From Plato to the credit crunch

Alan Ryan’s new history of political thought sticks too closely to the traditional liberal script
November 14, 2012

Left, JS Mill is one of Alan Ryan's favourite thinkers, right, President Woodrow Wilson promised a world made safe for democracy, but fell far short (photos: Getty Images; Culver Pictures, Inc/Superstock)

About a century ago, leading Anglo-American universities transformed their teaching. Their new role, as they saw it, was to act as nurseries of a democratic citizenry, and of its elite in particular. What most of these institutions thought they needed was not more scientific and technical specialisation—this horribly Teutonic approach, they felt, ended up breeding smart cannon fodder for the Kaiser—but rather a return to the ancients, linking them in new ways to the problems of modern democratic life.

To ensure that successive generations of students understood the responsibilities that awaited the thinking citizen, universities established new “Great Books” courses. Their aim was to introduce the young to the accumulated wisdom of canonical texts of liberal thought. Thus emerged “the Western tradition.” This had a narrative arc all its own. Typically it kicked off with a Greek victory against the Persians and ended up with the Greeks’ modern English-speaking heirs, whether in Oxford or New Haven, dishing it to the Huns, and later the Nazis, whilst keeping other threats such as the Soviets at bay.

In the 1970s, this approach came under fire. “Western civ” was decried for Eurocentrism and purged from many undergraduate curricula. But as in clothes, so in intellectual fashion: if you wait long enough the pendulum usually swings back. Today, universities that gave up their Great Books courses a generation ago are looking for ways of restoring them. This is not because they wish to turn out a new generation of imperial proconsuls. Nor, in an era of globalisation, are they stupid enough to think there is much mileage in uncritically reaffirming Western superiority. Rather, political philosophy is popular again; a time of sweeping domestic and international institutional crisis is also one which pushes students back to first principles.

Which brings us to On Politics, an engaging and smart survey of major political thinkers from Herodotus to the era of globalisation. Its author, Alan Ryan, is an authority on JS Mill and John Dewey but as this book testifies, his range is much wider. He has been teaching political thought for a long time but preserves an enviable verve and freshness in his writing, as readers of his pieces in the New York Review of Books in particular will know. On Politics is very much an expression of the Great Books pedagogic tradition. It is an illustration of its manifold strengths and its limitations as well.

First, there is the style and manner of Ryan’s own thinking. He has described what he does as a mixture of conceptual analysis and critique, a conversation with immortals who are also historical figures and must be treated as such. He comes from a generation—at odds with the modern pseudo-scientification of the academic study of politics—which regarded both a philosophical training and a background in history as essential to any engagement with the thinkers of the past, and which (and this too can no longer be taken for granted) regarded ideas themselves as important. A powerful historical sense runs through On Politics, and the figures it discusses are admirably contextualised. Their rough edges are preserved—Ryan’s love for Mill and admiration for de Tocqueville licence some telling criticisms of their blind spots and weaknesses.

Far from being of merely antiquarian interest, through Ryan these thinkers speak directly to the present. There is no jargon, a lot of good sense and the reader is treated throughout as an intelligent being. Political asides on the present enliven the analysis, reflecting Ryan’s deep familiarity with both sides of the (northern) Atlantic, his love of the USA in particular, and his impatience with some of its recent intellectual and political excesses. In short, the book conveys the exhilaration of being taught by an unusually worldly college tutor, serious and irreverent, unafraid of argument but demanding intellectual rigour from the reader in turn.

The tenor and style of the authorial voice is one of the book’s great strengths. But the familiarity of its cast of characters is another matter. In 1937 the American academic George Sabine published his pioneering History of Political Theory. At the very moment when in Europe liberalism and democracy seemed to be on the way out, he presented a story which began with Plato and Aristotle, moving through the political thought of medieval Christianity before reaching Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke and the challenges from Marxism and fascism. Appearing more than 70 years later, Ryan’s cast-list has hardly changed. Book 1 takes us from the ancient Greeks to Machiavelli; book 2 from Hobbes to “the world after Marx.” True, Ryan singles out American thought at greater length than Sabine chose to, and goes into more detail on mid-19th century liberalism. But in every important respect, the canon appears not to have shifted at all. There are Habsburgs but no Habermas, as much Nixon as Nietzsche—and not much of either. French thought is conspicuous by its absence.

The sheer staying power of the idea of an Anglo-American liberal tradition in political thought across the 20th and early 21st centuries is itself a historical conundrum of some interest. Does it point to an intellectual ossification in some of the world’s most distinguished Anglophone universities? Or is it an optical illusion—a product of Ryan’s own predilections and interests? A bit of both perhaps: I certainly do not think we can attribute it solely to the intrinsic superiority of these particular texts and authors. To my mind, the merits of studying Plato, Aquinas or Hobbes are clear. What is less defensible, however, is the idea that a liberal tradition can survive that does not engage seriously with its challengers and does not at least acknowledge, in a changing world, the existence of parallel traditions that have tackled similar and often identical problems in strikingly different ways.

