On Politics: A History of Political Philosophy from Herodotus to the Present

Justin Champion enjoys an ambitious exploration of the development of western political thought across two millennia


Reviewed by: Justin Champion
Author: Alan Ryan
Publisher: Allen Lane
Price (RRP): £40


This is a monster of a book, which ambitiously and elegantly covers two and a half millennia of political thinking in the western tradition from the times of Herodotus, right up until the challenges of fundamentalism, environmental catastrophe and global economic collapse. As Ryan comments, it is “a long book and a long time in the making”.

The benefits of this gestation to the reader are evident in the concise, lucid and engaging analysis of the problems confronted by a succession of political thinkers. They range from the times of the Athenian polis, through the Roman Republic to the ancien régime of the dynastic states of early modern Europe, to the fledgling republics in France and across the Atlantic.

At a time when the vocabulary of politics is once again using words like oligarchy, plutocracy and plebeian, the recovery of the long tradition of thinking about the nature, purpose and legitimate ambitions of politics and politicians is very timely.

The volumes are more than conversations with a collection of dead thinkers, although most of the traditional canon of political texts are discussed, each carefully placed in biographical and historical context and given robust and informed analytical scrutiny.

Volume One commences a narrative by exploring the invention of political institutions and the cultivation of consensual thinking around the question of how human beings should best govern themselves in Greek society. It concludes on the brink of modernity, with a discussion of Machiavelli’s rejection of both classical and Christian ethical frameworks.

Volume Two opens with a long consideration of the first modern thinker, Thomas Hobbes. His life and work determined the shape of much subsequent thinking about the purpose and institutional components of modern liberal political thinking. After Hobbes, questions of contracts, rights, obligations and sovereignty became more pressing than the more philosophical enquiries (the classic being ‘What is Justice?’) that underpinned ancient and Christian political discourse. Whereas the ancients had grappled with the nature of the best life, or how civic constitutions might make good men, modern political thought has focused upon questions of legitimacy and the ‘liberal’ protection of the individual from both state and society.

Ryan is an exceptionally lucid commentator: the ideas in the works he explores are both the familiar vocabulary of contemporary debate (citizenship, democracy, tyranny) but also, as he establishes repeatedly, rooted in very different historical circumstances and designed for different purposes.

The book, then, provides a capacious narrative of the transformation and evolution of political thinking over the history of western Europe – it shows how conceptual innovations were the product both of individual brilliance, but also the practical capacity to react to the real problems of government confronting real communities in specific time. Core ideas of freedom and liberty, of consent and participation, of the rights and duties of the governed and the governors, are themes Ryan and his texts return to time and again. Such ideas are equally pressing for a modern reader.

In the concluding part, Ryan explores the problems facing modern political communities with the full weight of historical perspective behind him. Recent debates about responsibilities of the state for welfare, or the management of the market, are set in context. Political thinking took a sociological turn after Marx: confronted by mass involvement in politics and the commitment to social equality, many thinkers worried about the dangers of collective irrationalism to the liberal consensus.

The book, despite covering huge intellectual terrain, is a delight both when it explores detail and also when it draws conclusions of a broader perspective. As Ryan notes, in our modern times, because the state can keep vastly more people alive as well as destroy them, the challenge of getting our political thinking right has very high stakes. Readers of these volumes will at least be sure they have all the philosophical bases covered.


Justin Champion is professor of early modern ideas at Royal Holloway, University of London