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
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week