Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

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

Rate this book
Three decades in the making, one of the most ambitious and comprehensive histories of political philosophy in nearly a century. 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 contention that it is “better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied,” Alan Ryan evokes the lives and minds of our greatest thinkers in a way that makes reading about them a transcendent experience. Whether writing about Plato or Augustine, de Toqueville or Thomas Jefferson, Ryan brings a wisdom to his text that illuminates John Dewey’s belief that the role of philosophy is less to see truth than to enhance experience. With this unparalleled tour de force, Ryan emerges in his own right as one of the most influential political philosophers of our time.

1152 pages, Hardcover

First published October 22, 2012

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Alan Ryan

35 books40 followers
Alan James Ryan.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
240 (44%)
4 stars
200 (36%)
3 stars
81 (14%)
2 stars
13 (2%)
1 star
9 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 54 reviews
Profile Image for Justin Evans.
1,525 reviews795 followers
September 13, 2013
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 ideology on both sides of the political spectrum, it's more than a bit galling to have a tenured professor explain to you, in patient, lucid prose, that young people are very well equipped to deal with labor market flexibility, or that liberal capitalism works really well because (this is not an exaggeration, he really uses this as his example) contemplative people can become long distance truck drivers and have time to think and venture into their imagination.

In between, presumably, ingesting massive amounts of speed and barely sleeping while they try to make impossible deadlines that are demanded by their employers.

So Ryan has a very bad case of ivorytoweritis, but then, so do I, which I will now prove. This text is at its most disturbing not when he's skimming over the ancient and medieval theorists, not when he's ignoring the historical conditions that give rise to political theories in the first place, not when he gives John Locke a free pass for his execrable arguments, nor when he fails to understand Hobbes, and not even when he purports to write about Marx without writing about, you know, 'Capital'.

It's at its worst when it ignores the fact that the vast majority of important 'political' thought since at least Marx, probably since Rousseau, and possibly since Montesquieu, has focused on social, cultural and economic matters instead of procedural and institutional matters.

This is a contentious claim, and maybe Ryan, like Straussians and other political science types, wants to insist on the continuing importance of 'the political.' But he doesn't do that: he just *ignores* political economy, cultural criticism and social thought... except when he's complaining that leftist cultural critics are exaggerating (viz., the aforementioned happiness of the long distance truck driver and the joys of the flexible new economy). It's no surprise that he doesn't understand the Frankfurt School; it is a surprise that he seems to like fascists (e.g., Schmitt and Gentile) more than the left-liberals who, following Toqueville, point out that a population's mores matter more (sorry about that) than the political organization that is set up around those mores--and that our mores today are destroying the planet.

For Ryan, social criticism is a kind of disease that leads evil people to complain about the greatest system ever set up to deal with human conflict: liberal capitalist democracy of the kind under which most of us no longer labor. Had he put off publishing this book for a few years, I like to think he would have changed his mind about that. But then, professors who retire from Princeton to Oxford and then to private life probably weathered the great recession pretty well.

An extra star for the book design, which is *crazy sexy*.
Profile Image for Andrew.
656 reviews187 followers
December 13, 2017
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 Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo, Machiavelli and up through Moore, Paine, Locke and so on are summarized in a highly readable fashion. I have put the book down as it is a bit dense for the season, and I am starting to fatigue - even though it is a well written book. I will certainly be looking to pick this one up again, and potentially even purchase a copy instead of reading my libraries version. I can certainly recommend this book, and will write a more in depth review upon actual completion. As it is, it is certainly worthy of its 5-stars.
Profile Image for Marks54.
1,331 reviews1,154 followers
July 6, 2014
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 series of essays raising issues of importance to the 20th and 21st centuries that span the classic authors. The chapters were without exception well written, rich in content, and helpful in provided needed context for a thinker and his work. For some of the great political theorists, such as Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, or Tocqueville, I would heartily recommend reading the originals where time and interest permit. For a variety of other authors (John of Salisbury), it might not be as worthwhile or even possible to read the original. For these cases and others, the book is extremely helpful at providing a serious review of the work and the information needed to place the author within a broader context of thinkers.

This book is not a casual undertaking and readers need to pay attention. For those who wish to invest some effort in learning about political theory, this is one of the better possibilities around and superior to Fukuyama's recent volume. I found the book very worthwhile, however, and didn't mind spending the time to work through it.
Profile Image for Steven Peterson.
Author 20 books271 followers
July 19, 2015
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, philosophers, theologians, practicing politician and would be revolutionaries have given to one question. How can human beings best govern themselves”?

For the record, he considers the following subjects/thinkers, among others: Herodotus, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Polybius, Augustine, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, Bentham, Mill, Tocqueville, and Marx. There are also chapters on more general subjects, such as republicanism after Hobbes and Locke, or the American founding, or democracy in the modern world.

It is intriguing that he began the work with Herodotus (and Thucydides). Ryan dissects Plato and Aristotle nicely, exploring some of their major works and making sense of their arguments—while sometimes raising questions about those arguments. There is a lengthy and insightful analysis of Augustine’s political thinking. A key question that this thinker addressed (page 149): “. . .how seriously should a Christian with his eyes on eternity take the politics of his earthly life. . . .”

Machiavelli? A diplomat who lost his job as a result of internal politics. Some of his works were efforts to get back in the good graces of the rulers of Florence, such as the Borgias. Much of the chapter explores The Prince, and Machiavelli’s interesting analysis of what it takes to be successful. There is also lucid discussion of Discourses, a follow up to his earlier volume with some interesting twists.

There is relevance for the United States in quite a number of chapters. For example, after the chapters on Hobbes and Locke, Ryan considers “republicanism.” Here, he examines the works of John Harrington, Algernon Sidney, and Charles-Louis de Secondat, the Baron de Montesquieu. Each of these thinkers reflected on aspects of republicanism. And each of these was referred to by America’s Founding Fathers during the Constitutional era. The discussion places the discussion of those Founders in a broader context.

And so on. A powerfully developed two volume set. If interested in the history of political philosophy, this is an outstanding point of departure.
Profile Image for Scriptor Ignotus.
495 reviews173 followers
October 13, 2014
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 figures that Ryan covers in this work.

What On Politics is intended to do, however, it does remarkably well; it introduces (or reintroduces) readers to the pantheon of western political thought, ,gives them historical and political context, and asks questions about them that may spark a reader's curiosity and encourage them to learn more. Most of the work is relatively chronological, until Ryan finishes with Marx, at which point the latter nineteenth and twentieth centuries are covered with several different brushstrokes in the last few chapters. I was already familiar with many of the names Ryan covers, but learning lesser-known names and looking at Ryan's references at the end of the book has expanded my to-read list. The writing is light, concise, and conversational throughout as well, which helped to keep my attention through 1000 pages of text.
Profile Image for Cary Kostka.
118 reviews11 followers
May 18, 2016
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. You may try to resist doing this, but your curiosity will not allow for it.
Profile Image for Cengiz.
68 reviews3 followers
October 6, 2019
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 of the hierarchy which he believed to have symbolized reason.
For Aristotle, the only life worth living was the life of citizenry. Citizens were virtuous, rational and moral entities. He suggested that there was not a life without politics. Only beasts and God needn't it. Because beasts had not will or reason and God was self-sufficient. The purpose of the politics was common good in pursuit of happiness in accordance with reason for the citizens.
Even though Plato paved the way for politics. His state theory was anti-politics. Because his political formation excluded many from political life.
For Aristotle, where there is no politics, there is no human will and common decision making with regard to public.
Functionality of Plato's state was based on good intention. If king does not have good intentions the system can not survive.
Aristotle's political theory is reductionist since it is the manifestation of his analysis of natural world.
Profile Image for Karen.
1,816 reviews35 followers
July 5, 2018
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.
Profile Image for Joelle Lewis.
443 reviews6 followers
February 2, 2022
Joelle WILL Read Her Bookcase #8

"This is not a book of political history, but rather the history of politics."

From Herodotus to Bertram Russell, this is a review of how democracy is interpreted. The author discusses Athenian democracy, but does not delve into how the Athenian states fell; he follows the same path with the Soviet Union, and the revolutions of the US and France. The overarching theme is to discover how democracy is applied and what exactly is meant by that term throughout history. This includes the Reformation, the totalitarian regimes of the middle of the 20th century, and even the Roman Empire. This is a comprehensive view of how we have come to terms with our views about republics and socialism and fascism; it is not an indepth historical study of why we had to. The main feature is the focus on writers, not historical moments. Those that are mentioned, such as the Reformation, are important as they give a specific time period in which to place the authors.

I meant to finish this book last year, but got distracted somewhere around the beginning of the 18th century. It was, however, an overall fascinating look at how we have developed our political theories, and the creeds associated with them. It also showed me how woefully inadequate my own political readings have been; there are a great variety of authors I now want to explore.
Profile Image for Kåre.
676 reviews12 followers
June 23, 2016
Fokus er på filosofi mindre end historie, men begge dele indgår. Der tages udgangspunkt i en række berømte filosofiske tekster om politik, og disse tekster indrammes gennem diskussioner af de historiske forhold for de samfund, hvori teksterne er skrevet.

Hermed udelades meget interessant, og måske meget af det, som jeg synes er interessant. Udeladt er således alle politiske forhold fra før, der blev skrevet interessante tekster om politik. Jeg kender naturligvis en del til dette gennem diverse antropologiske bøger. Man kunne vel godt lige have nævnt, at politik ikke opstod med Sokrates.
Udeladt er også diskussioner af forholdet mellem praksis og filosofi. Hvad er det egentligt, der gør, at nogle forhold bliver beskrevet i filosofien og andre ikke gør? Er filosofien mest beskrivelser af allerede eksisterende praksisser eller er filosofien mere med til at forandre?
Udeladt er vist også diskussioner af alle de tekster, som ikke anvendes. Det er således som om, at disse store forfattere forholder sig til ret så luftige spørgsmål, hvorimod en række andre forfattere eller praktikere faktisk bedriver politik. Denne politik får vi noget af, men sammenhængen mellem den praktiske filosofi (de små forfattere) og de store forfattere er uklar for mig.

Vi får en del om de politiske forhold, men det er vist mest tænkt som en slags kontekst for tankerne. Det er nok fornuftigt nok, da det sikkert er meget vanskeligt at vide, præcis hvad man skal fokusere på. Alligevel savner jeg nok dette.

Jeg tænker også, at når man har skrællet den egentlige politik bort, så er der egentligt ret få temaer tilbage til disse store forfattere. Der kunne skelnes mellem religiøs ret og verdslig ret og derefter kunne de andre forhold puttes på. Mon ikke det kunne ordnes i et par skemaer? Men klart nok, det er slet ikke stilen her. Stilen er snarere lærd og meget nuanceret, så derfor passer det næppe med alt for simple fremstillinger.

Super diskussion af Platon. Han beskrives som anti-politisk, idet han egentligt kun forholder sig til en tænkt situation, hvor politiske forhold ikke længere findes. I hans tanker er der således ingen kriminelle, ingen utilfredse osv., og dermed er politik reelt væk. Super relevant i mange nutidige sammenhænge. Det er svært at vurdere beskrivelserne af Platons samtidighed, idet det er uklart for mig, hvem han skulle sammenlignes med. Skal han sammenlignes med nutidige religiøse/metafysiske eller med nutidige politiske? Ryan sammenligner med politik og det er sikkert velvalgt. Alligevel kunne en diskussion i forhold til de andre aspekter være interessant.

