A review of On Politics: A History of Political Thought: From Herodotus to the Present, by Alan Ryan

Very few political ideas die so thoroughly that they are beyond hope of resurrection," writes the English-born Princeton political theorist Alan Ryan towards the end of his millennia-spanning two-volume survey, On Politics. That is just another way of saying that many of the political rules we consider trustworthy today will themselves come to seem silly. We know the arc of the political story that runs from Hellas to Dallas, but Ryan will be among the very last scholars to tell it as it has been told for centuries, through what he calls "a mixture of philosophical analysis, moral judgment, constitutional speculation, and practical advice." Now in his seventies, he is among the youngest to possess a native fluency in the Europe-centered, territorial, polyglot, pre-televised culture that does not appear to have survived the 20th century intact. Future histories of the West will be different.

Ryan writes about political thinkers with a confident, un-cramped Victorian erudition. He lays down pontoons of understanding between previous centuries and our own. When Aristotle thought of public property 2,300 years ago, writes Ryan, "[h]e saw a truth that the state of much public space reinforces today; we do not think that what belongs to all of us belongs to each of us; we think it belongs to nobody, and we neglect it." Those indulgences the Catholic Church sold 500 years ago to fund Saint Peter's Basilica enraged Martin Luther on more than theological grounds. "They were…," Ryan notes, "a form of church taxation and are morally dubious in much the same way as present-day state lotteries." In Machiavelli's time, the Medici made no formal claim to rule Florence by hereditary right. In that respect, their regime "is not very different from modern liberal democracies, where professional politicians beget professional politicians, or acquire them as sons- and daughters-in-law, much as law and medicine run in families." Ryan himself, an expert in John Stuart Mill and John Dewey, tantalizes the reader in his opening pages with the suggestion that our political arrangements may have more in common with imperial Persia than with Periclean Athens. He asks whether modern Western states are even democracies and concludes that they are "strictly speaking, something else."

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The roots of these states are more religious than temporal, Ryan believes, growing out of the institution of the papacy and out of Christian theology directly. Odd though it may sound, Saint Augustine excites the Mill specialist Ryan like no other philosopher in the book. Usually Ryan guts and trims his subject's œuvre to leave only a prime morsel of political theory. Plato is dealt with through his Gorgias and Republic. Two paragraphs by Pope Gelasius suffice to give the papal view on the separation of temporal and spiritual power. But Ryan lingers over anecdotes from Augustine's Confessions and begs us to listen to his case:

Whether or not we believe in original sin, everyone knows that the political arena tempts us to behave exactly as original sin would prompt us to do: to engage in pointless conflicts for the sheer pleasure of crushing opponents, to exploit our fellow citizens for our own benefit, to ventilate malice and cruelty, and to exhibit the libido dominandi that Augustine deplored.


Ryan cites David Hume, Bertrand Russell, and Sigmund Freud as defending the idea of original sin. It comes up when Ryan discusses Thomas Aquinas. It comes up when he discusses what Machiavelli thinks of as man's natural wickedness. It comes up when he paraphrases James Madison's worries about faction in Federalist 10, by saying "even where there was no real reason for conflict, people would make up frivolous reasons to behave obnoxiously." And it comes up when, considering the enormities of Nazism, he warns us that "without intellectual and moral self-discipline, and help from the intellectual discipline supplied by others, all of us can half believe whatever rationalizes our misfortunes and promises something better."

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There is no Augustinian doctrine more revolutionary—and more confusing to rulers and political theorists—than that of obedience. Except in extraordinary circumstances, Christians must obey non-Christian rulers, Augustine wrote, opening what Ryan calls a "gulf…between the classical and the Christian political universe." Although Christians can make peace with authoritarians, they also recognize that there are some areas that belong to God and that Caesar cannot touch. This is the beginning of constitutional limitations on power. Despite appearances, Christianity makes the most solid case against divine-right monarchy. It holds as blasphemous the arrogation of all authority by an earthly power. "[W]e may have religious reasons for taking a fiercely secularist and anti-absolutist line about politics," Ryan writes. "Locke did."

Whether the governed actually consent to be governed by their leaders or whether "consent" is a polite constitutional fiction is a question that preoccupies the author throughout. So does the related question of whether a ruler's power can ever be absolute. There is, for instance, something about the Pledge of Allegiance that he has always found odd. Children affirm every school day that they accept the authority of the United States. "Curiously enough," Ryan notes, "most school districts abandon the practice when children attain the age of reason and might be thought to be bound by what they say." He notes that consent of the governed arises as a political principle as early as Justinian and reappears in Marsilius of Padua—but it is in John Locke that it becomes most thought-provoking. Drawing on the Latin adage that no one can give what he cannot have, Locke assumed that peoples can't give a monarch absolute control over their lives, because no man has such control of his own life. And Locke shows that absolute power does not imply arbitrary power. As Ryan paraphrases: "An officer has the right to shoot a soldier for cowardice in the face of the enemy, and may shoot him on the spot. Nonetheless, he may not touch sixpence of his pay."

