Allen Lane, £35 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

On Politics: A history of political thought from Herodotus to the present, By Alan Ryan

As cynical voters scorn politics, this epic survey reminds us why its ideals still matter so much

The Tsar's censors banned John Stuart Mill's On Liberty but allowed the publication of Das Kapital. This is one of many delightful anecdotes with which Alan Ryan peppers his new study of Western political thought. This is a book on an epic scale, more than one thousand pages covering the history of thinking about politics from the Greeks up to the present.

Get money off this book at the Independent bookshop

One of Ryan's earliest influences was reading Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy, and this book is similar in scope, although much less opinionated. It is both engaging and enlightening: a model of its kind. Every citizen, every student would benefit from reading this book. This is the history of political ideas as Isaiah Berlin taught it, and which is in danger of dying out in many British universities. It presents political thought as a continuous conversation in which past thinkers debate with one another and speak to our present concerns and anxieties. The subject of this conversation is politics, and the central question of politics is how can we best govern ourselves?

This question divides naturally into two. How should we govern ourselves and how do we judge what makes government successful? The first is normative, the second sociological. The enduring fascination of the history of political ideas for Ryan is that it is a mixture of philosophical analysis, moral judgement, constitutional speculation and practical advice. Modern scholars have laboured long to draw sharp dividing lines between these different things, but the great political thinkers, from Plato onwards, made no distinction between statecraft and philosophy. Ryan presents their ideas by mixing biographical detail with historical and sociological analysis of context, and philosophical analysis of texts and arguments. It is still the best way to teach politics, and an essential foundation for understanding the subject.

On Politics interrogates the great thinkers in the tradition and presents their varied answers to what is the best form of government (although, some like Marx, avoid giving an answer), as well as to the prior question of whether it is possible or desirable for human beings to govern themselves. St Augustine was pessimistic. Ryan is scrupulous in presenting the arguments of each thinker, making no attempt to denounce some as wicked and dangerous, or precursors of totalitarian regimes. He is attracted to some thinkers more than others – to the hard-headed practicality of Aristotle and Mill rather than to the poetic utopian dreaming of Plato and Marx – but he acknowledges the power and intellectual achievement of all the thinkers he writes about. When he makes criticisms, it is respectful criticism, pointing out tensions left unresolved, questions not addressed.

A major theme of the book is that, while our political language and concepts are classical, we apply them to societies utterly unlike those which produced them. The contrast between ancient and modern liberty set out by Montesquieu and Constant, the possibility of representative government rather than the direct rule and participation of the people, is a distinguishing feature of modern political thought. Yet we still use terms like democracy and republic whose meaning and associations are very different.

Many of the founders of the modern world dreamed of recreating the conditions for ancient liberty, hoping to combine it with modern liberty. Ryan thinks such attempts are forlorn. The modern world, he writes, is the belated revenge of the Persians over the Greeks. The bureaucratic nation-state owes more to the Persian empire than the Greek polis or even the Roman republic.

Our present discontent with politics arises partly because we want politics to be more intense and all-consuming, as it was for the ancients, but at the same time we do not wish to give up the freedom to pursue our own good in our own way in private lives. We hand over government to professional politicians and then worry about the disengagement of citizens from the process. The word "democracy" is part of the problem. Are modern democracies really democracies or something else? His answer is "strictly speaking, something else".

Our understanding of our political institutions has emerged slowly and fitfully over many centuries, which justifies the space devoted to classical and medieval thought. But it is also true, as Ryan persuasively argues, that the world has changed in important ways, and that the context in which modern Western political thought develops is very different from what preceded it. Hobbes for him is the first genuinely modern political thinker because of his awareness of the significance of the rise of science and voyages of discovery, as well as his innovations - for example, imagining a world without a state in order to understand better the particular features of the modern state. The seismic shock of the French Revolution later led Hegel, Mill and Tocqueville to reflect on the new egalitarian basis of modern society and politics: how the idea of universal rights had subverted the old basis of hierarchy and rank, and the new dangers which egalitarian civil societies posed for politics.

For Ryan, modern political thought runs from Hobbes to Marx, but the tradition does not end there. The final section is devoted to the 20th century analysed through five themes – the rise of the masses, empire and nationalism, revolution and totalitarianism, democracy, and new global challenges. The problems which started the Greeks thinking politically still confront us – international and domestic conflict and stability. But we also face new threats, including the human impact on the eco-system and nuclear weapons. The question for us is the same as for the Greeks. Can we act collectively to resolve the problems which our collective life creates? There is no guarantee that we can, but drawing on the resources of the tradition which Ryan has so elegantly and eruditely laid out for us is a good place to start.

Andrew Gamble is professor of politics at Cambridge University

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
    RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

    RuPaul interview

    The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
    Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

    Secrets of comedy couples

    What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
    Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

    Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

    While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
    The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

    The best swimwear for men

    From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
    Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

    Mark Hix goes summer foraging

     A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
    Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

    With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

    Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
    Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

    Aaron Ramsey interview

    Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
    Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

    Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

    As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
    The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

    Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

    Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms