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On Politics: A History of Political Thought From Herodotus to the Present

4.20  ·  Rating details ·  493 ratings  ·  46 reviews
Both a history and an examination of human thought and behavior spanning three thousand years, On Politics thrillingly traces the origins of political philosophy from the ancient Greeks to Machiavelli in Book I and from Hobbes to the present age in Book II. Whether examining Lord Acton’s dictum that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” or explicating John Stuart Mill’s con ...more
Hardcover, 1152 pages
Published October 22nd 2012 by Liveright
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Flora I found it very helpful in the way it weaves connections between all these great political writers and thinkers. It offers a degree of interpretation …moreI found it very helpful in the way it weaves connections between all these great political writers and thinkers. It offers a degree of interpretation and criticism, but is most valuable in its piecing together of an ongoing dialogue about politics throughout the ages. I would strongly recommend it.(less)
The Republic by PlatoThe Prince by Niccolò MachiavelliPolitics by AristotleCapital, Vol. 1 by Karl MarxThe Concept of the Political by Carl Schmitt
427 books — 478 voters
Lysistrata by AristophanesThe Essential Iliad by HomerThe Iliad of Homer by HomerThe Iliad by HomerThe Odyssey by Homer
Classical Antiquity
195 books — 4 voters

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Justin Evans
Sep 13, 2013 rated it it was ok
Shelves: philosophy
Talk about bad timing: Ryan has obviously been writing this book for years now, and had it been released in, say, 2007, it would have seemed perfectly sensible. It's important to discuss political ideas, to think about how we rule and are ruled, and from where we get our assumptions.

But with the world economy in a never-ending tailspin, massive unemployment in most developed economies and faltering investment rates in developing ones, a very real resurgence of class warfare and ludicrous ideolo
After fits and starts, I have put this book down for another day - although I did complete volume 1 and a good chunk of volume 2. On Politics: A History of Political Thought From Herodotus to the Present by Alan Ryan s a magisterial work that brings together some of the great thinkers in Western political philosophy, and summarizes their points, and the history behind them. Thinkers ranging from the ancient Greeks, such as Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato and Aristotle, through Cicero, Thomas Aquina ...more
Jan 09, 2013 rated it it was amazing
A long time ago when I first took a class in political theory, we used George Sabine's magnificent history. This book is a successor to Sabine (although I have heard that the Sabine book is being updated). It is a rich and wonderful book that I heartily recommend to anyone interest in classical approaches to political theory. The book is organized to chapters that focus on a particular author and all the real classics are represented from Herodotus and Thucydides through Marx. There is also a se ...more
Scriptor Ignotus
An extremely well-composed survey of western political theory, written by an accomplished political theorist. Early in volume I, Ryan posits that the question of how men are best able to govern themselves has been one of the central refrains in the history of political thought. His survey is written from the perspective of a proponent, albeit a cautious one, of modern liberalism. One should not expect perfect objectivity or a full fleshing out of the theoretical nuances of each of the many figur ...more
Oct 05, 2019 rated it liked it
Ancient Greece, which is known as the cradle of western democracy, what a pity was not democratic. Neither Plato nor Aristotle were democrats. Those who had the right to carry out politics were free male property owner citizens. Slaves, foreigners and Children did not have the right to take part in the rule of the city-states.
Plato had always wanted the ruler to be king-philosopher. In his mind there was an aristocratic state which was hierarchical. Rational thinking rulers would be at the top
Jul 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this book, even when I didn't understand some of the political theories, because Alan Ryan's writing is wonderful. Yes, I have read some of the chapters several times, before I decided that I need to just forge ahead and finish it. ...more
Steven Peterson
Jul 19, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This is a major work—and a welcome one. Once upon a time, I thought that Sabine’s history of political philosophy was the apogee in this arena. But I think that the author, Alan Ryan, has actually surpassed Sabine. He does a nice job of introducing us to the variety of political thinkers over time. But his analysis of the works—going beyond just description—is the real contribution of this two volume set. Ryan notes that (page xxiii): “This is a book about the answers that historians, philosophe ...more
Michael A
Oct 25, 2014 rated it liked it
I've been struggling with this book for some time and simply gave up the other night. It was around about the time I was reading about Hegel, so about 700 pages into the book.

