Dr R Balashankar
On Politics – A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present, Alan Ryan, Allen Lane, Penguin Books Ltd, Pp 1114 (HB), £40.00
ALAN Ryan’s On Politics – A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present is a travel in time in quest for the answers on governance. Are some born to rule and others to obey and follow, or is it that the societies and systems are constructed in such a way that the bottle-neck stops too many from rising? Which form of governance is best? Democracy, monarchy, autocracy—the world seems to have experimented with all. And never has ONE right answer found. Hence this examination of the political thought down the millennium is relevant.
Herodotus is a fifth century BC historian-philosopher. He is considered the first to have systematically arranged his writings. Hence he is as far as back the West can go while looking for codified, formal political philosophy. Ryan says, “This book is about the answers that historians, philosophers, theologians, practicing politicians, and would-be revolutionaries have given to one question. How can human beings best govern themselves? That question raises innumerable others: Can we manage our own affairs at all?…”
What appears as the present-day participatory politics called democracy and liberal democracy, he says are nothing but a rule by the elite. The voters get to choose one set of elite over another. Or what is disparagingly called “rule by professional politicians.” Ryan seeks to distinguish between participatory democracies, where people enjoy a lot of freedom in political sphere, as well as, economic, occupational and religious freedom, as against the ‘guided democracies’ of communist states where despite larger participation, the freedom is limited. He goes on to explain how when we say democracy we mean it more social than political. Democracy removes all the previously prevailing and acceptable grounds for claiming advantage: race, gender, age, birth, etc.
So how does this governance differ from previous times? Ryan says that because of increasing and closer interactions, the societies are more connected than before. Our leaders have to grapple with more problems and more number of people than our predecessors. “Managing the problems of a planet of more than seven billion people is a very different enterprise from ensuring that a city-state of two or three hundred thousand could feed itself, protect from its enemies, and cultivate the rich civic life that even now we contemplate with envy.”
From Herodotus, Ryan moves on to discuss most of the known and heard names in political philosophy. Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, Cicero, Augustine and Machiavelli. The discussion on the modern begins with Thomas Hobbes and moves on with contemporary political historians, leading to the American and French Revolutions, Unilateralism and John Stuart Mill, Tocqueville, and Karl Marx. All the post-twentieth century political developments, including imperialism, socialism, marxism, fascism, dictatorship and democracy have been arranged in the second section of this part. In that sense Ryan takes a complete journey but a narrow sense. What he has missed and rather sadly so, is the wisdom of the East that goes farther back than Herodotus by centuries.
Whether it is Arthshastra or Yogavashita the Indian treatises on political philosophy and governance surpass all, not merely in time but in content too. Ryan has not made even a passing reference to this rich treasure of knowledge and sagacity.
Ryan discusses the philosophies of various people in cross-reference with one another. For instance, he says, “Writers as varied as Polybius, Machiavelli, Rousseau and Madison would not have described modern liberal democracies, of which the archetype is the United States, as democracies without qualification-Madison and Jefferson’s distinction between “pure” and “representative” democracy; as the suffrage was expanded, an extensive republic became a representative democracy.”
Alan Ryan is a highly accomplished academician. He taught for many years at Oxford, and was Professor of Politics at Princeton for more than a decade before returning to Oxford. A Fellow of the British Academy, he has penned several acclaimed books. In this book he has achieved a stupendous task of assembling in a cohesive narration the political thoughts that ran through the West over several centuries and finally bringing it to today’s world. Ryan has given extensive further reading suggestions.
(Allen Lane, Penguin Books Ltd, 80, Strand, London, WC2R, ORI England)