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Alan Ryan (re)considers Aristotle and Machiavelli

When Alan Ryan’s two-volume study of political philosophy, “On Politics,” came out a year ago, it raised a daunting, if not entirely intended, issue: How to read more than 1,000 pages of intellectual history in a 140-character culture. “On Politics” required a deep dive, a willingness to engage in politics as continuum, to trace a line of thinking from antiquity to the present day.

It’s a magnificent work, but also one that requires a magnificent commitment, in which the central argument — between freedom as a function of public life and freedom as a function of personal liberty — is echoed by the culture in which we live.

Because of this, it’s not surprising that Ryan would be interested in getting his ideas across in more accessible (and affordable; the original costs $75) chunks. The result? A series of small books, drawn from “On Politics” and devoted to its pillar thinkers (Plato, Augustine, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx), that launches this month with “On Aristotle” (Liveright: 216 pp., $14.95) and “On Machiavelli” (Liveright: 204 pp., $14.95).

In some ways, this is antithetical to the message of “On Politics,” which was to trace a lineage, through time and history, of thinking on a basic human question: “How can we govern ourselves?” Just look at Washington if you don’t believe that’s still a relevant (perhaps the most relevant) concern. But it works because even in the larger effort, Ryan’s approach was modular, to look at a particular figure in both the context of his times and as part of a larger overview.

For Ryan, political philosophy is, first and foremost, a discussion taking place across the centuries, in which, as he wrote in “On Politics,” “We are eavesdropping in the Elysian Fields, hoping to catch the cynical Machiavelli taunting Socrates for his otherworldliness, or hear Jefferson admit that Alexander Hamilton foresaw the American future more accurately than he.” This new project, then, represents a way to distill that dialogue, the component parts of which remain the building blocks for our political life.

And what better way to start than with Aristotle and Machiavelli? In some sense, they represent the bookends of what we might call classical political thinking, Aristotle with his ideal of the polis and Machiavelli with his understanding of the human lust for power. Society and the individual, in other words, the source of an abiding tension that has never gone away.

When Aristotle observes that the polis “grows for the sake of mere life, but it exists for the sake of a good life,” he is tracing out the roots of a certain kind of social commitment, in which we are defined (and, indeed, can only become our best selves) in our engagement with society and public life. For Machiavelli, on the other hand, “the affairs of the world are so much governed by fortune and by God that the ability of men cannot contain them” — a bit of fatalistic thinking that justifies his more pragmatic point-of-view.

“On Aristotle” and “On Machiavelli” are not just derivations of “On Politics.” Ryan raises the stakes by reproducing selections of each philosopher’s writing: excerpts from “Politics” and the “Nicomachean Ethics” by Aristotle, and Machiavelli’s “Discourses” and “The Prince.”

The effect is, not surprisingly, that of a conversation, which is, of course, the whole idea. “There remains to be discussed,” Aristotle writes, “the question, Whether the happiness of the individual is the same as that of the state, or different?” Two millennia later, the debate continues to be defining, in both our public and our private lives.

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