The basic intellectual problem is this: once you have defined the central issue of politics as the preservation of liberty within a political community, absolutism, fascism and religious fundamentalism can easily present themselves as phenomena of essentially negative interest. Yet fascism, for example, produced, in the writings of Carl Schmitt, a theorist of considerable power who provided a searing critique of parliamentary democracy. His definition of politics saw liberty as a distraction and revolved instead around the friend/foe distinction. One may disagree with this, but one has to take it seriously. Yet Ryan’s treatment of fascism and Nazism remains trapped within an older historiography that sees the most important thing about these movements as their irrationalism. Today most historians would regard their challenge to interwar liberalism as much more serious than this “irrationalism thesis” acknowledges. And as a result it seems downright odd to have a history of political thought that does not engage more fully with some of Schmitt’s ideas.

If the mid-century challenge to liberal political thought is not given the weight it deserves—perhaps reflecting a kind of complacency: Ryan’s great predecessor, Sabine, could not afford to be so sure of the outcome—the book’s treatment of religion is equally lacking. Cobbling together a “western tradition” in political thought always posed the problem of how one navigated the Dark Ages between the Greeks and the humanists, and what in particular one did with writers of the church. Ryan oscillates between regarding the appeal to faith as entirely anti-political—he contrasts the Greeks to the Jews of the Old Testament, “a people who did their best to have no politics”—and, by contrast, acknowledging that the centuries from Augustine to Machiavelli cannot plausibly be regarded as an intellectual black hole for political thought. But once the humanists emerge in the 15th and 16th centuries, the church is largely forgotten.

As for other faiths, they hardly get a look in. Islam plays its usual walk-on part as a helpful bridge between the ancient Greeks and the medieval Scholastics, but it is not really allowed any autonomous intellectual activity of its own, at least until the mid-20th century, when it is regarded as fuelling a kind of radical over-reaction to Western imperialism. One does not have to chase the impossible chimera of a history of global political thought to feel that something very important is being traduced here. After all, it was precisely among the theologians, Christian and Muslim alike, that key themes in Ryan’s account—the limits of state power, the relationship between the laws of nature and the laws of men—were most deeply explored. It is not that one expects a full account of Islamic philosophy and political theory; this is after all not an encyclopaedia. But surely an authoritative history owes its readers a less dismissive treatment of such matters? Why mention minor figures like Sayyid Qutb unless one is going to devote a serious amount of space to the major ones from al-Farabi to Muhammad Abduh?

The truth is that the task of constructing a western tradition of liberal political thought always had an ambivalent quality. There was the positive mission of producing democratic citizens. But there was the negative task of defending the very idea of democracy from its enemies. This ambivalence runs through the great 19th century icons—above all de Tocqueville and Mill—who in some ways form the crux of this book. It helps explain the familiar paradox of locating the origins of political thought in the mind of the arch anti-democrat Plato, and above all it helps explain the more scattershot quality that creeps into On Politics as the 20th century advances. The final chapters are a kind of mélange. Lacking the unifying focus on a single thinker that animates the rest of the book, these range loosely across contemporary Anglo-American theories of democracy, to the return of religion, terrorism and the supposed decline of secularism. A final grab-bag chapter on world government and the problems of international life feels aimless and out of date.

This faltering ending is probably an inseparable part of the story liberalism tells itself about itself. The period following the first world war, when the notion of a “liberal tradition” of political thought was brought into being, was also a time when these ideas were most severely challenged. The best its defenders could hope for, with their Great Books courses, was a reminder of certain civic virtues. They could not deliver the kind of holistic theory of political life that thinkers from Plato to Herbert Spencer had aspired to. Since the 1920s, liberals have had to beat off, or come to terms with, the rise of powerful alternative ideologies, while the rise of the USA posed challenges of its own for liberal theorists. Woodrow Wilson promised a world made safe for democracy, but fell far short of this. Roosevelt and Truman achieved more, but only by reaffirming a much more hard-nosed version of liberalism that triggered a firestorm of anti-Americanism across the third world. And the rise of a different and more potent kind of liberalism in the form of post-1980s financial globalisation poses even more difficult questions for proponents of the kind of civic solidarity which Ryan advocates.

If the book ends with a whimper not a bang, it would be a shame if this blinded us to the many virtues of the earlier part of the story as Ryan tells it here. Anyone interested in political thought will relish the wit, intelligence and brio with which he conveys what makes these thinkers special and useful. In an era when more people than ever seem to be searching for alternatives to politics—in markets, technocratic expertise or perhaps in a flight inwards and away from public engagement—this book reminds us why political thinking should remain an essential part of our education and our lives.

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