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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman as Doctor Who and Clara behind the scenes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cheery but half-baked canine caper: 'Pudsey the dog: The movie'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce leads the MTV VMA Awards 2014 nominations with eight

music
Arts and Entertainment
Live from your living room: Go People perform at a private home in Covent Garden

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
MasterChef 2014 finalists Charley Boorman, Wayne Sleep, Sophie Thompson and Jodie Kidd

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Trade unionist Ricky Tomlinson (right), later a television actor, attends a demonstration in London, 1975
theatre
News
The three-time Emmy award winner Elaine Stritch
peopleStar of stage and screen passes away aged 89
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
    Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

    Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

    They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
    The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

    20 best days out for the summer holidays

    From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
    Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

    All the wood’s a stage

    Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
    Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

    Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

    Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
    Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

    Self-preservation society

    Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
    Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

    Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

    We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor