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On Politics: A History of Political Thought: From Herodotus to the Presentby Alan Ryan
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"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. 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.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"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." Anthony W. Marx, President, New York Public Library
"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." Harold Bloom
"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." Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
"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." Mary Beard, author of The Roman Triumph
"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." Anthony Appiah, author of Cosmopolitanism
"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." Tracy B. Strong, UCSD Distinguished Professor, Political Science Department, University of California, San Diego
"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." Steven Lukes, author of Power: A Radical View
"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." Peter Onuf, author of Jefferson's Empire
"An ambitious survey not of politics itself, but of the way Westerners have thought about politics for 2,500 years....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....If all Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato, then Ryan's text is a delightful assemblage of enlightening subnotes....Provocative, illuminating and entertaining...an exemplary work of philosophy and history whose author's deep learning is lightly worn." Kirkus Reviews
Three decades in the making, one of the most ambitious and comprehensive histories of political philosophy in nearly a century.
About the Author
Alan Ryan was warden of New College, Oxford University, and professor of political theory. The author of 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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