Super diskussion af Aristoteles. Han forsøger at undersøge politiske praksisformer og laver nogle afgørende skel, fx mellem styreformer. Nogle holder stadig, andre gør ikke. Grænserne for hans nutidighed diskuteres også fint.

Polybious beskriver omkring tiden, hvor Romerriget blev konsolideret gennem udryddelse af Katargo, hvordan politik udøves og drager på den empiriske baggrund konklusionen, at Roms styrke består i at mikse forskellige politiske typer sammen. Han artikulerer således ideen om miks som det centrale. Han beskriver også en slags ligevvægtssystem, men naturligvis ikke som vi forstår det nu.

Cicero er vist kun med, fordi han er blevet berømt. Tror ikke, at han biddrager med noget

Med Augustine bliver den uklare skelnen mellem religion og lov tydelig (for mig). Augustine skelner helt skarpt. Foroven er der retfærdighed, men her findes den ikke og vi kan i alle fald ikke genkende den. Her er vi syndere og skal og bør straffes. Det er galt, hvis man straffes for noget jordisk, man ikke har gjort, men det gør ikke så meget, for i sidste ende er vi alle syndere og skal straffes. Straf har således en funktion, idet den kan få nogle til at forbedre sig.
Man skal rette sig efter lovgivere, ikke fordi de har ret eller er gudommelige, men simpelthen fordi de er en del af det, som gud har indstiftet.
Romerse borgere slap for tortur, hvis de blev anklaget for noget, og det skulle angiveligt være den borgerret, som de værdsatte mest.
Augustine bruger begrebet libido. Dette oversættes med kærlighed, men ligger nok tættere på Bourdius libido. Augustine mener således, at man kan nære libido for alt, fx magt, dominans, penge, sex, og at man kan nære det for stærkt. Dette svarer vel fint til Bourdieus brug, hvor libido nærmest er en drivkraft, som gør blind.

Aquinas lykkes åbenbart med at få iklædt Aristoteles en kristen klædedrat.
237. Nobody before the sixteenth century would have thought that secular authority could be indifferent to the reltios pracices of it subjects: A defense of toleration on the grounds that private religious practice was no busisness of the law would have been unitelligble. ...The idea that each of us has a personal relationshop with an angry but loving god is wholly unclassical.

Dante. Præmisen er, at formålet med et styre er at få subjekterne til at udvikle sig og govern sig selv moralsk for på den måde at opnå frelse. Derfor er Dante for fred, idet fred er en forudsætning for dette.

Der skelnes mellem descending og ascending authority. Kirken og de fleste følte "naturligt" at descending næsten altid er rigstist. Descending er installeret af gud til kongen til undersåtter.
Jeg tænker, at vi nu har et miks. På den ene side taler vi meget om demokrati mm. På den anden side praktiseres descending autoritet på arbejde, på markedet og i meget politik.

Marsilius bruger Aristoteles til at argumentere for, at authority is moraly legitimate only when founded on the consent of a people. He was perhaps the first writer to make that thought do some real work (274)
Marsilius mente - vel i tråd med ovenstående - at kristus havde givet diciplene ret til at rådgive og prædke men ikke til at bestemme.

280ff. Kompliceret afsnit om italienske by-stater og pavedømmet. Forstår jeg det rigtigt, blev romerreten anvendt i det meste af europa, om end i de udgaver, de nu lige fandt på rundt omkring. Men dette er med til at forene vest-europa.

291ff. Svært kapitel om humanismen.

Med Luther ser vi ud til at være nået til vejs ende med ideerne om at lov skal forankres i gud (håber jeg da). Jeg ser frem til at læse bog to, hvor argumentationerne vel bliver mere relevante.
260 reviews17 followers
February 3, 2015
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 subjects, like math for instance, humans can come to some agreement about what is right and wrong. Politics is not like those subjects and suffers from having human actors manipulate the ideas for power and control. It is not, for me, a good way of thinking about life so I try to look instead to narratives in a larger sense for my individual life and daily thinking. Politics is, in the grand scheme, the games played at the top by the elite and beyond most of my control.