That raises a question of style. Readers of other classic surveys of political thinking—George Sabine's History of Political Theory (1937), Raymond Aron's Les Etapes de la Pensée Sociologique (1967), Leszek KoÅ‚akowski's Main Currents of Marxism (1976-78), or Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey's History of Political Philosophy (1963; revised, 1987)—will be struck by how relatively little direct quoting Ryan does. His pithy sentence about the officer shooting soldiers reads this way in Locke's Second Treatise of Civil Government:

Neither the serjeant, that could command a soldier to march up to the mouth of a cannon, or stand in a breach, where he is almost sure to perish, can command that soldier to give him one penny of his money; nor the general, that can condemn him to death for deserting his post, or for not obeying the most desperate orders, can yet, with all his absolute power of life and death, dispose of one farthing of that soldier's estate, or seize one jot of his goods.

The Ryan method saves space—a need made pressing by his rare ability to write fluently about the entire sweep of Western political philosophy. It does, however, rob the book of a certain texture.

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The 17th-century republican James Harrington occupies a fascinating and paradoxical position in this book. Any discussion of Harrington highlights the contingency of our arrangements regarding rights. Landownership became the basis for political rights at the dawn of the modern age because land was held to be the ultimate source of wealth, the basis for raising money and recruiting soldiers. This did not make complete sense even at the time, Ryan notes; it did not explain, among other things, Venice. But an alert reader will notice that thinking as Harrington did has a really empowering side-effect, which is to build leverage into mass democracies. A minority of common people can be not just a "tendency" in a broad political system, as they would be in a proportional-representation democracy of the modern European kind. They can control an area of territory. Even if this leverage is not "rational," it may be healthy.

In a similar way, Ryan notes that Harrington—and, following his lead, the framers of the U.S. Constitution—got something wrong in assuming that a "well-regulated militia" made up of citizen-soldiers was the best safeguard against the dangers of standing armies and mercenaries. Harrington did not realize that modern banking and credit had made it easier to fund an army should the need arise; there was less danger from an independent armed force and thus less need to keep a "well-regulated militia." Ryan is probably arguing against the Second Amendment as much as against Harrington here. As a historical matter he seems to be correct. But Harrington's mistake may be a fruitful misconception. It may still be true that political liberty flourishes in a republic based on a citizen-soldiery—even if there are no more citizen-soldiers.

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Ryan is English enough to realize that the development of political thought is not just a matter of ideas and theories ricocheting from one writer to another, as in a game of Pong. Practical politicians can build institutions of great theoretical complexity piecemeal, by trial and error—and those institutions can embody ideas. Ryan admires Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws, which he calls "the foundational work of modern political sociology," and Alexis de Tocqueville for having shown that "mœurs" are as important as ideas. It is a compliment when Ryan calls Tocqueville "not a philosopher but a political sociologist."

Naturally, the author is interested in the preoccupations that Tocqueville shared with Mill. The "individualism" that Tocqueville worried would take over the United States and other democracies was not to be confused with the "individuality" of Mill. Ryan holds them to be opposites. Tocquevillean individualism means some combination of decadence, hedonism, and self-involvement, along with people's temptation to surrender all their responsibilities to the state's "immense tutelary power." Here, speaking of "soft despotism," Ryan actually quotes Tocqueville: "It does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd."

Ryan's main sociological fascination is with how political elites get formed. He notes the perennial interest among readers of Plato's Republic with the asceticism of the "guardians" who would rule in it. It is in the 20th century, though, that elites became an object of systematic study. Ryan isn't bothered that this study was done more by social scientists than political philosophers. He is curiously sympathetic to the economist Joseph Schumpeter's assault on what he calls the "classical theory" of democracy. (Curiously, because Ryan describes John Dewey, whom he much admires, as the exemplar of that theory.) The idea that voters decide how they want to be ruled and then inform government gets the arrangement backwards, Schumpeter thought. The reality is more entrepreneurial. As Ryan describes Schumpeter's view: "We do not sit at home elaborating the specification of something as complex as an automobile, and then go and find a manufacturer to build it. Entrepreneurs dream up products that they think advertisers can persuade us to want."