I got much the same feeling I did as when I tried reading Bertrand Russell's "History of Western Philosophy" in college -- while this is well written, I questioned how seriously I could take his viewpoint when he evaluated all the material himself and never gave the reader any access to the texts themselves. In some subject
Tvrtko Balić
The thing I liked about most of the book is that it was easy to read and comprehensive. It obviously does have flaws though, or else I wouldn't have given it such a low rating. The author often gets lost in his thoughts and views the theories and societies of the past through the modern liberal lens, which means that the book comes down to being about the development of democratic thought in the West, which is not what the book is supposed to be about. Since that is the topic of the book, he oft ...more
Jan 22, 2016 marked it as to-read
Recommended to Jim by: The History Book Club (Good Reads)
-on hold-
This book is being read by the Good Reads History Book Club for over a year and they are finishing shortly. .

I became interested in checking out the book club upon reading that Neal Stephenson has been a member of a history only book club for twenty plus years.
(Perhaps this? )

Book One & Two is available at the Nashua Public Library. I am giving Book One a shot which is 399
Cary Kostka
Mar 18, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
The author accomplished something that I have not encountered yet; a very in depth detailed account of political history. He does a wonderful job of taking you through the political climes and thoughts of all ages from Socrates and Aristotle into today's very divisive political arenas. The read is very long and information dense, so it will take some time to get through the material. Also, plan on devoting some time to diving deeper into certain topics and newly introduced political theorists. Y ...more
Feb 02, 2014 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed learning about so many great thinkers through the ages, and how they examined previous ideas and were inspired by or rejected them. I loved to see how the thread of ideas from as early as Athens echo forward into the present day.

The question "How should human societies best be governed?" has been answered so many different ways and it was very interesting to read through the history.

Jul 11, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not as big as it looks and never a difficult read, Ryan's On Politics covers the history of western political philosophy from the Greeks through to modern times. Ryan is fair in his coverage, almost to a fault, so advocates of one political system over another will find his modern coverage grating. Ryan doesn't so much remove himself from the text -there are plenty of subjective moments, and the book is better for them - but rather he acknowledges the failings of all political systems. Chapters ...more
Irena Byron
Apr 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
One can without too much doubt say that Ryan's book is one of the most copious, comprehensive and well-presented books on political philosophy that has been written. It is simultaneously grasping the whole scale of the core problems in political philosophy, by no means lacking in information and wielding the academic discourse it was written in beautifully.

One definitely becomes more interested in political philosophy after reading such a book, taking a particular interested in the original work
Dea Vicentijevič
Apr 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
5/5: One can without too much doubt say that Ryan's book is one of the most copious, comprehensive and well-presented books on political philosophy that has been written. It is simultaneously grasping the whole scale of the core problems in political philosophy, by no means lacking in information and wielding the academic discourse it was written in beautifully. One definitely becomes more interested in political philosophy after reading such a book, taking a particular interested in the origina ...more
Praveen Kishore
Apr 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A huge book on (western) political thought and philosophy - starting from Herodotus and ending with globalization, fundamentalism, world government and environmental degradation - covering everything with analytical clarity, distinctive prose and verve.
Indeed, its more then 1000 pages require a determined effort and patience - but whosoever has the tenacity to persevere gets rewarded - as the book is really an engaging and passionate one!
Jul 15, 2018 rated it really liked it
In a sweeping history of political philosophy, this book took awhile to begin understanding, in terms of style more than substance. It's more of a narrative than an analytical review, which was a disappointment to me at first. In general though, it turned out to be a very well organized book that covered roughly 2,500 years of political ideas and it has helped me align and clarify my own interests going forward, which is always what I seek when choosing a book to read. ...more
Mamluk Qayser
It's length and dry prose makes it unsuitable for any new readers into political history. The author weaves his arguments with a baseline expectation of his readers to have at least optimum knowledge behind political machinations and theories. Perhaps it is a modern classic and I am in loss in not able to appreciate it fully, totally thinking to revisit this again in the future. ...more
Jan 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
Solid overview of the history of political thought. The bias towards Western political thought is regrettable, though not as bad as could be, and largely avoids the teleological trap that many similar undertakings fall into. Ultimately political theories are not novel, sui generis developments but built on the shoulders of giants, and this tidy volume does well to remind us of that.
Jason Wilson
Dec 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Two much to really sum up, but detailing the history of political thought from the Greeks to globalisation . It’s a stunning survey ; in the end though it all seems to boil down to the same questions about the political contract and the fact that rulers and ruled don’t trust each other much .
Sep 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: politics, history
Essential reading, even - or especially - if it takes the equivalent of an academic quarter to get through. It’ll be a couple of months of well spent. A survey in two volumes, with relevance on every page.
Sep 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Hard to find adequate superlatives; it is simply an excellent description of the essence and evolution of the Western world's political theories. Read and reread about those eras of special interest; the insightful details and nuanced clarifications are a challenge to retain. ...more
Not complete and missing crucial philosophers, but the ones are discusses are treated with care and clarity. Especially interesting for beginners or ones that want to move on to read the entire Cambridge History of Political Thought (6 volumes) after this.
Jun 11, 2017 rated it really liked it
Solid historical perspective on the philosophical development of politics. Has a bias toward western thought.
Greg Talbot
May 24, 2015 rated it really liked it
Review is strictly for Part II.

