Tuesday, November 13, 2012

ON POLITICS: A timely read as well as a classic in the making

The end of last month saw the release of Alan Ryan's ON POLITICS, a fitting volume to be published during these highly political times, with the election just over.

One of the best descriptions of ON POLITICS came in the form of a cartoon accompanying the book's six-page write-up in The New Yorker.  In the image, the cartoon-ified Alan Ryan sits at a table attempting to write on his laptop while men in togas, cravats, and berets crowd around him, ready to break into one giant fistfight.  These rowdy table guests are the major political thinkers of Western history, including Plato, Hegel, Machiavelli, Marx, St. Augustine, and Hobbes.  They are the subjects of Ryan's ON POLITICS: A History of Political Thought: From Herodotus to Present. You can find The New Yorker article here.

As a review in The Los Angeles Times notes, "At the heart of the project [of ON POLITICS] is a belief that this stuff matters, that the thinkers it revolves around...remain relevant and fresh."  The New Yorker cartoon certainly seems to argue for the freshness of these thinkers.  And The Los Angeles Times review concludes, too, that "this stuff" does seem to have a great deal of relevancy: "There's something in [Ryan's] lines we recognize, something that speaks to what's at stake in this election." 

Alan Ryan recently wrote a piece for Reuters about how Alexis de Tocqueville might have seen our 2012 presidential election. Tocqueville was a French political thinker who wrote DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA after his visit to the young country in 1831. While it's amusing to consider who Tocqueville might have voted for, Ryan remarks that he would be hard pressed to hazard a guess, given that Tocqueville simply would have been astounded "to see a Supreme Court with not a single Protestant member, and Catholics in a 7-to-2 majority," as well as "a black president running for re-election."  Ryan does make some guesses about which of our candidates' ideas Tocqueville might have backed, though, which you can read about here.

Yet Ryan also thinks Tocqueville may have had something to teach us if he had been here to view our election season.  In DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA, Tocqueville attempted to answer why the American Revolution led so quickly to a successful government whereas the French Revolution was far more chaotic.  Part of his conclusion was that there was an exceptionalism to the American experiment of democracy that lent the country such a favorable outcome.  However, if Tocqueville were to see how often we Americans have since used his idea of exceptionalism to justify our actions, Ryan thinks he might consider revoking the classification. 

Ryan writes elegantly upon this, as follows:
[Tocqueville] bequeathed to us the belief in American "exceptionalism" that neither Obama nor Romney nor Biden nor Ryan, nor any of the hundreds of candidates for the House and Senate dare challenge. A hundred and eighty years ago, America was more classless, socially mobile, economically innovative and imaginative than any European country, let alone Russia or China. Today, the United States is a mature industrial society, with the social and political problems--education, public health, infrastructural renovation--of every other such society. Because Tocqueville was so eloquent about the unique blessings of the United States, it has become almost impossible for politicians to suggest that we have anything to learn from anyone else.
Perhaps, Ryan suggests, now might be the time to look more closely at the examples of others and learn from them.

In his Reuters article and throughout the entirety of ON POLITICS, Ryan makes it abundantly clear that the political thinkers of our past are essential for understanding, analyzing, and critiquing the politics of today.  To not examine the political foundations we are built upon would be a folly.  The New Yorker review echoes this, noting that "ON POLITICS, like the great works of philosophy it examines, constitutes a powerful brief against the unexamined life."  As Congress begins meeting again and the president returns to his job, now is the time to reexamine how we've approached our politics in the past so that we can move forward to deal with the unique challenges of our times. 

Below is additional praise for ON POLITICS.  To view our previous post about the book and other rave reviews the book has received, click here.

"[ON POLITICS] seeks to take a (very) long view, framing its subjects less as individuals than as the components of a continuum of which we are still a part....The book is the distillation of [Ryan's] thinking, both intellectual and practical, and although it can be daunting, the triumph is how, as Ryan takes us through the material, he makes it so much more." --Los Angeles Times

"Magisterial...A book of the scope of ON POLITICS can't be reduced to a single theme. In more than a thousand pages, Alan Ryan, a longtime Oxford professor who now teaches at Princeton, undertakes to introduce the reader to most of the major political thinkers in Western history, from Thucydides and Plato to John Dewey and John Rawls." --The New Yorker

 Liveright/W.W. Norton, October 2012

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