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Ideas matter: A 1936 demonstration in memory of those killed during the Paris Commune, taken from "We Went Back: Photographs from Europe 1933-1956" by Chim (Delmonico/Prestel)

To say that Alan Ryan has an unusually sharp and subtle intellect is not putting it strongly enough. He is, quite simply, one of the cleverest people in Britain. Anyone who has heard him debating topics in political philosophy and the history of political thought — the subject-area in which he has worked for more than half a century — will have been inescapably reminded of Ryan's friend and teacher Isaiah Berlin: there is something of the same quickness in grasping all possible implications, the same deftness in seeing how to turn an argument round, and the same way of lacing serious argument with dry humour. So the publication of a book by Alan Ryan (On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present, Allen Lane, £40) of more than 1,000 pages, about the entire history of Western political thought from Plato to the present age, is an event worth celebrating. Here is an intensely intelligent critic's view of some of the most important texts ever written, distilled from decades' worth of reading, reflection and teaching.

I say "texts", because analysing the great texts is how this subject is usually taught, and that is how Alan Ryan approaches it here. The major chapters are on Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, Mill, de Tocqueville and Marx; a range of lesser figures are also slotted in, from Polybius to John of Salisbury, from More to Montesquieu, from Burke to Bentham, and so on. All these figures — B-list as well as A-list — have huge modern scholarly literatures attached to them, and the standard method in modern academia for putting together a book of this kind would be to get 20 or 30 different experts, each steeped in the specialist accounts, to write one chapter each. Applying that method produces at best a useful device for students, and at worst a cacophonous multiple dialogue of the deaf; what it does not and cannot produce is a proper book.

This volume, on the other hand, is more than just a proper book: it is a positive pleasure to read. Ryan has a gift for lucid exposition (he makes even Hegel seem like plain sailing), but he is seldom simply explaining things; he is also questioning, testing and debating, so that the reader gets a vivid sense of what it must have been like to be a student in an Alan Ryan tutorial. Thought-provoking generalisations are part of his stock in trade:  

It is, as history attests, a grave error to conclude that because our vices are social rather than natural, they will be easier to cure; but radicals have thought just that for the past 200 years.  

And so too are illuminating distinctions that turn almost into aphorisms: 

There is a hard-to-describe distinction between socialists who seek justice between individuals and those who emphasise the rational allocation of work and reward and are not interested in rights and justice. Marx . . . belongs to the second side of this division and Proudhon to the first. Bakunin belonged to the first while thinking he belonged to the second. 

(That last sentence, by the way, is pure Isaiah Berlin.)

One small price that has to be paid for the large advantages of single authorship is, of course, that an individual author may make small mistakes that would not have escaped the scrutiny of a committee of specialists. There are a few here. Charles I is executed in the wrong year; Hobbes's Elements of Law is misdated and his Leviathan (1651) is said to recommend obedience to Cromwell's protectorate (which didn't start until 1653); the abbé de Saint-Pierre is confused with the abbé Raynal (who is himself misspelt). And some very traditional errors are propagated, such as the translation of Rousseau's "L'homme est né libre" as "Man is born free . . ." ("est né" is the past tense), or the attribution to Hegel of the claim that "the State is the March of God on Earth" (when what he wrote was "it is God's way in the world that the state exists": "Es ist der Gang Gottes in der Welt, dass der Staat ist"). But the tally of slips is, in the end, a very small one.

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March 5th, 2013
11:03 AM
It has just arrived. I have only managed the introduction but it already feels like the best tutorial I will ever attend. Thanks for this, and thanks to The Browser, which brought the review to my attention.

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