Oh the breadth Ryan spans, from Hobbes to Rawls, a look into the thinkers, the ideas and the events that shaped modern government.

The story is of writers and thinkers that built ideas off each other. A theory of sharp minds and difficult realities. One realizes just how precarious liberal democracy is today, and the humble beginnings that turned it to a reality.

So many of the ideas: republicanism, property rights, veil of ignorance, social equality are embedded in
Tony Gualtieri
Oct 11, 2015 rated it really liked it
This is a strangely targeted book. On the one hand, it presents a fascinating history of basic political thought by excising the metaphysical and ethical content from the philosophers it considers. Along with the usual suspects, there are interesting discussions of such unexpected writers as Polybius, Marsilius, and Sorel. On the other hand, it reads like an undergraduate college textbook, running off a series of facts and summaries without an overarching conceptual thesis. One almost expects a ...more
Oct 22, 2012 rated it liked it
A truly interesting and informative book. It's only major shortcoming is that Ryan's use of the framework of modern liberalism unduly determines what he focuses on and how he does so. That focus can be especially problematic, at times, when he discusses pre-17th century politics. Nevertheless, Ryan's book deserves to be read by any student of politics and/or the history of Western culture(s).

Margaret Sankey
Feb 04, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a very friendly, thorough survey of western political thought in historical context with a good review of the thought itself and the ways in which each philosopher and work draw from and are built upon by others. I particularly liked the chapter on Polybius and Cicero. Although there are no huge revelations here for anyone familiar with Western Civ, it makes for a comfortable rather than a pedantic reunion.
Jan 22, 2013 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
It's like a an undergraduate copy-pasted together a dissertation using Wikipedia and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Would have worked out fine if it had been written 25 years ago and if he had some of Russell's personality.
Two stars for effort. Read it to build your willpower muscle.
Howard Mansfield
Mar 10, 2013 rated it liked it
A smart introduction (or reintroduction) to political thought. In short space, Alan Ryan brings into focus Locke, Rousseau, Tocqueville, Marx and company. Each chapter can be read on its own. Ryan is concise and engaging.
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38 likes · 17 comments
“There was no politics in Persia because the great king was the master of slaves, not rulers of citizens. The point is beautifully made by Herodotus, the father of history and our own starting point. The exiled Spartan king, Demaratus, had taken refuge at the court of the great king of Persia, Darius I, in 491 BCE. Darius made him the ruler of Pergamum and some other cities. In 480 Darius's son and successor, Xerxes, took him to see the enormous army he had assembled to avenge his father's humiliation by the Athenians in an earlier attempt to conquer Greece. 'Surely,' he said to Demaratus, "the Greeks will not fight against such odds.' He was displeased when Demaratus assured him that they certainly would. 'How is it possible that a thousand men-- or ten thousand, or fifty thousand should stand up to an army as big as mine, especially if they were not under a single master but all perfectly free to do as they pleased?' He could understand that they might feign courage if they were whipped into battle as his Persian troops would be, but it was absurd to suppose that they would fight against such odds. Not a bit of it, said Demaratus. THey would fight and die to preserve their freedom. He added, 'They are free--yes--but they are not wholly free; for they have a master, and that master is Law, which they fear much more than your subjects fear you. Whatever this master commands they do; and his command never varies: it is never to retreat in battle, however great the odds, but always to remain in formation and to conquer or die.' They were Citizens, not subjects, and free men, not slaves; they were disciplined but self-disciplined. Free men were not whipped into battle.” 6 likes
“America posed a deeply interesting question to any Frenchmen with a political curiosity to ask it. How had Americans launched a revolution that aimed at establishing a free, stable, and constitutional government and made a success of it, while the French had in forty-one years lurched from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy, to the declaration of the republic, to mob rule, the Terror, the mass murder, and thence to a conservative republic, Napoleonic autocracy, the Bourbon restoration, further revolution, and the installation of an Orleanist constitutional monarchy?” 5 likes
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