Like another reviewer said, he seems to believe deeply in liberal democratic societies. I would question the degree to which the USA is truly different from a place like China. While we might fool ourselves by thinking we have unquestionable human rights and freedom of speech, business goes on as usual at the top, people die, we do the bidding of those with money and power, and we might be lucky to have some access to the wealth and power of our society's elite which shuts us up from doing anything about the abuses of power we see on a daily basis. However, the author is not like this. He would seem to believe, like a lot of people I know, that capitalistic industrial societies are the best way of addressing people's self-interest and etc. while keeping us from hurting each other too much. I'm not sure that's true, but enough about that tangent for now.

Nonetheless, I would say this book had value in directing me to the sources of ideas that we have come to value in the Western political world and will serve as a good base point for exploring some of their ideas in a much less filtered, less evaluated form. It's a good road map for future reading on the subject.

Frankly, aside from issues of authorial bias and lack of textual access to the ideas, the book tries to do much and cover too many thinkers in the space it has to do all of that in. So many things were discussed to the point I couldn't retain information very well. I would pass ont his book unless you want a liberal political professor's take on the history of politics in the West. If you just want some direction about where to read for the ideas, it might be good to look at the table of contents and skim the chapters for a few ideas.

3 stars.
Profile Image for Tvrtko Balić.
199 reviews62 followers
April 26, 2018
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 often interprets thinkers and political systems in a way that emphasises their more liberal democratic aspects too much or even just spreads myths and half truths. It can go the other way too, he can misinterpret a thinker to discredit him and be biased all the way through, an example of this that particularly frustrated me was Plato. Furthermore, Ryan tries to justify his way of writing by saying that if the populous isn't actively involved in government, the state isn't political, there may be ruling or management he says, but not politics. This is frustrating not just because it's not true and is a lame excuse for his bias, but also because he openly uses it to discredit any political thought outside of the West as not really political and not developed enough save from maybe some exceptions. I understand that the book is long enough as it is and that covering the traditions, ideas and political systems of all the cultures on the world is practically impossible, but the excuse he uses is so derogative and lazy that it is kind of disgusting. It also comes to bite him in the ass once he needs to write about the middle ages, an age when Europe came to be ruled by feudal monarchies, the Church had great influence through both its spiritual and material strength, and more "political" systems were active in the East. This makes him more limited in the second part of Book One and his hypocrisy comes closer to the surface. However, the part that immediately follows, the first part of Book Two is when he shines, since concerning that period following the development of democratic thought only makes sense, the political systems discussed there are closer to home and therefore easier to discuss regardless of which way in the current a particular thinker prefers. If I was to rate only that quarter of the book, I would have given it four stars. It's too bad that the last quarter completely ruins Book Two as well, as it is reserved for more general topics which then develops into incoherent rambling with no restraint on bias.
Profile Image for Jim.
639 reviews98 followers
Want to read
April 15, 2016
-on hold-
This book is being read by the Good Reads History Book Club for over a year and they are finishing shortly. https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/... .

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. https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/book...
(Perhaps this? http://www.historybookclub.com/ )

Book One & Two is available at the Nashua Public Library. I am giving Book One a shot which is 399 pages and covers the ideas of Herodotus to Machiavelli.

The book jacket calls it a comprehensive, ambitious and accessible history of political theory. After a quick scan, I agree.

(Three Decades in the Making!).

I may try to break the two books into 200 pages sections to be read in 4 periods . Let's see.......

I view this as the Poly Sci class I did not take in college....
Profile Image for Jacqui.
78 reviews
October 8, 2015
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.

Profile Image for Daniel1974nlgmail.com.
180 reviews33 followers
April 14, 2020
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.
Profile Image for Arjun Ravichandran.
222 reviews138 followers
March 3, 2022

This is an astounding journey through the panoply of theorizing that constitutes political philosopy - the resolution of the fundamental question of human social existence viz. how best to govern ourselves?

