing us to the variety of political thinkers over time. But his analysis of the works—going beyond just description—is the real contribution of this two volume set. Ryan notes that (page xxiii): “This is a book about the answers that historians, philosophers, theologians, practicing politician and would be revolutionaries have given to one question. How can human beings best govern themselves”?
For the record, he considers the following subjects/thinkers, among others: Herodotus, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Polybius, Augustine, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, Bentham, Mill, Tocqueville, and Marx. There are also chapters on more general subjects, such as republicanism after Hobbes and Locke, or the American founding, or democracy in the modern world.
It is intriguing that he began the work with Herodotus (and Thucydides). Ryan dissects Plato and Aristotle nicely, exploring some of their major works and making sense of their arguments—while sometimes raising questions about those arguments. There is a lengthy and insightful analysis of Augustine’s political thinking. A key question that this thinker addressed (page 149): “. . .how seriously should a Christian with his eyes on eternity take the politics of his earthly life. . . .”
Machiavelli? A diplomat who lost his job as a result of internal politics. Some of his works were efforts to get back in the good graces of the rulers of Florence, such as the Borgias. Much of the chapter explores The Prince, and Machiavelli’s interesting analysis of what it takes to be successful. There is also lucid discussion of Discourses, a follow up to his earlier volume with some interesting twists.
There is relevance for the United States in quite a number of chapters. For example, after the chapters on Hobbes and Locke, Ryan considers “republicanism.” Here, he examines the works of John Harrington, Algernon Sidney, and Charles-Louis de Secondat, the Baron de Montesquieu. Each of these thinkers reflected on aspects of republicanism. And each of these was referred to by America’s Founding Fathers during the Constitutional era. The discussion places the discussion of those Founders in a broader context.
And so on. A powerfully developed two volume set. If interested in the history of political philosophy, this is an outstanding point of departure.
on December 7, 2013
Alan Ryan's book is excellent; it is both well-researched and well-written. While a few interjections make it clear that the author is politically progressive, his personal views do not skew the narrative except to eliminate full discussions of a number of issues. For example, his statement (p 908) that "True though it is that efficient and accountable government respectful of its citizens' rights and a heavily regulated market economy are the only basis of a secure twenty-first-century future, not everyone understands this..." precludes an exploration of dissenting thoughts. For instance, there is no discussion of public choice theory and the question of whether heavy regulations generally make things better rather than worse. Still, even with that minor qualification, the book is enjoyable and well worth reading.
on February 14, 2016
Why would you want to plow through Ryan's two-volume, 1000-page review of ideas about "How can we govern ourselves?" Simply because Ryan provides the best, most readable history of political thought available. In short, his scholarship and analysis are excellent, his treatment balanced, and his style clear and enjoyable. What could easily have been either a dry academic exercise or a topical jeremiad (of which there are many) is neither, but rather a genuinely enlightening consideration of western political thought, pursuing common threads, influences and arguments in a style that is a pleasure to read and prompts reflection. Incidentally, his decision to break his discussions into chapters of roughly 30-40 pages is a distinct plus, and makes a long read highly digestible.
Is Ryan's treatment absolutely comprehensive, unerring and non-judgmental? No. It passes over non-western thinking and practice, largely neglects some important recent thinking (e.g., "public choice" theory), and, particularly in closing chapters, is not without its biases. But these are more limitations than deficiencies. For example, the implications of non-western political thinking (and the strong influence of western political thought on more recent non-western systems) would require a separate treatment, probably by someone with different credentials. And one may certainly quarrel with his neglect of public choice (and some other) theories, as well as with his implicit and explicit defense of "liberal popular mixed republics" --- and these would be great subjects for debate with Ryan in a public or private forum. But whether as an introduction to the subject for the unversed, a review for the experienced, or a stimulus for discussion, it would be hard to beat Ryan's treatment.
While I realize that no everyone would consider the following a complement, I mean it as one: While Ryan would be the first to tell any student to read the originals, one can only wish every college course on the subject of political thought might have this as an underlying text.
on December 26, 2015
Wonderful boxed edition of political thought. The author obviously knows about centuries of political thought. They are great primers for the political thinker's actual works. Each chapter discusses a different thinker or group of thinkers. Recommended
on July 25, 2015
A magisterial work, unparalleled in contemporary political philosophy. Certainly the most thorough and insightful overview since the Age of Reason. All the great political thinkers, both in context and as individuals. If you like political philosophy, you should love this work.