On Politics: A History of Political Thought: From Herodotus to the Present

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Overview

Three decades in the making, one of the most ambitious and comprehensive histories of political philosophy in nearly a century.
Both a history and an examination of human thought and behavior spanning three thousand years, On Politics thrillingly traces the origins of political philosophy from the ancient Greeks to Machiavelli in Book I and from Hobbes to the present age in Book II. Whether examining Lord Acton’s dictum that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” or explicating John Stuart Mill’s contention that it is “better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied,” Alan Ryan evokes the lives and minds of our greatest thinkers in a way that makes reading about them a transcendent experience. Whether writing about Plato or Augustine, de Toqueville or Thomas Jefferson, Ryan brings a wisdom to his text that illuminates John Dewey’s belief that the role of philosophy is less to see truth than to enhance experience. With this unparalleled tour de force, Ryan emerges in his own right as one of the most influential political philosophers of our time.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Book 1: From Herodotus to Machiavelli. Remarkably detailed yet highly readable, the first volume of this monumental history of political theory covers an enormous span of time and wealth of writings, from Herodotus through Aristotle, the ancient Roman theorists of law, St. Augustine and the medievals, right up to Machiavelli. In tracing the origins of modern conceptions of the political, Ryan (John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism) a professor of political theory at Princeton University, devotes much attention to the great founding texts, such as Plato's Republic and Cicero's On Duties. However it's Ryan's insistence on the influence that the formation and development of the Roman Catholic papacy had on emerging ideas about the nature and role of the nation state that provides the most valuable and fascinating insights. Admirably, Ryan is not afraid to take strong, almost polemical positions, such as when he argues that Plato, in his writings on justice, merely offers an "antipolitics." Questionable as such a thesis may be, it adds satisfying frisson to otherwise familiar material. In addition, contemporary American politics lurk in the background, as Ryan, in this absorbing and edifying read, regularly reminds us of what modern citizens might gain from a deeper understanding of the roots of today's political ideals and loyalties. Book 2: From Hobbes to the Present. This second volume, which itself runs well over 600 pages, covers the turn of the 17th century to the present. Starting with Thomas Hobbes, whom Ryan regards as the father of our modern conceptions of politics, the book ranges through Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, and Marx. In addition, Ryan devotes several chapters to modern movements such as republicanism, imperialism, various strands of socialisms, and fascism. Throughout, Ryan demonstrates a prodigious grasp of the various theories and ideas, and the history and events that fuel and underpin such notions. Again, contemporary American politics constitute the implicit context through which we might judge and apply such ideas. Ryan frequently considers the political ramifications of slavery, and offers nuanced views on the relationship between socialism, liberalism, and the welfare state. He admirably considers the political thought of advocates of violence, such as Franz Fanon and the Islamic nationalism of Sayyid Qutb. To his credit, Ryan approaches the problematic aspects of modern democracy with real concern, even if his commitment to it veers between pragmatic and resigned. Nonetheless, these two volumes constitute a remarkable achievement, one that will be immensely valuable to both students and readers for years to come. (Oct.)
Harold Bloom
“Alan Ryan has created a vision of the entire surge of Western political thought which is equal to the heroic venture of George Sabine, which I studied in my youth. Ryan demonstrates throughout vivacity, and a tenacious grasp of the human meaning of everything that has transpired in political speculation from the ancients on through the threshhold of our own dark age. I commend particularly his terse eloquence, his capacious erudition, and the verve and judicious intensity with which he somehow allows his whole being to inform his vast scope and deep concern of our human limitations.”
New Yorker
“Magisterial… In more than a thousand pages, Alan Ryan, a longtime Oxford professor who now teaches at Princeton, undertakes to introduce the reader to most of the major political thinkers in Western history…The tensions of modern liberal democratic societies are the intellectual motor of the book… Lively and intellectually engaging… On Politics, like the great works of philosophy it examines, constitutes a powerful brief against the unexamined life.”— Adam Kirsch
Los Angeles Times
“Monumental… At the heart of the project is a belief that this stuff matters, that the thinkers it revolves around—Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, Karl Marx—remain relevant and fresh… The book is a distillation of [Alan Ryan’s] thinking, both intellectual and practical, and although it can be daunting, the triumph is how, as Ryan takes us through the material, he makes it so much more.”— David Ulin
Times of London
“Starting with Herodotus and concluding with current debates over the environment and humanitarian intervention, Alan Ryan covers an extraordinary range of material with fluency and wisdom… As an accessible introduction to the nature of political thought as well as a guide to what is greatest exponents have argued, On Politics could scarcely be bettered. …On Politics is an outstanding and original work.”— Oliver Kamm
Anthony W. Marx
“With an unmatched magisterial command, Alan Ryan powerfully reminds and teaches us how the leading thinkers since classic times can and must inform our debates over how to envision the better world we must build.”
Stephen Greenblatt
“In a work of astonishing scope and ambition, Alan Ryan, surveying the whole vast field, concisely charts the welter of conflicting positions and tracks the sometimes thrilling, sometimes catastrophic consequences of political thought.”
Mary Beard
“If you want to understand why we think as we do, go back to the ancient Greeks. Alan Ryan brilliantly explains why that is true—and why it matters.”
Anthony Appiah