Even taking into account it's absurd length - the book is divided into two volumes, the first dealing with ancient and medieval political philosophy, and the latter dealing with modernity - it is obvious that this a lifetime labour of love. The casual elegance with which the author displays his mastery of two millennia worth of political thinking is awe-inspiring. This is the product of an entire lifetime's worth of deep engagement with the deep questions of political organization.

The scope of the project, too, is vast. The author sets out, in his foreward, what he terms the two running themes of the book. The first is the distinction between citizen and subject - the difference between being an active participant in the political sphere, or being content to have one's affairs managed by others. He crystallizes this tension in a comparison between the pure democracy of ancient Athens - with whom he starts the book proper - and the bureaucratic despotism of Persia. This question - whether such a retrieval of the free-spirited joint construction of a community's political life is possible, or even desirable in our interconnected global economy - functions as a shadow behind the discussion of a vast number of thinkers.

Things kick off with a discussion of ancient Athens, and their radical intepretation of 'democracy' - rule of the people, by the people, and for the people. It moves on to Aristotle's sober tempering of these passions, before treating the Roman attempts at consolidation of their disparate Greek influences. The tone throughout is dispassionate, though slightly wry, and maintains an admirable detachment. The author is determined to give each writer their due - a project he exemplifies by adumbrating the social and political epoch that contextualizes each philosopher's thinking. It is only occasionally, that he locates gaps in each thinker's ouevre - but even this is done charitably.

Sometimes, however, this objective compiling of thinker after thinker becomes a bit wearying. This is especially true because - as I have gleaned - it seems that political philosophy is somewhat of an acculumative process. The middle section of the book, in particular - where a rather turgid discussion of medieval scholastic philosophy ensues - is a boring account of philosophers with only minor differences between them. The author is also disserved by the sheer size of his project - many thinkers receive only a paragraph or two, a brief recapitulation of their main works.

The book picks up pace again, as we hurtle into modernity. The author rightly locates the first rumblings of this epoch by outlining Luther and the Protestant Reformation. Religion - the relationship between man and god - does not admit of mediation. The community of the faithful is the community proper. The link between this intensely religious movement, and the secular liberalism of our day is craftily outlined.

The author then proceeds to do justice to the monumental thinkers of modernity : Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Mill and Marx, all receive an extensive and (mostly) sympathetic treatment. Hobbes, in particular, is justified as the first thinker to provide a 'science' of all political society. This section was undoubtedly the highlight of the book. Reading the author's biography later, I found that his area of expertise was the period dealing with the rise of modern liberalism, and the mechanics of this rise was expertly detailed in these pages.

In conclusion, I found this book to be very long, and unavoidably redundant in certain places. I understand that, strictly speaking, this is a history of political thought, and not so much an extraction of salient features from this journey of thinking - and that some redundancy was perhaps unavoidable. Nonetheless, this history proves to be glacial, and there are pages where the overwhelming impression seems to be a cluster of mildly distinguishable thinkers. While the prose is solid and workable, the scale of the author's ambition means that in some places it fails to hold the reader's attention.

Nonetheless, I still found this an elucidating, and astounding achievement. It is an achievement very much in keeping with the nobility of scholarly duty - in no manner is the author disingenous, uncharitable, or even mean-spirited. Having finished this book, I genuinely felt that I was taking leave of a learned and mild-mannered friend.

