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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.

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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

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