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We might therefore describe democracy not with reference to who votes but who rules. Ryan often does, writing that "the democratic method is the method whereby an elite obtains the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people's vote." Some readers might go even further and say that, if the people can be dosed with enough advertising, voter choice may be an easy hurdle for a corrupt elite to clear; democracy may present fewer trammels on a dictatorial spirit than other forms of government. But that is not the line of argument Ryan follows. He raises the problem of elites neither as a populist nor as a radical. In pages devoted to the sociologist C. Wright Mills, he appears to endorse Mills's gripe (even if it is contrary to the spirit of Locke) that the elite wasn't doing enough. "Far from concentrating power in the hands of an elite," Ryan writes of the U.S. during the Cold War, "the political system fragmented it so thoroughly that a president who could incinerate humanity could not establish national health care."

With the discussion of elites taken care of, the conceptual apparatus is in place to allow Ryan to tell us, after almost a thousand pages of dropped hints, why the United States and other Western countries are not, strictly speaking, democratic. He has noted Cicero's belief that a republic exists only when there is a people. He has endorsed the longstanding view that lotteries are the most democratic way of choosing leaders, from a mention in Aristotle to William F. Buckley's quip that he would rather be ruled by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than the Harvard faculty. It is not actually any of these drawbacks that Ryan has in mind. He merely means to endorse "John Stuart Mill's later view that it is not a system of self-government but a system of taking securities for good government." What we call Western democracies are more accurately described as "nontyrannical and liberal popular mixed republics." That is a reasonable conclusion—but it is not much different from the way the Founding Fathers described the United States.

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About 800 pages into his book, as he comes to the eve of the 20th century, Ryan's own voice begins to emerge. He announces that he will now address certain problems of our own modern condition, thematically. Far from being an arbitrary shift, this makes a good deal of sense. It is an exercise in what Weber would call "charisma"—drawing on the authority handed down from the past to make sense of the present and prepare for the future. No particularly coherent view of the present emerges, though. For one thing, he finds it hard to break the habit of summarizing that has carried him so far. For another, his aggiornamento, only brings us up to the world of a generation ago, say of the 1980s. He describes our society as "industrial" society, with no mention of the internet's inchoate universalizing possibilities. There is little on feminism or identity politics. He holds that the greatest threat to international peace is "old-fashioned nationalism," favors "some form of world government," and believes the United Nations charter "makes too many concessions to the inviolability of national sovereignty." Although he describes his last chapters as devoted to "the counterpoint of technological discontinuity and ideological, philosophical, and political continuity," the discontinuity has outstripped his ability to describe it (and perhaps anyone's, for now), and the continuity may be less than he thinks.

One does not want to be unfair. This behemoth history of Western political philosophy is an astonishing achievement. It is hard to imagine it could have been written in less than 15 years. That would make parts of this book literally the product of another century. The size and ambition of the endeavor are enough to explain any disconnection that one senses in the final pages. The book is full of assumptions that would have seemed reasonable a decade or two ago but have lately been called into question. (Not always wisely, but that is another matter.)

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Consider Augustine's conception of the just war, which Ryan sees as resting "on an analogy between the state's right to punish its own members and its right to punish other states, an analogy that the modern world largely rejects." Ryan doubts the papal power laid out by Gelasius and exercised by Boniface VIII to depose kings "for sin" (ratione peccati) has had much staying power. "Today the idea that a conservative pope might try to depose an American president ratione peccati is unthinkable, even if Catholic bishops may urge their flocks to vote against politicians who uphold abortion rights." But Ryan is looking for theocracy in all the wrong places. Outside of the Muslim world, it is human-rights ideologies, not traditional creeds, that have lately given politics a theocratic cast. Starting in Serbia in the late 1990s, human-rights activists reclaimed this right-by-analogy to punish other states. There have been several leaders deposed ratione peccatisince then, although the peccatum was against human rights, not God as any faith understands him, and carried out not by any inquisition but by force of U.S. arms. The experience of the second Bush presidency makes it quite thinkable that the "human rights community" should seek to depose an American president someday. Ryan writes of the Reformation's veneration of the vernacular Bible: "the consequences for politics, science, and literature, as well as for religion narrowly conceived, were enormous. It put a premium on literacy, close reading, and thinking for oneself whose long-term effects we are living with." How one hopes he is right, but the evidence is mounting that the era of literacy, close reading, and thinking for oneself that began with Gutenberg is, after a little less than six centuries, drawing to a close.

When Alan Ryan tells us that "long-dead writers often speak to us with greater freshness and immediacy than our contemporaries," we should notice that he says "greater," not "as great as." His On Politics provides an impressive toolbox for recognizing and understanding those episodes through which we have begun cutting the thread of recent centuries and reconnecting to our theocratic and pagan pasts.