The current issue of The New York Review of Books contains an article by Jeremy Waldron, Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford, reviewing two new books by Alan Ryan, On Politics: A History of Political Thought (in 2 volumes) and The Making of Modern Liberalism. The review is concerned primarily with On Politics and more broadly with the enterprise of studying political theory historically. As a one-time student and teacher of political theory, I could not help but be engaged by the issue he raises and his arguments.
As Waldron notes, there have been such histories of political theory before. He mentions George Sabine’s classic History of Political Theory, and that of Sheldon Wolin (my graduate adviser at Princeton), Politics and Vision, as works which continue “to command a good general readership.” On the other hand, as he also acknowledges, many “are happy to eschew the historical approach altogether,” when grappling theoretically with such issues as “democracy, constitutionalism, nation-building, terrorism, and global law.”
Students of political theory often invoke the concept of a conversation across history. Waldron recalls the often-cited story of Machiavelli in exile, going into his library and there entering “the ancient courts of ancient men,” where “I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason or their actions; and they in their kindness answer me.” It’s a wonderful image, which well deserves its academic popularity, but it is at best the beginning of an answer as to why the history of political thought is important. Ryan emphasizes how “human beings are historical animals,” and Waldron draws from that the lesson that “we construct and enact our politics – not just our political theory – in ways that are haunted by the past.” He argues “that we are self-consciously nervous – and rightly so – about structures and practices that we have constructed, about their ability to hold their own in the vicissitudes of political life without an anchor of some sort in a respectable and enduring past.” The history of political thought illuminates “depths and resonances of other times and places in the institutions we regard as familiar” and “can help free us from the grip of any one particular picture of the relation between states and nations by articulating and making vivid to us a dozen different conceptions of the mission of the state.”
It seems to me, especially at the present juncture in human affairs, that that (and not some esoteric conversation among past and present elites) is the most significant dimension of doing political theory historically. For example, in recent years any number of revolutionary changes have begun to be introduced into how we view such human and social fundamentals as gender identity, marriage, and the family. Having opted for new unserstandings on these issues, contemporary elites tend to treat their newly acquired beliefs as self-evident. That is a time-honored technique for disarming one's opponents and securing success in the political arena. But, while the new understandings might be right or wrong, good or bad, none of that is necessarily self-evident at all. What is historically evident, however, is that most people throughout all of history - including our elites until very recently - saw things differently. New understandings may be an improvement or they may not. Either way, the case needs to be argued - not asserted as if it were self-evident.
Slavery, for example, was certainly self-evident for most of human history. It became less and less so in the 18th and 19th centuries. One of the last holdouts was the United States, which required a brutal Civil War a century and a half ago to settle the issue. Now it is a settled issue in the West, and the intrinsic evil of slavery is now seen as self-evident. But, of course, the point is that neither position - the traditonal pro-slavery one or the moderen anti-slavery one is totally self-evident. Rather, like all political positions, it requires that people become convinced. In short, the case needed to be argued - not asserted as self-evident.
The merit, therefore, of doing political theory historically - as of historical study in general - is to encounter understandings that are different from ours but that once were every bit as certain and compelling as ours are now. We may emerge from that encounter with reason to change our newer ideas, or we may be re-inforced in our newer ideas. Either way our political understanding - both of ourselves and of the human story through time - will be improved.