Alan Ryan’s On Politics: A History of Political Philosophy

Nice review in The EconomistI’ve always liked Ryan’s work especially his edited Social Explanation and Russell: A Political Life.

It is also important that, as Mr Ryan puts it, “long-dead writers often speak to us with greater freshness and immediacy than our contemporaries.” James Madison has the best advice for Egyptian liberals who want to prevent Muhammad Morsi from turning democracy into dictatorship. John Stuart Mill (pictured centre) has the best arguments against Michael Bloomberg and the “soft despotism” entailed in his soft-drink regulations. Immanuel Kant has the best insights into the gay-marriage debate—he argues that, once you have stripped away the nonsense, marriage is nothing more than a contract for the mutual use of the sex organs. Mr Ryan’s historical approach helps us at the very least to look at our problems from new angles, and at best to harness the help of history’s sharpest minds in producing policies.

Mr Ryan’s approach to political theory is thoroughly old-fashioned—and all the better for it. In recent years historians and political theorists have been busily undermining the Western canon—dissolving the great political theorists in their wider intellectual contexts or discovering seminal thinkers in the rest of the world. This has produced some admirable results in the skilful hands of Quentin Skinner and John Pocock, but it has also threatened to rob the great tradition of its greatness. Mr Ryan is happy to put the greatness back in. He treats Hobbes and company as thinkers to be grappled with rather than historical figures to be contextualised.