A magisterial, one-volume history of political thought from Herodotus to the present, Ancient Athens to modern democracy - from author and professor Alan Ryan. This is a book about the answers that historians, philosophers, theologians, practising politicians and would-be revolutionaries have given to one question: how should human beings best govern themselves? That question raises innumerable others: can we manage our own affairs at all? Should we even try? Many people in the past have thought that only some individuals were either able or entitled to practise self-government: Greeks, but not Persians; men, but not women; the better-off minority, but not the poor majority. Others have thought that few of us have any desire to govern ourselves, and that government is inevitably a matter of a competent elite managing an acquiescent mass. Then, what do we mean by 'freedom' today, and is it the same freedom that people enjoyed, or strove for, in the past? Almost every modern government claims to be democratic; but is democracy really the best way of organising our political life? For almost two thousand years, educated opinion said not. Today, educated opinion says yes.
In the modern west, do we actually live in democracies? They certainly do not resemble what the Athenians fought and died to preserve. It seems that there may be less agreement than we might think about how human beings can best govern themselves. In this extraordinary book, more that thirty years in the making, Alan Ryan engages with the great thinkers of the past to explain their ideas with a lucidity which makes the book compelling reading. While acknowledging how much separates us from our intellectual forebears, he reminds us how often the ideas of long-dead or distant thinkers are more alive, and speak to us more vividly and immediately, than those of our contemporaries. At a time when we sometimes feel that the problems of the globe will simply overwhelm our ability to control them, he provides a peerless guide to the ways in which the problems of politics have been thought about by the greatest minds of our civilization. Alan Ryan was born in London in 1940 and taught for many years at Oxford, where he was a Fellow of New College and Reader in Politics.
He was Professor of Politics at Princeton from 1988 to 1996, when he returned to Oxford to become Warden of New College and Professor of Political Theory until his retirement in 2009. His previous books include "The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill", "Bertrand Russell: A Political Life and John Dewey" and the "High Tide of American Liberalism". He is a Fellow of the British Academy. Reviews of "On Politics": "In a work of astonishing scope and ambition, Alan Ryan, surveying the whole vast field, concisely charts the welter of conflicting positions and tracks the sometimes thrilling, sometimes catastrophic consequences of political thought". (Stephen Greenblatt). "Alan Ryan has taken a vast range of challenging material written over twenty five centuries in the West and engaged with it in prose of stunning clarity. It is an amazing achievement to combine so much learning with such lucidity". (Anthony Appiah). "Ryan demonstrates vivacity throughout, and a tenacious grasp of the human meaning of everything that has transpired in political speculation from the ancients on through the threshold of our own dark age.
I commend particularly his terse eloquence, his capacious erudition, and the judicious intensity with which he somehow allows his whole being to inform his vast scope and deep concern of our human limitations". (Harold Bloom).show more