23 reviews
August 13, 2022
Alan Ryan's tour of western political theory is very ambitious, accessible, and conventional. Starting with Herodotus and ending with Ryan's own musings about 20th century politics, Ryan provides a competent introduction to the most important European political thinkers of the last two millennia. The book is divided into four parts: ancient, medieval, modern, and "the world after Marx." Ryan tries to place each thinker in his historical context, but Ryan's historical interpretations are sometimes dubious (especially anytime he describes a popular movement or uprising). Throughout the book, Ryan praises mixed republics (like the Roman Republic), which combine the best of all three forms of government: the decisiveness of the one (monarchy), the expertise of the few (aristocracy), and the common sense and loyalty of the many (democracy). By the end of the book, Ryan approvingly claims that western "liberal democracies" are not really democracies at all, but rather are mixed republics. Ryan consistently dismisses of the desirability of "pure" democracy, as illustrated by Athens. Sympathizing with the forces of order, and frequently citing de Tocqueville, Ryan remarks that we westerners "share the fears of the observers of Athenian factionalism, the Reformation, the French Revolution, and the disasters of the twentieth century about what ordinary citizens can do when inflamed by ideological or religious passions, bamboozled by demagogues, or beset with hysterical fears." There is no similar negative generalization about elites. His treatment of Marx is mostly respectful, though he does have the not uncommon habit of bringing Marx up at random points in the book to say that Marx was wrong about something or other, sometimes fairly, sometimes not. Ryan seems rather to like Fukuyama's "End of History" thesis, and remarks that "capitalist liberal democracy is the only game in town." Ryan's explanations for the crises of liberal capitalism in the first half of the 20th century barely scratch the surface. Ryan wants to "draw a line underneath" communism and fascism as failed experiments. His discussion of the post-WWII settlement is decent, though his account leaves out the neconservative reaction of the 1980s that began to unwind that settlement. Instead Ryan tries to make the case that socialist goals (the amelioration of alienation, grinding toil, and poverty) have been fulfilled within a capitalist framework. Under "further reading," Ryan does recommend Sheldon Wolin's "Politics and Vision," which may be the more sophisticated and better book.
Profile Image for David.
377 reviews8 followers
July 11, 2020
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 run a regular course, the political philosopher is introduced and given a brief biography before their main contributions are discussed. At times you wish he spent longer on a topic (Hegel, in particular, for me) and other times he seems to get stuck in the mud (Utilitarianism and contemporary contributions) but the book is an effective introductory course to western political theory.
Profile Image for Irena Byron.
1 review3 followers
April 16, 2018
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 works of the world's greatest political thinkers, especially because the ideas themselves are presented in a comprehensive and memorable fashion.
April 24, 2018
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 original works of the world's greatest political thinkers, especially because the ideas themselves are prese...
Profile Image for Daniel Clemence.
72 reviews
January 22, 2023
Trying to write a comprehensive view of this book would be very difficult. It is an overview of the history of politics and political theory from the earliest city states until the 21st century. Alan Ryan looks at the advantages and disadvantages of various political ideas as well as documenting them. He seems rather disdainful of Marxism for example. This in many ways is because the book is written by a liberal.
An important read for those who are studying history, politics, ethics and philosophy.
Profile Image for Erik Champenois.
237 reviews5 followers
February 2, 2023
While my undergraduate classes on political philosophy were some of my favorite courses, they were largely decontextualized from history. This book covers the span of western political philosophy from ancient times to modern times (though it doesn't really cover several more modern philosophers, from Nietzsche on). It's well written and a nice overview. Turns out that between my undergraduate days and today, I've already read up on most of the historical context here, but it was still a good review.
Profile Image for Praveen Kishore.
119 reviews18 followers
April 30, 2018
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!
Profile Image for Nick.
60 reviews
July 15, 2018
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.
Profile Image for Mamluk Qayser.
202 reviews17 followers
May 19, 2019
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.
Profile Image for Ernest.
115 reviews4 followers
January 2, 2020
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.
Profile Image for Derek.
1,451 reviews50 followers
June 19, 2022
This massive book provides an excellent survey of Western political philosophy but definitely reads like the notes of a lecture course. It’s comprehensive but often dull and perhaps somewhat unoriginal. I learned a fair amount but it did feel like I was reading a series of encyclopedia articles rather than a book with a sustained argument.
Profile Image for Jason Wilson.
642 reviews3 followers
December 26, 2017
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 .
49 reviews8 followers
September 2, 2018
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.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 54 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.