Review of ‘On Politics’: Connecting yesterday’s thinkers

On Politics
Book One:
A History of Political Thought:
Herodotus to Machiavelli

Book Two:
A History of Political Thought:
Hobbes to the Present

Alan Ryan
Liveright: boxed, 1,114 pp., $75

It’s no coincidence that “On Politics,” Alan Ryan’s monumental two-volume history of Western political thought, has been published just ahead of Tuesday’s presidential election. At the heart of the project is a belief that this stuff matters, that the thinkers it revolves around — Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, Karl Marx — remain relevant and fresh.


“Even if they are hard put to explain it themselves to one another,” Ryan writes, “political theorists have no doubt they are engaged in productive, if sometimes frustrating, conversations across the centuries with their long-dead predecessors, as well as their contemporaries.... 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.”

What Ryan is getting at is context, which is the secret story of “On Politics.” The book seeks to take a (very) long view, framing its subjects less as individuals than as the components of a continuum of which we are still a part.

Ryan, who has written books about John Dewey and Bertrand Russell (both of whom appear in “On Politics”), is well-suited for such an undertaking; a longtime professor and administrator at Oxford, he now teaches politics at Princeton and has been working on “On Politics” for 30 years. In that sense, the book is a distillation of his thinking, both intellectual and practical, and although it can be daunting, the triumph is how, as Ryan takes us through the material, he makes it so much more.

“It is tempting to compare Plato with Marx,” he writes in one early discussion; “indeed, I have done so. Like Plato, Marx looked forward to a future in which the state, law, coercion, and competition for power had vanished and politics been replaced by rational organization. But we must not press the comparison.” Here, we see his method: to look for threads, connections, while at the same time considering each thinker on his or her own.

Context, for Ryan, means two things: how his subjects echo one another, and the way they reflect their times. Thus, his take on Plato begins with a portrait of the philosopher as an aristocrat with ties to the oligarchy that “briefly replaced the Athenian democracy at the end of the Peloponnesian War,” a position that influences “The Republic” and its sense of social hierarchy. “He assumes as a premise,” Ryan writes, “that we are naturally suited to different sorts of social roles, and that one of many things wrong with democratic Athens is that the wrong people end up occupying positions of power.”

Plato is one of the key figures in “On Politics” — interesting because, as Ryan observes, he was hostile to politics. “The founder of European political thought,” he writes, “is the founder of antipolitical thinking.”

This highlights a larger conflict between the philosophical and the practical that is at the root of the book. The point, of course, is that politics is both, that we develop theories, then apply them to real situations. The terms may shift, but the process remains the same.

Ryan introduces this idea by comparing Athenian democracy, which defined freedom as a function of participation in public life, to its American counterpart, in which personal liberty is the greatest good.


“A running theme of this book,” Ryan writes, “has been that the image of the active citizen has always been in competition with that of the well-conducted, well-managed but essentially obedient subject” — and this becomes increasingly important as we move into the Enlightenment, the world of Hobbes, John Locke and Paine.

If Plato is the central figure of Book One of “On Politics,” Hobbes plays a similar role in Book Two. “For our purposes,” Ryan writes, “modern ways of thinking about politics can without undue exaggeration be said to begin with Hobbes.”

That’s because unlike Plato, Hobbes does not think of the state as natural in its own right; rather, it is created for the purpose of self-preservation. It is our only defense against nature, where, as Hobbes famously argued, life is “poore, solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.”

And yet, for all that Hobbes sees politics as a matter of personal survival, he was not a supporter of individual liberty. He urges acquiescence to a single sovereign, because he thought divided government was “disastrous,” and he opposed many of the rights we take for granted: “a right to free speech, to the free practice of whatever religion seems compelling …, to the immunities against arbitrary arrest and ill-treatment we see enshrined in bills of rights.”


As for how Ryan squares this with the more “liberal” thinkers who came after Hobbes, again the answer is context. Without Hobbes, there would have been no need for John Locke to react to him, and without Locke, no Paine or Jefferson, no Hegel or Marx.

This brings us to the present day, where Ryan ends “On Politics,” with a series of chapters on “the twentieth century and beyond.” It’s the most provisional material in the book, an attempt to fit large global forces (terrorism, globalization, religious fundamentalism, environmental degradation) into his argument, although he can’t help but write at a distance, focusing on broad strokes, rather than particulars.

“We want to give ordinary citizens as much say as possible in the political arrangements of their society,” he writes, “and to enhance their control over those who govern them; but we 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 passion, bamboozled by demagogues, or beset by hysterical fears.”

Still, there’s something in those lines we recognize, something that speaks to what’s at stake in this election, the same ideals and fears that are always at stake. The more things change, in other words, the more they stay the same.


“If the state exists,” Ryan concludes, “among its other purposes, to take care of the side effects of our behaviors in ways individual and smaller groupings cannot, the question we began with remains. How can we govern ourselves? How can we act collectively to resolve the problems that our collective life creates?”