“Alan Ryan has taken a vast range of challenging material written over twenty five centuries in the West and engaged with it in prose of stunning clarity. He displays the intrinsic interest of reflection on writers from Herodotus to yesterday, while showing how it can be a powerful resource for dealing with politics today. It is an amazing achievement to combine so much learning with such lucidity.”
Tracy B. Strong
“In an age of specialization, we have lost much of the sense of the sweep of the story of Western thinking about politics. In his new book, Alan Ryan has recovered the greatness and deficiencies of that experience. ...Written with an exceptional clarity and presence of voice, Ryan’s book is the best comprehensive statement of the achievements and failures of the Western liberal tradition.”
Steven Lukes
“In lucid, precise and accessible prose, Alan Ryan has written an unparalleled guide for our times to the Western tradition of political thought. From Herodotus through the Christian world and the rise of modernity to our own time, readers will be stimulated to reflect on historical, contemporary and perennial questions.”
Peter Onuf
“Alan Ryan’s marvelous survey brings the major thinkers to the table, orchestrating a provocative and enlightening conversation across the centuries that offers fresh and illuminating perspectives on perennial political problems. Scholars and engaged citizens will delight in partaking of Ryan’s intellectual feast.”
Adam Kirsch - New Yorker
“Magisterial… In more than a thousand pages, Alan Ryan, a longtime Oxford professor who now teaches at Princeton, undertakes to introduce the reader to most of the major political thinkers in Western history…The tensions of modern liberal democratic societies are the intellectual motor of the book… Lively and intellectually engaging… On Politics, like the great works of philosophy it examines, constitutes a powerful brief against the unexamined life.”
David Ulin - Los Angeles Times
“Monumental… At the heart of the project is a belief that this stuff matters, that the thinkers it revolves around—Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, Karl Marx—remain relevant and fresh… The book is a distillation of [Alan Ryan’s] thinking, both intellectual and practical, and although it can be daunting, the triumph is how, as Ryan takes us through the material, he makes it so much more.”
Oliver Kamm - Times of London
“Starting with Herodotus and concluding with current debates over the environment and humanitarian intervention, Alan Ryan covers an extraordinary range of material with fluency and wisdom… As an accessible introduction to the nature of political thought as well as a guide to what is greatest exponents have argued, On Politics could scarcely be bettered. …On Politics is an outstanding and original work.”
Kirkus Reviews
An ambitious survey not of politics itself, but of the way Westerners have thought about politics for 2,500 years. Ryan (Politics/Princeton Univ.; John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism, 1997, etc.) has written a massive book, one "a long time in the making." That's understandable, for he has a tremendous amount of ground to cover. He does so with the admirable breadth of Will and Ariel Durant or Frederick Copleston, but with much greater powers of concision and a gift for finding essences without resorting to essentialism. Thus, he writes, one critical difference between Athenian and Roman conceptions of freedom is that the former "practiced a form of unfiltered direct democracy that the Romans thought a recipe for chaos; the Romans gave ordinary free and male persons a role in politics, but a carefully structured and controlled one." That distinction comes into play more than 900 pages later, when Ryan wrestles with what kind of a system most Western countries, and preeminently the United States, have today. "Liberal democracies," he writes, are really "nontyrannical and liberal popular mixed republics," though, as he cautions, "nobody is going to call them this." In between, Ryan visits thinkers from Socrates and Plato to Aristotle, excusing Plato from charges of protofascism and marveling at Aquinas' powers of distinction in determining whether it is fitting for a bishop to go to war. If all Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato, then Ryan's text is a delightful assemblage of enlightening subnotes: Who among us remembers that Machiavelli's The Prince was on the Catholic Church's forbidden index until just recently, and "that anyone wishing to read it for the purposes of refutation had to ask permission of the pope"? That Edmund Burke was a boring public speaker, but "(mostly) wrote like an angel"? Or that Karl Marx's notion of class struggle remains an elusive work in progress? Provocative, illuminating and entertaining--an exemplary work of philosophy and history whose author's deep learning is lightly worn.
Library Journal
Those disillusioned and distressed by contemporary politics may find themselves renewed by turning to this book. They would certainly get the long view, in every sense, while immersing themselves in more than 1000 pages of Western political thought. Ryan (political theory, retired, Univ. of Oxford; The Making of Modern Liberalism) now presents reviewers with a difficulty: his prior works have already been described as "magisterial"—what word to use now? Perhaps best to quote the author himself, which the reviewer could happily do from any page. Here, for example, is Ryan on Karl Marx: "a frustrated academic with a professor's incapacity to finish anything properly, a man of many deep insights who was unable to complete any project before being distracted by the next." Thankfully, Ryan, to whom this book was first suggested as a project more than 30 years ago, possessed more discipline than Marx and has now finished this analytical overview—written with wit, grace, and lucidity—encompassing every major thinker since the Greeks on this eternally contentious human endeavor. VERDICT There is a danger that the publisher's boxed presentation of these two volumes will suggest simply a handsome object rather than a superb book that both general and academic readers will relish. Very highly recommended.—Robert Nardini, Niagara Falls, NY
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780871404657
  • Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation
  • Publication date: 10/22/2012
  • Pages: 1152
  • Sales rank: 184,190
  • Product dimensions: 9.72 (w) x 6.60 (h) x 3.46 (d)

Meet the Author

Alan Ryan was warden of New College, Oxford University, and professor of political theory. The author of On Politics, John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism and Bertrand Russell: A Political Life, he currently teaches politics at Princeton University.

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